A cause which approaches the consummation of its hopes invariably rouses to the highest pitch of effort the forces which are against it. The battle is frequently the fiercest just before the victory is won. It is thus with the woman suffrage movement. Until the year 1908 the opposition to the political enfranchisement of women had been feeble and entirely unorganised. The most important protest was made in the Nineteenth Century in 1889, by three brilliant Englishwomen—Mrs Humphry Ward, Mrs Creighton, and Miss Beatrice Potter (now Mrs Sydney Webb)—who declared that 'the emancipating process has now reached the limits fixed by the physical constitution of women.' Since that time two of these ladies have found reason to change their views and have publicly declared themselves in favour of woman suffrage. No words of admiration of their courage could embellish an act so fine and courageous as this, but it was entirely in harmony with the known character of these two distinguished women, who showed by their action their belief that 'a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.'
The organisation of anti-suffrage sentiment began in 1908 with the formation of a women's anti-suffrage society headed by Mrs Humphry Ward. A similar men's society, formed immediately afterwards, was amalgamated with the women's in 1910, under the presidency of the Earl of Cromer. The National League for Opposing Women's Suffrage began its career with the single ostensible object of rigorously opposing the extension of the Parliamentary suffrage to women; but on discovering that a merely negative programme and policy win little sympathy with the majority of people, they added to their object that of encouraging the activities of women in connection with local government, and of increasing the number of women representatives on those publlc bodies which deal with the domestic and social affairs of the community. It is simple truth to say that the latter half of the anti-suffragist programme receives but scant attention, whilst all attention is given to the campaign against votes for women.
The methods of the anti-suffragists have been copied from the non-militant suffragists. With a fine disdain of logic they have proclaimed that the sphere of woman is the home, and have come out of the home to prove it! They have even urged the formation of classes in which women may be taught to combat the argument of the suffrage antagonists. They publish a monthly magazine and write letters to the newspapers. They hold public meetings and demonstrations, to which, however, only known sympathisers usually are welcomed. They approach members of Parliament, and seek through personal influence to win support in the House of Commons. They have taken a canvass of women municipal voters in several provincial towns, and declare that they have demonstrated beyond all shadow of doubt that the majority of women do not want the vote. The suffragists have canvassed many of the same towns, with totally different results. Sometimes the canvass was made by post card and sometimes by visitors, some paid and others voluntary, to the houses of the women voters; but whatever the method of approach, the wise person will not allow herself to be greatly influenced by either result. In making a canvass everything depends upon the wording of the question as to what result is obtained. It is well known that many women signed the anti-suffragist petition under the impression that they were being asked to protest against lawlessness. Others signed it because they were invited to say if they thought the government of the country ought to be handed over to women. It is plain that a negative answer to this question might reasonably be given by one who is in absolute sympathy with granting the vote to tax-paying women.
The coming into being of an organisation to oppose woman suffrage might be thought by the superficial observer to be a catastrophe to the woman suffrage movement. On the contrary, the suffrage has made its most remarkable progress since the inauguration of the anti-suffrage campaign. Opposition is not the most serious fact in any struggle based upon principle. The most deadly thing in the prosecution of a political or moral cause is the indifference of the people most concerned. The general indifference of women to their own enfranchisement is used as an argument against woman suffrage by the anti-suffragists. They are never weary of pointing out that the opposition of the class it is proposed to enfranchise is the unique feature of the present campaign which warrants the withholding of the vote. The argument is not a good one. It might be admitted that a very large proportion of women are either against the suffrage or entirely indifferent about it. But the question is not whether women are against the suffrage for themselves or not: it is, rather, why should women be against their own enfranchisement.
It is probably true that, in the past, no men of any class it was sought to enfranchise organised themselves to defeat this object. This may be accounted for by the fact that they were invited to do what had been done by men, in smaller or larger numbers, from the days of Simon de Montfort. It was no new idea to them, but simply the application to a larger number of people of an established principle, the right of men to govern themselves. It is false to say that those who were not free have never fought against their own enfranchisement. Thousands of black men fought against the North in the American Civil War, preferring a life of pampered slavery to the unknown joys and terrors of freedom. The analogy, unflattering though it may appear, is not to be drawn between the men and the women of Great Britain, but between the white women of this country and the black men of the United States in the days of the Civil War.
Of course, it is not suggested for a moment that the parallel is perfect. It is sound only in this one particular, viz., that those who have never known freedom must not be expected to know the value of freedom. The worst feature of black slavery was not the physical cruelty, but the soul-hurt of it. A slave is not a slave when he hates his chains and seeks to cast them aside; but he is a slave indeed when he loves his slavery and declines to be free when freedom is offered him. The argument that, because some women do not want the vote all women should be denied it, is both foolish and unfair. It is unfair to the women who want the vote; but it is much more cruel to the women who do not want the vote. The women who want the vote, which is the symbol to them of eternal things, are, by their aspirations, saved from the spiritual decay that comes to souls that sleep; but, for their own sakes, the women who do not want the vote ought to be compelled to have it, with all that it implies, in order that they may learn through its possession and its use a deeper self-respect than many of them have hitherto developed.
If the argument that men and women ought not to have what they do not want is a sound one, then all social legislation should cease. It is safe to say that most of the far-reaching measures of social reform on the Statute Book at the present time were hateful to large numbers of men, probably the majority in most cases, before they were enacted. The fear of increasing rates and taxes operates frequently to prevent much-needed legislation or administration. People can live in slums until they come to like them better than clean streets and good houses. Men can be out of work until they begin to hate work. A wise community will not say in these cases that, because certain individuals will not work, like to live in insanitary dwellings, or object to paying rates for beneficent purposes, they shall not work, nor be compelled to live in good houses, nor to subscribe in proportion to their means to measures for the common good.
Women who do not want the vote, object because they have been taught to object. For many generations women have been told that politics was not their sphere, that public questions were not their concern, that to be actively interested in matters outside the home was undignified and unwomanly; and they have believed these things, and do believe them. They are afraid, too, of losing the esteem and affection of those dear to them if they interest themselves in public questions. A very beautiful and tender sentiment prevents some of them from helping the cause of woman suffrage. They are afraid of sacrificing something of their finer essence, some quality of softness, some refinement, some power to heal and help and soothe which has been their crowning glory and their gift to their kind. Others, more selfish, fear the new duties and responsibilities that will come upon them, and prefer the life of luxurious ease which is theirs to enjoy without the vote. But whatever the personal reason for their reluctance to endorse woman suffrage, or their positive opposition to the enfranchisement of their sex, they are only responding to their envirormient, an environment which has never favoured, as a natural right, the opening of new doors to women.
It is difficult to understand the opposition of highly-cultured women to this reform. They, above all, are qualified by training for the exercise of this responsibility. It is satisfactory to know that very few women of this sort are on the anti-suffrage side, but there are some, and their position is difficult to comprehend. They are able to command for themselves by their special ability or social position almost unlimited influence over legislators. Through their books and their speeches they have the power to persuade, and the opportunity to influence, denied to the great mass of womankind. It is painful to have to believe that such women are moved to opposition by a spirit of selfishness, pursuing a dog-in-the-manger policy for some narrow and selfish end. But it is exceedingly difficult for the average person to come to any other conclusion. One does not envy their treatment at the hands of posterity.
The stock argument of the anti-suffragists, and, judging from the number of occasions on which it is used, the one upon which they appear to rely the most, is the physical force argument; the argument that women cannot fight and, therefore, should not vote. It is, of course, a matter of common knowledge that the political vote in this country does not go along with fighting capacity. Not one in ten of the men who vote can fight, or would be of any use if called upon to fight. Old men may vote, and lame and sick men, but they could in no circumstances be expected to fight; and the State could not spare from its service in other ways the accumulated wisdom of its veterans, or the gifts of other sorts of its physically disabled citizens. In the last resort they would try to fight, but only in the same way that every woman in similar straits would try, and they would be even less qualified to do so than strong and healthy women.
When this argument is used it is imagined that, in certain circumstances, the will of a majority of the men of the country will be opposed by the will of the majority of women, as expressed through the vote; that the men will not tolerate a state of things like that; that physical force would be employed by the men to compel the women to disfranchise themselves, and the last state of the women would be worse than the first. This is the latest and most blatant preaching of the doctrine of the necessary dominion of might over right. The argument is fallacious in the extreme. Such circumstances as are feared will probably never arise. The drink question and the purity question are the two questions which would offer some sort of opportunity for such a division of the voting strength of the country as has been conceived; but the overwhelming support in the country, both of men and women, for the Criminal Law Amendment Act, and the enormous growth during recent years of Temperance sentiment amongst men should reassure those who fear sex-antagonism of an extreme sort in the political relations of men and women.
The physical force argument is based upon the unwarranted assumption that, in the event of a majority of women voting against the majority of men, the men will not accept this legislation; or that they will necessarily oppose it with physical force. All life and experience point to the contrary. Women are not so strong physically as men, but where, in individual cases, the wishes of women have been clearly and definitely expressed, the men have yielded their own. When, through the vote, the women express their political desires with clearness, giving reasons for their action, the men of good character will probably take the part of the women, for they will recognise that great bodies of women voting heavily on one side must mean a massing of those instinctive feminine forces which make for the protection of the race. There is at least as much ground for this assumption as for that of the physical force anti-suffragists, that men will use violence to compel women to yield up their political power in the improbable event of sex opposing sex.
It is true that women do not fight, but not true that they could not fight if properly trained. Modern warfare is not a matter of muscle but depends upon science, intelligence, and the finer mental qualities. The small hand of a child could set working a piece of mechanism which would deal death to scores or hundreds of people. Men and women equally trained in the use of weapons of warfare would attain the same average of skill. Women have many times fought in battle with distinction, and their sex was not discovered till their death. If the power to fight were made the condition of the franchise, women would be prepared to qualify, though they would then carry a double burden, for they have their own special work for the State—the giving of life—which is at least of equal value with that of the soldier.
This idea meets with the shocked disapproval of certain anti-suffragists who have developed their argument to include the impossibility of women being fought. Women, they say, not only cannot fight, but they cannot be fought. No civilised nation would ever dream of placing its women in the firing line. The laws of chivalry forbid it. This, they say, is why it would be giving a position of positive superiority to women if they were enfranchised. They would be in a position to compel men to fight whilst they themselves not only would not have to fight but could not be fought.
If it is true that civilised nations do not make their women fight, the reason given for this is not true. Women are fought in every other battle-field. They are fought with great cruelty in the labour world, beaten down to a bare subsistence wage in the battle for a living. They have had to fight every inch of the way to business, professional, and educational opportunity. The laws of chivalry do not operate in that underworld of men and women where women are bought like cattle, and for purposes which degrade no creature below the human. The reason why women are not sent to the front to fight is purely one of expediency. They are too valuable as child-bearers to be risked in this way. One man may be the father of an almost unlimited number of children. A woman is rarely the mother of twenty. If the race is to be preserved, its women must not be used too recklessly. Not chivalry, but race-expediency has been the deciding factor in this matter. There is little chivalry shown towards women when nations come to grips with one another. If the leaders of soldiers were not prevented by loyalty to their caste from making disclosures, they could all tell stories of the deeds of men towards women which would make the civilian shudder with horror.
The sweated woman, the half-starved mother of children, the social outcast, and the deserted wife are the images summoned to confound the dreamers who talk of chivalry towards women. These women occupy no lofty pedestal surrounded with prostrate worshippers, from which they are to be dragged against their will into the dusty arena of politics. They are thankful when they can earn enough money to buy bread. All their poor lives they have met with the coldest and cruellest unchivalry, and this fact alone entitles them to the one thing which might do something to make life brighter and happier for them.
It is insisted by some that women can get everything they want for their sex by using their womanly influence upon men; that the legislation of the past has been secured in this way, and that this is the only legitimate method for women, who cannot understand the grave and complex questions which compose the interests of politicians. In the days that are gone the personal influence of a clever woman counted for much in politics. It counts for something to-day. But in all those questions touching the lives of the people, bread and butter questions, questions in which the interests of human beings and the interests of property clash, the influence of the individual counts for very little. Moreover, the gifted, clever woman of social position who can command this influence is very often the last person in the world to know the real condition of the lives of the women workers, and the last person to whom they would apply for help. And personal influence in the world of business, when a girl employee seeks to gain an improvement in her condition, either fails outright, or is of such a sort as necessitates her degradation.
Excellent legislation for women has been effected without women's votes, but never without a great struggle and the waste of much time and energy that might have been used more profitably in some constructive work; and what has been wrung from a reluctant Legislature is not to be compared, for weight and importance, with the work that remains to be done, and which will be accomplished in half the time when women have political power. Another point escapes the critic on these lines: that it is much better for women to do these things for themselves than to have them done for them by other people. It is a sound educational principle which insists that learning comes by doing. Women are deprived of opportunities of self-education when their affairs are regulated for them without their knowledge and consent. In a sense it is true that a large number of women are not yet fitted to vote, since they have never voted; but nothing will make them so fit as the vote itself. Responsibility is the great educator, and political responsibility will quickly effect a change in the attitude of women towards public questions and will speedily develop their public spirit. All the machinery of politics will be at the disposal of the new voters, canvassers will wait upon them, public meetings will be open to them, literature will be conveyed to them, and all parties will make every effort to see that no misapprehensions are permitted to cloud their minds. Every possible attention will be paid to the new voters.
The anti-suffragist objects to this education and experimenting at the expense of the State. The anti-suffragist is a timid soul. Almost all his arguments are based upon fears. He proves very little. He tells you that homes will be broken up when women vote. He does not prove it. When he points to the heavy divorce statistics of the United States he is obliged to admit that the number of divorces in certain States where there is no woman suffrage is very much higher than in certain other States enjoying woman suffrage. He asserts that children will be neglected for politics. He does not prove it. The good homes and happy children of Australia and New Zealand supply him with his answer. He is sure that woman suffrage will be a blow at religion and morality. The social legislation, including laws against intemperance and impurity, of all those countries where women vote, give the lie to this assertion. He trembles lest the unconsidered votes of women should bring the Empire tottering about his head, but he supplies not the slightest piece of evidence with which to support his fears.
His great lament is that India will rise in rebellion if British women are given the vote. The position of women in India is very inferior, and women, he alleges, are held in contempt by the men of India. If the men of India once realise that they are governed by a Parliament elected partly by women, their rage will be ungovernable, they will revolt, and we shall lose the best part of our Empire! The implication of this argument is beyond all words distasteful to honourable and fair-minded British men. It implies that, because the men of India think lightly of women, the men of Great Britain are to lower their own standard for the sake of the material profit that India represents. It is an argument that is intolerable to women, especially in view of the fact that no evidence is supplied to indicate that this catastrophe would follow. The men of India honoured their queen, the great white queen, Victoria. They have women rulers amongst themselves; and the wise men of India know that upon the development of their own women depends very largely their future position in the world.
'But,' says the mournful anti-suffragist, 'the affairs with which a great State is concerned are grave and complex, too grave and too complex for the feminine understanding. The modern State depends upon those things in which women can take no active part and about which they can know nothing, questions of diplomacy, high finance, naval and military matters, peace and war.' One famous anti-suffragist, a woman (Mrs Humphry Ward), has asserted in so many words that the experience of the average woman 'does not and never can provide them with such material to form a sound judgment on political affairs as men possess.' At a later date she declared that 'the political ignorance of women is irreparable, and is imposed by nature.' If this be true, it was very unfair to innocent and trusting voters to hurl amongst them a number of her own writings, Letters to My Neighbours—political pamphlets with which she sought to secure the return to Parliament of her son. And it ought to be gravely pointed out that these letters, written by one whose political ignorance is irreparable and imposed by nature, must be mischievous and unreliable documents, which ought not to be allowed to form the political judgment of sensible men!
It is too late in the day to argue that women cannot form a sound political judgment when, at election times, every political candidate clamours for the assistance of women in the work of persuading men to vote for him and the views he represents. It is, of course, the mass of women who come under this condenmation of Mrs Humphry Ward. It is inconceivable that the anti-suffragists include themselves when they say that 'the political ignorance of women is irreparable and imposed upon them by nature.' They are the great exceptions that prove the rule. But the plain fact of the matter is that the poorest working-woman is quite capable of forming a common-sense judgment on any one of the questions that come before a Parliament to-day when the facts of the case are put before her simply. And, as has already been pointed out, the facts will be put before her with alacrity when she becomes worthy of political education, i.e. when she is a voter.
It is not suggested that women should have a voice in the settlement of those questions which properly belong to the Committee-room, or which lie in the province of the expert to solve. The present voters have no powers of this sort. Diplomacy is not within the sphere of the present electors. The average citizen knows little about the complications arising out of foreign relationships. High finance does not come within his province. Neither is he asked whether the country shall go to war or remain at peace. These things are managed for him by the Press, or by the Cabinet, or by those experts who are chosen to act for him. The Referendum is not a part of the British Constitution. The voter is not asked to say yes or no on a variety of delicate and complicated questions. He is not required to form a political judgment in thousands of matters of the very gravest importance to himself and his country. No individual outside Parliament has the power directly to initiate legislation. The one method open to the electors at present of showing their disapproval of legislation is to vote one party out and another party in.
This is all that the women claim for themselves. They know perfectly well that they are as little fit as the majority of men to decide questions of policy when the whole of the facts are not at their disposal. Under a system of representative government it is not considered necessary to make the man in the street acquainted with the details of foreign and financial transactions of the gravest complication. By some this is regretted. But it is deemed inadvisable in a country like this, with its crowded populace composed very largely of very poor and hard-worked people, with little time and energy for thought, and with so much in their poor lives to render them easy victims of the corrupter. More than all, in a land where vested interests still hold so many minds in thrall, to alter the present system whereby men choose those who shall make political judgments for them is thought by men of radical temper to be an unwise proposal.
Upon no question is there greater confusion of thought than the confusion which clouds the minds of many people as to the legitimate business of a democracy. It must be remembered that the springs of political knowledge are not accessible to every political unit. The fountains of political information are dry for most, as far as matters of detail are concerned. It is not true, either, that every man is as good as every other man for every purpose in life. Men and women are equal in essence, in the fundamental fact of their being; but in their qualities of mind and body they differ from one another immeasurably. One is good for one service and another for another. A committee of the whole electorate upon a fine issue would be a clumsy thing. The real business of a democracy under a system of representative government is to select from amongst a number of candidates those they think best fitted to reflect their opinions and express their needs, whilst at the same time acting for them and in their interests on all those questions regarding which they have felt themselves unable to form opinions. The democracy reserves to itself the right, of course, to change its representatives if they fail in their duty, or if they cease to represent the views they were elected to support.
The representatives of the people in the House of Commons hear the debates, weigh and sift the evidence, study the blue-books, and possess themselves of information in a variety of ways not open to those who elect them, and then vote as their considered judgment directs. In the work of selecting these representatives, who claim to be political experts, the women claim a part.
When a critic of woman suffrage asserts that women are radically incapable of forming a sound political judgment on political matters, what, precisely, does he mean? Every member of the Conservative Party probably holds the view that the supporters of the present Government are quite incapable of forming a sound judgment on a large variety of political questions. The Tariff Reformer undoubtedly thinks that the man who supports Free Trade has formed a very erroneous judgment on one of the most important economic questions of the day. The opponents of Home Rule for Ireland have clearly demonstrated their unflattering judgment of Home Rulers. Those who hate the proposal to disestablish the English Church in Wales believe that those responsible for the proposal are either mad or bad—probably both. Similarly with the other parties. The average Liberal is quite certain that the average Conservative is not a person of competent understanding. And the average Socialist heartily despises them both.
What is really meant by those who use this argument is, that women, as a whole, will not form the same judgment as they would themselves. Voting intelligently to them would mean voting as they vote. Orthodoxy is their doxy. Egotism, pure and simple, is the bottom fact of most of the opposition to the political emancipation of women—egotism, when it is not prejudice. If it were possible to demonstrate beyond all shadow of a doubt that the majority of the new voters would vote for either of the two dominant political parties, that party would enfranchise women at the earliest possible moment.
It is frequently suggested by anti-suffragists that those countries where women vote can well afford to take the risk involved, because they have no difficult questions to solve such as lie within the province of the statesmen who govern a vast Empire like this. It is shown that the population of Australia is not so large as that of the County of London, that the combined populations of all the countries where women vote is not as large as the total population of Great Britain and Ireland, and it is inferred from this fact that these countries are of complete insignificance. It is forgotten that the Western States of America are much bigger than Great Britain, that they and our own Colonies hold the future in their hands, and may be States with vast populations when European countries have decayed.
But it is untrue to say that, even now, these new countries have no grave problems to solve and no heavy responsibilities to bear. All new countries have their special problems, about which old countries know nothing. The United States of America is faced with at least three problems of the gravest character, and infinitely complex. The colour question is one before which the wisest heads in Christendom bow in deepest humility and prayerfulness, for they fear what the future may bring forth. The alien immigration question is one that would have destroyed the nerve and broken the heart of any nation less young and less splendidly vigorous and courageous than America, which enlarges her sympathies to the extent of adopting more than a million sons and daughters from foreign lands every year. The problem of the trust and the monopoly, with all that these imply of power to grind the faces of the poor and promote revolutions, is one which has never troubled the old countries to the extent that it must vex the new. In the solution of all these tremendous problems, which are as difficult and as complicated as any which come before the House of Commons for solution, the women of nine States of America will now take their part.
One thought strikes the careful reader who pursues this question of woman suffrage to its deepest depths, and that is, the singular and suggestive fact that the bad and vicious elements are invariably against votes for women. It has almost invariably been a combination of the saloon, the brothel, and the race-course which has defeated woman suffrage in those States where it has been submitted and defeated. The thought suggests itself: if woman suffrage is the portentous and terrible thing it is said to be, why do all the elements of selfishness and corruption combine in the effort to defeat it whenever it is proposed?