The Case for Women's Suffrage/Woman in the Past and Future - Wikisource, the free online library



THERE are many lands in which the phrase "Woman's Suffrage" is unknown. The Chinese woman, the Hindoo woman, even the Japanese woman asks for no votes. For untold ages the woman of the East has been voiceless, immobile, shrouded, while sages and philosophers, not to speak of the populace, have accused her of every form of vice, imbecility, and weakness. She has been assured that in her there was no power, no stability of purpose, and has heard men thank God that they were not as she is. Shrouded in veils of silence she listened—and listens still.

This voiceless Eastern woman is the Mother of us all. It is strange to note how, as she fared Westward, woman began to slip from under the crushing weight of immemorial custom, and how, in early as in later days, every little gain was bought at a heavy price, bought, indeed, at times at a price which no "respectable" woman would pay. For from the "respectable" woman above all others was required, time out of mind, silence, modesty, and submission.

The European woman emerges first of all in Greece—the cradle of art, philosophy, and culture, and among a race of men who above all others perhaps deserved to be called "civilised." For the Greek, Justice was the supreme virtue, but it was a virtue practised between equals, and it did not even occur to the citizen of Athens that the sexes could be regarded as deserving of equal civic rights! Incapable of brutality, he did indeed offer new rights to all inferiors, to slaves, to women, and children, but it was not the love of justice, but the spirit of gentleness that inspired this generosity. And how little the highest culture of man could supply the place of opportunity for the development of her own powers to woman was well illustrated in ancient Athens! The gynacée was no "home," no theatre of choice at all for the respectable matron or girl. It was a mere shelter and hiding-place. The home of the citizen was the city. His life was lived in the public places, the courts, the groves, the public dining-places. There he discussed, and learned, and acted; there was his true home, and there too he enjoyed, among other privileges, the intellectual stimulus supplied in the company and conversation of abandoned but highly educated women. It has been said that of all modern women the French-woman supplies the most powerful intellectual stimulus, that even the dullest man becomes keen and intelligent in talking to her. In any case there is little doubt that the element in intellectual life supplied by the hetairai was appreciated by the greatest sages and philosophers. It is through no mere banal tradition of the feminine power to dazzle and awaken a passing admiration that we learn this. The hetairais' influence was no mere Cleopatra triumph aided and made possible mainly by sensuous accessories. No. The power of the hetairai was witnessed in the fact that their age was more prolific in ideas than any other, and that from their presence went forth troops of thinkers, artists, politicians, philosophers. Terrible as it may appear, these abandoned women were doing more for the world, and infinitely more for their sex, than were the poor respectable ladies hidden in their darkened homes. They showed the beauty of human life expanding unhindered. It blossomed, it is true, this life, in the path of the lava stream, but it blossomed. Not on the lava-swept slope, neither is it in the dark, unwholesome languor of the gynacée can the Human Garden be planted. The divorce between Virtue and Power ended, as we know, very badly. The poor undeveloped woman of the home was well avenged. Neither she, nor her husband, failed in gentleness. It was in the Virtue of Equals—Justice—that they failed. The civilisation perished which supplied the elements of a noble human life, but let them fall only on stony ground or fire-swept wildernesses.

Their conquerors, the Romans, warned by the fate of the fallen, installed woman in the home, and gave her serious and important duties. The Romans probably knew nothing of the nature of that feminine influence which drew forth the glowing and delicate flower of the national genius of the neighbouring country, but they enthroned the mother in the atrium and surrounded her with honour and marks of affection, while keeping her still a slave beyond the boundaries of home. All the world knows how Roman matrons responded—how they furnished examples of extraordinary domestic virtue, so that if mere good home-keepers could continue long to save a nation Rome need never have fallen. But good home-keepers must make progress—they must extend as well as perfect their empire. Their motherhood cannot always lie "among the pots," though it may begin there. Sooner or later it must be a winged thing, that returns to its starting always after every flight, still a thing winged as well as gentle—a dove that bears the branch of peace over the dark, troubled waters of the outer world. The nation that clips its wings, and makes the ark of home a prison, always sees, sooner or later, the Avenger arise on the hearthstone. It is impossible to destroy the natural power of either sex. It is possible only to pervert it—and this has been done time and again in the case of women. It happens to-day just as it happened centuries ago. "Since we are not to expend our power in healing diseases," says little Lyndall in the "African Farm," "nor making laws, nor money, we will spend it on you"—that is to say not on helping and saving but on misleading and tempting men and in dissipating their higher powers. And as the lower forms of dissipation are accessory to the higher, there is a constant tendency to careless expenditure, a reckless desire for wealth. Shameless luxury in the matter of dress, for example, and personal appointments—so that, even in England to-day, shops groan with costly objects all provided for women. In Rome the women's extravagance was such that the legislators, in dismay, made a whole series of new laws to restrain it. All this was vain. It was as though one should put up toy-mills to stem the Atlantic. Every writer notes how much more rapid was the process of corruption in woman than in man, but surely it would be folly to suppose that the descent to Avernus is easier for the more conservative feminine sex than for the more active masculine one. Gide puts his finger on the real cause of the woman's swifter decline. She had nothing to bind her outside the walls of her own little sheltering-place. She had no Vision of the world beyond, of which her own home was but a part. Men had the Vision, and if Rome's fate had depended alone on them Rome would not have fallen so soon.

“Even when the man's private life was corrupt he could preserve, at least for a time, his civic virtues, the morality that he had acquired as a responsible member of the body politic.” Yes, but with the woman it was otherwise. For her the whole moral code of life was narrowed down to her duty as a house or home keeper. She had not to think of the city, of the State, of the race. She knew nothing of the weighty considerations that bind those who have to remember the interests not of one family, but of thousands of families, in any act or at any moment. The senate house, the tribunal, did not awaken in her any solemn or binding thought, nor had she any acquired virtue in connection with the life of such places. In short, she was no citizen. Her motherhood was purely instinctive and domestic—that is to say, rudimentary. So, home-maker as she was, she quickly made of the city a desolation. The chapter of history which tells how this came to pass is full of interest and meaning for the modern politician, for the modern psychologist, and above all for the modern woman. It seems to indicate that not man only, but also woman must develop civic virtues, if the home is to be built on safe foundations.

In north-western Europe the woman question was settled and unsettled in rather a different way. Here was no sacred atrium, no gynacée hidden in the heart of a dwelling built amid surroundings of sunny, radiant peace. Only the tumult of waves, the rustling of heavy foliage, the wild voices of the storm and the forest. The fighting warrior-husband and son could not and did not frame new codes of duty for the woman, nor did they discover peculiar faults, vices, and imbecilities in her. Such sickly tasks were not for these wild men—nor did their women, from what we learn of them, lend themselves to those subtle, but unwholesome arts that suggest to men the idea that their nature is a mere puzzle in perverse words and dangerous impulses. No! Life was too simple—and also we may add too noble in its rude way for all this in the wild forests of the barbarous Northmen. The barbarian saw that the woman was not his equal in physical strength, and that she could not bear arms. She was physically the weaker, but there, for him, her inferiority ended. He was so far from believing her to be morally below himself that the whole of his religious life was summed up in the honouring of God and of women! Side by side with a purity of life that amazed the civilised races they conquered, the barbarians developed a faith in women which made them look upon every wife and maiden and mother as a possible priestess. They had their women near them when they went into battle, and they brought them into the camp in order to gain courage from them in the hour of defeat. Moreover, women were the scholars or “clerks" of that age and race. The men, busy with the arts of war, had no time to read the runes, or to learn writing, and so in the old traditions and pictures it is nearly always a woman who teaches or reads, and it is the women who inherit legacies of books, just as the men inherit the arms and weapons of their dead ancestors. Encouraged to learn, believed to possess mysterious powers to influence men for good or evil, these women of the barbarous tribes of the North lived in an atmosphere of reverence, and possessed privileges that astounded the civilised foreigner! "Durch aller froen ere—Rret Got and diû wif”—In old German, in old Saxon the same axiom is found—the axiom that enjoins man to honour woman, not merely as wife, or mother, but simply as woman.

This simple, strong, and healthy feeling, born in the wild forest, in the pure breezes and rains of the open, was the foundation of the chivalry of later ages. A fine subsoil it was, and even to-day, after so many centuries, and after so much that is dark and unsightly has been built on it, it seems to underlie all else in the national heart, like the clean, resisting, faithful rock. It is as little like mere gallantry as granite is like a fungus. It is so far from being a mere custom or fashion that it has outlived innumerable changes in the national customs and law! And it is difficult to see into what wildernesses and unwholesome swamps women might not have dragged themselves, and been dragged by men, if this fair undersoil had not been won for us by our ancestors in the woods!

Certainly there is no country in which feudal law struck such deep root as in England—that feudal law which takes so small account of woman as a being with rights of any order. Yet it was not against womanhood but against wifehood that feudal law reared its iron hand. It was marriage that stripped a woman of all her rights; handing her over with all her property to her husband to be used by him, with few restrictions, at his own will and pleasure. So completely was the wife reduced to the place of a chattel that her whole moral responsibility was lost. If she committed a fault in the presence of her husband it was he, not she, who was answerable before the law. The ignoble woman found in this a means of escape. The noble saw in it the degradation of wife—and motherhood. It is in the interests of the wife that the first great reforms influencing the status of women were carried out in England. For her the Act of 1857, which gives to the married woman, after sentence of judicial separation, the right to keep anything she may earn henceforward. For her, the married woman, the Act of 1870 was passed, which deprives husbands of "wages and earnings of any married woman acquired or gained by her in any employment, occupation, or trade … and all investments of such wages, earnings, money, or property.” For the married woman, too, the great reform of 1882, which makes it possible for her to have a legal estate, to possess and dispose of money and acquire separate property. Yet in spite of these reforms, that seem to give her back her personality, feudal law seems to keep its hold on the married women, neglecting the unmarried and allowing them to go forward and claim new rights. In the new franchise bills before the House the married woman was not included—or if she was remembered at last, it was as an after-thought!

Why did the militant Suffragette ever come to the door of the House of Commons? How did she ever come into existence at all? And how is it that while thousands of women, more "intellectual" than she, have asked for the vote for years in the most lady-like and constitutional way, and have got nothing for the pains but admiring politeness?—how is it, I say, that she, the militant Suffragette, can forego the admiration, but wants a Vote, and will, if necessary, fight for it, and—yes, let us admit the truth—die for it?

When a woman forgets to desire admiration, or fear disgrace, when she looks steadily into the face of all that was erst terrible to her, and is willing to throw her life into the scale, then, though her sister-women cry out against her, and the air shakes with contemptuous laughter, still she must be heard. When the tumult dies down—which is merely an interruption—she will be listened to again. Why does she want the vote?

In order to answer this we must put platitudes aside, and face the facts of woman's life as we find them in the working-class community to-day. It is of no use to look back a century or two, for then, perhaps, we could not understand. Swift as the mountain storm have been the industrial events which have within the last few decades changed the position and prospects of wage-earning women. If these swift happenings have changed the thoughts of only the more intelligent minority as yet, that is not to be wondered at—still less is it to be taken as a pledge of indifference on the part of the majority in the future. What hundreds see to-day, tens of thousands will see to-morrow.

It is a fashion among pretty writers to say that the Home is woman's true sphere. The pretty phrase is true. Woman's whole mission will probably be found at last to consist in making a great home of the whole habitable planet. But in so far as it applies to the actual conditions of life, and pressing necessities and duties of an increasing multitude of women to-day, the phrase is like an arrow shot by a careless hand into the desert air, and with no destination but to fall perhaps at last into some aching heart. The average wage of wool-combers is about 18s. per week, and factory-workers generally hardly average more than 25s. per week. Every new introduction of machinery displaces labour, and every improvement therefore may be said to cheapen labour—the labour of home-builders. Formerly, that is before the introduction of machinery, the wage-earner knew what to expect, but to-day he cannot know, and his wife shares his anxieties. So she goes out to work herself. In Lancashire 62 per cent. go out to work, in Manchester and Birmingham 63 per cent, and in Stockport and Dundee the number of outworking women is even greater.

It is clear, however, that all these are not married women. A great many wage-earning women—the majority indeed—are unmarried. School-teachers, journalists, domestic servants, shop-assistants, and a great army of producers in an infinite number of trades—among these are many women who support their parents, and fatherless children or orphaned children. They are out in the world, and are bread-winners, not because they chose to labour in this way, but because the conditions of modern industrial life have compelled them. Woe to them if they hesitate!

I have in my mind the sad case of a noble, womanly woman, skilled in all womanly arts, left to struggle alone with her young orphan children. She sewed, she cooked, she kept her home as clean as a jewel; she nursed and tended and taught her little ones. She earned money, too, by taking in washing and going out to cook sometimes, and she died of exhaustion and semi-starvation at last. Her case is not a very uncommon one. A home may be a necessity, but for many it is a luxury. “She should have gone out to earn and taken a proper situation," said the victim's brother. It seems a brutal speech, but is it more thoughtlessly cruel than the speech of the fashionable novel-writer who says, She should have reigned as queen in her home?"

Terrible is the fate of the poor woman who clings to-day to home. The worst paid of all workers are the woman home-workers. It is they who figure in the sweating industries exhibitions, and it is they who dare not ask for justice even in a whisper, and who toil on till wages reach starvation point. Out in the open things are not nearly so bad.

Out in the open women begin to combine, and what is more, they begin to look abroad over the great world of industrial life, and to perceive that its progress consists of ever-growing powers of combination, and that those who take part in its life cannot be long home-workers in the old sense. In short, they begin to see that all unknown to them. selves, and almost in spite of themselves, they have to become citizens.

The burdens of citizenship have been assumed by them already. A married woman is responsible for her own acts even to the point of suffering the extreme penalty of the law for certain offences. She is a producer in the industrial markets of the world, a tax and rate payer; and in one constituency at least women trades unionists pay the salary of a representative in Parliament. There is "a disability to bear arms”—but no disability to go to the help of soldiers, as the numerous corps of army nurses who have served in battle can testify! One by one the burdens of citizenship have been assumed, and because of this fact every thinking wage-earner was bound to get a glimpse of the outer world from which she had been so long excluded. Many begin to look forth at last. And what do they see?

They see, to begin with, that the mediæval notion of home—as a prison for mothers as well as a cradle for children—has little to recommend it. In the stately homes of England there may be room to live, room for romance and idealism. But the number of these homes is small in comparison with the number of one-tenement and two-tenement rooms! In all some 120,000 babes die every year, and not 30 per cent. of all school-going children are thoroughly healthy and well cared for. Bad as all this is, it was infinitely worse in the "good old days." "The grace of hospitality is gone, and the art of good manners.” Perhaps, but the black plague is gone too, and a whole bevy of horrible diseases; drunkenness is declining, and the dreadful things it brings in its train. Little was heard of these in the old days of stately manners, little was heard of child labour, and of miseries that are now searched out and relieved. The thinking, wage-earning woman may see that to-day is dark, but she does not make the mistake of thinking that yesterday was brighter. Just as the condition of the worker in the great warehouse or factory is better than is that of the poor sweated home-worker, so the condition of the child in an elementary school to-day is better than was that of a child in a slum home, or even in a cottage home yesterday, a home where an overworked mother was trying to combine the task of child-minding with cooking, washing, and housemaid's work.

The thinking, wage-earning woman does not wish then to go back, but forward. The State is not a mere name to her-an abstraction. Whether she willed or no, she has had to come into a new relation to it. She sees that there is a larger life, and that she has to become an active and conscious part of it. Every year, whether she will or not, this fact is forced home. She may do her duty in the old-world sense well enough, but that will not save her or her dear ones. Of what use to keep her little ones clean and sweet if they have to sit with diseased and neglected children-as they probably must to-day?

The question of wages, of public health, of education, of housing, her fate in sickness, in widowhood, in sudden calamity, in old age-the fate of all the unfortunate, the lost, the suffering, the helpless—all these can not long remain matters of indifference. They are forced daily on her attention in painful and intimate ways. But she can have little or no voice in them, save in co-operation with her fellows: that is to say, she has for larger social purposes little power save as a citizen.

These last words will raise a cry of protest, and bring me face to face with the whole army of the critics of Suffragette methods!

“The clever woman," says a lady writer, "sits at home and, like a meadow spider, spreads a pretty web of rose and gold, spangled with diamond dew. Flies —or men—tumble in by scores, and she holds them all prisoners at her pleasure with a silken strand as fine as a hair. But," she adds, "her weaving must not be to hold the flies solely for her own amusementshe must learn to use her powers for the betterment of the world."

The woman making webs, the man tumbling in and being inspired in a trap—is an old, old picture. It was conceived first of all in a warm climate, where unwholesome moisture rose from the teeming earth and made a dimness about the paths of men. It was developed in lands where women, become spinners indeed, were yet confined in close and shadowy chambers, and lost in unwholesome reveries the mere remembrance of the nature and source of inspiration. The very notion of an inspiring spider is alien, however, after all to the average Western—above all to the Saxon. "I will look up unto the hills from whence cometh my aid," sang even an Eastern poet, who, we were told, had nevertheless a large harem, and this desire to look not into an intriguing face, however fair, but into the light filled spaces of the Eternal, lives and will live anew in the hearts of our countrymen. This Suffragist—who is accused of having no beauty will not, at least, prevent them. She is not here to make webs, but for other purposes. All the graces of the daughters of slave-women, even when shown forth, as they are to-day in the work of some of our leading women writers, and even their virtues, wholesome enough though a little confined, like flowers in pots, have ceased to awaken her envy. In the storm and stress of workaday life she has been forced to leave such things—to leave them to the women who can cultivate and enjoy them. The rude call of Life summons her elsewhither—and she will not turn back. Perhaps one day—she will find a new charm, a new spell to win love and happiness, but in any case she will not turn back. Just as in the wild forest and its storms the barbarian Northmen conceived a new reverence for women, so in the storm of industrial life, and exposed to all its waves and buffetings, she must learn a new reverence for herself.