The Case for Women's Suffrage/Woman in the New Era

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WOMAN IN THE NEW ERA


BY C. DESPARD


THE woman's question—woman as she is, woman as she will be! That is my subject; and I want, at the outset, to get away from woman as the individual, more or less pleasing, more or less aggravating, more or less useful. I want to study woman in the abstract: the great woman-principle in life, in thought, and in action.

To go as far back as is possible in the twilight of our knowledge, we shall find the mother as well as the father in all the ancient cosmogonies. Witness the mysterious Isis of Egypt, Athene-Pallas of Greece, Juno of Rome. Catholicism also, which bears traces of the old pagan world, through conquest of which she gained her dominion, has her Virgin-Mother—her Queen of Heaven, her Divine Consolatrix; and all who know anything about the history of the Middle Ages will be aware of the effect of this aspect of religion on society. Abbesses, in those days, sat at State-Councils; ladies of high degree possessed the right of sending their chosen delegates to Parliaments, and holy women, like St. Theresa, and St. Catherine of Siena, were consulted on public matters by kings, princes, and nobles. In India, to the present day, hosts of men and women worship the mother-father God, creator, preserver, and destroyer.

Turn now to nature interpreted by science. As I read its elementary truths, they teach the same. Here, also, we have the woman-principle brought prominently before us. Chemistry has its mysterious affinities, its rushing together of two elements with, as result, the production of a force which has qualities possessed by neither. Botany, which gives us the life-history of the plants, tells us plainly of the dual power, the mother-father, the eternal marriage of the worlds. Nay, even astronomy, perhaps the most abstruse of all the sciences, has its energy and inertia, one working with the other to produce that harmony of the suns and planets in their eternal progression, the order of whose movements was discovered and formulated by Sir Isaac Newton in his Law of Gravitation.

And when through religions which, as I conceive them, are spiritual ladders to the discovery of intellectual and spiritual truth, and through science the way to the same truth on a different plane, we rise to humanity in its higher phases—human conscience, human society, human polity—we have still the two aspects—the eternal marriage; or, rather, we have the promise of a new divine and human order founded on this, which will indeed be that Kingdom of God upon earth promised by the Son of Man.

I propose, then, to take as a basis of what I have which opens to say about the certain outcome of the present movement amongst women the fact that religion, nature, and science are unanimous in their teaching. Everywhere we have the two principles: man, woman; mother, father. It is only, in fact, when we reach the sphere of what is called politics that the woman disappears altogether, and that the man is seen dominating and alone. I remember, as I write, one of those discussions that fill the columns of our newspapers at the dull seasons. It ran, I think, through the Daily News, and the question with which it started was “What is wrong?" The opener set out by asserting that our modern civilisation did not satisfy anybody. And he asked the momentous question, "Why is it? What is the secret of our discontent?” The discussion took the usual course. Floods of criticism, oceans of advice and sermonising were poured through the columns of the paper. Some said the social system was wrong. Others laid the blame on the lack of religion amongst the people. Selfishness, the drink habit, luxury, shiftlessness—all these were given as explanations. Not one of these writers seemed to see that the great wrong—the wrong at the heart of all our civilisation—is this: we are professing to be what we are not; we place before us a standard of righteousness which we do not attempt to follow.

What is our boast in England? It is that we are free. England, the official politician of to-day will tell us, for all that she has her ancient forms—the king, who is the dignified head of society; the landed and moneyed aristocracy; the lords of commerce and manufacture—is really a Democracy. She speaks through her own chosen representatives; these make the laws that govern the realm, and in obeying those laws, she is really obeying herself.

If this were indeed so, if the whole nation—men and women—did really consent to the laws by which we are governed, we could not complain.

But is it so? We know very well that it is not.

What is wrong? the inquirer asks. Why is it that with all the wealth, refinement, and culture of our twentieth century we lack that which would be more precious to us than all the wealth of the world happiness, peace, contentment. Why? Because our lives are a discord. Because we are living a lie. And I make bold to prophesy with the divine poet Shelley that—


"Never shall peace and human nature meet
Till, free and equal, man and woman greet
  Domestic peace."


Broadly speaking, that for which we are fighting now is the emancipation of woman; her social freedom; her intellectual freedom; her economic freedom; her political freedom; and we believe that it is through the attainment of the rights of citizenship that all these doors will be opened to us.

I wish now, briefly, to show what, as I believe, the effect would be on society generally and on woman primarily if these her demands were granted; what, in fact, woman will be in the new era.

I think first of woman as mother, the independent, educated, well-developed woman of the future, choosing her mate freely, not because she wants protection, but because she wants to fulfil her highest function—to bring strong and capable children into the world. Surely she, even from the physical point of view, will be better than the mothers of to-day. We should have healthier children; we should have a finer race.

Then again, the wiser women of the later day, trained by social and political freedom, will recognise that motherhood is a noble profession, to be prepared for carefully and when worthily followed to be honoured and rewarded. I think it probable that men, inspired by women, will take a higher view of their fatherhood. In these dark days the multitude of children means poverty to the mother. In that better era they will be her pride, her independence, her wealth. And this will follow naturally on the attainment by women of their economic freedom. The family is at once the unit and the symbol of the State. In the happy, well-constituted family there are the two heads—father and mother—who, having had different experience and training, bring these to the service of their children. When there is danger they combine to avert it; when there is difficulty they enter into counsel to settle it. Some of the children may be of man's estate—strong, good-looking and clever; some may be very young; some may be weak of body and infirm in mind. In the well-ordered family none would be allowed to intrude upon the others; each would have his place and would be expected to fulfil his duty; but to the young, the weak and the ailing the greatest tenderness would be shown. So will it be in the State of the future when men and women work together in harmony.

It is assumed by those who to-day oppose the entry of women into the larger life of citizenship that family cares and opportunities and joys are sufficient to fill up her days, and delightful pictures are drawn of women, as daughters, gladdening the home by their beauty and enriching it by their loyal service; as wives, ruling the home with dignity and wisdom; and, even in old age, giving their love and experience freely to the family. That is indeed a fair vision. Such an one, I sometimes think, must have been floating through the mind of Mr. Asquith when he made his memorable answer to the women of Fife who, hearing that he refused to support their demands for citizenship, sent a deputation to see him. He expressed his dread lest, if women entered upon the political arena, they might lose their great influence—their unique position. Mr. Asquith need not tremble about the future. Unless human nature undergoes an extraordinary change we shall still have wives and mothers. But, in the better era to which I look forward, it will be recognised that all women cannot marry, and that there are women, as there are men, who are unfit for family life. Then again, the woman who marries and has children is not occupied with husband and children during the whole of her life. It is not necessary that it should be so, and when the larger life of the future offers her opportunities of service to the great family, the State, which will be then to each of us what it was in the old Greek democracies, mother, father, master, friend, the tragedy of the unfulfilled life—the unsatisfied aspiration-which, to-day, looks out at us pitifully from many a woman's face, will pass away. Ruskin says somewhere in his vigorous way that there is no murder comparable in iniquity to the waste of a man's life—to the putting of him to ignoble uses. For centuries this waste of women's lives has been going on; and the momentous part of the present situation is that women themselves are beginning to see this. Women have been proving lately that they possess the gift of courage-moral and physical-in a remarkable degree. I have a theory that, mind moulding body, we shall see, in the near future, an immense improvement in the physique of our women. So far as I have been able to read the history of life on our planet, I see no reason, in the natural order of things, why women should be physically inferior to men. Free from cramping convention in dress and life-habits, educated liberally in the true, not the party sense of the word, having honourable, useful and happy careers open to them, they will be not only nobler in mind and character, but finer, stronger, healthier in body. And there are already notable signs that such a change is approaching.

It has been said of women that they cannot combine, that they are incapable of true loyalty one for the other. I think it must have been in the prophetic spirit of those who see with apprehension the passing away of their dear old world of prejudice, yes, and of sex domination, that this fiction has been circulated. Women can combine for great causes. They are capable of ardent loyalty one for the other. Why, then, it may be asked, have they not combined in the past?

Chiefly because it was impressed upon them from their childhood that they were dependent upon men. The girl who would live a comfortable life was tacitly taught that she would have to compete with other girls for the favour of men. She had to be prettier, smarter, better dressed, more attractive than others to win a prize in the matrimonial lottery.

The atmosphere of competition is inconsistent with loyalty; it makes combination impossible. Men know this perfectly well; they know also that the maintenance of their superiority depends on the rivalry and consequent subjection of women; and yet they have constantly twitted those whom they call the weaker sex on their inability to work in loyalty with their sisters. I believe that this has been done for the last time. To me one of the most profoundly important features of the present revolutionary movement amongst women is that they are proving their power to work together. There is being developed amongst them that which is, to me, the noblest of all our social virtues—the dear love and deathless loyalty of comrades. As I look round and forward I see this spirit growing. Very soon, without doubt, we shall obtain that for which we are asking—the right to vote in Parliamentary elections: the first instalment of the old debt of man to woman; and, for my own part, I shall never regret the conflict through which we are now passing, through which we may yet have to pass, if, as I believe will be the case, it results in the growth and consolidation of this new and entrancing sense of comradeship. We cannot but expect (for old prejudice dies hard) that, for some time, there will be women like Marie Corelli and the ignoble 21,000 anti-Suffragists who will be content still to play into the hands of decadent men. But I foresee that both the submissive women and the decadent men will become fewer in number and more impotent in action, until, at no distant time, the woman who could, in any public way, betray the interests of her sisters or play into the hands of those who desire to oppress her would be branded as a traitor, not to her own sex only but to humanity.

There grows up before me the picture of the woman of the future.

Well-developed in mind and body; capable of bearing and rearing a race that will be truly imperial; independent in thought, vigorous in action, free from those pettinesses and affectations which have been built into women's nature through generations of oppression; drinking in her own cup, be it little or large; performing the duties of a citizen, and endowed with the rights of citizenship; having a career open to her, and her livelihood assured, so that marriage will no longer be a necessity, but, when chosen, will be entered upon with a full sense of responsibility to the race; looking out calmly and courageously on the life of which she knows that she forms an integral part, and enjoying freely earth's beauty and sweetness. So I see her— this woman of a later day. It is this vision which makes me feel, with my sisters of the Women's Social and Political Union, that life itself would be but a small price to pay for the joy of being one of the pioneers of a movement whose aim it is to prepare and reveal her.

I am reminded as I write of a passage in Shelley's "Prometheus Unbound."

Jupiter, the tyrant, had fallen; the curse of tyranny was lifted from the earth; Prometheus had returned to his beloved earth-children, and the radiant spirit of that happy hour relates to him what she has seen in her passage over the regenerated world. Of the free woman then she says:—

"And women, too, frank, beautiful, and kind,
As the free heaven which pours forth light and dew
On the wide earth pass'd: gentle, radiant forms,
From custom's evil taint exempt and pure,
Speaking the wisdom once they could not think,
Looking emotions once they dared not feel,
And changed in all which once they dared not be,
Yet, being now, made earth like heav'n. Nor pride,
Nor jealousy, nor envy, nor ill shame
Spoilt the sweet taste of the nepenthe, love."