Women and War

“Do the American women who prate about the wrong done to womanhood by war ever reflect that it is for wife and child, as well as for home and country, that men are bound to die?”


The only agreeable thing to be recorded in connection with Europe’s sudden and disastrous war is the fact that people stopped talking about women, and began to talk about men. For the past few years, women have persistently occupied the front of the stage, and men have seemed a negligible factor; useful in their imperfect way, but hopelessly unproblematic. Then Austria delivered her ultimatum, Germany marched her armies across a peaceful earth, and men, plain men, became supremely important, as defenders of their imperiled homes. In this swift return to primitive conditions, primitive qualities reasserted their value. France, Belgium, England called to their sons for succor, and the arms of these men were strengthened because they had women to protect.

A casual study of newspapers before and after the proclamation of war is profoundly instructive. Even the illustrated papers and periodicals tell their tale, and spare us the printed page. Pictures of recruits in place of club-women. Pictures of camps in place of convention halls. Pictures of Red Cross nurses bending over hospital beds, in place of militants raiding Buckingham Palace. Pictures of peaceful ladies sewing and knitting for soldiers, in place of formidable committees baiting Mr. Wilson, or pursuing the more elusive Mr. Asquith. Pictures of pitying young girls handing cups of broth and the ever-welcome cigarettes to weary volunteers, in place of suffragists haranguing the mob of Hyde Park. Never was there such a noteworthy illustration of Scott’s archaic line, —

‘O woman! in our hours of ease.’

Never did the simplicities of life so triumphantly efface its complexities.


As the war deepened, and the tale of its devastations and brutalities robbed even the saddened onlooker of all gladness in life, it was natural that women, while faithful to their rôle of ministering angels, should mingle blame with pity. It was also natural, though less pardonable, that their censure should be of that vague order which holds everybody responsible for what somebody has done. Perhaps it was even natural that, confident in their own unproved wisdom and untried efficiency, they should believe and say that, had woman shared the control of civilized governments, the world would now be at peace.

Here we enter the realms of pure conjecture, — realms in which everything can be asserted and denied, nothing proved or disproved. It may be that when women become voters, legislators, and officeholders, they will do the better work for this profound and touching belief in their own perfectibility. Or it may be that a perilous self-confidence will—until corrected by experience—lead them astray. These speculations would be of small concern, were it not that the claim to moral superiority, which women advance without a blush, disposes many of them to ignore the hard conditions under which men struggle, and fail, and struggle again. It narrows their outlook, confuses their judgment, and cheapens their point of view.

When a prominent American feminist said smartly that war is the hysteria of men, she betrayed that lamentable lack of perspective which ignorance can only partly excuse. The heartless shallowness of such a speech commended it to many hearers; but of all generalization it is the least legitimate. There was as little hysteria in the well-ordered, deeply laid plans of Germany as there was in the heroic defense of France and Belgium, or in the slow awakening of England, who took a deal of rousing from her sleep. ‘Most women,’ says Mr. Martin Chaloner, ‘regard politics as a kind of foolishness that men play at.’ But the campaign in Belgium is not to be classed as ‘foolishness’ or ‘hysteria.’ The attack was a crime past all forgiveness; the defense was one of flawless valor. If it be hysterical to prize home and country more than life, then we must rewrite that temperate old axiom which has swayed men’s souls for centuries: ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.’

Mrs. Pethick Lawrence, an Englishwoman and an advanced feminist, has devoted many busy months to persuading American women that the incapacity of men to rule the world is abundantly proven by the present state of Europe, and that the downfall of all that civilization has held dear is due to their arrogant rejection of feminine advice. Women, she asserts, are the ‘natural custodians of the human race’; they have for years ‘sought to find entrance into the councils of the human commonwealth in order that they might there represent the supreme issue of race-preservation and development’; now at last their hands must be free ‘to build up a surer and safer structure of humanity.’

‘To-day it is for men to stand down, and for the women whom they have belittled to take the seat of judgment. No picture, however overdrawn, of woman’s ignorance, error, or folly could exceed in fantastic yet tragic horror the spectacle which male governments are furnishing history to-day. The foundation of the structure of civilization which they have erected in Europe has proved rotten. The edifice, seemingly so secure, has collapsed. The failure of male statecraft in Europe is complete.’

This is a bitter indictment, and one not to be lightly disregarded. But its terms are too general to support an argument. I wish Mrs. Lawrence had told us what the women of Belgium, if emancipated, could have done to save their country; what the women of France, if emancipated, should have done to guard theirs; what the women of Italy, if emancipated, might now do to keep their land at peace to-day, — which is comparatively easy, — and safe from the direful threatenings of to-morrow, — which may prove very hard. Surely she does not think that the men of these nations, or of any nation, all desire war, and that it is the delight of the male animal in combat which has drenched the world in blood.

When we are told that ‘the woman movement and war cannot flourish together,’ or that we should never have witnessed this ‘campaign of race-suicide,’ had women been justly represented, we know of no answer to make. A denial would be as purely hypothetical as is the assertion. But when Mrs. Lawrence ventures to call the war ‘a great dog-fight,’ caused by an ‘obsession of materialism,’ we recognize a smallness of vision and coarseness of speech incompatible with clear thinking, or with that distinction of mind which commands attention and respect. If this militant pacifist sees in the conduct of England and in the conduct of France only the greed of two dogs squabbling with Germany over a bone, which apparently belongs to none of them, we can but hope she is not expressing the views, or illustrating the knowledge, of her countrywomen.

Great events, however lamentable, must be looked at greatly. There is much to be commended in the peace platform indorsed by Mrs. Lawrence and her party. There is much to be commended in the peace platform indorsed by the suffragists in Washington last January. There is everything to be hoped for in the sane and just settlement of national disputes by an international tribunal, which might advantageously include women representatives. The decisions of such a tribunal must, however, be supported by something stronger than sentiment, which has proved singularly inefficacious in the past. It is well that men and women should work hand in hand for peace and for prosperity; but it is not well that women should invite themselves to ‘take the seat of judgment’; or that their arguments would have prevailed when similar arguments, advanced by men, have been unheeded.

What, after all, is the line of reasoning which Mr. Lawrence sincerely believes would have swayed the councils of the nations? After assuring us that ‘the woman’s movement is spiritual and religious, founded on the belief that human life is sacred,’ she continues, ‘As mothers, women would have impressed upon men the cost of human replenishment; as chancellors of the family exchequer, their influence would have been felt in forcing legislators to recognize the direct relation between the plenteousness of the food-supply, endangered and restricted by war, and the health and growth of the rising generation.’

If this is not ‘an obsession of materialism,’ where shall we look for such a quality? The world has not waited until now to learn the cost of war. It was one of the stock arguments urged upon ever conference at The Hague. It was one of the indubitable facts upon which we all relied to keep the nations at peace. And it has failed us, as materialism always does fail us in every great national crisis. Germany knows the cost of war, but she is out for conquest, and the spoils of conquest. She recalls with pleasure the two hundred million pounds exacted from France in 1871; and, hoping for a renewal of such delights, she enjoys a foretaste of bliss by demanding cruel indemnities of French and Flemish towns, and bidding them starve or beg. France knows the cost of war, and is ill prepared to pay it; but her alternative is yielding her soil, and all she holds sacred and dear, to a ruthless invader. Even a nation of Quakers, or, we hope, a nation with women in ‘the seat of judgment,’ would reject submission to such terms. England knows the cost of war, but she also knows the cost of German supremacy. She is at last aware that her national life is at stake. She must fight to preserve it, or sink into insignificance, — her glorious past as much a thing of memory as is the past of Rome.

For all these reasons the nations are spending their money on armaments, and spilling their blood on the battlefield. The sacredness of life is being violated; but is it life, or is it the moral worth of life, which we hold sacred? Life is a thing given us for a few years. Its only value lies in the use we make of it. Lose it we must, and very soon. But honor and duty are for all time. Why do we see a ‘soldiers’ monument’ in nearly every town of every state which fought for the Union? Not because these men lived, but because they died. What must it have cost Mr. Lincoln, whose heart was big enough for much suffering, to order from an exhausted country the last draft of half a million men! And why does an ingenious writer, like Mr. G. Lowes Dickinson, cudgel his brain to find abstract causes for war? The concrete causes which have come within the personal experiences of most of us will answer our rational questionings.


If it were possible that the women of all nations could ever be brought to think and feel alike, — a miracle of unity never vouchsafed to men, — then they might run the world harmoniously. If, for example, a Frau Professor Treitschke, a Frau General von Bernhardi, and the more august spouse of the Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg had succeeded in talking down their martial husbands, and persuading Germany that her duty was to breed in peace within her own frontier, then a Madame Poincaré, a Madame Joffre, a Mrs. Asquith, a Lady Kitchener would have had no difficulty in holding back France and England from war. If the Kaiserin were an autocratic ‘peace-lady,’ ruling her ‘war-lord’ into submission, then the Queen of England and the Queen of Belgium might be drinking tea with her to-day. But unless the good Teuton women had kept their men at home, how could the good French and Belgian women have warded off invasion? And would the good British women have said, ‘We are safe for a little while. Let us stand cringing by, and see injustice done’?

The Woman’s Journal wrote last autumn to a number of more or less distinguished people, and asked them if they thought that woman suffrage would abolish, or would lessen war. As none of these more or less distinguished people had any data upon which to build an opinion, their answers were interesting only as expressing personal views of a singularly untrammeled order. There were those who believed that she had been finally and happily superseded. Miss Jane Addams wrote that more women than men ‘recognize the folly and wickedness of war,’ — an easy generalization. Dr. Stephen S. Wise, an unblinking enthusiast, held that one great gain will follow the tragic conditions of to-day. We shall see the end of ‘man-made government.’ ‘World peace’ and ‘world welfare’ will come with woman’s rule. Miss Mary Johnston was of the opinion that ‘war has still a fascination for most men,’ but that few women feel its seduction.

Miss Johnston’s view is the only one which invites comment, because it is shared by a great many women who have not her excuse. The Long Roll and Cease Firing are pretty grim pictures of battle; but there is a heroic quality about both books; while in that jolly, chivalrous, piratical romance, To Have and to Hold, combat follows combat with dizzy speed and splendor. Miss Johnston’s heroes take so kindly to fighting that she naturally believes in the impelling power of war; but, outside the covers of a historical novel, the martial instinct is not a common one. It exists, and it crops up where we least expect to find it, — in professors of political economy, in doctors who have spent their existence keeping people alive, and in clergymen who preach the religion of the meek. But it is too rare to be a controlling force, and it had little or no place in the hearts of the thousands of men who were marched to their deaths on the battlefields of Poland and Flanders.

It was not the fascination of war that brought the Tyrolean and Bavarian peasants down from their mountain farms. What did these men know or care about Belgrade, or Prussia’s wide ambitions? What to them was ‘the fate-appointed world-task of Germany, under the sacred dynasty of the Hohenzollern’? They were summoned and they obeyed the summons. If the women who talk so glibly about the pleasure men take in fighting had seen these conscripts saying good-bye to their wives and children, and marching off, grave, silent, sad, they might revise their notions of military enthusiasm. Madame Rosika Schwimmer of Budapest, secretary of the International Woman Suffrage Council, said before a convention in Nashville that, had her countrywomen been represented in the government, there would have been no war. The remark was received with an enthusiasm which indicates some ignorance concerning Hungary’s position and power. Bud did Madame Schwimmer’s audience believe that all her countrywomen hated war, and all her countrymen desired it? And how many of these countrymen, did Nashville think, had any choice in the matter?

When we turn from the attack to the defense, from the assailants to the assailed, we find as little room for ‘fascination’ as for peace. The war was carried with incredible vigor and speed to the threshold of French and Belgian homes. It was not precisely a tournament in which battle-loving knights rode prancing and curveting to the fray. It was the older and simpler story of a land swept by invasion, and of men fighting and dying for all that belonged to them on earth. Do the American women who prate about the wrong done to womanhood by war ever reflect that it is for wife and child, as well as for home and country, that men are bound to die? What history do they read which does not teach them this truth, which does not tell it over and over again, to interpret the story of the nations?


In the town of Lexington, Massachusetts, where was shed the first blood spilled in the Revolution, there slept peacefully on the morning of April 19, 1775, a young man named Jonathan Harrington. To him in the early dawn came his widowed mother, who aroused him, saying, ‘Jonathan, Jonathan, wake up! The Regulars are coming, and something must be done.’ The something to be done was plain to this young American, who had never fought, nor seen fighting, in his life. He rose, dressed, took his musket, joined the little group of townsmen on the Common, and fell before the first volley fired by the British soldiers. His wife (he had been married less than a year) ran to the door. He crawled across the Common, bleeding heavily, and died on his threshold at her feet.

It is a very simple incident, and it holds all the elements which make for national life. A cause to support, a man to support it, a woman to call for help when the supreme moment comes. Something like it must have happened over and over again in the blood-soaked land of Belgium. Yet we find women to-day talking and writing as if none of their sex had anything at stake in the defense of their violated homes, as if they had no sacred rights bound up with the sacred rights of men. The National American Woman Suffrage Association sent last autumn an appeal to organized suffragists all over the world, urging them to ‘arise in protest, and show war-crazed men that between the contending armies there stand thousands of women and children who are the innocent victims of man’s unbridled ambitions.’

There was no word in this appeal to indicate that any nobler—and humbler—sentiment than unbridled ambition (which, after all, is for the very few) animates the soldier’s heart. There was no distinction drawn between aggressive and defensive warfare. There was no hint that men bear their full share of the sufferings caused by war. The assumption that women endure all the pain is in accordance with the assumption that men enjoy all the pleasure. To write as though battle were a game, played by men at the expense of women, is childish and irrational. We Americans are happily spared the sight of mangled soldiers lying in undreamed-of agony on the frozen field. We do not see the ghastly ambulance trains jolting along with their load of broken, tortured men; or the hospitals where these wrecks are nursed back to some poor remnant of life, or escape through the merciful gates of death. But we might read of these things; we might visualize them in moments of comfortable leisure, and take shame to our souls at the platform eloquence which so readily assumes that the sorrows of war are hidden in women’s hearts, that the burdens of war are laid upon women’s shoulders, that women are sacrificed in their helplessness to the hatred and the ambitions, the greed and the glory of men.

If by any chance a word of regret is expressed for the soldier who dies for his country, it is always because he is the son of his mother, or the husband of his wife, or the father of his child. He is never permitted an entity of his own. It is curious that the same women who clamor for a recognition of their individual freedom should assume these property rights in men. Dr. Anna Shaw has commented sarcastically upon a habit (one of many bad habits) which she has observed in the unregenerate sex. They speak of their women-kind in terms of relationship; they use the possessive case. They say, ‘my wife,’ ‘my sister,’ ‘my daughter,’ ‘my mother,’ ‘my aunt,’ instead of ‘Jane,’ ‘Susan,’ ‘Mary Ann,’ ‘Mrs. Smith,’ ‘Miss Jones.’ Apparently Dr. Shaw does not hear women say, ‘my husband,’ ‘my brother,’ ‘my son,’ ‘my father,’ ‘my uncle’; or, if she does, this sounds less feudal in her ears. Advanced feminists have protested against the custom of ‘branding a woman at marriage with her husband’s name.’ Even the convenience of such an arrangement fails to excuse its arrogance.

Yet we are bidden to protest against the wickedness of all war, not because men die, but because wives are widowed; not because men slay, but because mothers are childless; not because men do evil, or suffer wrong, but because, in either case, women must share the consequences. For the sake of these women war must be stopped, is the popular clamor, — not unsuggestive of Mr. Winkle imploring the submerged Mr. Pickwick to ‘keep up’ for his sake. After all, the vast majority of men would be only too glad to escape war for their own sakes. They do not covet loss of income and destruction of property. They do not gladly aspire to an armless or legless future. Not one of them really wants a shattered thigh, or a bullet in his abdomen. And, in addition to these (perhaps selfish) considerations, we might do them the justice to remember that they are not destitute of natural affection for their wives and children; but that, on the contrary, the protection of the family is, and has always been, a factor in war. It lent a desperate courage to the Belgian soldier who saw his home destroyed; it nerved the arm of the French soldier who knew his home in peril. The killing of women and children at Scarborough sent a host of tardy volunteers into the British army. It is about the only thing on earth which the least valiant man cannot stomach.

The Turk, not squeamish as a rule,
No special glee betrayed,
And even Mr. Bernard Shaw
Failed to commend the raid.

The outbreak of the war was seized upon as a strong argument for diametrically opposite views. A small and hardy minority kicked up its heels and shouted, ‘Women cannot fight. Why should they control a land they are powerless to defend?’ A large and sentimental majority lifted up its eyes to Heaven, and answered, ‘If women had possessed their rights, all would now be smiling and at peace.’ And neither of these contending factions took any trouble to ascertain and understand the rights and wrongs of the conflict. People who pin their faith to a catchword never feel the necessity of understanding anything.

Here, for example, is a violent pacifist in the Woman’s Journal, who, to the oft-repeated assertion that women, when they have the vote, ‘will compel governments to settle their disputes before an international court of arbitration,’ adds this unwarranted statement: ‘The women of the world have no quarrel with each other. They do not care whether or not Austria maintains its power over the Balkan States; whether or not France obtains revenge for the defeats of 1870; whether Germany or England gains supremacy in the world market.’

This good lady does not seem to know what happened last August. France did not proclaim war upon Germany. Germany proclaimed war upon France. France did not attack, — for revenge, or for any other motive. She was attacked, and is now fighting with her back to the wall in defense of her own soil.

It is possible for an American woman to have no quarrel with any one, no knowledge of what Europe is quarreling about, and no human concern as to which nations win. But she should not think, and she certainly should not say, that the women of the warring lands are equally ignorant, and equally unconcerned. The Servian woman no doubt shared a great deal for the freedom of her hard-pressed, bravely defended country. The French woman cares with her whole soul for the preservation of France. The Belgian woman can hardly be indifferent to the ultimate fate of Belgium. It is even possible that the English and German women are not prepared to clasp each other’s hands and say, ‘We are sisters, and it matters nothing to us whether England or Germany wins.’ The pitfall of the feminist is the belief that the interests of men and women can ever be severed; that what brings suffering to the one can leave the other unscathed.


In the genial reign of Henry the Eighth, a docile Parliament passed, at the desire of the King, an ‘Act to abolish Diversity of Opinion.’ President Wilson, less despotic, has recommended something of the same order as a mental process, a soul-smothering, harmony-preserving, intellectual anodyne. It is called neutrality, and is warranted to shelter us from the storm. Its only outlet is a prayer (conditions not to be mentioned) for peace. But penetrating this self-imposed lethargy, disturbing this tranquil petition, shaming our adroit commercialism, and nullifying even the Pope’s entreaty, — ‘Lay down your arms!’ — comes the echo of words with which we were once familiar, of which we were once proud: ‘With firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.’

This is the potent voice of humanity, never to be silenced while men stay men. The ‘work’ was bloody work; brother slaying brother on the battlefield. The women of the North and the women of the South bore their share of sorrow. They did not clamor that they were victims of men’s unbridled ambition, and they never intimated to one another that the final victory was to them a matter of unconcern. Theirs was the ‘solemn pride’ of sacrifice; and that fine phrase, dedicated by Mr. Lincoln to the woman who had sent five sons to the conflict, is applicable to thousands of mothers to-day. The writer knows a young Frenchman who, when the war broke out, had lived for some years in this country, and hoped to make it his permanent home. To him his mother wrote, ‘My son, your two brothers are at the front. Are you not coming back to fight for France?’ The lad had not meant to go. Perhaps he coveted safety. Perhaps he held life (his life) to be a sacred thing. Perhaps he thought to comfort his mother’s old age. But when the letter came, he sailed on the next steamer. It was a summons that few men, and certainly no Frenchman, could deny.

I do not tell this incident by way of proving that women stand for war. It lends no more weight to an argument than does the idle fact that Femina, the woman’s organ in Paris, asked its readers last winter, ‘What man in history would you have liked to be?’ and the reply of a very large majority was, ‘Napoleon.’ I have seen that incident quoted several times as proof of women’s belligerency; whereas it only goes to show that a profoundly foolish question will, in nine cases out of ten, elicit a profoundly foolish answer. But when the late Justice Brewer said that there never was a time ‘since the beginning of days,’ when women were not opposed to bloodshed, I wondered how he found this out. Certainly not from the pages of history, which afford little or no evidence on the subject. And this may be one reason why feminists are protesting stoutly against the way in which history has been written, — its indiscreet revelations, its disconcerting silences.

At a meeting of the Women’s Political Union in New York last October, Mrs. Gilman boldly urged the rewriting of history on a peace basis: less emphasis placed upon nationalism, less space devoted to wars. At a meeting of the National Municipal League in Baltimore last November, another reformer urged the rewriting of history on a feminine basis; less emphasis placed upon men, less space devoted to their achievements. She complained that President Wilson hardly makes mention of women in his five volumes of American history, and intimated that the ‘knell’ of that kind of narrative had ‘rung.’

The historian of the future will find his task pleasantly simplified. He will be a little like two young Americans whom I once met scampering blithely over southern Europe, and to whom I ventured to say that they covered their ground quickly. ‘No trouble about that,’ answered one of them. ‘We draw the line at churches and galleries, and there’s nothing left to see.’ So, too, the chronicler who eliminates men and war from his pages can move swiftly down the centuries. Even an earnest effort to minimize these factors painfully suggests that blight of my girlhood, Miss Strickland, who forever strove to withdraw her wandering attention from warrior and statesman, and fix it on the trousseau of a queen.

History is, and has always been, hampered by facts. It may ignore some and deny others; but it cannot accommodate itself unreservedly to theories; it cannot be stripped of things evidenced, in favor of things surmised. Perhaps, instead of asking to have it remodeled in our favor, we women might take the trouble to read it as it is: dominated by men, disfigured by conflict, but not altogether ignoble or unprofitable, and always very enlightening. We learn from it, for example, that war may be just, and peace a shameful thing; that ‘firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right,’ implies some knowledge of existing circumstances upon which to base our judgment; and that wife and child, far from being unconsidered trifles, are powerful incentives in defensive warfare, more close, more dear, more impelling than threatened home and country.

We will (fight) for ourselves and a woman, forever and ever. Amen.