Women and Politics
THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB.
THERE is one remarkable quality of her late lamented Majesty Queen Victoria to which no one of her many eulogists appears to me to have done full justice. I refer to her practical sagacity in all civic matters, — her firm grasp of administrative detail, and her broad and often very luminous view of international relations. The London correspondent of the New York Nation called attention, in fitting terms, after her death, to the moral force of her example in loyally accepting, and assisting to define, the comparatively humble position of the sovereign under that new development of the British Constitution which began with the passage of the first Reform Bill, in 1832. He had little to say, on the other hand, of her own rare political intelligence, and the acknowledged worth of the advice, at perplexing crises, of her whom we shall long continue to call the Queen. Yet ever since the far-off days when the girlish Victoria sat, figuratively, at the feet of that invaluable first tutor of hers, Lord Melbourne, every great minister whom the duties of his office brought into intimate relations with her has testified not only to her clear understanding of a constitutional ruler’s business, but to her strong common sense in all matters appertaining to la haute politique. Nor was hers, by any means, the mere flashing intuition, the curious felicity in guessing, which often enables a brilliant woman to hit the truth in matters of which she knows very little. Queen Victoria was not, in any sense of the word, a brilliant woman ; and she was intensely, and, if it be not treason to say it of so plain and candid a nature, almost ostentatiously, a womanly one. But she showed what a single purpose, a high sense of the responsibilities of her place, and the unflinching endurance of drudgery could do, by way of fitting even a moderately endowed woman to grapple vigorously with what are usually considered, in a very special sense, the affairs of men. She was, of course, trained from infancy, and most wisely trained, for her commanding position ; but she never could have acquitted herself in it as bravely and successfully as she did for more than sixty years, if she had not early learned, in the discharge of her duties as the titular head of a strictly limited monarchy, to “ scorn delights,” deprecate all empty pageantry, and literally to “ live laborious days.”
Now, it must, I think, be due in no small degree to the example of her late Majesty that the average Englishwoman of good birth and education has so healthful an interest in English politics, and so thorough an acquaintance both with public events and issues, and the character and record of public men. No one who has seen much of the women of England’s ruling class (I do not refer to the conspicuously fashionable, though it is true also of some of them) will dispute the fact; and it is quite as true of the many who do not desire, and might even disdain any participation in public affairs, beyond the display of colors and the distribution of smiles at a parliamentary election, as of the few who already sit on boards and address assemblies. They are brought up to regard national government as a science, and the one, of all others, which most concerns themselves and the men with whom they are identified ; and they are just as well grounded in its first principles as in the four primary rules of arithmetic. Your average educated Englishwoman can therefore converse upon the questions of the hour, with a great statesman, should he chance to sit next her at dinner, without either feeling or appearing like an affable idiot. Of how many of our own countrywomen, in “ society ” or out of it, can as much be said ? What have they, what have we, as a rule, to offer to the man of responsibility and action but dissembled interest, amateur enthusiasm, ignorant conjectures, and superficial views ? It really seems, at times, as though the women who tease most persistently for the privilege of thrusting a slender finger into the public pie were the most glaringly incompetent to such cookery, — the most broadly and hopelessly ill informed of all.
The only American woman I ever knew who had exactly the sort of political savoir-faire which is possessed by hundreds of strictly domestic Englishwomen was that now almost forgotten writer, whose laughing and laugh-provoking essays brightened so signally the pages of this magazine during the tragic years between 1860 and 1870, — the late Mary Dodge, of Hamilton. She alone read her morning journal, regularly and searchingly, as a wise man reads his: for definite information about all-important things, — if such, by God’s grace, might be discovered or deduced, — and with a supreme disregard of “ woman’s work ” and the Lady’s Column. A near connection of James Blaine, and for many years a member of his Washington household during the congressional season, she owed her training in the theory and practice of Republican government to him; and she was the apt pupil of a very brilliant master. For, however Mr. Blaine may be thought, by many, to have perverted his own great gifts, he had, to a degree unknown in our republic since the days of its first founders, the genius of politics, the “ vision and faculty,” the creative brain like Count Cavour’s. And the clever woman whom he trained, — for his own party ends, if you will, — though prone to paradox and liable to stubborn prejudice, had that knowledge of the cause they both served which in itself is power. She never addressed a public meeting in her life, but her voice was heard in the inner councils of the nation, her wit illumined, her words had a recognized weight.
She exercised, in short, over her small Republican coterie, during three or four administrations, very much the same sort of influence which was wielded on so much more august a scale by the sovereign lady of England. The balance of native ability was on the side of the plebeian Yankee scribbler ; yet both women, in their widely different ways, underwent an arduous preparation for a gratuitous and, comparatively speaking, thankless office, and brought to the conception and exercise of its functions detached minds and a serious and self-denying industry.