WOMAN'S SUFFRAGE AND SENTIMENT
Published by The Equal Franchise Society of New York City, 1909.
Two thousand years ago when Plato stated his belief that women take part in state affairs, he had to beg his hearers to refrain from laughing. Yet the dignity of the ideals he advanced in support of his belief, was commonly recognized. Woman's suffrage meets the same kind of opposition to-day— not sober reasoning, but an emotional rejection of the whole program. This is because the idea of women at the polls offends a strong instinct in the majority. It offends their sex taste. It goes against the prevailing type of sexual selection, as Darwin would say, and is therefore opposed by the most powerful feelings that society inherits. The one person who is air-tight against all arguments, is the man in love with a girl of the drawing-room variety. For every truly human animal jealously resents a violation of his sex-ideal. Justice, Democracy, Public Welfare—down with them, if they invade this sanctum! Now society as a whole has long been in love with a girl of either the drawing-room or kitchen variety, and hence it is that, in spite of the number and age and nobility of "suffrage arguments," the movement is exposed to ridicule. Powerful hereditary feelings are against it.
If these feelings are ever overcome, they will be overcome; not by practical considerations but by feelings equally powerful. And it is within belief that the advocates of woman's suffrage have such feelings. They are not a handful of sexless intellectuals, who desire, in the interest of a practical reform, to uproot all the emotional idealism of the world. They are, on the contrary, the very people of passionate hope and imagination, who have discovered in themselves new emotional ideals which they believe to be intrinsically richer, as well as ultimately more serviceable, than the old. Let us then candidly regard the conflict about women's voting as a conflict of sentiments, and let us compare the sentiments of the suffragists with those of the opposition. In order to do this well, we shall have to put away for the time our own sentiments, we shall have to forget what type of woman we are personally lorn of at this present writing, whether domestic or political, and view the two kinds of ideals as though we were looking down from a height. We will try how they feel, each of them, and see which is most nobly suited to the spirit of man.
Let us begin with the most old-fashioned and least vital sentiment of the opposition. And let us call it the beautiful futility sentiment. It comprises those yearnings which find their satisfaction in the luxurious weakness, inefficiency and general dependency of women. An ideal begotten of feudal civilization and flourishing up to the last century, it denies to the lady all the hero-virtues except the heroic endurance of vacuity. This it demands of her. She is divinely free from all active duties, but she is despotically denied the privilege of free activity. She is thus a voluptuous mixture of the goddess and the menial and may be flavored one way or the other to the taste of her husband.
"She made shift to have her woman bleed her for the ball," says the disgusted Courtier, "but looked not pale as she fain would, but of a sorry hue!." Yet after all she was doing her best to meet his tastes, which demanded a pale and languorous uselessness as of divine creatures eternally reclining, subject to his worship and his tyranny.
The tyrannic element declines as we approach our times, or is disguised in a more fatuous worship. From Lyman Abbott we learn that "the womanly woman" is glad to make her husband’s will her own. If she happens not to be glad, she is not damned to hell, as Martin Luther would have had her, but she is simply not a womanly woman."
In the mind of Marie Corelli she takes another stride heavenward. "Woman has as the natural heritage of her sex the power to persuade, enthrall and subjugate man. She has no need to come down from her throne and mingle in his political frays." This sounds imperious, but still we find in it the same two elements. Woman is enthroned, but she is chained by nature to her throne. She must not comedown. This seems to be but a highly evolved manifestation of the beautiful futility, or slave goddess sentiment.
With what sentiment do the reformers replace it? We shall find in the majority of them two enthusiasms, which they consider more congruous with what is best in human life. One of these is the love of health in a woman----health of body and mind. We have outgrown the days of bleeding for the ball, they say, let us outgrow the days of decorated sloth and purposelessness, which drain the blood and mind of virtue. That women should sit in an upholstered corner, and be fed with sugar-plums and kissing-comfits, while men enjoy the rigors of life, is an idea for which these ages will be held up to shaking ridicule. Animals, and the energetic earth herself, laugh at the sexual silliness of it.
That the women who are brought up in these insipid circumstances should attach to them and grow fearful to leave them, is but an effect of habit, and it is inevitable that they should need much educating in order to apprehend a better ideal. But that their husbands, who could not endure one day of so tasteless an aspiration, and say to the women who have waked to higher possibilities, "How can you ask for more than this luxurious inaction which we furnish you? How can you want to step down out of heaven?""---that men, devoted to the strong flavour of genuine life, should so belie themselves makes it appear that they are incapable of imaginative thought. Their education will be no less difficult, albeit they know in their own lives exactly what the awakened women are trying to point out, that happiness for the best people lies in purpose and achievement.
Yet to those who are still sure that their highest happiness is "to live softly and waste money and have no order of life," to those who are born to the manner of the slave-queen, the minority have another sentiment to offer. It is the sentiment of true chivalry, a chivalry which renders to every woman as good a birth-right to individuality as has a man. If woman-in-general is to sit on a throne, says this sentiment, let her be arrayed in the true powers of a queen---the most notable of these powers being, to many natures, the power to abdicate. When the sentiment of chivalry is purged of all tincture of the tyrant, it can only say: If you find your joyful adjustment in a throne, it is yours; but if you find a throne an irksome place to sit, the word is open to you. Speaking in any other terms to a woman who desires action, chivalry is but the courteous exterior of a bigot.
But his polite tyranny, which would imprison women in their drawing –rooms, is luckily beyond the means of the majority. Futility is too expensive for them. So that, although it may be the remote aspiration of all males to maintain an establishment containing a creature of this languishing type, the type itself is confined to the more luxurious classes. The laboring millions must content themselves for practical purposes with a much inferior ideal. Their queen must reign, not in the drawing room, but in the kitchen and dining-room, where her futility is stained with actual productive labor. Only two things can make this humiliation endurable. One is that she shall never receive a direct pecuniary compensation for such productive labor, and the other, that she shall never extend the sphere of such labor beyond the privacy of the home. When she appears publicly she shall wear the garments of enforced inactivity, and maintain until her return a strict and uncompromising uselessness. Thus we have a changed but still exceedingly respectable form of the slave-goddess sentiment: "Woman’s sphere is the home."
The chief objection to this dogma is not that it is untrue, or that as a matter of fact the sphere of those women who most need the consideration of the law-makers is not the home but the factory. Most dogmas are untrue. The chief objection to this one is that, but setting an unnatural standard, it denies to a great many people the possibility of a reasonable adjustment to their circumstances.
There lives in our town a family of genteel derivation but reduced circumstances. It consists of a father and numberless mature but unmarried daughters. The father contributes very little besides its derivation to the welfare of the family. But he has brought up his daughters in the unshakable conviction that they are genteel, and the sphere of a genteel woman is the home. A profitable employment in the generous market that awaits their talents would lower them beyond recovery. They therefore compel themselves to subsist upon the meagre earnings of a reduced father, which they piece out by "taking into the family" a pair of similarly reduced uncles and an equally elite but no more prosperous cousin. For them they perform the services of housekeepers, cooks, dish-washers and chamber-maids, but fortunately for their gentility, they are not directly paid for these services. Thus their pride, and the pride of the family, and the sacred old dogma are preserved. But their fine talents are wasted in menial attendance upon a few incompetent males; their genteel aspirations are confined to a painful sewing and sewing upon modish dresses which they make for themselves between whiles; and their lives are but intermittently illumined by the receding hope of marrying among the unreduced, where they may move forward from the kitchen to the parlor. Such is the extreme fate of the daughters of a decayed gentility, laboring under no genuine adversity whatever but the inheritance of a sentimental dogma.
An extreme folly so easily cited suggests the innumerable other sets of "circumstances" in which an adherence to the home-sphere sentiment prevents the natural and hopeful progress of a life. Not only does it prevent a right adjustment of persons to differing circumstances, but it prevents a right adjustment of circumstances to the differing temperaments of persons. For, let the dogmatists lay it down how they will, the rebellious fact remains that all women can not be happy in the same sphere. Outrageous females continue to be born who can not content themselves with cooking, sewing, looking for husbands , and hoping for children. They become, under such circumstances distressed and neurotic. In short, there arise in various circumstances, persons by the millions, to whose lives this dogma means wreckage. ""Well, in those cases," say the best of the dogmatists, "it were better to break over, but in general woman’s sphere is the home." Which concession is all but enough. If the rule may be broken whenever it contradicts the dictation of conditions or characters, it is not so bad a rule. Only let us get it out of the way. Let us say that woman’s sphere is the home whenever it is, and when that is not the case, then it is not. Let us say that woman’s sphere is a joyful life, and as joy comes by the right adjustment of various characters to various conditions, we will stop trying to confine her to one character or one condition.
A sentiment almost as prevailing as the home-sphere one, is that feeling for the inherited privileges of women, and the superior value of their indirect influence. If women obtain their rights, says this sentiment, they lose their privilege, which is a dearer thing. Or it says: "Women have their rights and they should know how to maintain them. But where is the necessity of using the ballot? Every woman of charm and attractiveness can draw what she needs from most men."
These views are familiar, and they are dear to the hearts of many people. Many people find it so pleasant to consider that a woman can get what she needs (either through privilege or influence) without asserting a right to it, that they are willing in the interest of their ideal to overlook the fact that she does not get what she needs by this method. This idea is especially dear, no doubt, to women who need to assure themselves that they have charm and attractiveness. But it is also dear to many men who enjoy the feeling that it gives them to offer their chair to a woman and enjoy it so well that they are inclined to the female world in general ought to be more than satisfied by it.
Before we consider the supplementing of this sentiment with a new one, let us weigh the truth of the assertion upon which it rests. Have women so much privilege and influence in matters of great importance as this sentiment pretends? Have they not the need of rights? The women teachers of New York have exerted their influence in the sweat of their brows for a number of years, in the effort to get a law made which shall secure them the payment that men receive for doing the same work that they do. But the gentlemen who control the passage of laws in New York have proven politely impervious to this influence. To a mind stripped for the moment of sentiment it appears that if women had as a class a very vital "privilege," they would have been paid for their work at the very off-go. But it must be obvious even to the sentimental, that if they had an effective "influence," they would be able to secure the "privilege" of being paid for their work when they make a special effort to do so.
This is the chief thing, then, to be said, of the privilege-influence sentiment. It assumes that certain superficial features of polite society pervade the life of the community and the body-politic to its roots. It is a sentiment which falsifies and conceals the facts of human nature, keeping up an everlasting pretence that life is softer that it is.
It will be well indeed for us when we realize that chivalry and the excellent joys it adds to life belong to the surface and not to the structure of it. We need to beautify the relations of people. For manners, therefore, it is well that there should be a special excellent privilege or prerogative of the woman, a certain romantic coloring or contrast being thus added to a sufficiently monotonous society. But for morals no such decorative effects will do. To adopt so aetherial an achievement as chivalry for the fundamental determinant of the relations of people in society, is to found a temple upon a minaret. Does it never occur to these good ladies who sit in their parlors and extol the "privileges" they enjoy, to look out of their time the sweating majorities of this world have for the cultivation of elite sentiments? Does it never occur to them to read some meaning into the tales of blood, rape, and fraudulent oppression, that are served to them every morning at breakfast? Can they not peruse and actualize for themselves the pages of history? Whoever looks with a deliberate mind abroad in this passionate world can see that the desired structure of a just society will never be erected with a tender and highly cultivated sentiment at its basis. Chivalry thrives, with all culture, among the people of noble leisure, but the laws must remember the masses of mankind. Yet even in that fortunate sphere where chivalry thrives, it is a sign of decay that it should usurp the seat of basic moral ideals. It begets an unheroic spirit in the woman to lean upon privilege in the rough essentials of life; and no sentiment should exempt her from the ideals of independence and power. It begets a vainglorious bigotry in the man to be the constant purveyor of privilege, and no sentiment should exempt him from the ideals of humbleness and magnanimity. These moral laws have the prerogative over all shifting dictates of polite manners.
The third, and most forceful of the sentiments which oppose woman’s suffrage, is what we may call the home-and-mother sentiment. This is no degenerate outgrowth of a particular form of society. It is among the most aged of the virtuous feelings of man, the sentiment of the peculiar sacredness of his mother and the home that she makes. With what weapon shall the innovator attack such an ideal? What feeling can he find, of equal power and dignity, wherewith to replace it? Surely it can not be replaced by anything we have yet discovered. No, nor can it be replaced by anything we shall hereafter discover. It can not be replaced, it can not be ignored, but it can be illumined with intelligence. So say the reformers, and the weapon with which they attack this sentiment is but the sentiment itself perfected.
The feeling of the anti-suffragists seems to express itself in two forms. In the first place, if the mother is going to make good her home and her children, they say, she will not have time to follow the affairs of the nation. Baby will roll to the floor while she is reading the newspaper. In the second place, if the mother is to keep sacred the hearthstone and rear her offspring in the ways of God, she must not have her thoughts polluted by the evil atmosphere of business and politics. She must preserve, for her children’s sake, a holy and innocent mind.
To these sentiments the new believers in home and mother have a passionate answer. If a mother is to educate her children, she will need to have something in her mind besides holy innocence. She will need to know the world into which she is educating them. She will need to be the true comrade of her children, and go with them into the place of their experience. Moral culture does not consist of leading a child in virgin purity to the front door, and saying, "Now run on, and be a good child!" The mothers to whom tributes have been paid in history are the ones who have lived with their growing children the fullest and the longest. It is not innocence that compels, but active and amiable virtue.
And if it be repeated that a mother has not time to become a citizen of the world into which she is ushering her children, what shall we say? Shall we entirely dismiss the ideal of a great mother? Shall we not rather say, if the mother has not time to be great and wise for her children’s sake, let her retire into the drawing-room where she may harmlessly exercise her innocence, but for the purpose of fostering her children’s souls we will hire a woman to whom time has been more generous? For a wise stranger is worth ten silly mothers, and to this every straying son can bear witness. No jewel so becomes a mother as experience.
With such hopes and emotions in their hearts, the suffragists dare to assail those sacred sentiments of the majority. And they dare to assert that the newer ideals have both a superior vitality and power for good, and are a greater beauty. Of this the last evidence is that they are congruous with one another. The old ideals, when we view them intellectually, are inconsistent, like a child’s whims. If the woman ought to be "innocent of affairs," how ought she to exercise that indirect influence upon them?
Scanned by Michael Van Dyke
Research by Mark Krasovic
H-Net, Humanities & Social Sciences Online
Michigan State University