On the Fence

“We hope, of course, that American women—and American men—are going to grow better as time goes on; but it will probably be some time before we are perfect, and meanwhile, we will all vote, if any of us do.”


Last spring, when it became apparent that New Hampshire might be the ‘pivotal state’ on the suffrage question, and that consequently my husband’s vote on the Susan B. Anthony amendment in the Senate might count for a great deal more than one vote usually does, I was naturally asked, more than once, my opinion on the subject, especially as the general impression seemed to prevail that my own inclinations had been against equal suffrage rather than for it—and this was true, to a certain extent. But he voted, with my entire approval, for the amendment, and I was immediately the recipient of countless grateful letters from women who imagined that I might, after all, have used such influence as I possessed in urging him to do so. As a matter of fact, I did not. We talked the question over, and agreed, as usual, that the stand he afterwards did take was the stand he ought to take; but I did not try to change his opinion, nor have I changed my own. For frankly—there seems to be no reason, now that the question is settled, or practically so, why I should not be frank—my position is the extremely awkward one of being ‘on the fence,’ and has been for a long time. I should be delighted if someone would rescue me from it.

Most of the stock arguments in favor of suffrage seem to me to be so irrefutably true as to be absolutely bromidie. Women are certainly ‘people.’ They are certainly ‘equal’ to men. If they have property, they certainly ought to have a part in the management of public affairs in the locality where it lies. It is eminently ‘fair,’ for all these reasons, that women should vote if they wish to, and the majority of them apparently do wish to—the majority, that is, of the whole country, not the majority in certain sections of the country where it is still unpopular. And, though they are still untrained in politics, there seems to be no reason who they should not acquire experience, and develop talents along these lines; for so far they have proved that they can do anything that men can do, and do it well. Anyone unconvinced of this before the late war must be certain—even if reluctantly certain—of it now.

Nor can there be any question—any intelligent question—as to whether they ‘have time’ to vote. It does not take long to go to the polls. The poorest and most ignorant woman—for poor and ignorant women unfortunately do exist—can pile her dishes in the sink, and give the baby a dose of paregoric, and run down the street for half an hour. The richest and most frivolous woman—for these, quite as unfortunately, exist, too—can step into her limousine, and be back again at No. 930 Golden Avenue with scarcely an interruption of a rubber of bridge or a luncheon engagement. And all the women in between these two extremes—who, thank Heaven, exist, too—can crowd one more thing into their already crowded day if they wish or need to.

As to one of the stock arguments against suffrage, — that some of its advocates have not behaved with dignity and good sense, — it is so silly that it ought to carry no weight at all. It is, of course, true. Suffragists—and anti-suffragists—are human beings, with faults and virtues like other human beings. There are bound to be some among them who do not measure up to the highest standards of conduct and intelligence, and who have done their cause immeasurable harm by violence of speech and action, by rebellion against law and order, by using suffrage as a means of self-advertisement, or, worse still, by combining it with some other doctrine, — free love, for instance, or its direct opposite, — when, in fairness to their sister workers in suffrage who agreed with them not at all on these other points, if for no other reason, they should have confined themselves to the one common interest. But to condemn all suffragists, ninety per cent of whom are sincere and high-minded and ‘righteous altogether’; to say that they are not properly so described, is like saying that all doctors are mercenary, that all lawyers are tricky, that all actresses are immoral. It is untrue. It is stupid. It is wicked.

There is, moreover, one very decided advantage which, it seems to me, suffrage is sure to bring, and that is economic independence for women. Curiously enough, there is much less said about this than about the probable ‘purifying’ of politics, over which I am personally much more skeptical. The states which already have suffrage, even those which have had it for some time, are not noticeably purer than those which have it not, and the reason is so self-evident as to require very little in the world, just as there are all kinds of men. We are not, as a sex, above every sort of reproach, no matter how much idealists—men and women both—would like us to believe that we are. We have faults which are no more attractive than men’s faults, though they are not always the same ones. We hope, of course, that American women—and American men—are going to grow better as time goes on; but it will probably be some time before we are perfect, and meanwhile, we will all vote, if any of us do. The rain will continue to fall upon the just and the unjust, as it has been doing for some ages already, and as it is eminently desirable that it should continue to do.

But all women, good, bad, and indifferent, want money, need money, and ought to have money; and so far, many of them—in a good many cases those who need it and deserve it most—have not had their fair share of it. A man is responsible for his wife’s or his daughter’s bills, but he cannot be compelled to give them one cent in actual cash unless he wishes to; and a lamentably large number of husbands and fathers do not wish to. I believe that, even without suffrage, women would have been better treated in this regard, as time went on, than they have been in the past, or than they are at present. A hundred years ago, if a woman with property married, the property all became her husband’s. This unjust law, like many others, has been changed—by men. And the recent war has proved a great eye-opener to many wilfully blind males. They have seen their wives and sisters and sweethearts, and even their mothers, — who might perhaps be supposed to carry on old-fashioned traditions better than the younger generation, who ‘couldn’t be trusted to handle money’; who ‘had no business instinct,’ — fare forth without turning a hair, without more ado, in fact, than they formerly made about getting breakfast or putting the baby to bed (for which they were not paid), and bring home very well-filled pay-envelopes once a week. The uses of adversity have indeed proved sweet. These same women, who have always worked hard, harder, in a good many cases, than at their ‘new jobs,’ are never going to be satisfied again to ask for money for carfare and postage-stamps, with the possible chance of being refused. And their husbands and brothers and fathers are becoming aware of the fact—drowsily aware, perhaps, but still aware.

‘My dear,’ Jane is saying to John all over the country, ‘I love you and John Junior, and I love to live at home with you both. I’d rather do it than anything else in the world; much rather than run an elevator at Smithkins and Smithkins. But isn’t my doing it worth anything, in hard cash, to you, or the government or—or somebody?’ (Jane is still a little vague in places.) ‘It seems to me a much more important job than running an elevator—to you and the government and—and everybody; and I got paid for that! Who is going to look after you and John, Junior, if I don’t? And if no one looks after you, and poor helpless men-creatures like you all over the country, what’s going to become of the country? Of course, I shan’t go back to the elevator, even if we don’t have a more satisfactory arrangement than we had before you went across, — that is, I don’t think I shall, — but it isn’t fair, just the same—is it?’

So John begins to do a little thinking drowsily at first, but gradually, with that elevator running up and down in the back of his mind, in a more and more wide-awake manner, and decides that it isn’t fair, and that, moreover, as Jane hints, it’s a very poor risk for him to take to try it. I do not believe for one minute that the wives of to-day are less loving, as some persons try to make us believe, than those of a generation ago; but they are more self-respecting. I do not believe that they consider marriage less sacred, but more so, because they refuse to endure the gross offenses which, alas, sometimes defile it. The old-fashioned woman put up with all kinds of faults—sometimes with all kinds of crimes; she suffered indignities and allowed her children to suffer abuse, because she was afraid of losing her man, that is, her means of support. But she hated and despised and revolted against him while she did it. There is a good deal of truth in a little verse I read somewhere not long ago: —

When the old-fashioned wife, with her husband had strife,
‘I’ll go back to my mother,’ she’d sob;
But the wife of to-day doesn’t argue that way;
She says, ‘I’ll go back to my job.’

John does not want Jane to go back to her job. He is just as much afraid of losing her as his grandmother was afraid of losing his grandfather, and usually with more and with better reasons. It has a very wholesome effect upon him. He behaves, as a rule, much better than his grandfather did to his wife. His morals and his manners are both better. So I think, in time, he would probably find a way to be ‘fair’ to Jane, as I have said before, even if she did not help him make the laws. But he will find it much more quickly when she does. He will not allow himself to be side-tracked by treaties and investigations and other impediments. Jane will see to it that he does not. She will get her ‘fair share’ in a fair length of time.

‘But,’ I can hear dozens of other women saying, ‘my husband—or father—is not like that. You are very unjust to dwell on isolated cases. The average woman has not had to earn her own living; she has been supported and given all the money she could possibly use, and she has been very comfortable just as she was. I’m sure I don’t want to be economically independent. It’s much easier just to charge things, adn to ask for twenty-five dollars or so whenever I need it. I can’t add up accounts to save my life. I would much rather George did all that.’

This is exactly where ‘comfortable’ women have been criminally blind and lazy. The ‘average woman’ to whom Ethel refers—let us call her Ethel for convenience—is the average woman of her acquaintance, which is a very different thing from the average woman of the whole country—of the whole world. The average woman is not, as Ethel likes to think, a ‘nice,’ sheltered, well-educated (?), well-to-do girl, with a pleasant home and indulgent father; whose life is made easy for her at every step; who never worries about anything or works at anything, and who marries, in her early twenties, some nice, intelligent, well-to-do man, whose indulgence simply supplements that of the still indulgent father.

This kind of woman has, indeed, been very ‘comfortable,’ and has received quite as much as she deserved—in many cases a good deal more than she deserved—from the men who have supported her. But she represents a very small  minority. She is not the average woman. Ethel has only to consult statistics, — if she will take that much trouble, — to find this out. Eighty per cent of the married women in the United States do all their own housework, and that represents an amount of labor which Ethel cannot even comprehend. More than half the cases of insanity among women are found in farmers’ wives, the women whose ‘simple, healthful, wholesome life’ Ethel likes to contemplate from a safe distance, — very often from the back seat of her limousine as she rides through ‘the rural districts’—which gives her not the smallest inkling of the long hours, and hard drudgery, and bleak isolation that such a life often contains. Ethel, perhaps, has not read the uncomfortable fact that something like twenty-five thousand women in this country die in childbirth every year for lack of proper medical care; and the still more uncomfortable one that seventy per cent of the operations performed on women are made necessary by the sins of others for which they are in no way to blame. The average woman is exactly the one who does need help, and to whom suffrage will undoubtedly bring help.


‘Well, then,’ says Ethel a little sulkily, and powdering her nose as she speaks, ‘why do you call yourself “on the fence”? You are an out-and-out suffragist. I should think you would have said so long ago.’

No, I am not, and for the very reason though it may sound contradictory—that I agree with Jane and not with Ethel. I fully believe, as I said before, that women can do—if they have to—everything that men can do, and do it well. But it seems to me an overwhelming pity, that, except in emergencies, like war, for instance, they should either have to, or want to. For men cannot do everything that women can do—cannot do it at all, without any question of doing it well. And the things that women only can do seem to me the greatest and most important in the whole world. We need economic independence very much indeed, and the sooner the better; but we need mothers much more. The place to begin to purify politics is not at the polls, but in the nurseries.

‘Give me a child until he is ten,’ the Jesuits used to say; ‘anyone may have him after that—he will be a good Catholic all his life.’ ‘Give me a child until he is ten,’ any woman of to-day ought to be able to say; ‘anyone may have him after that—he will be a good man all his life.’ The exceptions to this rule are so rare as to be negligible, though of course they do exist. Of all the men I have known I cannot recall one whose mother did her level best for him when he was little, who did not turn out well when he grew up. I do not mean by this the mother who paid someone else—even if that person were thoroughly competent and trustworthy—to take care of her sons, but the mother who worked and saved and sacrificed; who played with her children and prayed with them, too; who taught them and talked with them and nursed them when they were sick; who gave them an example and an inspiration which were to last them all their lives, not only through what she told them, but through what she showed them.

Motherhood always has been, and always will be, the greatest factor in civilization. It has never needed to be recognized as such more than it does now. Henry Adams is right when he says in his Education that it is time we stopped regarding sex as a sentiment and recognized it as a force. And the career of motherhood, to be successful, is very nearly all-absorbing. It takes up, in many women’s lives, all their time for a few years, all their best time for a good many years. We cannot, of course, all be mothers, and those of us who cannot would be admirably employed in helping—directly or indirectly—the more fortunate ones who can. Perhaps suffrage will do this. I am not sure that it will not, in the ways that I have mentioned before, and in other ways which its conscientious supporters believe. But I fear that there will be fewer mothers all the time to help! The whole world, feminine as well as masculine, is seething with restlessness and discontent, with the desire for liberty and pleasure and excitement, and this seething will not, for a time at least, tend to make most women content to live quietly in more or less seclusion, while others are rushing headlong into the busy world, especially if they know they are as well, or better, fitted to go than their friends and sisters. They will be too conscious of the sacrifices they feel they are making to be entirely happy in them. I do not mean all women, of course, possibly not even most, but enough to bring about many empty nurseries.

‘The spirit of the times’ is not a mere catchword. It is a vital force. All human beings are imitative, women especially so. ‘Ethel has a new hat, and so I want one too.’ ‘Jane is running an elevator, and so I think I had better do something of the kind myself.’ If Ethel had been going bareheaded, if Jane had been making jam, the speaker would have wanted to do those things instead. And so mothers—or potential mothers—will want to have outside careers, too, if their friends are having them, and their friends will encourage them in this.

My own experience in this regard shows on a very small scale what may easily happen—what constantly does happen—on a large one. No sooner had my first little article—a mere paragraph in an unimportant magazine which has since failed!—appeared in print than countless sincere well-wishers began to urge me to give up all my time to writing, and to ask me if I did not find my family a great drawback in my ‘career.’ I cannot remember that anyone has ever asked me if my career—provided I could attain one of that sort, which of course is doubtful at best—might not be a great drawback to my family! For it is perfectly true that outside careers, conscientiously followed, are, or should be, hardly less all-absorbing than that of motherhood. It is utterly impossible to do justice to both at the same time. No woman who has lived with a man who has become what is popularly called ‘a success’ in business or a profession or politics needs to be told that that success has to be earned, in nine cases out of ten, by letting everything else ‘go by the side.’ He may be fond of all sorts of amusements, have a dozen other interests—he will, practically, have to abandon them, and keep his eyes glued straight ahead on his single-track railway. He may love his wife and children dearly, but they will perforce be a secondary consideration with him. When he has achieved success, he may, of course, relax a little; but by that time the best years of his life are gone. For a man, this usually pays. Success is the biggest thing in his life.

I see no reason why women should not achieve this same kind of success, if they really want it. But will it pay? Is it the best thing in our lives? Perhaps for some women it is. But when it becomes the best thing for the majority, what is to become of the next generation?

‘Why don’t you ask your father that question?’ the wife of an eminently ‘successful’ man told me recently she had said to her sixteen-year-old son when he came to her with a question which she felt a man could perhaps answer better than she could, in spite of the confidence that had always existed between herself and the boy.

‘Oh, I couldn’t,’ he exclaimed quickly; ‘of course, father and I are friends, but we’re not intimate friends!’

If he and his mother had not been intimate friends either, to whom would he have gone with his question? And if it had been unintelligently or untruthfully answered, or if it had not been answered at all, it is easy to fancy what effect this would have had on the boy.

‘But a great many women,’ says Jane, ‘don’t want careers. They want to stay at home just as they always have, being mothers. Why, I wouldn’t give up John, Junior, for anything else in the world! You ought to know that! Or—or John, either. Of course, I want to have my rights, — economic and otherwise, — but I guess I can manage that all right whether I vote or manage that all right whether I vote or not. I got that job running the elevator once, and I can get it again, if I have to. But I want to vote so that I can be an influence for good in the world.’

Well, my dear Jane, aren’t you? And, if you aren’t, why aren’t you? If that is your only argument for suffrage, if you don’t care about a career, if you’re not worrying about economic independence, your theory falls to pieces like a child’s house of cards. Most women deal with individuals far more successfully than they do with masses; their outlook is intensely personal, their perspective is apt to be a little inaccurate. They have, for instance, if they possess strong characters, tremendous power over the men they know. They have very little, except indirectly, over the men they do not know. (I am speaking, of course, now, of the ‘average woman,’ not of the unusually brilliant or highly trained or charming exception who proves the rule.) We have already discussed what a woman can do for her sons, and I believe it is here that her greatest work lies; but she can do much, too, for other women’s sons, supplementing what they have already accomplished, for her brothers, for her friends, for her father, for her lover, for her husband. What she makes of them is like a pebble thrown into a placid pool—it causes an almost endless number of ever-widening circles to form. She does not need to vote with them to do this. She needs only to love them; I mean by this, of course, to love them wisely, and to love them enough.

I know a great many women who during the war were so busy sewing for the Red Cross that they had no time left to devote to the members of their own families who went overseas. I cannot believe that they were the ones who did the most good. We are so proudly conscious—as we have every reason to be, nowadays—of what the women who have gone out of their homes have done, that I think we are apt to forget what the ones who have stayed there have accomplished. I know a woman whose own household demands are very heavy, and who feels—rightly, I believe, in her case—that these should always come first. But when the war began, she grieved, very sincerely, because she seemed to have so little time for the kind of work that most of her friends were doing. She knitted a few sleeveless sweaters after the children were in bed at night; she bought a few small Liberty bonds; she ate no candy or white bread. But that was very little, after all. She saw other women she knew sailing for France as Red Cross nurses or Y.M.C.A. workers, and others efficiently conducting big ‘campaigns’ and ‘drives,’ with a discouraged sense of her own uselessness, of the futility of the small efforts she did make. And still, when the necessary things at home were done, she had no more time left.

Then, unexpectedly, a great source of comfort came to her. A friend of hers, who lived in the same village, had a letter from her brother at a training camp, and brought it to read to the woman who felt she never accomplished anything.

‘We were sitting around last night talking,’ the embryo soldier wrote, ‘about the places we came from. Our captain, who was with us, started it. He is a Southerner, and I remarked that I supposed he had never been in New England. He at once looked as if we were recalling something very pleasant, and said yes, indeed, he once took a canoe trip with a friend down the X river, and camped one night on some beautiful meadows near the village of Y. You can believe I jumped when I heard him speak of home like that. In the morning they found that they were getting pretty short of some necessities, he said, and they decided to go to the nearest house and see if they could buy them. So they walked up over the fields until they came to a big old-fashioned house.

‘“The door was opened,” the captain went on, “by the lady of the house herself. She quite evidently wasn’t a rich woman, and she was very simply dressed; but she was young and gracious and charming for all that. We introduced ourselves,” — the captain was some kind of a professor, nothing eminent, but a good sort, — “and then she invited us to come in, and—perhaps we looked rather hungry—to stay to lunch. She had an agreeable husband—a farmer—and two or three attractive and unusually well-brought-up children. There was no fuss and flurry over ‘unexpected company,’ but the lunch was awfully good, just the same. It was plain to see that she was not only hospitable, but a good house-keeper. Afterwards she gave us everything we could possibly need in the way of provisions, and sent us on our way rejoicing.”

‘Of course, before the captain had got anywhere near that far, I realized that he was talking about Anne Z——. He had described her to a T. But he did a good deal more than describe her.

‘“I’ve thought of that woman so many times since,” he said, “and hoped I’d see her again some time. She’s the kind that does you most good to remember in times like these. It wasn’t only that she took time to be kind to the stranger within her gates. But there was an atmosphere of peacefulness, of serenity and contentment, about her, as well as of usefulness. It made you feel better just to look at her. And she wasn’t exactly pretty either—but she was lovely.”’

‘Bread cast upon the waters coming back again after many days,’ Anne told me afterwards she said to herself when she read that letter. That simple act of courtesy and kindliness meant more to some soldier than all the sweaters she could ever knit, than all the bonds she could every buy. There was never any question for her again as to what her best work was—it was simply to keep her own home fires burning so brightly that they would reflect as far away as France.


Anne does not represent the majority of women. She is not even an average woman—she is far too sheltered, far too happy for that. She has had too many privileges to worry about her rights. She is not silly and selfish like Ethel, not self-reliant and sturdy like Jane. But the fact remains that she is the sort of woman whom most men prefer, whom they love best, think of oftenest, respect most. And however much we may state that it makes no difference what they prefer, we have got to take their likes and dislikes into consideration, if we are to work side by side with them, for a time, at least. Without their coöperation we shall not accomplish much. We are too untrained and untried.

‘I have met several women,’ a very able man said to me once, ‘whose vote I thought would do a great deal of good—and I found they were all anti-suffragists!’ ‘Why is it,’ another—a young merchant—asked me, ‘that when women take up public work, — of course, I see it most in drummers; there are lots of women drummers nowadays; but it applies to anything else just as well, — some of them grow so masculine, and some of them so—cheap? Either way—one is as bad as the other—the bloom seems to get all rubbed off. I suppose it’s inevitable. But I like to think of a woman as something so apart, so clean!

We may exclaim—I know I did—that this is an exaggerated statement, that the bloom doesn’t always get rubbed off; or, if it does, whose fault is it? the woman’s, or that of the men with whom she deals? That, anyway, bloom isn’t important, it’s only pleasant; that one doesn’t need to live apart, to be clean. We may shout to the skies that men who are themselves marvels of efficiency are unreasonable in preferring to sit in front of a fire talking to a woman with a quiet face and a still more quiet voice, who is not, according to their standards efficient at all, rather than seek out one who is; that others who go about sowing wild oats on every highway, expecting to be forgiven whenever they see fit to repent and stop, are unjust when they demand that a woman’s high-walled garden should be fragrant with roses. Perhaps they are unreasonable, perhaps they are unfair (perhaps we are, too, sometimes), but the fact remains. They continue to bow down to the kind of woman whom we call a lady. And lady, as we all know, meant originally ‘giver of bread.’ Not the beggar for anything, not even for that to which she is justly entitled, but the giver of the staff of life; the symbol of the power to give life itself.

It is, then, women like Anne to whom I think we must turn first of all in the new responsibilities that we must face, in the heavier burdens that we must carry until through readjustment, these burdens become lighter perhaps than they have ever been before, if only because it is through women like her that men will be most ready to work with us. If she refuses to work with us, we shall be hardly placed indeed. But, whatever her opinions have been in the past, — whatever they are now, for that matter, — I do not believe she will refuse. Suffrage is coming, and it is coming to stay. It has not been ‘forced’ on any of us. If the women who did not want it are as numerous, or more so, than the ones who did, as many of them claim, then they did not work as hard to prevent its coming as the ones who did want it working to bring it about. They have only themselves to blame that it is here, and the thing to do now is to stop crying over spilled milk, to stop remembering that there is any spilled milk, — or while remembering, to ask themselves who spilled it, — and do the best they can to make it a success.

I am perfectly willing to make a personal matter of this, — to say ‘I’ instead of ‘they,’ — if anyone prefers to have me. I have been an anti-suffragist all my life; I dread the very thought of voting; and yet I have never done anything to prevent the coming of suffrage except once, long ago, to lend my name to a small anti-suffrage society. I know dozens of other women, who, if they would be fair, would admit the same thing. I do not know a single suffragist who has not worked heart and soul for what she wanted and believed she ought to have. Let us be fair. To the victors belong the spoils.

But the glory of the conquered is sometimes a very great glory indeed. Some men have voted for suffrage in a spirit of spite, almost, because they are ‘sick of the whole thing,’ because it is ‘better to let women have what they want peacefully as long as they will get it anyway,’ — exactly as a certain type of man gives in before his wife’s tears, — but neither respecting them because they want it, nor trusting them to use it well after they have got it. It is for Anne to prove to them that they are wrong.

Other men have voted for it in a spirit of fairness, — almost of reverence, — not only believing that we are entitled to it, but believing much more than that, that we can be trusted to do well with this, in addition to the things that we do well already. It is for Anne to prove to them that they are right.

I am not clever enough, I am not far-sighted enough, to know how she can do it. It seems to me, as I have said before, that her arms are full to over-flowing already. That is why I am still ‘on the fence.’ I love best to think of her, too, beside her glowing fire or in her sunny garden, with her children beside her. But I do not feel that it is fair to say that the women who have let their own fires go out, who have neglected their gardens until they were overgrown with weeds, are dragging her out against her will. I am optimistic enough to believe that there are not many such women anyway. I think it is rather the ones who have never been able to own a garden, who have had no wood with which to build their fires, who are calling to her through the few that can give voice to their cry, to come and help them. The average woman, who despises the stupid selfishness of Ethel and quails before the stern efficiency of Jane, turns instinctively to Anne to help her. She has never failed anyone in her life. She will not fail anyone now.