The Case for Women's Suffrage/The Civic Rights of the Married Woman

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THE CIVIC RIGHTS OF THE MARRIED WOMAN


BY CONSTANCE SMEDLEY


IT is universally acknowledged that marriage and motherhood are the woman's crown. From every point of view the married woman is considered a more mature, developed, and responsible being than the spinster; she is, moreover, the most precious possession of the nation, bearing and rearing, as she does, its children. A mother's instinct is held to be unerring; her sympathies are supposed to be wider and more humanised; her altruism is proverbial.

As a citizen all men would place her value higher than the unmarried woman who exists to support herself, however cultured and useful to the community the latter's intelligence may be. They know that her experience of life is necessarily deeper, and her judgment sounder; they know also the services which a good wife and mother renders to her nation are of the most supreme importance.

And yet here comes the extraordinary inconsistency. There are many men who support the plea of the working woman for her civic rights on the basis that she is a ratepayer, who yet absolutely dispute the justice of the clause which admits the married woman to a share of her husband's political responsibilities. They argue that the man pays the rent and taxes, and that to give his wife a vote would amount to giving him a double privilege for the sum he pays towards the nation's maintenance. This argument may be easily dismissed by the fact that representation is not granted according to the sum of money paid by the citizen. The millionaire who pays in thousands and the clerk who pays his £5 note have each one vote alike; each has the vote simply as a citizen, quite apart from the value of his personal possessions.

The second argument is, that it is unnecessary for the woman to have a voice; the man is the head of the household, and is quite competent of deciding for his household. He alone, therefore, has the right to an opinion on all questions of national importance, even though many of those questions peculiarly and personally affect women and children, and are therefore questions in the solving of which a woman's instinct and experience would be invaluable. When it is pointed out that the man of the household is not always the superior member of that household, morally or mentally, we are confronted with the argument that by giving the woman a vote we should give cause for terrible matrimonial dissension. Indeed, this threat of matrimonial trouble is voiced so frequently that it gives rise to a very shrewd suspicion on our part that a good many men know in their own hearts that their wives and mothers of their children would think very differently from them on certain matters, and especially as to the vital importance and urgency of certain matters.

It can hardly be disputed that woman's intelligence and practicality is equal in the main to man's. If there were such a thing as an electoral examination women would not complain of having to pass it; nor would the voting register show an amazing preponderance of masculine names.

Given two beings of equal intelligence, the plea of withholding the right to vote from one on the ground that she lacks an economic stake in the country, is rather a feeble one when applied to the woman who has often given up lucrative employment to look after a man's house, bear his children, and make a home for him and them. If such a woman trusts her husband too completely to ask for a settlement from him upon her marriage, and consequently freely gives the myriad services of a wife and mother, nurse and housekeeper, in exchange for a home alone, I do not see that it follows that she should be disqualified from having a voice in her own and her children's destinies, or from being directly represented in the Government which she must obey. If she is one of the most valuable of the nation's citizens she should have a voice in its affairs. The argument that a woman has quite sufficient to do in looking after her house and children without worrying her head about politics strikes at the mainspring of a nation's development. The mothers of the nation are, to some extent, responsible for the world into which they bring the children; they are not mere breeding animals. They must protect and guide their children; they also must protect themselves. Every law that has to do with education, sanitation, food, drink, housing, social questions, sexual relations, has to do directly with the wives and mothers who must obey such laws, and they are entitled to a direct voice in such matters just as much as any man. It cannot be too much insisted upon that motherhood is the strongest force in existence that makes for altruism, and altruism is the most essential factor in the wise and beneficial ordering of the State. The mother will not be biassed in favour of laws that press unduly on the male; for the welfare of her sons is as important to her as the welfare of her daughters; she is naturally in favour of all conditions that help to their moral strengthening and wholesome living, and because of the gift of motherhood she will feel most poignantly on all laws that touch upon the health and happiness of the children. Men know this; even those who jeer at women keep the saving grace of reverence for the mother who bore and nurtured them.

It may be said that I have a tendency to idealise women; that all mothers are not wise, nor tender, nor unselfish; that I forget, moreover, the wisdom and responsibility of the father. But I am not pleading that he should be disenfranchised, I only say that all fathers and husbands with a certain economic qualification have a vote. I would point out that the wives and mothers have an equal stake in the nation and contribute equally to its health and well-being.

But comes the cry of the frivolity of woman's interests; and her indifference to political, and her apathy in municipal matters, are cited as proof of her incapacity of understanding.

I admit the frivolity of her present interests; but I would ask men to remember that it is they who push woman into the social whirlpool, by the mere fact of their eliminating all serious interests from her life as "unwomanly."

Husbands dislike their wives to meddle with politics or any other pursuit or profession which man has decided is his own peculiar affair: they prefer her to concentrate her thoughts on themselves, their home and children; to the feeding of them; the amusing of them. They want their wives to rest them, not to stimulate. They want to leave the sterner side of life, with its responsibilites and need of thought, behind them when they seek their fireside.

But do men ever reflect that while they consider it the woman's duty to eliminate everything from her thoughts which gives no pleasure to men, men themselves never consider it their duty to spend the whole of their time making their minds over to the pattern the woman would prefer for them to copy?

The wife, kept all day in her home, taught to concentrate her every thought on the charming and the pleasing of her husband, desires—naturally—constant proof and profession of his love from her husband. This exigency soon bores the husband. After the first few months of married life, his passion has quietened: he is no longer dominated by it. His business and political interests come back again: he does not want to spend his days in devotion to his wife. His club calls him; sport; his men friends. He resents his wife's appearance at his office to accompany him home. He insists on keeping his "man's life" wholly separate and to himself.

He has no objection, therefore, to his wife "calling" on her neighbours. Very kindly and reasonably he sees that she cannot be expected to stay at home all day long, performing the housework, so he grants her the relief of social interests: laughing, as he does, at the pettiness of the scheming, the small return of enjoyment from the expenditure, the heartburning, the jealousy, the hollowness and smallness of the social triumphs his wife is working for.

Still, it is all fit occupation for his womenfolk! No matter though social ambition often destroys the peace of the household, and leads women into extravagance which is an unwarrantable burden to lay upon the breadwinner! No man's voice is heard raised against the round of afternoon tea-parties, dinners, lunches, each more vapid than the other, as being an occupation unworthy of womanhood. No man bestows the epithet "unsexed" upon the butterfly of fashion, who spends her days climbing up the social ladder, injuring other women ruthlessly, wasting her husband's money in the satisfaction of vulgar vanity and uncloaked greed! So long as she takes care of her æsthetic possibilities, preserves an inane mind devoid of any serious sentiment or thought, and continues chaste according to the letter of the law, man merely calls her "feminine and forgives her obvious failings with amazing indulgence.

It almost drives one to the conclusion that men not only do not expect women to be worth much, morally or intellectually, but they do not want them to be worth much. Only then one remembers man's reverence for womanhood and his ideal of a noble, altruistic, ministering angel!

Men must admit they are almost bafflingly inconsistent. They have a habit nowadays of decrying education and the consequently intellectual woman as the cause of racial suicide. Can men not see that irresponsibility in all the nation's affairs must have a bad effect; and that now woman's gain of freedom gives her a wider scope for amusement and a consequent greater love of change and excitement, her moral development must be encouraged by a fair share of moral and social responsibilities.

When her children grow up, go to school, marry, a woman's life is apt to become empty. Better surely that she seeks to help in the bettering of the conditions of society, than to waste her days in party-giving and frittering of her time in vapid "calls” or purposeless shopping.

The modern woman has lost her sense of duty, so they say; rather has she lost the sense of blind obedience to the will of man. In the struggle to throw off the yoke, she only thought of being free. Now that she is comparatively free, her inherent sense of duty is welling up within her. So also is her sense of pity, of compassion and self-sacrifice. Wives and mothers want to help the State in its growth, in its happiness, in the opportunities it gives its citizens for their development.

Why does man seek to check the help of which the nation stands in such sore need?