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WOMEN'S SUFFRAGE: A REPLY.
As one who for some years has taken a great interest in the extension of the Parliamentary suffrage to women, perhaps I may be allowed to offer a few observations in reply to Mrs. Chapman's article on this subject.
There are fortunately only two matters of fact in regard to which Mrs. Chapman's paper calls for a reply: the first of these is the assertion that women do not wish for the suffrage; the second is that the advocates of women's rights' strongly insist on the absolute mental equality of the sexes as a main ground for the concession of the franchise to women. In both these statements Mrs. Chapman, in my opinion, has unintentionally fallen into error.
With regard to the first, Mrs. Chapman makes the assertion in the broadest possible terms that there is no genuine demand on the part of women for representation. One thing is clear,' she writes,' that neither among educated nor uneducated women, among those who think most nor among those who work most, among rich women nor among poor, is there any great and pressing and genuine desire for the suffrage. The facts surely point the other way: if the case of educated women, thinkers and workers, is considered first, there is a remarkable preponderance of opinion among them in favour of women's suffrage. There is hardly any distinguished English woman of the latter half of the nineteenth century who has made an honourable name through the work she has done in literature, science, education, or philanthropy who has not expressed her sympathy with the movement for the extension of the suffrage to women. We have had warm help and support from Miss Martineau, Mrs. Somerville, Miss Mary Carpenter, Mrs. Jameson, Mrs. Nassau Senior, Mrs. Grote, Miss Emily Davies, Miss Clough, Mrs. W. Grey, Miss Nightingale, Miss Anna Swanwick, Mrs. Garrett Anderson, Miss Edith Pechey, Miss Frances Power Cobbe, Mrs. Pfeiffer, Mrs. Butler, Miss Irby, Miss Clara Montalba, Mme. Bodichon, Mrs. Thackeray Ritchie, &c. A page could easily be filled with names, but I have merely taken a selection hastily and almost at random from among the great army of women who have done good work for the world in various ways, and who have joined their forces with those of the men and women who are endeavouring to remove the electoral disabilities of women. Of course it is not contended that among the women whom we think of when we speak of thinkers and workers, there is absolute unanimity on this or any other subject ; but for every name among women thinkers and workers which can be quoted as opposed to women's suffrage, I should not mind undertaking to quote at least a dozen, and that without going very far afield, who support
With regard to the masses of women, it is difficult to get at precise facts. We have, however, some indications which encourage the belief that the mass of women do wish that those among them who possess the statutory qualifications, should be enfranchised. I never saw a paper specially intended for women, from The Queen downwards, which is not favourable to women's suffrage. Petitions have repeatedly been sent up to Parliament signed by a very large majority of the women householders in a particular place. The petition from Hyde, near Manchester, may be quoted as an example, where out of 700 women householders 608 petitioned Parliament to grant them the suffrage. Mrs. Chapman does not, however, think much of petitions, so she will not be influenced by the fact that year after year for eighteen years hundreds of thousands of women have petitioned Parliament to pass the Women's Suffrage Bill. She will perhaps find more significance in the annual attendance at the Trades' Union Congress of a deputation of working women, who of late years have always been able to carry the majority of the Congress with them in support of a resolution affirming the principle of women's suffrage. In 1885 this resolution was carried by 70 to 6. In schools and colleges for girls where there are debating societies it is possible to gather some indication of the tendency of public opinion among young women. A short time ago at Newnham College, Cambridge, a resolution condemning women's suffrage was lost by 56 to 13. At a working women's college in London in which there are several hundred women, some of the members of the college were lately talking over with the secretary desirable subjects for discussion at the debating society. The secretary suggested women's suffrage, but the women present objected on the ground that a debate was no good on a subject on which all were agreed; there was, they urged, no possibility of getting anyone to oppose a proposition so obviously just as that women householders and ratepayers should be allowed to vote in Parliamentary elections.
The progress of events often opens women's eyes to their need of representation. The pit-brow women, whose work and wages will be taken from them if the bill relating to mines now before Parliament becomes law, are receiving this kind of enlightenment. Their numbers are estimated at about 5,000; there are 1,300 in West Lancashire alone. Several cases similar to this, where the claims of the unrepre
VOL. XIX.-No. 111.
sented are set aside and those of the represented only are attended to, have had a very convincing effect upon the minds of working women as to the practical hardships which follow from their exclusion from the suffrage.
As to the second of the assertions of which I venture to question the accuracy, I do not think it is true that the advocates of women's rights' strongly insist on the absolute mental equality of the sexes. Like Marco Polo, I wish to set down things seen as seen, things heard as heard only; therefore I confine my remarks to what bas come under my own observation in the conduct of the women's suffrage movement in England during the last twenty years. The leaders of the movement, and its rank and file, have entertained some one and some another view as to the comparative natural capacity of the sexes. But whether they think men and women similar in this respect, or dissimilar but equal, or dissimilar and unequal, they have all, I believe, agreed that the matter was not of any real importance to the question in hand. It is certain that, whatever the inherent natural capacity of a woman's mind may be, its development largely depends on education, circumstances, and opportunity. All that the advocates of women's rights have wished or claimed on behalf of women is that, whatever their natural gifts may be, the opportunity of developing those gifts should not be denied to them. The physical strength of the average woman is inferior to that of the average man; but this does not afford any reason for subjecting women to lowering physical conditions: wholesome food, fresh air, daily exercise, and suitable clothing are as necessary for making the best of the physical powers of the weaker as of the stronger sex. Analogous reasoning can be applied to the educational, social, and political conditions of a woman's life. The question is not whether men and women are equal, but whether the conditions by which men and women are surrounded are calculated to bring out and make the best of their natural powers, whatever these may be. Whether our cups hold a pint or a quart, we wish for the opportunity of filling them. With regard to the effect which a larger measure of freedom has had in developing the natural capacities of women's minds, I think we have every reason to be satisfied with the result of the experiment so far as it bas gone. The respect for the individual rights of every human being, which was partly the cause and partly the outcome of the French Revolution, marks the beginning of the modern era so far as the position of women is concerned. The great discovery that women were human beings • fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a' man is, is conveniently dated in England by the publication in 1792 of Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women. Previous to that, hardly any woman, save here and there a saint, a queen, or a king's mistress, had done any work which
left its mark on the history of art, politics, literature, or science. Whatever the natural gifts of women may be, before that time they were undeveloped in comparison with a later period. Since that time we have had indeed among women no Shakespeare, no Dante, no Beethoven, no Newton, but in our scarcely completed century we have had, in literature alone, women whose works the world will not willingly let die. Jane Austen, the two Brontës, Mrs. Browning, and George Eliot are not a poor harvest for one nation to bave reaped as a result of giving greater scope and greater opportunities of development to the natural powers, whatever they may be, of one half of its inhabitants. “We live by admiration, hope, and love.' Our love and admiration for the great women given to us during the last half century, as a result of the comparative freedom accorded to English women by advancing civilisation, leads us to hope that yet greater women may be given to us in the time to come, when a larger measure of liberty and greater opportunities of development will have been won.
We are moving and growing slowly towards larger ideas as to the capacity of women and what it is fitting that they should or should not do. At one time it was thought impossible that a woman should ever acquire the difficult art of cutting hair; a male hairdresser remarked, 'It took me a fortnight to learn it,' and believed that this settled the question. A little later it was discovered thal women could keep accounts, and keep them well. When I was being shown over the Savings Bank Department of the General Post Office, the excellence of the work of the women there was specially pointed out to me by the kindness of the gentleman who was then head of the branch. Taking down one of the heavy ledgers, and showing with official pride the beautifully neat columns of figures, he said, “At one time I did not believe that females were capable of making figures like these. I smiled, and hoped that further surprises were in store for him. Till Ellen Watson won the first prize for Mathematics at London University and Miss Scott was eighth wrangler at Cambridge, many people believed that-Mrs. Somerville notwithstanding-there was something in the female brain which rendered it incapable of apprehending the mysteries of mathematical science. It is evident, then, that there is more capacity on the part of women to undertake successfully various kinds of work than at one time was dreamed of. It will never be certainly known whether their mental powers are equal to those of men till their chances have been equal during a long period of time. It may be that physical laws have irrevocably ordained that their chances never can be equal; and that by the service they render to the world in another way women are eternally handicapped, if a comparison is made between their achievements and those of men. If this be so, we argue pot against Heaven's hand or will; but we ask, all the same, on behalf of women, that they should
have the opportunity of developing whatever powers nature may have vouchsafed to them.
It should be remarked that, contemporaneously with the greater activity of women during the last balf century in those spheres which were at one time held to be fit for men exclusively, the work that always has been and probably always will be specially women's work has not been neglected; on the contrary, in almost every department women have done their own special work, since a larger degree of liberty has been afforded them, with increased zeal and intelligence. I need only refer to the great improvement in the education of the young; to the careful training now sought by all women who wish to devote themselves to the nursing of the sick; to the revival of fine needlework, artistic and utilitarian; to the schools for teaching cookery; to the increase of skill and thought employed in beautifying the home; to the work of women as pour-law guardians; to the method of really helping the poor which is associated with the name of Miss Octavia Hill; and last, but not least, to that noble army of martyrs who, in ever-increasing numbers and with increasing wisdom and self-devotion, give their lives to rescuing from unspeakable misery the most wretched and unhappy of their sex.
Mrs. Chapman concedes everything that has been already won ; it is only where the immediate issue of the battle is still doubtful that she joins the forces of reaction. She is convinced that it is right that women should vote in municipal and school-board elections and should serve the community as poor-law guardians; for school boards and boards of guardians deal, she urges, with local not national interests, and for these the distinguishing feminine characteristics are strong qualifications; and she further hints in another passage that wise women will recognise that great questions of national interest are the subjects appropriate for the consideration of masculine minds, while feminine minds should occupy themselves with such questions as are connected with household management and the care of the sick. Is there not a fallacy here? Is it not right that all human beings should like the best things best, and be most interested in the things that are most interesting? It often helps one to test the value of an argument to translate it from the abstract to the concrete. Will wise women recognise during the next few months that it is scarcely fitting that they should occupy themselves with an attempt to understand Mr. Gladstone's proposals for the future government of Ireland, and that they will find a subject in every way worthy of the contemplation of the female mind in the • Substitutes for Butter' Bill? When the question arises whether the Church of England shall be disestablished, are women to leave its fate to be decided by others, while they occupy themselves exclusively, so far as public affairs are concerned, with those matters which Mrs. Chapman accurately describes as a sort of housekeeping on a large