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Meditations on Votes for Women
by Samuel McChord Crothers
There is an illuminating expression that is used now and then -- "When I come to think about it." It is generally used when a controversy is over or an unwelcome truth at last admitted, and there is nothing more to be done about it. A person has had a very decided opinion and has expressed it with great vehemence. All his efforts have proved unavailing and the thing against which he protested has come to pass. Then, in a sudden burst of common sense, he resolves to sit down and think about it.
Why he did not adopt this meditative method in the first place he cannot exactly explain. Perhaps it is because in the struggle for existence man is compelled to be an active rather than a reflective creature. Thought is apt to come in the form of an afterthought. Wisdom is essentially retrospective.
The process of thinking things over in advance would save us from a great many antagonisms. Reflection has a soothing effect upon the mind if it is properly managed. We talk of Time as the great reconciler. This is true only when time is taken for fruitful meditation. The man described in the first Psalm, who was accustomed to meditate on the law of the Lord day and night, must have avoided many irritating conflicts with his neighbors. He had better things to think about. Marcus Aurelius, who was much given to meditation, saw that it was folly to "Caesarize." Most emperors waste a great deal of time in Caesarizing.
Meditation has an advantage over discussion. It takes two to carry on a discussion, whereas any one who is so disposed can meditate. Moreover in a discussion we are limited. We cannot contemplate the whole subject, but we must take one side while our opponent takes the other. We cannot look at the facts as they go about their ordinary business in the actual workaday world. They must be mobilized. They leave their peaceful avocations, hurriedly put on a uniform, and flock to the colors. When we review them we think of nothing but their fighting value.
However conscientiously we choose sides, we must reject or ignore some fact which in other moods we should recognize as having significance. We must sacrifice everything to efficiency. Sometimes we must assume something which is quite doubtful, for the sake of the argument. To change sides is an awkward and perilous manoeuvre, like changing seats in a canoe. In order to preserve the equilibrium of the discussion we must keep our original place.
But in meditation we are free. We can consider one side and then the other without embarrassment. If we change our opinion because the weight of evidence has shifted, there is no one to exult over us and make us ashamed. If we recognize that we have been mistaken in our assumptions, there is no one to say, "I told you so." We quietly make the necessary adjustments to ever-changing reality, and go on with our business of thinking. We are not required to reach any predetermined conclusions. We have no nervous anxiety to catch any particular train of thought, as we are traveling on our own feet, and are willing to put up wherever the night finds us. Hence it is that, while discussions go on with great vigor, and few are convinced except of the righteousness of their own cause, meditation often brings unexpected results. When we meditate we sometimes change our minds. This is a beneficent achievement, for it renders it unnecessary for us to spend all our strength in attempting to change the order of the universe and the whole direction of human progress, in order to get a sense of the fitness of things.
It sometimes happens that by relaxing our minds, and especially our wills, we get at possibilities of harmony between elements which seemed to be in hopeless antagonism. A contemplative attitude allows us to see the general direction in which things are going. On the evening of a national election we are more apt to get the news by staying away from our own party headquarters, where only one kind of news is promulgated.
Few subjects have of late been more vehemently debated than the extension of the right of suffrage to women. It seems to offer peculiar enticements to controversialists. So much can be said for and against it, and so easily. Morever it is a debate which is peculiarly adapted to those of regular habits who do not care to go far afield in search of opponents. It can be carried on uninterruptedly in the home circle.
Persons who love to discuss the different ways in which civilization is about to be ruined, and who evoke the various perils that threaten, are often embarrassed by the difficulty of visualizing the dangers that impend. The Yellow Peril, the Slav Peril, Pan-Germanism, Pan-Islamism, and the rest, are foreign in their nature, and need the historic imagination to realize them. But a citizen who gets the notion that the Woman-Peril threatens to overwhelm all things holy, may see it smiling at him across the tea-table. It is no figment of the imagination that confronts him. And the Peril can always talk back when he cries Avaunt!
But while there is a great amount of serious -- and less serious -- discussion, there seems to be a lack of meditation. There is the strident cry of "Votes for Women!" which is answered by negative voices not always as gentle as one might expect. There are the exaggerations which always accompany partisan discussion.
It would be a counsel of perfection to ask any one to meditate on Votes for Women with the same detachment with which one might meditate on the Passage of Time, the Beauties of Nature, or the Vanity of Human Greatness. But a certain amount of meditation is possible even to the most earnest. Meditation dwells on the obvious, on broad aspects of the subject that always form the common background of every discussion.
There are things so obvious that clever people never mention them: "they go without saying." It is, however, necessary now and then to say them just to remind ourselves that they are still going. Some of these obvious considerations may be suggested as profitable for some leisure hour when we are not anxious to convince any one, but only to clear our minds of prejudices which disquiet us.
That women have existed since the beginning of the human race, and have always taken part in human development.
This is a fact which seems to be ignored rather than contradicted by eager disputants. Yet in reality it is very important and comforting.
In reading certain feministic literature one suffers from a nervous shock, such as comes when the fire-engines rush up to put out a fire in the kitchen stove. In fact there are two shocks -- first, that which comes from the thought that there is a great conflagration, and then that which comes from the discovery that nothing has happened out of the ordinary.
There is an urgency as of some new and unheard-of power that has just come into the world. Heretofore this has been a man's world arranged for his convenience. Now Woman has appeared, open-eyed and armed, and all things are to be changed. Religion, the State, the Family, are to be reorganized according to a strictly feministic plan. If the ultimatum is not at once accepted we may look for that dreadful catastrophe, a sex war.
No wonder that the honest citizen awakened by the loud cry is not in the best of humor. And when he is called opprobrious names, like Victorian and early-Victorian, he is inclined to be surly. It is all so sudden. It appears that all the ideals of womanhood that he has revered are to be overturned and trodden under foot by cohorts of Amazons shouting, "Down with the Home."
Now, the honest citizen loves his home as he loves nothing else, and does not take kindly to the idea that it should be destroyed. There is a certain vagueness about the threats. Just exactly what the new plan is, he does not know. The only thing in the programme of revolutionary Feminism that he can get hold of, and that lies within the sphere of practical politics, is the demand for the ballot. Here is a limited battle-ground where the friends of the Home and of Christian marriage can make a stand. They can put up a stout resistance till they can know what it is all about.
If the home-loving citizen would sit down and think about it, he would realize that this is a false alarm. The entrance of woman into the sphere of human action is no new thing. She has always been here, and has always been influential. Such civilization as we have is largely of her making. If civilization itself is a crime she has been accessory both before and after the fact.
We cannot treat half the human race as an altogether unknown quantity. That women can fight is no new discovery. Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite knew how to wield a hammer for her cause. Let any one who is alarmed at the advent of women in industry meditate on the business woman described in the book of Proverbs.
She seeketh wool and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands ... She bringeth her food from afar. She riseth while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household and a portion to her maidens. She considereth a field, and buyeth it: with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard. She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms. She perceiveth that her merchandise is good ... She layeth her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle ... She maketh herself coverings of tapestry... She maketh fine linen and selleth it; and delivereth girdles unto the merchant.
Having taken over the woolen and flax industry with the business of spinning and weaving, having engaged in agriculture and dealt in merchandise and real estate she superintended the general charities. "She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy." There was nothing left for her husband but to sit at the gate and praise his wife.
Nothing in the modern situation is quite so one-sided as this ancient description of the sphere of women. But somehow men have survived.
I suspect that this bit of Feministic literature represented an ideal that was not always realized. It was the exceptional Hebrew woman rather than the average.
As to the present-day Feminism, we must remember that it represents a literary cult. It is a descriptive term like Realism, or Romanticism, or the Lake Poets.
When you attempt to read the literature of the Futurists you are not alarmed about the future. There is no danger that it will be like that. When the future comes, the present-day Futurists will seem not weird but only quaint. And when you read a Feminist book with its astonishing programme, you need not fear that that is what women will do when they get the vote. You are only reading what one woman thinks they would do if they were all as clever as she is.
You say that you are glad that they are not. You prefer the common sense and domestic feeling of the average women to these literary vagaries. Perhaps you are right. You may be interested in a simple little device by which the opinion of the average woman might from time to time be ascertained.
That while men and women have been a long time on the earth, it does not follow that new types may not be developed from time to time.
Though Feministic theories must not be taken too literally, they are yet suggestive of changes that are taking place. The essential thing is that many women are becoming conscious of what some women have always felt, that some of the limitations which have been accepted as natural are in reality only conventional, and so can be removed.
The only way to determine what is natural and what is conventional is by the method of experiment. By pushing against every barrier women can force those barriers that are artificial to give way. In this struggle for freedom there must necessarily be evoked a challenging spirit which is not very gracious.
In a miracle play a veiled figure is introduced and walks across the stage. It is explained that this is Adam as he goes to be created.
Always among the completed characters that crowd the stage is the inchoate figure of the creature that is on the way to be created. The Old Adam is a well-known character, but the New Adam is an enigma. In each successive generation there is a conversation like this: --
"How do you do, Adam?"
"I do not do. I am not a creature. I am The About-to-be-Created."
"I wonder how you will turn out when you are created?"
"I don't know," growls Adam, "but I do not intend to be like you."
This is ungracious and does not tend to endear the new candidate for existence to those whose self-esteem is wounded. But when the New Adam has been created there is more family resemblance to the Pre-Adamites than he is willing to admit.
The New Woman is inclined to scout all the ideals of womanhood that have gone before. She intends to be absolutely different. This is because she is on her preliminary walk across the stage. After the New Woman has been created the newness will gradually wear off and the ineradicable womanliness will come out. We may be quite sure of that.
That theories are sometimes several sizes too big for their practical applications.
When John Knox was in the thick of his fight for religious, or rather for Presbyterian, freedom, he found that the fiercest opposition came from a few royal women. Margaret continued in the Netherlands the persecution which Isabella of Castile had carried on in Spain. Mary Stuart and her mother were implacable foes of the Presbytery, and Mary Tudor sat on the throne of England.
It was no wonder therefore that the fiery reformer made a sweeping generalization and identified feminine influence with Popery. He remembered the conflict of Elijah against Jezebel, and he blew the First Blast of the Trumpet against the monstrous Regiment of Women.
But before a second blast could be blown 'Bloody Mary' died and Elizabeth came to the throne. Knox was too good a Scotchman to give up a doctrine which he had once promulgated, but on the other hand he was too good a politician to insist on strict construction under the changed circumstances. He remembered that Jezebel was not the only woman mentioned in the Bible. There was Deborah who ruled Israel wisely. Of course Deborah was an exception. Elizabeth was a second Deborah, and therefore a second exception.
The predicament of Knox is that of all eager controversialists. A decent respect for the opinion of mankind induces us to put our contention on some broad grounds which mankind can appreciate. Issues that are in reality local and limited are discussed as if they involved the whole universe. There is always a satisfaction in believing that the stars in their courses are fighting for us. We try to identify the stellar orbits with our plan of campaign.
Suppose the question arises whether it is expedient that women should vote in the state of Connecticut. This is really a finite proposition. But when it becomes a subject of debate it expands into the infinite. It takes on a cosmic character. The biologists, the anthropologists, the physiologists, and the animal psychologists, all are called give expert testimony. Even the botanists take a hand, in that their science also takes cognizance of the differenc between male and female. Dire prophecies are uttered in regard to the race-degeneracy which would follow an unscientific amendment to the constitution of Connecticut.
The trouble with these scientific arguments is that they prove too much. If the analogy of plants and insects and even of the higher mammals, is followed, the female of the species should not vote. Neither should she play bridge, or read a newspaper, or attend church, or play the piano. These activities are all without warrant from sub-human experience. It is doubtful if any of them are particularly good for the health.
The fact is that mankind has broken so many precedents, and taken so many risks, for the sake of moral and intellectual improvements, that it is inclined to go its own way. It asks what is right for human beings under civilized conditions. If animals and savages were not able to live in this way, so much the worse for them. The next step in advance is alway dangerous. It involves a new adjustment, and the exercise of powers that have not been used. But the only thing to do is to meet the conditions as they arise, and keep as cheerful as possible while doing it.
That equal suffrage is not the first step in an impending revolution, but only a necessary adjustment to a revolution that has already happened.
During the last generation some things took place which were really revolutionary. The entrance of women into the colleges and universities, and into business and the professions, marked an advance of great importance. This was a new departure, at least in our modern world. Those who believed in a definite "sphere" for women had reason to be alarmed at this new departure. It involved many social changes. But these changes did not involve political action, and so were quietly acquiesced in.
Now that the revolution has taken place, multitudes of educated women are in influential positions, moulding public sentiment and directing large institutions. All the functions of citizenship they actually exercise except that of voting at certain elections. We no longer find anything amusing in the term "strong-minded" applied to a woman. What are colleges for if not to strengthen the mind!
And when our daughters come back from school and college, where their minds have been strengthened and broadened by modern discipline, they naturally seek to use the power they have acquired. Why not?
That the lawless acts of certain English militants only prove that some women are no wiser than some men.
Some men are fanatics, and so are some women. Fanaticism has always accompanied progress, but this does not prove, as some people imagine, that it is the cause of it. Railroad accidents accompany railroading, but do not add to its profits. From the manager's point of view, a train on the track is worth two in the ditch.
Every cause has had its fanatics, persons who in their zeal are willing to sacrifice all other interests to it without regard to the ordinary demands of justice and good fellowship. They demand "direct action," which usually means action that disregards the rights of neutrals. No one can tell when a fanatical turn may be given to a movement that has gone on peacefully. The question of the right way of administering the Lord's Supper has been the occasion of most cruel wars. The Anabaptists of the sixteenth century held views which most people in these days would think harmless enough, but then they became the occasion of all sorts of anarchistic outbreaks. There are multitudes of law-abiding people who look forward to the second coming of Christ, but in the meantime go quietly about their business. But there was a time when this expectancy took on a militant form. Wild-eyed Fifth Monarchy men proclaimed the reign of King Jesus, and to bring it in by direct action sought to take London and kill the Lord Mayor. Then it was time to call out the train-bands.
Usually these militant outbreaks can be accounted for, less by anything in the nature of the cause which is fought for than by the general temper of the times. They are evidences of a dangerous nervous tension.
We are able to understand the so-called militancy in England better than we could a short time ago. We see its relation to the movement for suffrage to be more or less accidental. Now that a great war has come, we see how feverish was the condition of the peoples who looked forward to it with suppressed passion and vague foreboding.
Not knowing just whom they were to fight, but feeling that fighting was inevitable, they conceived of everything in militant form.
There were to be wars, not only between Slav and Teuton, but between Celt and Saxon, class wars and industrial wars without number. Even the efforts in behalf of the public health were conceived of under warlike imagery. There were wars proclaimed against the fly and the mosquito and the germs of tuberculosis.
Earnest women, perceiving that they had been denied civil rights, and accepting the prevalent philosophy, imagined that when they were breaking windows and destroying works of art and setting fire to unguarded buildings they were making war. lt was supposed to be that appeal to force by which all human rights have been won. Then suddenly, to those who were playing with fire, the great conflagration came. War grim and relentless is upon the world. All make-believe militancies shrink into insignificance.
Those who, carried away by a misleading analogy, thought that the suffrage for women could be obtained by threats, and by sporadic acts of lawlessness, must perceive that their tactics are not now effective. Nations which are fighting for their lives are not likely to be coerced by what are only petty annoyances. When the history of our time comes to be written, militancy will be seen to be a symptom of a disturbed state of the public mind, which preceded the great and terrible war. That women yielded to the nervous strain and for the time lost their balance is not to be wondered at. Men did the same.
That a voter does not vote all the time, but is allowed a number of days off in order to attend to his private business.
This is a consideration that seems to be overlooked by those who insist that if a woman exercises the right of suffrage she must neglect her duties in home. There is a certain force in this argument. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, and we are told that if the conscientious citizen would outwit the machine politician and make good government to prevail he must always be "on the job."
But this counsel of perfection must be interpreted in the light of actual circumstances. The citizen who desires good government must also make his living, and to do this honestly requires considerable effort. There must be a reasonable compromise between public and private duty. The citizen cannot spend all his time voting on every question that comes up, for if he did there would be no one to earn money for taxes. So he makes use of various labor-saving devices, and selects persons to do most of his voting for him. This is the very essence of representative government.
Before representative government was invented, the objection just mentioned held. Popular sovereignty -- which rests on the principle of limited lability -- being unknown, one who exercised sovereignty had to give up all other business.
In the days of the Judges, Jotham shouted from the top of Mount Gerizim a pungent parable. "The trees went forth on a time to anoint a king over them." The useful trees declined the office because it interfered in their proper business. "The olive tree said unto them, 'Should I leave my fatness, wherewith by me they honor God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees?'" The fig tree would not leave his figs, nor the vine his wine "which cheereth God and man."
The representatives of the better elements having refused the nomination, it was offered to the bramble, who enthusiastically accepted, and announced his policy, which was at once to destroy the cedars of Lebanon.
If the trees had formed themselves into a republic instead of accepting a monarchical form of government they might have escaped from their dilemma. They would have planned some way by which the olive tree and the fig tree, while still bearing their proper fruit, might participate in the government of the grove, and safeguard their common interests. They might have no time to "wave to and fro over the trees," but they might do their share in more solid work.
It is along this line that improvements in government have been made. We must have a certain number of persons who give all their time to highly specialized forms of public work, but there is opportunity also for the private citizen to make his influence felt. Government by the people means that the man of science who cannot leave his researches, the scientist who is loyal to his art, the farmer who will not leave his lands untilled in order to talk politics at the village store, all have a chance to influence the policy of their country. If they can find time for nothing else, they can at least vote for the party that comes nearest to their own ideas.
The home-keeping woman's business may make great demands upon her, but the demands are not greater or more insistent than those which come in other businesses in which public-spirited citizens are engaged. Housekeeping is not an absolutely continuous performance, and neither is voting.
That women in expressing their opinions should be allowed to be as modest and unobtrusive as men.
One cannot meditate always, one must sometimes consult the dictionary. The dictionary informs us that the word vote comes from the Latin votum -- a vow, a wish, a prayer. The word suffrage has a similar religious meaning, as is indicated by ecclesiastical usage. The suffrage in connection with the Litany indicates the petition to the Good Lord to hear us.
The vote is therefore a kind of petition; it is an expression of personal desire and preference. In this primary sense there is nothing which the most careful person would object to as unbecoming in a woman. As a matter of fact, women always have expressed their preferences, often in the most decided manner.
But it appears that there is a secondary meaning. A vote is the method agreed upon by which a preference or desire may be expressed, as by voice, show of hands, balls, or ballot. It is to the expression of opinion in this orderly way that objection is made. Here we come to the taboo.
A woman may express her opinion in any way that is personal and obtrusive. She may write for the press, address public meetings, organize parties, canvass from house to house, or preach from the pulpit. She may make herself conspicuous as the advocate of any cause she adopts. In all this she is within her rights.
But one method she must not use -- the secret ballot. It must be remembered that it is the secrecy of the ballot which distinguishes the voting of the present day from that of previous generations. The elections which Dickens describes were noisy affairs. Each elector had to declare his choice before the crowd. It was a trying performance for a quiet man who might find it hard to resist the pressure put upon him.
It was argued that the man who had not the hardihood to stand up and declare his preference in the face of a howling mob, or under the scrutiny of his employer, did not deserve to have his opinion considered. But now it is admitted that the quiet man has his rights that must be safeguarded. He is allowed to express his opinion on public matters in an impersonal way and in absolute privacy. The polling booth is his castle, and no one need know how he marks his Australian ballot.
And it is the secrecy and the impersonal character of it that gives it its power. The one thing which the politician is afraid of is the "silent vote." After the shouting is all over, and after all those who have ostentatiously "stood up to be counted" have been counted, there is anxious waiting for another verdict. What do the quiet stay-at-home people who do no shouting think? The decision of great issues rests with them.
The woman who does not object to ostentatious methods has already ample opportunity to make her opinions known and her influence felt. But there are great numbers of women are thoughtful but who shrink from publicity.
Why should not the quiet stay-at-home women have the same means of expressing themselves which are allowed to quiet stay-at-home men?
Volume 114, No. 4, pp. 538–546