The Position of Women in New Countries

IF there is one thing on which new countries, like the United States and Australia, justly pride themselves, it is on having removed the disabilities still attaching to women in the most civilized states of Europe. But their success in this direction has never been adequately explained by historians. Some say it is due to Christianity, and others that it is the necessary outcome of democracy. Mr. Lecky thinks that the Mariolatry of the Catholic Church and mediæval chivalry revolutionized the male attitude toward women. Yet, though for a short period women officiated as priests in some of the early Christian churches, Catholics never seem to have perceived the tragic irony of a piety that could vent itself at once in wholesale outrage and in simultaneously setting up Madonnas at every street corner as happened in the sack of Antwerp. And mediæval chivalry in its glorification of women from a purely sexual point of view merely gilded the gingerbread.

Mr. Bryce tells us that modern democracy logically compels the modern state to intrust more power to women. But what would Rousseau, the formulator of modern democracy, have said to this ? Switzerland represents probably the purest form of democracy in Europe, but what power have women there ? It is clear that men will never give way until women are in a position to make their own terms. Some writers have even held that polygamy has in some cases improved the position of women, as in Borneo, by diminishing the supply and increasing the demand. Similarly women are so indispensable in pioneering societies that they can enforce their demands there better than anywhere else. They are fewer in number and harder to replace. Hence they can exact a deference and a homage which is not paid to them elsewhere. It is true that they did not get political power in the United States before this century because American society till the Revolution was closely moulded on Old World conventions; but they were ready to step into their new dignities whenever rapid communication, westward pioneering, and the adventurous spirit of a new nationality should break up the bonds of the old colonial communities. Similar causes were at work in Australia, and thus the old countries have been in a manner outstripped by their children. Yet an observer coming from an old country might feel inclined to criticise certain characteristics of the movement which are obviously due to the nature of its origin. “Your women,” he might say, “ have induced the state to do much for improving the ‘ moralities ’ which the Old World state does not. Women naturally dislike offenses against domesticity and against themselves, so your state greatly busies itself in the strict regulation of drink traffic and in the severe punishment of sexual offenses. But are your women inclined to inquire as closely into morality outside all this, or to consider glaring political or industrial abuses in a sufficiently serious light? Money-making interests them more in its results than in its methods. The men, having made great concessions to the consciences of their wives, do not perhaps give too much ear to their own, and public opinion becomes as lax in some matters as it is strict in others. Thus in early Californian days men thought little of manslaughter as compared with horse-stealing ; they were too busy to study the refinements of moral philosophy. In new countries we hear that a municipal dignitary can face the charge of flagrant misdemeanor in public business with much more complacency than the exhumation of some youthful indiscretion. There is as much one-sidedness in leaving the moral code to be entirely settled by the women as there is in Europe where it has been left too much in the hands of the men. Moreover this one-sidedness in the moral sphere may very well be the symptom of one-sidedness in other spheres.” Such a criticism might be hypercritical, but so long as sex exists, men and women will differ in their ideas of conduct, and a just balance ought to be struck between them. It is as perilous to make women the sole arbiters of the public conscience as it is to put one’s soul unreservedly under the authority of a priesthood.