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  • OUR POLICY: AN ADDRESS TO WOMEN CONCERNING THE SUFFRAGE.

Our Policy: an Address to Women Concerning the Suffrage. Cobbe, Frances Power, 1822–1904.
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OUR POLICY:

AN ADDRESS TO WOMEN CONCERNING THE SUFFRAGE.

THERE is an instructive story, told by Herodotus, of an African nation which went to war with the South Wind. The wind had greatly annoyed these Psyllians by drying up their cisterns, so they organized a campaign and set off to attack the enemy at head-quarters—somewhere, I presume, about the Sahara. The army was admirably equipped with all the military engines of those days—swords and spears, darts and javelins, battering rams and catapults. It happened that the South Wind did not, however, suffer much from these weapons, but got up one fine morning and blew!—The sands of the desert have lain for a great many ages over those unfortunate Psyllians; and, as Herodotus placidly concludes the story, “The Nasamones possess the territory of those who thus perished.”

It seems to me that we women who have been fighting for the Suffrage with logical arguments—syllogisms, analogies, demonstrations, and reductions-to-the-absurd of our antagonists' position, in short, all the weapons of ratiocinative warfare—have been behaving very much like those poor Psyllians, who imagined that darts, and swords, and catapults would avail agains the Simoon. The obvious truth is, that it is Sentiment we have to contend against, not Reason; Feeling and Prepossession, not intellectual Conviction. Had Logic been the only obstacle in our way, we should long ago have been polling our votes for Parliamentary as well as for Municipal and School Board elections. To those who hold that Property is the thing intended to be represented by the Constitution of England, we have shown that we possess such property. To those who say that Tax-paying and Representation should go together, we have pointed to the tax-gatherers' papers, which, alas! lie on our hall-tables wholly irrespective of the touching fact that we belong to the “protected sex.” Where Intelligence, Education, and freedom from crime are considered enough to confer rights of citizenship, we have remarked that we are quite ready to challenge rivalry in such particulars with those Illiterates for whose exercise of political functions our Senate has taken such exemplary care. Finally, to the ever-recurring charge that we cannot fight, and therefore ought not to vote, we have replied that the logic of the exclusion will be manifest when all the men too weak, too short, or too old for the military standard be likewise disfranchised, and when the actual soldiers of our army are accorded the suffrage.

But, as I began by remarking, it is Sentiment, not Logic, against which we have to struggle; and we shall best do so, I think, by endeavouring to understand and make full allowance for it; and they by steadily working shoulder to shoulder so as to conquer, or rather win it over to our side. There is nothing astonishing or blameworthy in the fact that both men and women (women even more than men), when they first hear of the proposal that political action should be shared by both sexes, are startled and shocked. The wonder would be if, after witnessing women's inaction for thousands of years, the set of our brains were not to see them for ever “suckling fools and chronicling small beer.” The “hereditary transmission of psychical habits,” which Dr. Carpenter talks of, could not fail to leave such an impression; nay, a very short period of seclusion would have page: 4 sufficed to stamp a prejudice against our ever taking part in public affairs. I had myself the misfortune at one time to consult fourteen eminent surgeons concerning a sprained ankle, and, as a result of that gross imprudence, to pass four of the best years of my life as a miserable cripple upon crutches. At the end of that period, when my friends saw me once more walking erect and free, they unanimously exclaimed, “Oh, do not attempt it! For pity's sake do not go into the street!” One of the tenderest of them even added, almost in tears, “I cannot endure to see you going about without your crutches!” Of course I had much difficulty in persuading these kind people that there was really nothing indecent, or even unladylike, in making use of the limbs wherewith nature had provided me. But I succeeded at last; and so I think women in general will eventually succeed in converting the world to the notion that the faculties bestowed on us by Providence—whether they be great or small—ought all to be used. Humanity might very properly be represented by a man who has all his life used his right hand vigorously, but has kept his left in a sling. Whether the limb were originally weaker than the right, and could not have done as good work, it is not easy to say. It is quite certainly now a poor sinister arm, soft, tender, and without muscular force, and so long accustomed to hang from the neck, that when by chance it is set to work it begins to move in a very nervous and unpractised fashion. Nevertheless, unless any one be prepared to maintain that a man is the better for keeping his left hand tied up, and doing his work with his right along, it must, I think, be obvious, that this same Humanity will be considerably more happy, and perform its labour more satisfactorily, with two free arms than one.

To over the public Sentiment now opposed to it, to this great and portentous emanicipation of the Left Hand from its sling, very many different sagacious methods will, I am sure, suggest themselves to my readers. I shall venture merely to offer a few hints, which appear to me most important, regarding, 1st, the things which we women ought to stop doing and being, and, 2ndly, the things we ought to begin to do and to be.

For the first, we decidedly ought (as we can) to cease to be silly. It is very tempting, I understand, to be silly, when silliness is obviously infinitely more attractive than sense, and when a sweet little piece of utter folly is received as “so charming” by all who are privileged to hear it. The lady who said (or perhaps did not say) to one of our eminent senators, that “if she had a vote she would sell it directly to the candidate who would give her a pair of diamond ear-rings”—that sweet young thing (if she ever had existence) was no doubt rewarded by the cordial and gallant approbation of the representative of the masculine gender to whom she confided her elevated views. Nevertheless, her silly speech, and the tens of thousands of speeches in the same vein, made in every ball-room in the kingdom, serve, like so many flakes of snow, to hide the ground. The woman who makes one of them with an ingenious simper, generally has her reward in a rapturous smile; but she has done in that moment of folly all that lay in her power to defer a measure of justice on which hangs, more or less directly, the moral and physical welfare of thousands of women.

Nor is it only, or chiefly, by directly scoffing at the demand for Woman Suffrage that silly women hurt our cause. They hurt us much more by showing themselves unfit for it; by perpetuating the delusion that women are so many kittens—charming to play with, but no more fit to be given political rights than Caligula's horse to be made a Consul. In looking over an American journal devoted to our interests, I have just fallen on three names in succession, which alone seem (very unjustly no doubt) to place the ladies who are willing to bear them through this serious mortal page: 5 life, rather in the kittenish than the womanly category. Think of gravely demanding political influence, and then signing oneself as Miss “Mettie” Wauchop, Miss “Lulu” Wilkinson, or Miss “Vinnie” Ream! Silly Dress is a subject so portentous, and on which I feel so little competent to competen tto speak, that I shall only remark that, while true taste in attire must always add a pleasant prepossession in favour of everything a woman may ask of right or respect, the style which betrays that hours have been devoted to devising it, is absolutely prohibitive of such consideration. The human soul which has been occupied for an entire morning, like one of Pope's sprites, striving— “Invention to bestow, To change a flounce, or add a furbelow,” has, by the hypothesis, neither leisure nor inclination for the graver and nobler pursuits of a rational being.
Another point on which it behoves us women to mend our ways, is the matter of Courage. Men give courage the first place among the virtues, because, without it, there is no guarantee for any other virtue. Assuredly this principle appliess no less to women, who, if they be cowards, may be bullied or coerced into every kind of falsehood and baseness, like Ingoldsby's Duchess of Cleves, when her husband pinched her to make her betray her friends— His hard iron gauntlet, the flesh went an inch in, She didn't mind death, but she couldn't stand pinching. If we cannot “stand pinching,” in more ways than one, slaves we are and slaves we must ever be, whether civil and political rights are given to us or not. When I hear a woman say, with a complacent smile, as if she were announcing an ormanent of her reputation, “O, I am such a coward!” I always feel inclined to say, “Indeed? And, may I ask, do you ever go about boasting—‘O, I am such a liar?’ If you are really a coward you will become a liar any day.” Because we have more sensitive nervous systems than men is no reason why honour, and conscience, and self-respect should not teach us to dominate them. I have no doubt there are some virtues, like Temperance, which cost a man more self-control to exercise than they cost a woman, but we do not hold him exonerated on that account if he fail to exert such self-government. We may pity a woman who cannot stop herself from shrieking if a horse runs away, or a boat tosses on the waves; but assuredly we do not feel she is a person to be trusted with an important charge. On the other hand, the sight of a weak, and perhaps sickly or aged woman, calm, silent, and resolute in the face of peril, is a thing never to be forgotten; and the veriest jackanapes alive who expresses his sublime horror of a “strong-minded female” will bless his good fortune that it is in her carriage or boat he is sitting, and not in that of the shrieking Angelina.

There are many more things which we ought to refrain from doing if we desire to conquer public Sentiment to our side; but I must hasten to the second part of my subject—the things which we Ought to Do for that end. In the first place, we ought to perform our present share in the world's work—the housekeeping, the house-adorning, the child-educating—so as to prove that, before we go a step further, we can and will at least do this. Before Political Economy comes the Economy of the Kitchen, the Larder, and the Coal-cellar; and before the national Budget the household weekly bills. I do not say that the wife, daughter, and sister who manages a house with perfect order and frugality, to the comfort of all in-dwellers, will thereby convince them of her right to the Suffrage; but I am quite sure, that if she neglect so to manage the house, or live in a despicable page: 6 muddle of eternal strife with her servants, she will very completely prove her unfitness for any higher functions.

Next, we should, as much as possible, seek for employments of the kind for which we are suited, but which have been hitherto monopolized by men; and when we have chanced to obtain one, we should take good care not to lose it by fitful, irregular attendance, slovenly work, or any appeal whatever to special consideration as women. Secretaryships, clerkships, telegraph and post-office work, and especially work on the public press (wherein our influence can be direct, as well as indirect), are all objects of concern. I rejoiced much recently to see thirty charming young ladies, the daughters of professional men, at work in the Prudential Insurance Office on Ludgate Hill; and as many more painting porcelain for Messrs. Minton at South Kensington. Mr. Stansfeld's generous appointment of Mrs. Nassau Senior, to report to Government on the condition of pauper girls in London, and that lady's admirable performance of her task, will, I trust, lead ere long to the regular employment, by the State, of Female Inspectors of workhouses, schools, and asylums of all kinds wherein either women or children find refuge. I do not hesitate to say that one woman who does such work as this—even the humblest of those I have named—steadily and thoroughly, does at the same time more for the cause of Woman Suffrage than one who clamours for it most vehemently, but does nothing to prove the fitness of her sex for any public function.

Lastly, we must avail ourselves with the utmost care and conscientiousness of every fragment of Civil Rights which have hitherto been conceded to us. Not the election of a Poor Law Guardian or a parish Churchwarden, still less a municipal election, ought to pass without all the female ratepayers giving their votes, and showing that they do so intelligently, and after due enquiry. If it were possible for us to act in each locality mainly in concert—a committee of the more leisurely obtaining and transmitting the information needed—and everywhere upholding the best candidates, our action would in time come to be felt throughout the country. As to the School Board elections, had they been devised expressly as a prelude and preparation for women's entrance into political life, we could not have had anything better, and we must needs regret that, as yet, they have been very inadequately utilized for such purpose. The ladies who have fought the good fight, and their generous male supporters, deserve from us the heartiest thanks, whether they have or have not proved successful.

The sentiments of men about women must necessarily be formed on the characters of those with whom they associate. If a man's mother be a fool, and his sisters “Girls of the Period,” and if he select for himself the society of ladies of the demi-monde, or of that section of the grand monde which emulates the demi-monde as closely as it dares, it is quite obvious that when the abstract idea “Woman” is suggested to him, he will think of a creature in paint, powder, and chignon, whose breath of life is the admiration of men like himself, and who has no more heart, mind, or conscience than a broomstick. He will tell you, and tell you truly, that a woman—such as he knows the creature—loves nobody in earnest, but is ready to pretend to love anybody who will marry her and make her rich; that she is envious of all her female friends, especially the pretty ones; and that she has neither fixed religious nor political opinions, but only pretends ardently to adopt those which she thinks will commend her to the man whom she desires to attract. When I hear a man talk in a mode which implies that this is, at bottom, his idea of a woman, I always make a private memorandum regarding the quarter whence he must have page: 7 directed his models; just as when I was an habitué of the Roman studios I knew precisely from which old beggarman on the steps of the Trinità one painter had taken his “Jupiter,” and from which damsel of uncertain morals another had copied his “Madonna Immacolata.” Of course I am not afterwards surprised when such a man answers the demand for Woman Suffrage by such laughs as resound through the House of Commons when the subject is broached. “Who would care for a doll, though its ringlets were curled And its petticoats cut in the fashion?” If women be dolls, none but children would play the farce of giving them political rights—in a Baby-house State. The only question is, Are they toys? Or is the opinion of the men who find (or make) them so, the one to be acted upon?

On the other hand, if a man's mother be a wise and loving woman, if his sisters be innocent-hearted and intelligent girls, and if he have associated in manhood from preference with good and sensible women, the notion which he forms of the other sex is absolutely the reverse of all I have described. He knows that a woman is capable of love—motherly, conjugal, sisterly—the purest, most disinterested, and most tender. He knows that, so far from being without fixed opinions, she is apt to hold those which she has early acquired with too rigid and narrow a prejudice; and that the ideas of duty and religion occupy commonly a far larger space in her mind than in those of the majority of his male companions. Lastly, by one curious test, his view of woman may always be discriminated from that of the man who has perferred to associate with the Hetaira order of female. He will know that, instead of being jealous of her associates, the true woman generally carries her loving admiration for the gifts and graces of her female friends to the verge of exaggeration, and glories in their achievements in educational competitions, in literature, and art, with a generous enthusiasm not often found among masculine rivals. He will take, for example, the letters published in Mrs. Somerville's “Recollections,” which passed between that lady and Mrs. Marcet, Miss Edgworth, Miss Berry, and Mrs. Joanna Baillie—each expressing her warm delight in the other's gifts and successes—as precisely the most natural outcome of the feelings of woman of their class for one another.

To a man trained to think thus of women, the proposal that they should begin to take a part in public affairs, may indeed, at first seem startling, even offensive; but it will be because he has thought so highly of them, not so lowly. By degrees, perhaps, he will come to learn that the Niche does not make a Saint, and that Idleness is not the root of all good for women, while it is that of all evil for men. Possibly, at last, he will think as the devout Dr. Upham said at the close of his life—that, “since the coming of Christ, no event has promised so much for the virtue and happiness of the human race as the admission of Woman into a share of public duty.”

Thus then, it seems clear, that if the Sentiment of men is to be won over to the claims of women, it must be by compelling them to recognize as the true ideal of womanhood, not a Phryne or a Ninon, but a Zenobia or a Madame Roland.

The great obstacle to the concession of the claims of women does not lie with men, for even those most opposed to them might be won over. Still less is it with busy women, for it has never happened to me yet to meet a woman who had done much work in the world as a philanthropist, artist, litterateur, or landed proprietor, who did not emphatically endorese the demand for the removal of those political disabilities which she had surely found at one point or another clog her steps. But the great obstacle page: 8 lies with idle women, and nearly exclusively with those for whom nobody dreams of asking for the franchise—for the wives of rich men who have never known a want unsupplied, who have been surrounded by tenderness and homage from their cradles, and have lived all their days like little birds in a downy nest, with nothing to do but to open their beaks and find food dropped into them. It is to the eternal disgrace of such women that, instead of feeling burning shame and indignation at the wrongs and hardships which (as every newspaper shows them) their poorer sistesr undergo, they think that, because the world is easy for them, it is “the best of all possible worlds,” and that nothing ought to be changed in it. Like Marie Antoinette, they tell those who want bread to live on buns; and they extol the advantages of the “chivalry” of men as ample compensation for the lack of every right, without once troubling themselves even to inquire whether the same “chivalrous” gentleman, who hands them so courteously into a carriage, will not rudely brush past the shabby old governess, or call up the poor work-girl's blushes by his insolent address. When the time comes—perhaps in this approaching Session—when the doors of the Constitution will be opened once more to welcome a new and still lower horde of Illiterates, by the assimilation of the County with the Borough Franchise, we shall, doubtless, again hear the oft-repeated assertion, that our legislators would gladly extend the privilege to women if they believed they really desired it; but that all the ladies whose opinions they have asked, vehemently repudiate the proposal. They might as well offer bread to an alderman at the end of a feast, and, because he declines it, refuse it to a pauper begging at the gate.

But, in spite of the rich and idle wives; and in spite of the men who think the archetypal woman was—not a Monkey—but a Doll; in spite of every obstacle, public Sentiment is unquestionably slowly veering round, and it depends on women themselves to bring it altogether to their favour. In this, as in all other things, however, to be is a much more important matter than to do. The walls of modern Jerichos do not fall down by any trumpeting outside, and the more women shriek for the franchise, or for anything else, the less will men be disposed to open their ears to that extremely unpleasant sound. Let us cease to be silly, and affected, and idle. When we are ignorant, let us cultivate the grace of silence; and when we adorn ourselves, let us do so by the light of the “Lamps” of Truth and Simplicity. This achieved in the first place, let us become steady, diligent sharers in the world's work, creeping up by degrees as we prove our fitness for one higher task after another; never for a moment asking or wishing to have allowance made for our defects, or over-estimation of our success “because we are women.” When a sufficient number of us have taken this method of gaining public Sentiment to favour the claims of our sex, the victory will be assured. We may lay by our darts and catapults. The Simoon will blow quite in the opposite direction.

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