Why Women Do Not Wish the Suffrage

"Woman does not wish to turn aside from her higher work, which is itself the end of life, to devote herself to government, which exists only that this higher work may be done. Can she not do both? No!"

IN 1895 the women of Massachusetts were asked by the state whether they wished the suffrage. Of the 575,000 voting women in the state, only 22,204 cared for it enough to deposit in a ballot box an affirmative answer to this question. That is, in round numbers, less than four per cent wished to vote; about ninety-six per cent were opposed to woman suffrage or indifferent to it. That this expresses fairly well the average sentiment throughout the country can hardly be questioned. There may be some Western states in which the proportion of women who, for one reason or another, desire the suffrage is somewhat larger; on the other hand, there are Southern states in which it is even less. Certainly few men or women will doubt that at the present time an overwhelming majority of women are either reluctant to accept the ballot or indifferent to it. Why this indifference, this reluctance? This is the question which in this article I seek to answer. Briefly, I believe it is because woman feels, if she does not clearly see, that the question of woman suffrage is more than merely political; that it concerns the nature and structure of society,—the home, the church, the industrial organism, the state, the social fabric. And to a change which involves a revolution in all of these she interposes an inflexible though generally a silent opposition. It is for these silent women—whose voices are not heard in conventions, who write no leaders, deliver no lectures, and visit no legislative assemblies—that I speak; it is their unspoken thought and feeling I wish to interpret.

Open an acorn: in it we find the oak in all its parts,—root, trunk, branches. Look into the home: in it we shall find the state, the church, the army, the industrial organization. As the oak is germinant in the acorn, so society is germinant in the family. Historically, the family is the first organization; biologically it is the origin of all other organizations. Abraham builds an altar, and his wife and children and servants gather about it for the evening sacrifice: the family is the first church. The herds and flocks are driven daily to their feeding grounds by his sons and servants: the family is the first labor organization. He counsels, guides, directs, controls the children and servants; the power of life and death is in his hands: the family is the first government. The brother is carried off in a raid by robber bands. Abraham arms and organizes his servants, pursues the robber bands, conquers and disperses them, and recovers the captive: the family is the first army. Moreover, it is out of the family that society grows. As the cell duplicates itself, and by reduplication the living organism grows, so the family duplicates itself, and by the reduplication of the family the social organism grows. The children of the family come to manhood, and marry the children of other families. Blood unites them; the necessities of warfare, offensive and defensive, unite them; and so the tribe comes into existence. For the united action of this tribe some rule, some authority is necessary; thus tribal, state, national government comes into existence. These families find it for their mutual advantage to engage in separate industries, and exchange the product of their labor: thus barter end trade and the whole industrial organization come into existence. These families thus united by marriage into one tribe, cemented by war in one army, bound together by the necessity of united action in one government, cooperating in one varied industry, find in themselves a common faith and common aspirations, in a word, a common religion, and so the church comes into existence.

Such, very briefly stated, is the development of society as we read it in the complicated history of the past. Historically the family is the first social organization. Organically it contains within itself all the elements of all future organization. Biologically, all future organization has grown out of it, by a process of duplication and interrelationship. In the family, therefore, we find all the elements of a later and more complicated social organization; in the family we may discover written legibly the laws which should determine the structure of society and should regulate its action; the family, rightly understood, will answer our often perplexing questions concerning social organization—whether it is military, political, industrial, or religious.

The first and most patent fact in the family is the difference in the sexes. Out of this difference the family is created; in this difference the family finds its sweet and sacred bond. This difference is not merely physical and incidental. It is also psychical and essential. It inheres in the temperament; it is inbred in the very fibre of the soul; it differentiates the functions; it determines the relation between man and woman; it fixes their mutual service and their mutual obligations. Man is not woman in a different case. Woman is not man inhabiting temporarily a different kind of body. Man is not a rough-and-tumble woman. Woman is not a feeble and pliable man.

This difference in the sexes is the first and fundamental fact in the family; it is therefore the first and fundamental fact in society, which is but a large family, growing out of and produced by the duplication and interrelationship of innumerable families. For it must ever be remembered that as the nature of the cell determines the nature of the organism which grows out of the cell, so the nature of the family determines the nature of society which grows out of the family. And the fundamental fact, without which there could be no family, is the temperamental, inherent, and therefore functional difference between the sexes.

Because their functions are different, all talk of equality or non-equality is but idle words, without a meaning. Only things which have the same nature and fulfill the same function can be said to be superior to or equal with one another. Things which do not fulfill the same function are not thus comparable. For of two functions, each of which is essential to the life of the organism, neither can be said to be superior to the other. One branch may be equal or superior to another branch; but it cannot be said that the root is superior to the branch or the branch to the root. One eye may be superior to another eye, but the eye cannot be said to be superior to the ear, or the ear to the eye. Which is superior, a soldier or a carpenter? It depends upon whether we want a battle fought or a house built. Which is superior, Darwin's Origin of Species or Browning's Saul? This is like asking which is larger,—half an hour or half a yard. Gallantry will bow to woman and say, "You are superior." Egotism will look with lordly air on woman and say, "You are inferior." But neither gallantry nor egotism will be rational. These twain are not identical. They do not duplicate each other. Man is not an inferior woman. Woman is not an inferior man. They are different in nature, in temperament, in function. We cannot destroy this difference if we would; we would not if we could. In preserving it lies the joy of the family; the peace, prosperity, and well-being of society. If man attempts woman's function , he will prove himself but an inferior woman. If woman attempts man's function, she will prove herself but an inferior man. Some masculine women there are; some feminine men there are. These are the monstrosities of Nature. She sometimes produces such monstrosities in other departments,—grotesque variations from and violations of the natural order,—not that we may follow them and attempt to reproduce them, but that we may see by contrast what Nature really is and rejoice the more in her. This distinction between the sexes-inherent, temperamental, functional—is universal and perpetual. It underlies the family, which could not exist if this difference did not exist. It is to be taken account of in all social problems-problems of industrial organization, religious organization, political organization. Should society ever forget it, it would forget the most fundamental fact in the social order, the fact on which is built the whole superstructure of society.

It may not be altogether easy to determine the exact difference in function between the sexes; in minor details those functions may differ in differing civilizations. But speaking broadly, it may be said that the work of battle in all its forms, and all the work that is cognate thereto, belongs to man. Physically and psychically his is the sterner and the stronger sex. His muscles are more steel-like; his heart and his flesh are alike harder; he can give knocks without compunction and receive them without shrinking. In the family, therefore, his it is to go forth and fight the battle with Nature; to compel the reluctant ground to give her riches to his use. It is not for woman to hold the plough, or handle the hoe, or dig in the mine, or fell the forest. The war with Nature is not for her to wage. It is true that savage tribes impose this unfeminine task upon her; true that modern nations which have not yet fully emerged from barbarism continue to do so; true, also, that in the cruel industrial competitions of modern times there is, in some communities, a relapse into this barbarism. But whether it is the Indian squaw digging in the corn patch, or the German Frau holding the plough, or the American wife working the loom in her husband's place,—wherever man puts the toil that is battle and the battle that is toil upon the woman, the law of Nature, that is, the law of God, written in her constitution and in the constitution of the family, is set at naught. This is not to say that her toil is less than man's; but it is different. It may be easier to be the man with the hoe than the woman with the needle; it may be easier to handle the plough than to broil over the cook stove; but these tasks are not the same. The ceaseless toil of the field requires exhaustless energy; the continuous toil of the household requires exhaustless patience. Being a man, the exhaustless patience seems to me at once more difficult and more admirable than the exhaustless energy. But they are not the same.

For like reason it is not woman's function to fight against human foes who threaten the home. She is not called to be a soldier. She is not to be welcomed with the volunteers nor coerced into military service by the draft. It is in vain to recite the story of Joan of Arc; it is in vain to narrate the efforts of the Amazons. The instinct of humanity revolts against the employment of woman as a soldier on the battlefield. No civilized man would wish to lay this duty upon her; no civilized woman would wish to assume it. This is not to say that her courage is not as great as his. Greater is it in some sense,—but it is different. For the Spartan mother to arm her son and send him forth with the injunction to come home bringing his shield or borne upon it, and then wait during the long and weary days to know which way he is to come,—this requires, surely, a heroism not less than his: but it is not the same heroism; higher in some sense it is—but it is not the same. In his courage are pride and combativeness and animal passion, sometimes well-nigh devilish passion; a strange joy in giving and receiving wounds, a music that grows inspiring in the singing of the bullets, an almost brutal indifference to the wounded and the dying all about him, which she could never get and remain woman. True to her woman's nature is Lady Macbeth's prayer,—

                   "Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here."

For until she had been unsexed, until she had ceased to be woman, she could not play the part which her destiny and her ambition assigned to her.

For like reason society exempts woman from police functions. She is not called to be sheriff or constable or night watchman. She bears no truncheon and wears no revolver. She answers not to the summons when peace officers call for the posse comitatus. She is not received into the National Guard when bloody riot fills the city with peril and alarms. Why not? Is she not the equal of man? Is she not as loyal? as law abiding ? as patriotic? as brave? Surely. All of these is she. But it is not her function to protect the state when foreign foes attack it; it is the function of the state to protect her. It is not her function to protect the persons and property of the community against riot; it is man's function to protect her. Here at least the functional difference between the sexes is too plain to be denied, doubted, or ignored. Here at least no man or woman from the claims of equality of character jumps to the illogical conclusion that there is an identity of function.

This much then seems clear to me and I hope it is clear to the reader also:—

First, that the family is the basis of society, from which it grows.

Second, that the basis of the family, and therefore of society, is the difference between the sexes,—a difference which is inherent, temperamental, functional.

Third, that the military function, all its forms and phases, belongs to man that he has no right to thrust it upon woman or to ask her to share it with him; that it is his duty, and his exclusively, to do that battling with the elements which wrests livelihood from a reluctant or resisting Nature, and which is therefore the pre-requisite to all productive industry; and that battling with the enemies of society which compels them to respect its rights, and which is therefore the primary condition of government.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.


Is Minneapolis the Best City in America?

No other place mixes affordability, opportunity, and wealth so well.

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In