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CHAPTER 10: Woman Questions - William Edward Hartpole Lecky, Democracy and Liberty, vol. 2 
Democracy and Liberty, edited and with an Introduction by William Murchison, 2 vols. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981). Vol. 2.
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There is one other class of questions connected with the democratic movement in Europe which has during the last few decades risen rapidly in prominence, and which, though it has been incidentally touched upon in several of the preceding chapters, requires a somewhat fuller examination. I mean the changes which have taken place in the position and education of women, and the rapidly growing movement in favour of conferring on them some considerable share of political power.
There are few more curious facts in the history of opinion than the entire omission in the works of Rousseau and of the writers of his school of all mention of the political rights of women, although the first principle of their philosophy was that the exercise of political power was a natural and inalienable right. According to the ‘Contrat Social’ and the ‘Emile,’ no law could have any binding force unless it had been directly sanctioned by universal suffrage, and the sovereignty of the people was so sacred and inalienable that no contracts, no voluntary resignation, no consideration of expediency, could limit, or suspend, or annul it. Yet the very writers who preached this doctrine as a law of nature were content that one half of the adult population should be absolutely excluded by the other half from all political power, and should have no voice in the laws which regulate their property and, in a great degree, mould their destiny.
Rousseau wrote much, and sometimes with great acuteness, on the distinctions between men and women; but few writers of the eighteenth century asserted more strongly the essentially subordinate position of the latter. ‘Women,’ he said ‘are specially made to please men.’ ‘All their education should be relative to men. To please them, to be useful to them, to make themselves loved and honoured by them, to bring them up when young, to take care of them when grown up, to counsel, to console them, to make their lives agreeable and pleasant—these, in all ages, have been the duties of women, and it is for these duties that they should be educated from infancy.’ Even in their religious beliefs the subordination should be complete. Like Plutarch, Rousseau strongly maintains that a wife should know no religion except that of her husband, and that she should in her turn transmit it to her daughters. ‘Even if this religion is false, the docility with which wife and daughter submit to the order of nature effaces in the sight of God the sin of error. Being incapable of judging for themselves, they ought to accept the decision of their fathers and their husbands like that of the Church.’1 The only important exception to the prevailing tone among the writers of the Revolution was Condorcet, who, in an almost forgotten writing published in 1787, urged that it was impossible to establish the existence of rights of men anterior to social institutions without extending them to women, and that the same reasons by which it was contended that every man should have a voice in the government of his country ought to secure the same privileges for women, or ‘at least for those who were widows or unmarried.’2
The tone of the political writers of the French Revolution is especially remarkable when we remember the vast place which Maria Theresa and Catherine of Russia occupied in the political history of their century; the pre-eminence attained by women in the social, intellectual, and even political life of France since the death of Louis XIV., and the very considerable place which women bore both among the agents and the victims of the Revolution. Few figures in that struggle are more striking than Madame Roland and Charlotte Corday. No writer of the age judged its events with a more eminent sagacity than Madame de Staël. No one concentrated against herself a greater measure of the revolutionary fury than Marie Antoinette, and she was only the most illustrious of the many women who perished on the guillotine. It is related that Napoleon, on one occasion, meeting the widow of Condorcet, who was herself an active Republican, said to her in peremptory tones, ‘Madame, I do not like women to meddle in politics.’ ‘You are right, General,’ she replied, ‘but in a country where it is the custom to cut off the heads of women, it is natural that they should wish to know the reason why.’3
The few attempts, however, that were made during the struggle of the Revolution to claim political rights for women were sternly repressed. All female clubs, societies, and political assemblies were forbidden by the Convention. Women were excluded from the galleries of the hall where it sat; and Chaumette warned them that by entering into politics they abjured their sex and violated the law of nature.
In England, however, Mary Wollstonecraft published her ‘Vindication of the Rights of Women,’ which was intended as a protest against the doctrines of Rousseau, and which gave the first considerable impulse to a discussion on the subject. It was not an able book, and grave faults and frailties that clouded the later life of the authoress did much to discredit it, but in its general tendency it is far from extravagant or revolutionary. Mary Wollstonecraft indulges in none of those attacks on marriage which have sometimes been connected with the movement. She speaks of it with reverence, as ‘the foundation of almost every social virtue.’ She dwells on the transcendent importance of chastity and morality, and on the essentially domestic character of the chief duties of women; and although she desires to assimilate in a great measure the tastes and studies of the two sexes, it is worthy of notice that she expresses a strong antipathy to women who are addicted to field sports. She complains, however, that in England women are taught to look to man alone for their maintenance, and to marriage as the sole end of life; to regard as unfeminine all serious studies that strengthen the understanding, and to cultivate as the chief female charm an exaggerated sensibility and dependence, and a proficiency in arts and qualities that have their empire only in the transient period of youth and passion.
Such a conception of female life was, she maintained, essentially false, and profoundly injurious to both sexes. If women are not educated to be the rational companions of men, they will inevitably impede their progress both in knowledge and virtue. It cannot be an indifferent thing that the education of man in his earliest and most susceptible years is committed to beings whose minds have been artificially cramped and stunted, and that the closest companion of his adult life should be wholly unfitted to sympathise with his more serious aims, studies, and occupations. Frivolity, vanity, dissimulation, superstition, and credulity are the natural fruits of the prevailing type of female education. In married life it throws a dark cloud over those long years when passion has subsided and when time has stolen away the charms that were so unduly prized. It gives the point to the sarcasm of a lively writer who asked ‘what business women turned forty have to do in the world.’
But in the case of the many women who, with narrow means and contracted interests and enfeebled character, are obliged to fight the battle of life alone, the influence of such an education is still more disastrous. Our authoress quotes some curious passages from contemporary moralists showing how feebleness of body as well as of mind was regarded as peculiarly graceful in women; how they were exhorted to abstain from all energetic exercises; to conceal systematically all signs of high spirits or robust health, of serious interests or studies, or independent judgment, lest these things should mar their attraction in the eyes of men; how even female piety was inculcated, on the ground that ‘a fine woman never strikes so deeply as when, composed into pious recollection and possessed with the noblest considerations, she assumes, without knowing it, superior dignity and new graces.’
Against all such teaching Mary Wollstonecraft indignantly revolts. She denies that virtues have a sex, and that those which are supremely precious in one half of the human race should be indifferent in the other; and she especially asks why cowardice, which is deemed shameful in a man, should be thought not only pardonable, but graceful, in a woman. She urges that, on the ground of natural rights, the claim of women to participate in the exercise of political power is irresistible, and that, on the ground of expediency, it is in a high degree important to the community that women should be inspired with a genuine public spirit. She maintains that it is grossly unjust that women, who are already heavily handicapped by Nature in the struggle for existence, should be excluded by law or custom from any honourable employment in which they might earn a livelihood. She considers the profession of a physician peculiarly fitting for them, and she contends that if restrictive laws were abolished women, by a natural process, would gravitate to such employments as were suitable to them. They have at least a right to an education as wide and liberal as that of men. She deplores, with great reason, the too sedentary lives which girls in her time were accustomed to lead, and urges that many of the faults and frailties of women are simply due to the custom of keeping them when young confined in close rooms, with no sufficient exercise, till their muscles are relaxed and their powers of digestion impaired.
These views would not now appear very startling, and it is difficult to realise the indignation they aroused. The political aspect of the case was only touched at rare intervals. Charles Fox referred to it in a speech which I have already had occasion to notice, and which was delivered in the May of 1797. He says that, ‘with the exception of companies, in which the right of voting merely affects property,’ it has never been suggested, ‘in all the theories and projects of the most absurd speculation, that it would be advisable to extend the elective suffrage to the female sex;’ and yet, he says, women have interests to be protected ‘as dear and as important as our own,’ and no one could deny ‘that all the superior classes of the female sex of England must be more capable of exercising the elective suffrage with deliberation and propriety than the uninformed individuals of the lowest class of men to whom the advocates of universal suffrage would extend it.’ What, he asks, is the explanation of this apparent anomaly? It is that the chief end of all healthy political systems is to obtain independent voters, and that by the law of nations, and perhaps of nature, the female sex is dependent on ours.
The subject was more than once touched upon by Bentham. He was struck by the anomaly and injustice of refusing females the small fraction of political power which is implied in a vote, while they have been suffered in nearly all countries to wield the supreme power of the State. At the same time he was of opinion that the prevailing prejudices on the subject were so strong that it was useless to discuss it.4
Bailey, the author of a very able treatise called ‘The Rationale of Political Representation,’ which appeared in 1835, was perhaps the first writer who seriously advocated the extension of the suffrage to women. The two great principles, he maintained, on which the representative system should be founded are, that the end of government is the happiness of the community, comprehending alike male and female, as alike susceptible of pain and pleasure; and that ‘power will be uniformly exercised for the good of the parties subject to it only when it is under their control, or the control of persons who have an identity of interests with themselves.’ From these principles it follows that the exclusion of women could only be defended on one of two grounds. It might be said that their interests were so identical with those of men, that they were sufficiently protected by a masculine suffrage; or it might be said that they were so incompetent to exercise political power for their own good and for the good of the community that the disadvantages arising from any perfect want of identity of interests between the two sexes were more than compensated by the superior discernment which the male sex would bring to this task of government. The first of these arguments, it was answered, was refuted by all history, for nothing is more certain in the past than that the stronger half of the human race have almost universally used their power to oppress the weaker; that in the relations between men and women, as in all other relations, irresponsible power has been continually abused. Much has been done to improve the condition of women, but still ‘the power of man over woman is constantly misemployed; and it may be doubted whether the relation of the sexes to each other will ever be placed on a just and proper footing until they have both their share of control over the enactments of the Legislature.’ Much legislation, no doubt, applies to questions on which the interests of the sexes are identical, ‘but in the actual relative position in which by nature the sexes stand, and must always remain, …separate interests cannot fail to grow up between them, and numerous laws must be directed to the regulation of their respective rights and duties. If the enactment of these laws concerning two parties who have distinct interests is solely under the control of one party, we know the consequence.’
Turning then to the argument from the alleged incompetence of women, Bailey acknowledged that in all existing societies the female sex may, on the whole, be inferior in intelligence to the men, but it is at least equally certain that the higher classes of females are in this respect superior to the lower classes of men. ‘Women, for instance, possessing 500l. a year are generally superior in information to men of 50l. a year, although not perhaps equal to men of 500l. If this is a true statement, the obvious expedient is, not to exclude women, but to place their pecuniary qualification higher. Even the necessity of such a higher qualification may be doubted, inasmuch as, in that peculiar intelligence which is requisite for a judicious choice of persons to fill public offices, females are in some respects greater proficients than men of the same station. Female tact in the discrimination of at least certain qualities of character is universally admitted; and it can scarcely be questioned that such coadjutors would be highly useful in the selection of representatives…. Were a proper method of taking votes adopted, and such other appropriate measures employed to disencumber elections of what at present renders them scenes of rudeness and riot, the exercise of the elective franchise would be compatible with the most scrupulous refinement of feelings and habits.’ If, Bailey says, the framers of the Reform Bill of 1832 had placed women on the same footing as men, they would have removed a grave anomaly and injustice, while they would have very slightly affected the composition of the constituencies. ‘It would have been only widows or single women, keeping house, or possessing the requisite amount of property, that could have been entitled to vote, and it is difficult to conceive the shadow of a reason why they should be debarred from the privilege, except the tumultuous proceedings which are the unruly progeny of unskilful arrangements.’5
To this last argument there is one conclusive answer. It is, that at the time of the Reform Bill of 1832 no class of women demanded the franchise, and an overwhelming majority would have almost certainly disliked it. A long series of causes, however, have greatly altered the conditions of the problem.
One of the most profoundly important changes that have passed over England during the last century has been the destruction by a few great inventions of the old domestic industries which were once carried on in innumerable farmhouses, and the substitution for them of gigantic factories in which tens of thousands of women are daily employed. The effects of this great revolution may be traced in almost every field of English social and political life, and certainly nowhere more clearly than in the lives, the habits, and the interests of women. In some respects no one can doubt that the change has brought with it serious evils. From a moral point of view domestic industries were singularly useful. They left family life unimpaired, and they contributed powerfully to maintain the class of small farmers and yeomen, who form one of the most valuable elements in the community. Thousands of English and perhaps a still larger proportion of Ulster, farms would have been sold and amalgamated in large farms if the scanty earnings of agriculture pursued on a small scale had not been assisted by the industry of the weaver and the spinster. It is extremely desirable that men should not be wholly dependent on a single fluctuating industry—that there should be some subsidiary resource enabling them to tide over periods of depression and adversity. Domestic manufactures were in this respect peculiarly valuable, and they could be pursued when other industries were intermitted. They were the special occupation of the winter days, when the labours of agriculture were very slight.
The work of women, on the whole, probably fluctuates more violently than the work of men. As a rule, no doubt, the true work of a married woman of the labour classes is the care of her home and family, but the amount of labour this will involve varies immensely. It depends largely on the number of her children, on the age of her children, on the health of her children, on the degree in which they are employed in school or business outside the house, on the presence or absence of grown-up daughters to assist her in her task. A life which in one year may be crowded to the utmost, may in the next be most imperfectly filled. Under these circumstances the needle, the distaff, and the handloom became of great importance.
All this class of industry, however, has necessarily perished. It is impossible that the home-made article could compete in the market with the cheap and excellent products of machinery. Even in the sphere of artistic production machinery has so nearly rivalled the hand-made article that it has begun to dominate. It is only within the last few years that the mechanical imitations of lace have attained such perfection that the lace industry, which had so long flourished in innumercottages in the great towns of Belgium, has become almost unprofitable. The clothes of the family of the labouring man may still be often made at home, but even this has greatly diminished with the cheapening of the manufactured article and the diminished habit of domestic industry. Spheres of employment may have increased, but employments of a casual, intermittent, and secondary kind have probably diminished. In a rank somewhat higher than the labouring classes, indeed, the great fields of journalism and literature furnish such employments to many, and, without being pursued as a regular profession, they often turn a bare competence into an easy competence, and add some comforts and luxuries to lives which without them would be very dreary. But in general industry has become more concentrated and exclusive, and female labour has been largely transferred from the home to the factory.
It has been found necessary to apply to these vast organised industries an amount of legislative interference which would have been both impracticable and unnecessary at a time when weaving and spinning were chiefly accomplished at the fireside. Legislative regulation of industry has been in the past, and seems likely to be still more in the future, one of the most important duties of the statesman, and on this question the interest of women and men are by no means identical. Few questions are more difficult than the extent to which it is possible by legislative arrangements to protect women against the profoundly injurious physical effects of excessive labour, without practically excluding them from employments in which they might earn a livelihood, and fatally handicapping them in their competition with men. When two classes differing in physical strength, and differing also in the wages for which they are prepared to work, are in competition, separate interests must necessarily grow up, and when the regulations of labour are made exclusively by the representatives of one class, the other class are very likely to suffer. As we have already seen, in England and in most civilised countries the labour of women is now regulated by special laws, which are far more restrictive than those which are imposed upon men. They are excluded from night work, from underground work, from all factory work for several weeks after confinement, from agricultural gangs which consist partly of men. They are restricted in employments connected with dangerous machinery. Their hours of labour in vast departments of industry are specially limited by law, and they are placed in the same category as ‘young persons’ of the other sex who have not attained the age of maturity.
The arguments which have induced legislators to impose these special restrictions on female labour are very powerful. Whatever controversy there may be about the comparative capacities of the two sexes, there can at least be no doubt that women are physically weaker than men, and that the strain of excessive toil tells upon them more quickly and more fatally. They overwork themselves much more easily, and they are probably much more ready to do so. In some cases they appear to be more susceptible than men to the deleterious effects of unhealthy branches of manufacture. Thus lead poisoning is said to affect women both more easily and at an earlier age than men.6 But, above all, the great fact of maternity clearly separates female from male labour. The fatal effects, both to the mother and to the child, of severe labour in the period immediately preceding and immediately following confinement, and of the withdrawal of the mother from the care of her child during the first weeks of its life, are now fully recognised.
But while there will probably be little difference of opinion, either among men or among women, about the necessity of much legislation of this kind, the question of more or less is one of extreme difficulty and delicacy, and it is one on which adult women may very justly urge that they ought to have a controlling voice. They complain that some parts of the factory legislation have driven them out of employments in which they once earned a livelihood; that they have artificially lowered wages which were already lower than those of men; that they fall with extreme severity on the large class of women who pursue trades which are in general slack and underpaid, but which become very lucrative under the high pressure of the brief fashionable season. They urge that every restriction which limits the efficiency of their work, by preventing them from working as long or as much as men, means their displacement by men in some branch of industry; that this process is going on at a time when, owing to many causes, women are much more frequently obliged than of old to work for their living; and that, under the keen competition of modern industry, ill-judging philanthropy or the jealousy of male competitors may very easily, through such laws, inflict on them irreparable injury.
One considerable body of reformers would drive women altogether out of the factories. Others would extend to adult women the Act which limits the hours of persons under eighteen years of age in shops, with the effect, as a large body of women believe, of replacing female by male workers in one of the fields on which the former most largely depend.7 Scarcely a Parliament passes in which the area of factory legislation is not extended, and in which new special regulations are not imposed on the work of women which tend to handicap them in competition with men. Thus, to take a very recent example, the Factory Act of 1895 brought laundries under the scope of legislation, introduced new limitations to the amount of overtime which women under special circumstances are allowed to work, placed restrictions on their home-work which will probably greatly diminish its amount, and much enlarge the power of the Home Secretary in excluding them from dangerous or insanitary employments.8 And this legislation emanates from a Legislature in the election of which women have no voice, and it is largely due to the votes and the pressure or organisations of working men. Even the inspection of factories has, until very lately, been wholly in the hands of men. It was only in 1893 that, for the first time, two women were appointed factory inspectors.9
In the very remarkable preamble of the edict suppressing the jurandes and maîtrises in France which was drawn up by Turgot in 1776 there is a paragraph condemning the arbitrary restrictions on industries, that ‘repel a sex which, through its weakness, has most wants and fewest resources, and which, by condemning them to an inevitable misery, gives its aid to seduction and debauch.’ In the conditions of modern industry something of this kind, it is said, may very easily follow from the system of special factory legislation. It should never be forgotten that while in most things the interests of men and women are in harmony, in many of the great fields of modern industry they are the keenest rivals and competitors. If machinery has injured women by destroying the domestic industries, it has compensated them by a vast opening of other fields. It has dethroned physical strength, and, by the extreme subdivision and specialisation of industries which it produces, it has even greatly diminished the value of skilled labour. Weak and inexperienced girls by the aid of a machine can and do perform tasks which would once have required strong and highly trained men; and in the great majority of cases they work for lower wages than men. There are exceptions, no doubt, the great cotton industry being the most conspicuous, but in most branches of industry their level of remuneration is distinctly lower. Even in shops, where such a difference seems least natural, the wages of female assistants are estimated at 33 per cent. lower than those of men.10
This difference of wages is due to several causes. It no doubt partly means that male work is usually in reality more efficient and less intermittent than that of women, and that women are more numerous than men, and more limited in the number of their employments. Something also is due to the old tradition of inferiority, which the changed habits of modern times have not wholly overthrown, and something more to the fact that female labourers are much less organised than men, and therefore less capable of making their bargains. These, however, are not the only elements of the problem. The standard of life always profoundly influences the rate of wages, and the cost and standard of living of an unmarried man is usually higher than that of an unmarried woman of the same class. A married working man is naturally the main support of his family, while the wages of a married woman are rather of the nature of a supplement, merely supplying the deficiency in the earnings of her husband.
These causes inevitably affect the comparative wages of the two sexes. But the fact that the general level of female wages is lower than that of men adds greatly to the severity of the competition, and makes it certain that a disposition will arise among male workers to banish female labour from the field, and, if they are unable to do this, at least to diminish its efficiency. The restrictions which factory legislation and trade-union rules impose on men are often a great grievance to some members of the class; but it is at least tolerably certain that they represent the real wishes of a majority of the workers. It is by no means so certain that a corresponding assertion may be truly made about the special restrictions and disabilities put upon women's work.
To say that working men, in advocating increased restrictions on the work of women, are not exclusively actuated by philanthropic motives, but partly also by trade jealousy, is only to attribute to them the ordinary feelings that influence all large bodies of competing men. Very few persons will seriously doubt that motives of this kind entered, in part at least, into the strong opposition shown by the medical profession to the admission of women; and in the so-called working classes they are not concealed. The trade unions which strenuously urge that women should be ‘taken out of the mills’ openly argue that by this means an overstocked market would be relieved and much of the overplus labour reduced.11 The witnesses before the Labour Commission who desired that women's labour in the factories should be still further restricted, while they maintained that such restrictions would be beneficial to women, at the same time ‘frankly admitted that their proposals were based mainly upon desire to get rid of the competition of female labour, which acted so prejudicially upon the men's wages and wellbeing.’12
I have no wish to overstate the case. Women are naturally more prone to advocate State regulations than men. It is by no means certain that, if they had a controlling voice in these matters, they would not desire rather more than less legislative restriction than at present; and only a small proportion of the women who would obtain votes would be connected with factory labour. Nor is the competition between male and female labour at present as acute as in many periods of the past. After many shiftings and vicissitudes the respective domains of men and women, in English industry at least, have become tolerably stationary. Of late years the proportion between the workers of the two sexes has varied but little, and the chief changes in female labour have been a considerable increase in the labour market of the number of middle-class girls, and a considerable diminution of the number of married women.13 But the fact remains that Parliament is more and more interfering in the way of restrictions and regulations with the chief departments of industry, and that its legislation for women is widely different from its legislation for men. Separate and even antagonistic interests of a vital character have arisen, and the case for giving women some voice in legislation has greatly strengthened.
In addition, too, to such questions as the length of a day's work and the legislative regulation of the other conditions of female labour, many purely political questions affect women under the factory system far more than in other days. The market they supply is no longer chiefly a home market, and the enormous foreign and colonial trade, on which the factory system vitally depends, fluctuates with every change of policy. The question of Protection or Free Trade; questions of commercial treaties, of peace and war, of blockades, of the expansion or contraction of the Empire, of the relations of the mother country to her colonies, affect directly and immediately the means of subsistence of tens of thousands. In some branches of factory work, especially in the cotton manufacture, the majority of the workers are women, and more women than men are said to have been thrown out of employment in England by the great Civil War in America.
A change somewhat similar to that which was produced by the factory system is passing over the shopkeeping trade. The steady economical tendency is to substitute what the French call la grande industrie for la petite industrie. It is becoming more and more difficult for the small shop, with its scanty sale, to compete with colossal establishments depending for their success upon rapid returns on a gigantic capital, upon vast sales at small profits. Prices which on a small, slow sale would fail to keep the shopkeeper from the workhouse prove abundantly remunerative when the sale is very large and very rapid, and thus the small shopkeeper is steadily extinguished by being undersold. One monster shop almost monopolises within a large district the supply of some great class of articles. If offers them at a low price and with an immense range of choice; it then proceeds to extend its business by bringing under the same roof the supply of many other wholly different industries; and the convenience of this combination gives it an increased advantage in the competition with the humbler providers of each. The growth of the joint-stock system, especially since the Limited Liability Act of 1862, gives new facilities for the creation of these vast establishments, while steam and the Parcels Post enable them to carry their competition into remote provincial towns and villages. Industry is thus steadily concentrating, and multitudes who in another stage of society would have been independent shopkeepers become salaried subordinates in a vast industrial regiment.
The change is inevitable, for it grows out of irresistible economical causes. It may be, and probably is, on the whole beneficial; but no one can deny that it has most serious drawbacks, and brings in its train a large amount of acute and unmerited suffering. Zola, in one of his truest and most powerful novels, has admirably depicted the desperate and unavailing struggle of the small shopkeeper against the overwhelming pressure of his colossal rival, and no careful observer can fail to notice how seriously this change has revolutionised the conditions of industry. The old paths have been to a great extent broken up. Numbers, after years of steady, honest, continuous labour, have been forced to seek new channels of employment; and the pressure has fallen with the greatest weight on the very class in whose lives and happiness habit and custom have the greatest place. In one important respect it has been especially disadvantageous to women, for it produces a tendency the exact opposite of that which grows out of the spread of machinery. Physical strength counts for much more in the monster shop than in the small shops it replaced. Women have been thus, to a considerable extent, expelled from what seems their peculiar province, and crowds of young men may be seen measuring ribbons or unfolding silks.
The change has greatly strengthened the case for removing as far as possible all artificial legislative restrictions which hamper women in seeking employments. It has altered greatly the number and proportion of women in the old industries, and much has been done, both by legislative enactments and by private efforts, to enlarge their circle. Post-offices, telegraphs, savings banks, and several minor posts in the Civil Service, in municipal bodies, and in railway administration, have been opened to them. They have multiplied greatly in authorship, in the newspaper press, in all the fields of art. The new and growing industry of typewriting, for which their flexible fingers are peculiarly adapted, is chiefly in their hands. A few have found means of livelihood on the platform or in the lecture-room, and a few others in inspectorships and in various somewhat exceptional administrative posts. Attempts have been made, though with no great success, in the Ritualist section of the Anglican Church to revive Sisterhoods on the model of those which in the Middle Ages sheltered and occupied the great majority of unmarried women. In the United States women have been very generally admitted to the profession of the law. There are a considerable number of female advocates, and by a law of 1879 women have been allowed to plead before the Supreme Court. Most European countries have refused to follow this example, though female advocates were for some time admitted in Russia, and though Sweden and Roumania have in this field shown themselves ready to follow the example of America.14
The special aptitude of women for the management of the sick has been far more fully recognised. Nothing is better attested than that, in the power of quick and delicate observation of slight changes—which is at least one of the most essential qualities that are required for the successful treatment of disease—women are, on the whole, superior to men. As nurses they have always been pre-eminent; but in our generation, to the incalculable benefit of both sexes, the profession has been much augmented, and raised by skilful training to a much higher degree of competence. An Act of 1868 for the first time opened pharmacy to women, and after a long struggle they have at last obtained their footing as physicians. The United States had in this field preceded us, and female doctors appear to be both more numerous and more frequently placed in posts of influence than in England. In Great Britain, the University of Edinburgh led the way. In 1874 a special medical school was opened for women in London. In 1876 an Act known as the Russell Gurney Act authorised every recognised medical body to open its doors to women. In the following year they were for the first time allowed to follow clinical lectures in a London hospital. In 1878 a supplemental charter enabled the University of London to grant degrees to women in all its faculties, including medicine. Several other bodies have since followed the example, and up to the close of 1895, 264 women appear to have been placed on the British register as duly qualified medical practitioners.15 It is not probable that female doctors will ever in general practice become very formidable rivals to men, but there are branches of the treatment of women in which their services are likely to be peculiarly acceptable. Exceptional talent in women, as in men, will no doubt be recognised; and very recently a new and vast field has been partly opened among the millions of Indian women who are precluded by their faith, even in times of extreme sickness and suffering, from any contact with a male physician. Should the establishment of female doctors prove successful in carrying the alleviations of science into this vast mass of uncared-for suffering, it would be scarcely possible to over-estimate the benefit it would have conferred upon humanity.
The Anglo-Saxon nations have not been alone in pursuing this path. The University of Zürich deserves a very high place as one of the chief centres of female medical education at an early stage of the movement; France, Switzerland, Belgium, and Italy have all their female doctors; and an Italian lady is now, or was very lately, professor of pathology in the University of Pisa. Russia was at one time eminently distinguished for its liberality towards women, and it admitted not only female doctors, but even female advocates. In the great wave of reaction and persecution, however, that has recently overflowed that country, these concessions have been lost. In 1876 women were excluded by an Imperial order from the profession of advocate, and a few years later they were excluded from all the higher studies in Russia, and no woman was allowed to practise medicine within the empire.16
The teaching profession had at the same time acquired a new importance, and there has been an immense increase in the number of women who are engaged in it, in the level of their competence, and in the salaries they can earn. Remarkable as have been the changes that have been effected in the education of boys, they have been less important than those which have taken place in female education during the closing years of the nineteenth century. Girls have fully shared with boys in the great impulse given to education by the Education Act of 1870; by the establishment of normal schools and art schools, and technical education; by the law for encouraging intermediate education in Ireland; by the improvement of voluntary schools that has resulted from the competition with School-board schools, and from the system of Government inspection and of payment by results. The excellent high schools and the ladies’ colleges established in several parts of the kingdom are giving many thousands of girls of the upper and middle classes an education incomparably better than any which was attainable by their parents, and providing teachers for humbler institutions and for private families utterly unlike the half-trained governesses of the past.
The higher female education in England on a large scale has been, for the first time, systematically organised and seriously and intelligently pursued, and eight out of the ten universities of Great Britain, as well as the Royal University in Ireland, now throw open their examinations and degrees to women. Oxford and Cambridge, which in past ages were so largely endowed by women,17 it is true, still withhold their degrees and their great prizes from them, but few persons believe that this will long be the case. In spite of a strenuous ecclesiastical opposition by such men as Burgon, Liddon, and Pusey, women have already been admitted within the circle of their teaching. The establishment of Hitchin, Girton, Newnham, and Somerville colleges; the opening to women of the great majority of university lectures, of the degree and honour examinations, and of the local examinations instituted by the universities throughout the country; the still more recent system of university extension, and the enourmous development of popular scientific teaching in our great towns, have profoundly affected the knowledge, the acquirements, and the interests of women of the upper and middle classes. Few things in our generation are more remarkable than the facility and rapidity with which the movement for opening the universities to women has triumphed in Great Britain. The difficulties of discipline and the grave moral dangers that were so much feared have nowhere arisen, nor has it been found necessary to introduce any considerable change into university teaching.18
It is a movement which is by no means confined to England. In the Scandinavian countries, in Italy, in Switzerland, in the United States, in the English colonies, universities have been thrown open to women, and strenuous efforts have been made to raise the general level of their education. Sophie Kovalewsky, whose recent autobiography has impressed and fascinated so many readers, was professor of mathematics at the University of Stockholm. French girls were entirely excluded from the educational reforms that were instituted by the Convention and under Napoleon I., and the great Cor-sican always maintained that female education should be of the most rudimentary description. But the laws of 1850 and 1867 established public schools for their primary education in every considerable commune in France, and the law of 1882 established compulsory education for girls. Under Napoleon III. excellent schools for their education in professions were established in Paris, and they were admitted to follow the courses of the Collège de France, and since the fall of the Empire they have been allowed to take university degrees in letters, science, and medicine.19
Germany, until a very recent period, was far behind most countries in the higher education of women, and in Prussia especially all movements for their introduction into the universities and for their recognition as physicians by the State were strenuously opposed. Out of 209 public schools for girls in Prussia, only a few years ago not more than 17 were under the control of lady principals,20 and the opinion of the governing classes and of the universities was strongly hostile to all movements to assimilate either the higher education or the pursuits of the two sexes. The spirit of Prussian legislation was well shown by a law of 1850, which formally provided that women must never be admitted, either as members or as hearers, into any association which had for its object political discussion; and similar laws have existed in Austria and in several German States.21 But in matters of female education Germany also has, during the last three years, made great concessions, and Hungary has entered resolutely on the same path.
It is with England, however, that we are now principally concerned, and in England, I think, the movement has exercised a much wider influence on female life than on the Continent. To me, at least, it seems to be almost wholly good. The married state is certainly not likely to be less pure or less happy because fewer women fly to it in despair as their only means of livelihood and occupation, or because men and women have learnt to sympathise more closely with each other in their graver thoughts and more serious interests. The profound and menacing chasm of opinion that in most continental countries divides educated men from most women, is in England largely mitigated, and a new spirit of enlightened tolerance is growing. The fears that were once expressed, that a highly educated woman would be apt to neglect her home duties, have certainly not been verified by experience, and it is not too much to say that for one woman who neglects those duties through this cause, there are hundreds who neglect them through frivolity or vice. The pedantry and the extravagances of taste and opinion which were once associated with the idea of a learned lady were not unnatural as long as such women found themselves isolated and unsupported, at war with the conventionalities of society, and exposed to a storm of ridicule and disapprobation. When their position ceased to be unusual and unrecognised, these eccentricities rapidly diminished.
Another and graver evil which was to be feared was that the strain of intellectual competition would prove too great for the more delicate organisations of women. But those who have chiefly directed the higher female education in England have been fully sensible of this very real danger, they have laboured strenuously and successfully to prevent it, and they have been powerfully seconded by a great change of manners and taste which has insensibly passed over the nation. The beauty of perfect health and of high spirits has been steadily replacing as the ideal type, the beauty of a sickly delicacy and of weak and tremulous nerves which in the eighteenth century was so much admired, or at least extolled. A more healthy dress, a far larger amount of out-of-door exercise, a far larger share of active amusements, have accompanied the great intellectual progress, and I have heard that very acute observer, Professor Huxley, express a strong opinion that there has been, during the last half-century, a marked rise in the average physique of the women of the upper and middle classes in England. To the vast and increasing multitude of unmarried women, whether they be rich or poor, modern education has been a priceless blessing. However much it may fall short of an ideal standard, it at least sends them into the world far better equipped for the battle of life. It gives them more developed capacities, more serious and varied interests, and that discipline of character which habits of concentrated and continuous labour seldom fail to produce.
Connected with this subject, it is impossible for an attentive observer to fail to notice the great change which has taken place among the upper classes in England within a generation in the received conventionalities relating to the part which it is proper and allowable for a lady to perform in the world. The old Greek idea of the exclusively domestic life of a good woman, which still, in a great measure, prevails in Germany, has in England almost wholly passed away, and numbers of English ladies are as keenly and as actively engaged in public interests as average men. The change runs through all the fields of occupation, amusements, and habits. Some who are still living can remember when it was deemed unbecoming for a lady to walk unattended by a footman in the streets of London, or to drive alone in a hansom cab, or to travel, except under the gravest necessity, without a male companion. What would the generation of Hannah More and of Mrs. Trimmer have thought of an age in which ladies might be found throwing themselves into active outdoor games with all the zest of a schoolboy, mingling with male students at university lectures and examinations, appearing with perfect composure as lecturers and speakers on public platforms, organising and directing great political and social movements, climbing alps, joining keenly in field sports, travelling without any male escort over the civilised globe, studying freely and canvassing openly questions that lie at the very foundations of religion, science, and philosophy? Perhaps the only thing that would surprise them more would be the quiet, inoffensive, ladylike persons who do these things.
The causes and the consequences of this very evident change in manners would open out a wide field of inquiry, on which I can here barely touch. To some it seems to portend nothing less than a great moral revolution in the character of women. That some change is being produced can, I think, not be doubted; but its limits seem to me greatly exaggerated. Nature has established distinctions between men and women that can never be overpassed. In all ages the positions of wife and mother will be the chief positions to which women will aspire, and in all ages they will bring with them the same dominant interests and affections. It is in the finer shadings of character that change is perceptible, some lines of character growing fainter, while others deepen and strengthen. Women will probably remain in the future good and bad, selfish and unselfish, in much the same proportions as at present, but both their good and evil qualities will be somewhat differently mixed. In the modern type of woman we may expect to find more judgment, more self-control, more courage, more independence, a far wider range of sympathies and interests than in the past. She will become less credulous and superstitious, but she will also become a little colder and a little harder. Unselfishness will probably not diminish, but it will spring to a greater degree from recognised duty and acquired habit. The emotional, the impulsive, the romantic elements of character, with their dangers and their charms, will become less prominent. In the better class a strong sense of duty, dominated by an enlightened judgment, will be the guiding influence, and life will be brightened by a larger circle of unselfish interests and of worthy pleasures. In the worse class, blind, unreasoning passion will play a smaller part, but both religious and social restraints will be weaker; the appetite for excitement and novelty generated by an overcrowded life will increase, and worldliness will take at an early age a harder, a more sordid, and a more unlovely form. Few things are less beautiful than the worldliness of eighteen, maintaining amid all the whirl of dissipation and pleasure a steady eye to the main chance, estimating incomes and titles and prospects with all the calculating shrewdness of a sexagenarian lawyer.
It was inevitable that the great changes of education, circumstances, and manners that have taken place among women in the present century should have produced among them a stronger interest in political life. There have, indeed, been many periods when such an interest had before been felt. Addison has described vividly the fierce party spirit that divided female society in the closing years of Anne,22 and at no later period in English history has the course of affairs been so largely modified by the influence of female favourites around the throne. In later days, such figures as Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, or Mrs. Crewe, or Mrs. Macaulay, or Lady Jersey, or Lady Holland, or Miss Martineau, will at once occur to the reader; but the modern female interest in politics has taken a wider scope and somewhat different character, and questions of purely feminine interests have become more prominent.
At a time when the question of female education was rising rapidly into prominence, women could hardly fail to be struck with the fact that a large proportion of the free grammar schools, some of the best endowed educational establishments in England, had been founded in what are called less enlightened ages for teaching ‘the children of freemen;’ for teaching ‘all children’ born in particular parishes; for granting ‘maintenance, education, and training free of expense to poor children;’ and that the benefits of these endowments have in the course of time come to be wholly or almost wholly monopolised by boys.23 At a period when the State has undertaken so largely to subsidise education in all its grades, the claims of colleges and other institutions for female education to Government assistance naturally strengthened.
At a time, too, when a spirit of independence was growing among women, it was impossible that they should not resent the gross legislative injustices and inequalities to which by English law they were subject. Even in the present century it was a possible and by no means an infrequent thing for a vicious or tyrannical husband to debar the most innocent and virtuous mother from all access to her own children. He was at perfect liberty to place them, during their mother's lifetime, under the sole care and control of his mistress. It was not until 1839 that ‘the Custody of Infants’ Act was carried, which enabled the Chancellor or Master of the Rolls to secure to any mother who had not been guilty of adultery the care of her own children up to the age of seven, and free access to them at a later age.24 An Act of 1873 extended this reform by enabling the courts, on special application, to grant a mother the custody of her children to the age of sixteen.25 But with these exceptions, and subject to the right of the Court of Chancery in some extreme cases to interfere, legal power over the child was vested exclusively in the father. Even after his death the mother was not the natural guardian of her children. The father might pass her by, and appoint another guardian, without assigning any reason and without consulting her. Even if he died without making any provision for the guardianship in his will, his nearest male relatives might claim it, to the exclusion of the mother. It was not until 1886 that the mother was recognised by the law of England as the natural guardian of her child after the death of her husband. The power of the father during his lifetime was untouched, and he may, if he pleased, appoint another guardian to act with his wife after his death, but the right of the widow was at least secured.26
In the matter of property the evils to be redressed were not less serious. Before 1857 a man who had abandoned his wife, and left her unaided to support his family, might at any time return to appropriate her earnings and to sell everything she had acquired, and he might again and again desert her, and again and again repeat the process of spoliation. A clause which was inserted in the Act of 1857, which established the Divorce Court, for the first time protected the earnings of a deserted wife, and an Act of 1886 secured her alimony from her husband.27 In all cases, however, except desertion, the power of the husband over his wife's earnings was absolute. It is true that he was bound by law to support her, but only to secure her a bare maintenance; but it is also true that in numerous English homes a husband might be found living in idleness on the earnings of his wife, squandering them against her will, but with the full sanction of English law, in the public-house or the brothel. It was only after a long and strenuous opposition, after much ridicule, after many predictions that any innovation in this field would destroy the sacred institution of the family, that a law was passed in 1870 securing to women from the date of the passing of the Act the legal control of their own earnings.
It left, however, all other female property, with some insignificant exceptions, absolutely unprotected. By the common law the wife possessed nothing of her own. She could not sue or be sued; she could make no contract without her husband's express consent. The personal property bequeathed to her by will after marriage, if it exceeded 2001., was absolutely his; and although she had so far the right of property in her real estate that the husband could not dispose of it without her consent, he had during his lifetime complete control over the income derived from it.28 It is true that the Court of Chancery had devised an expensive system of marriage settlements, by which, in the case of the upper classes, the common law was evaded and women were enabled to secure a real right in their property; but the great body of the middle and lower classes, including those who by industry or accident rose in the course of their married lives from poverty to affluence, remained under the provisions of the common law until the Married Women's Property Act of 1882 gave such women a full right to their own property, abolishing at the same time their privilege of obliging their husbands to pay their debts.29 A few slight remaining grievances relating to contract and bequest were removed in 1893,30 and in this field the rights of married women in England are now amply guaranteed.
It is remarkable that, in a country so little civilised as Russia, women's property had been from the earliest times perfectly secure, and remained unaffected by marriage. In the United States a series of State laws carried between 1848 and 1860 has nearly everywhere amply protected it. On the continent of Europe many different systems prevail. In some countries the position of women is even now little, if at all, better in matters of property than it was in England before 1857, though it is generally possible, by adopting a particular form of marriage contract, to improve it. It is, however, very evident that the general tendency of legislation is towards the system of independence and equality which now exists in England and America. The system of treating all women, married and unmarried, as perpetual minors, who could only perform legal acts under the name of a male guardian, was only abolished in the Scandinavian countries in the third quarter of the present century, and the last vestiges of it in Switzerland only disappeared in 1881. Laws effectually protecting women's earnings were carried in Sweden in 1874, and in Denmark in 1880. In Norway a law of 1888 protected fully the property of married women. The Italian code on questions of married women's property and earnings marks a great advance on the French code, upon which it was chiefly based, and the new civil code in Germany shows with equal clearness the same tendency.31 It is hardly doubtful that, before another generation is past, this great change in the conditions of married life will have become general throughout the civilised world.
In England, in the case of intestacy, there is still some inequality. If a man dies intestate, half his property goes to his wife, if he has no children, and the other half to his blood relations, but if the wife dies intestate the whole goes to her husband. A law of 1890, however, provides that in the former case, if the property does not exceed in value 500l., it shall all go to the wife, and that if it does exceed that sum, she shall have 500l. in addition to her share of the remainder.32 In the Divorce Court also the two sexes are not on the same footing; for while the husband can obtain a divorce by simply proving adultery, the wife is obliged, in addition to adultery, to prove cruelty, or desertion, or some other grave aggravation. A very valuable law was carried in 1878, and greatly enlarged and improved in 1895, granting judicial separation to poor women whose husbands had been guilty of aggravated assault, persistent cruelty, and wilful neglect to provide for the infant children, giving her the legal custody of her children under the age of sixteen, and compelling the husband to pay a weekly sum for their support.33
It is impossible to review these measures without perceiving that women have, till a very recent period, had grave reason to complain of English legislation. In essentially harmonious marriages, which form, it is to be hoped, the great majority, the inequalities I have described are probably unfelt; but it is the special province of the law to protect the weak against possible, though exceptional, abuses. In scarcely any other department of English law has the bias in favour of the rich been so strongly shown. Divorce, as we have already seen, was for a long time only possible for those who could afford the great expense of a private Act of Parliament; and the intervention of the Court of Chancery, by which the most serious wrongs inflicted upon women have been mitigated or redressed, lay beyond the means of the poor. Yet it is in poverty-stricken houses, where drunkenness and violence prevail, that these wrongs are most felt.
Something, no doubt, may be said to qualify the picture. I have spoken of the obligation of the husband to maintain his wife, and of his former obligation to pay her debts. As long as perfect liberty of bequest continues, it is hardly likely that the same amounts of money will be given to the girl as to the boy. The boy perpetuates the name and maintains the family of his parents, while it is the usual lot of the girl to bear another name, to pass into another family, to be supported by another man. The law of compulsory equal division of property after death, which prevails over a great part of Europe, has been of great and special advantage to women, as securing to them an equal inheritance with their brothers; but it is scarcely probable that any less drastic measure would effect this object. No one, however, can fail to see the peculiar hardship with which the great inequalities in the disposition of property by will that are general in England fall on that large number of unmarried women who are by nature and education much less fitted than men to make their way in the world. Nor is it less certain that these inequalities are partly due to the influence of the law. The prevailing ideas of what is just and expedient on such matters are widely different in countries where the law encourages primogeniture and agglomeration of property, and in countries where the system of equal division prevails; and laws of intestacy, though in themselves not very frequently called into action, have a considerable indirect influence in determining the provisions of wills.
In the government of a family, strong arguments may be urged in favour of placing somewhere an ultimate and decisive authority, and it can hardly reside anywhere but in the head. This is the theory of English law, though it is not enforced as stringently as in ancient Rome or under French law. The most serious injustices to mothers of the law of guardianship have been corrected by the Act of 1886. But difficult questions still arise relating to the religious education of the children of mixed marriages. English law, like the law of nearly all European countries, gives the father the absolute power of determining the religious education of his children,34 and that power is so complete that even a promise to his wife before or after marriage cannot affect it. This, it is contended, is the natural prerogative of the head of the family; and it may be added in its defence that women are much more likely than men to be governed by external and sacerdotal influences. The Austrian law on this subject, to which I have already referred, is perhaps more just than our own. At the time when the Concordat was in force it was necessary for all the children of mixed marriages to be educated as Catholics; but when this system was abolished the law did not establish, as in France and England, the absolute authority of the father. It was enacted in 1868, that in mixed marriages the sons should follow the religion of the fathers, and the girls the religion of the mothers, unless the parents agreed on a different arrangement.35 For a long period, as is well known, this was the general custom in England and Scotland in the case of marriages of Protestants with Catholics.
The question of the opening of professions to women is one of great difficulty, and the United States have in this respect gone somewhat further than Great Britain. Public opinion, and the provisions which in England confer on most professions a large measure of self-government, are probably in these fields more formidable obstacles than parliamentary action. In one case the law indirectly, and almost unintentionally, encourages female employment, for the head of a household pays taxes for his male servants, but not for his female ones. This tax was first imposed in 1777, during the war of the American independence; it was much increased during the great French war, when it was deemed a matter of public policy to discourage the useless employment of men, who might be enrolled in the army; and it has been continued in compliance with the prevailing habit of taxing especially those things which are in themselves luxuries, or which in general imply considerable wealth. It does not appear that a desire to encourage female industry had any part in it. The English law of breach of promise of marriage has been sometimes cited as an instance of the favour shown by legislation to women, as it is chiefly used by women against men. It has, undoubtedly, partially redressed some great wrongs, but hardly any law in the Statute Book has been productive of so much scandal and so much extortion, and its repeal would probably be, on the whole, a benefit to public morals.
The strong and growing interest, however, of women in political affairs, and the increased clearness with which the injustices I have enumerated were brought into relief, prepared the way for a movement in favour of female suffrage which has for many years been increasing. Its prominence has been more due to John Stuart Mill than to any other single man. He brought it before the House of Commons as an amendment to the Reform Bill of 1867, and he advocated it powerfully in his treatise on the subjection of women, and incidentally in several other works. The case has been much strengthened by many subsequent measures, which have thrown open the doors of public life to women by giving them votes in a multitude of spheres which are very closely associated with politics. The Municipal Reform Act of 1869 gave them votes in all municipal elections. The Act of 1870 gave them votes for school boards. The Act of 1888 made them voters for the county councils. The Act of 1894, which transformed the whole system of local government and vastly extended the system of local representation, abolished in all its departments the qualification of sex.
A ratepaying woman is thus constantly voting at elections, and often at contested elections, conducted for the most part in much the same way as elections for members of Parliament. She votes for parish and district councils, for county councils, for school boards, and poor-law guardians. In nearly all these elections she may be a candidate as well as a voter. Large numbers of women have stood and large numbers have been chosen for such posts. Many of these elections are fought on purely political and party lines; and a vast proportion of the taxation of the country is now levied by bodies which women's votes contribute to elect, and of which women are frequently members. It is surely not too much to say that under such circumstances the onus probandi rests upon those who refuse to go one step further and admit them to elections for members of Parliament.
Of the reasons that have been alleged against it, several may be dismissed at once as manifestly absurd. It is said that the faculties of women are, on the whole, inferior to those of men; that there has never been a female Shakespeare, or female Handel, or female Raphael. It will hardly, however, be seriously contended that the exercise of such exalted powers is required for the average British voter, or that women have not, both in the past and in the present, shown themselves to be largely endowed with capacities that are very useful in political life.
The degree to which they have been admitted to take part in that life has varied greatly in different ages and countries. In ancient Greece and in ancient Rome they were jealously excluded, both by law and by public opinion, from all political functions. It is a curious fact, that among all the many insane follies of Heliogabalus, scarcely any act appears to have more scandalised his subjects than his conduct in enrolling his mother among the senators. When the emperor was assassinated, she shared his fate, measures were at once taken to prevent any repetition of such a scandal, and the emperor who had introduced it was devoted to the infernal gods.36 It was not until the seat of the Empire had been transferred to Byzantium that supreme power was suffered to fall into a woman's hand.
But outside Greece and Rome the public part played in antiquity by women was very great. The names of Semiramis and Artemisia and Zenobia, of Deborah and Judith and Boadicea, will at once occur to the reader, as well as the picture which Tacitus has drawn of the German women. In more modern days women have in several civilised countries exercised the supreme power of the State, either as sovereigns or as regents, and they have often done so with brilliant success. Very few sovereigns in modern European history can be placed on a level with Isabella the Catholic, or Catherine of Russia, or Maria Theresa of Austria. Two of the longest reigns in English history have been those of queens, and no English reign has been more brilliantly triumphant than that of Elizabeth, or as blameless, prosperous, and constitutional as that under which we live. Even in France, which is the chief European country that has adopted the Salic Law, there have been no less than twenty-four female regencies; and it is a remarkable fact that it was not until the Constituent Assembly at the opening of the Revolution that the regency was restricted by law to males.37
Who can question the administrative powers of the female founders of the great religious orders of the Dark Ages; of the abbesses of many vast and prosperous convents; of the many women who, in more modern times, have presided with eminent skill over great houses, created or managed great industrial undertakings, or wisely governed great charitable organisations? In the countries where charitable institutions have been best managed female influence has always been conspicuous. The many noble portrait groups in which Rembrandt and his followers have immortalised the lady regents of the great Dutch charities are sufficient to show the high estimation in which those ladies were held. In modern England the organising and administrative ability shown by women in poorhouses, hospitals, prisons, and schools, and in countless works of elaborate and far-reaching beneficence, will be disputed by no one who is acquainted with the social history of the century. How many fortunes wasted by negligence or extravagance have been restored by a long minority under female management! And where can we find in a large class a higher level of business habits and capacity than that which all competent observers have recognised in French women of the middle class? Who can doubt that the qualities shown by women in all these spheres are qualities that are eminently useful in public life? Such arguments, however, are superfluous, and seem almost absurd in an age when all idea of making the suffrage dependent on capacity or experience has been virtually abandoned; when it is given to tens of thousands of men drawn from the most ignorant and most dependent classes of the community; and when it is a main object of a considerable party in the State to increase the preponderance of such classes in the government of the Empire.
Another argument which appears to me to deserve very little attention or respect is that derived from the inferiority of women to men in physical force, and from the fact that they are not expected to defend their country in the battle-field. Such an argument might have some force if it were proposed to enfranchise all women and all men; if it were probable that men and women voters would be divided into two distinct and hostile camps; or even if it were advanced in a country where universal military service was exacted. In England, military service is a purely voluntary thing, and only a small fraction of the population participate in it. No one would argue for the disfranchisement of infirm men, and of men who had passed sixty, because they were incapable of active service.
Even if a possible participation in warfare were required as a qualification for voters, this would be no argument against female suffrage. Women, like men, pay increased taxes at every declaration of war, and although they do not, like the German women described by Tacitus, or like the Irish women of the seventh century, accompany their husbands into the battle-field,38 they have borne in all modern wars a distinct and most valuable part. Can it be said that an ordinary private soldier was more useful to the State during the Crimean war than Florence Nightingale and the band of nurses who accompanied her? Amid the manifold failures and abuses that marked the outbreak of the great civil war in America, the admirable organisation and the pre-eminent utility of ‘the Sanitary Commission,’ which was originally planned and worked by women, for the alleviation of the sufferings of the battle-field, were universally recognised; and the same may be said of the Red Cross movement of later years.
But, in truth, war and its concerns form but one of the numerous interests of national life, and there is no real reason why it should have any special connection with the right of voting. It has been said that votes represent force, as a banknote represents gold, and that it is a dangerous thing if preponderant voting power in the nation should be dissociated from preponderant physical force. The argument is a strange one in a country where the great majority of adult men have been for generations excluded from the franchise; and it has no real bearing on the question of female suffrage, for the women whose enfranchisement is asked would form only a small fraction in the electorate, and would certainly be dispersed, divided, and absorbed in existing parties.
It has also been gravely alleged that the whole character of the female sex would be revolutionised, or at least seriously impaired, if they were brought by the suffrage into public life. There is perhaps no subject in which exaggerations so enormous and so grotesque may be found in the writings of considerable men. Considered in itself, the process of voting is now merely that of marking once in five or six years a ballotpaper in a quiet room, and it may be easily accomplished in five minutes. And can it reasonably be said that the time or thought which an average male elector bestows on the formation of his political opinions is such as to interfere in any appreciable degree with the currents of his thoughts, with the tendencies of his character or life? Men write on this subject as if public life and interests formed the main occupation of an ordinary voter. It is said that domestic life should be the one sphere of women. Very many women—especially those to whom the vote would be conceded—have no domestic, or but few domestic, duties to attend to, and are compelled, if they are not wholly frivolous or wholly apathetic, to seek spheres of useful activity beyond their homes. Even a full domestic life is scarcely more absorbing to a woman than professional life to a man. Scarcely any woman is so engrossed in it that she cannot bestow on public affairs an amount of time and intelligence equal to that which is bestowed on it by thousands of masculine voters. Nothing can be more fantastic than to argue as if electors in England were a select body, mainly occupied with political studies and public interests.
It is possible, indeed, to contend that it is unbecoming for women to take any part or interest in political matters; and it is certainly not unreasonable to contend that it is very desirable, for their own sakes, that they should be kept altogether out of the arena. This, as I have said, was the opinion of ancient Greece; it is still the opinion of several continental nations. It has prevailed widely in Great Britain up to the present century, and it is by no means extinct. It is, however, surely too late to oppose such an argument to female suffrage in England. No single feature of our political history during the closing years of the nineteenth century is more conspicuous than the vast and ever-increasing part which women are playing in politics. Very few political organisations in the history of the world have attained in a few years to the dimensions of the Primrose League, and the example set by Conservative women is being ardently followed in the other political parties. Women now frequently appear on the platform, and scarcely an election occurs in which they are not active and successful canvassers. It is idle to contend with accomplished and irrevocable facts. The interest of women in politics, and the participation of women in politics, already exist. The concession of a vote is not needed to make them politicians, though it might make their politics more serious and less irresponsible. Can any one suppose that voting for members of Parliament is a more unfeminine thing than canvassing for them, more fatal to the beauty of the female character than voting for a county councillor, or a poor-law guardian, or a member of a school board?
The introduction of the ballot has also largely affected this question. It has almost taken away from elections their old turbulence, and has thus destroyed a powerful argument against female suffrage. It must, however, be added that this and some other influences have gone far to destroy the force of one argument on the other side. It used to be said, with truth, that the widows of farmers or of small householders were often removed from their homes, or were seriously impeded in their attempt to secure houses, on account of their political incapacity, the landlords and proprietors desiring the influence which the command of many votes could give them. This state of things grew out of a relation and dependency of classes which has now passed away; there are, I imagine, few cases in which it can occur.
Metaphysical arguments about supposed natural rights and about innate, universal, and unchangeable laws of nature, may, I think, on both sides be cast away. The inalienable right which, according to the school of Rousseau, every man possesses to a share of political power, and the irreversible law of nature which pronounces women to be the dependents of men, and unfit for any share in the ruling power, are equally baseless. It may, however, be truly said that where in political institutions great inequalities and anomalies are found, they may at least be expected to justify their existence by some proved utility. It is surely an anomaly that the purchase of a house or a piece of land should confer the right of voting if the purchaser is a male, but not if she is a female; that women who are landed proprietors or heads of great industrial undertakings should be surrounded by dependents and tenants who possess the right of voting through their favour, while the proprietor herself is denuded of all political power; that, in a land where the inseparable connection of taxation and representation has been preached as a cardinal principle of freedom, female taxpayers should have no voice in the disposal of imperial taxation; that women should vote for all the great public interests I have enumerated, but not for the highest public interest of all—a representative in the House of Commons. For such inequalities there are only two possible defences. One is, that women do not desire a vote. The other is, that if they possessed it they would employ it in a way which would be plainly injurious to the nation.
An argument against female suffrage which is often raised, and which has a considerable weight, is that the enfranchisement of women on a rating basis, by excluding married women, would exclude that section of them who are in general the most important. By the natural law of selection wives are, on the whole, the flower of their sex. They acquire an extent and kind of experience much greater than that of other women, and, if their time is more occupied, their judgment is usually much saner, more moderate, and more mature. No careful observer can fail to be struck with the tendency of the married life to repress the extravagances of judgment and feeling to which unmarried women are especially prone. If women were enfranchised on the same conditions as men, it is argued, the great majority of the most competent women, and a large proportion of the most serious female interests, would still remain excluded from representation, while under the lodger franchise the electorate in our great towns would be largely recruited by women of an ‘unfortunate class.’ It is not probable, indeed, that such voters would often care to go to the poll, and there is no reason to believe that they would exercise any distinctive or malignant influence in politics; yet their accession to political life would hardly be regarded, even by the most enthusiastic democrat, as an advantage.
This argument is a serious one, but its force has been considerably exaggerated. Married and unmarried women would not under the proposed measure be sharply or permanently divided. Great numbers of female voters would be constantly passing into the married state. Great numbers of married women would be constantly acquiring by widowhood the right of voting; and it is perfectly in accordance with the principle of basing the franchise on property that married women with independent property of their own should retain their votes in the married state. This would, indeed, be a natural consequence of the full recognition of married women's property by recent legislation. It is a principle which has been adopted in the Local Government Act of 1894, which for the first time permitted married women, provided that husband and wife are not both qualified in respect of the same property, to be placed with unmarried women and widows on the municipal and local register.
The contention that the proposed measure would cast a slur upon the marriage state, making it, in the words of Mr. Goldwin win Smith, ‘politically penal,’ seems to me wholly futile. Does any one suppose that such a slur attaches to the military or naval services, or to those branches of the Civil Service which incapacitate men from voting? Married women would not lose their votes because they married, but because they ceased to be ratepayers; and it is hardly probable that any one woman who desired to marry would abstain from doing so for the sake of her vote. The establishment of female franchise on a property basis would probably have the great incidental advantage of imposing a real and powerful obstacle to the further degradation of the suffrage. Many who would advocate manhood suffrage would shrink from universal suffrage. It may, I think, be safely assumed that the British nation would not acquiesce in government by a Parliament in which female influence was preponderant, and women in Great Britain largely outnumber men. If, however, the suffrage of women were once admitted, it would not be easy to make a fresh anomaly by making male suffrage universal, and that of females dependent on a property qualification.
From one very formidable danger connected with female suffrage England is remarkably free. In France, Belgium, and Italy, and to a greater or lesser degree in all Catholic countries, there is a strong and evident divergence between the religious opinions of women and of men; and as in these countries ecclesiastical questions are in the very forefront of the battle, the result of female suffrage would be a sharp and dangerous political antagonism between the two sexes. It would increase in the most formidable degree reactionary and ecclesiastical influences. The secularisation of government, through the elimination of priestly influence from the fields of politics, has been one of the most marked tendencies in continental Europe, and every attempt to arrest it by the introduction into the electorate of a great body of priest-ridden electors would inevitably lead to grave political dangers. In England, however, and in most Protestant countries, religious questions occupy a far smaller place in politics; women are much less absolutely under ecclesiastical influence than in Catholic countries, and religious bodies are so divided that female suffrage could hardly affect to any dangerous extent the balance of religious politics.
Female suffrage in matters of education and in municipal elections has spread very widely through the whole English-speaking world; it has also been adopted by the Scandinavian countries, and several other countries allow women to vote, either directly or by proxy, in rural or communal elections. Their voice in the control of communal property is very ancient, and extends far into the Middle Ages. In the Austrian Empire this system is considerably developed, and it is remarkable that when Lombardy was annexed to Italy, many women lost a franchise which they had possessed in what was deemed the period of servitude.39 Of purely political female suffrage, however, there are as yet but few examples. There are, indeed, some traces in the English history of the sixteenth and seventeenth century of members of Parliament returned by female electors, and the case has often been cited of Dorothy Packington, who, in the reign of Elizabeth, nominated two burgesses for the borough of Aylesbury in her quality of lady of the manor.40 During the Middle Ages feudal tenures were often inherited by women, and those tenures carried with them no small share of political power. Bentham has noticed the curious fact that, at a time when women were excluded from every other kind of political influence, they voted equally with men in the election of the directors of that East India Company which governed despotically one of the most populous empires in the world.41 In a few very modern constitutions women have some political rights. In Austria those who are large owners of property have the right of voting for members of some of the provincial Diets, though they can only exercise it by delegating it to male deputies.42
In Sweden they participate in some measure in the election of members of the Upper Chamber, as they vote for the municipal and rural bodies by which the members of that Chamber are returned.43 In Italy widows and women separated from their husbands who pay the taxes which would give a male a vote, though they cannot vote themselves, have the right of designating that privilege to a near male representative.44 In America direct female suffrage, since 1869, was granted in the sparsely populated State of Wyoming, in the Territory of Washington, and in Utah; but in the latter two cases it was speedily withdrawn. In the Isle of Man also it was conceded in 1881, but on a narrower scale than to men, for it applied only to possessors of real property. In 1892, however, it was extended to other ratepayers. In 1893 female suffrage on the same basis as male suffrage was granted in New Zealand, and in the following year a similar step was taken in South Australia.
In England the probable influence, either for good or evil, of a limited female suffrage based on a property qualification seems to me to be greatly exaggerated. It is not likely that it would be dominant and decisive in any field, and the tendencies it would strengthen would not be in the same direction. There can, I think, be little doubt that women are on the whole more conscientious than men—at least where the obligation of performing some definite duty is clearly set before them, and gives a serious character to their words and actions. At a time when there are many signs that the standard of morality in political life is declining, the infusion into the electorate of a large number of voters who act under some real sense of duty could scarcely fail to be beneficial. It would raise the standard of private morality required in public men, and increase the importance of character in public life. It would probably be a conservative influence, very hostile to revolutionary and predatory change. It would also probably tend somewhat, though not in any overwhelming degree, to strengthen ecclesiastical influence, especially in questions relating to religious education. The wide personal experience which large numbers of women possess of the circumstances, wants, and temptations of the poor would give questions connected with the social condition of the masses of the people an increased prominence in legislation, and make it the interest of members of Parliament to give them an increased share of their attention.
At the same time it can hardly, I think, be doubted that female influence in politics would tend to accentuate some tendencies which are already dangerously powerful in English legislation. Women, and especially unmarried women, are on the whole more impulsive and emotional than men; more easily induced to gratify an undisciplined or misplaced compassion, to the neglect of the larger and more permanent interests of society; more apt to dwell upon the proximate than the more distant results; more subject to fanaticisms, which often acquire almost the intensity of monomania. We have had a melancholy example of this in the attitude assumed of late years by a large class of educated Englishwomen on the subject of vivisection. That a practice which may be and has been gravely abused is properly subject to legislative control will probably be very generally admitted. But it would be difficult to conceive an act of greater folly or wickedness than to prohibit absolutely the most efficient of all methods of tracing the origin, course, and filiation of disease, the only safe way of testing the efficacy of possible preventives and remedies which may either prove fatal or be of inestimable benefit to mankind. What tyrant could inflict a greater curse upon his kind than deliberately to shut it out from the best chance of preventing, alleviating, or curing masses of human suffering, the magnitude and poignancy of which it is impossible for any imagination adequately to conceive? What folly could be greater than to do this in a country where experiments on animals are so guarded and limited by law that they undoubtedly inflict far less suffering in the space of a year than field sports in the space of a day?
The spectacle of great numbers of most humane and excellent women taking up such a cause with a passion that would undoubtedly lead them, if they possessed political power, to subordinate to it all the great interests of party or national welfare, has probably done as much as any other single thing to shake the confidence of cool observers in the political capacities of women. It is true that they are not alone in their crusade, but it is only necessary to look down any annual list of subscriptions in such societies to perceive how enormously the female element preponderates. In the administration of justice; in measures relating to distress and poverty that may be mainly due to improvidence or vice; in all questions of peace and war, such a spirit would prove most dangerous. There have been ages in which insensibility to suffering was the prevailing vice of public opinion. In our own there is perhaps more to be feared from wild gusts of unreasoning, uncalculating, hysterical emotion. ‘Les races,’ as Buffon said, ‘se féminisent.’ A due sense of the proportion of things; an adequate subordination of impulse to reason; an habitual regard to the ultimate and distant consequences of political measures; a sound, sober, and unexaggerated judgment, are elements which already are lamentably wanting in political life, and female influence would certainly not tend to increase them.
Nor is it likely that it would be in the direction of liberty. With women, even more than men, there is a strong disposition to overrate the curative powers of legislation, to attempt to mould the lives of men in all their details by meddlesome or restraining laws; and an increase of female influence could hardly fail to increase that habit of excessive legislation which is one of the great evils of the time.
Different minds will form different estimates of the balance of good and evil in the tendencies which I have endeavoured faithfully to enumerate. It must, however, again be said that English legislation has now fully adopted the principle of conferring the suffrage on almost the largest scale without any attempt to discriminate capacity or to estimate the manner in which it is likely to be exercised, and the distinctive evils to be feared from female influence in politics are, at least partly, due to the want of political experience, and would therefore probably be gradually mitigated. It may be added, too, that when it is argued that it is for the benefit of the nation that a new class of voters should be brought into the Constitution, this usually merely means that the special interests of that portion of the nation are likely to be more fully attended to and represented. Women form a great section of the community, and, as we have seen, they have many special interests. The opening to them of employments, professions, and endowments; the regulation of their labour; questions of women's property and succession; the punishment of crimes against women; female education; laws relating to marriage, guardianship, and divorce, may all be cited; and in the great drink question they are even more interested than men, for though they are the more sober sex, they are also, it is to be feared, the sex which suffers most from the consequences of intemperance. With such a catalogue of special interests it is impossible to say that they have not a claim to representation if they desire it.
They would probably find that, like other classes, they had greatly over-estimated the value of a vote. The chief danger that befalls the interests of an unrepresented class is that those interests are simply forgotten, or at least postponed till more pressing claims are attended to. But, whatever may have been the case in the past, a review of the measures which have been carried of late years relating to women seems clearly to show that modern Parliaments are quite ready to deal with such questions. The great majority of the serious grievances under which women laboured in England have been redressed, and the practice of basing important legislation upon the reports of parliamentary commissions, before which representatives of all the interests concerned give full evidence, has secured them a certain representation. To a large number of women the concession of female suffrage would, I believe, still be extremely distasteful, as bringing with it duties and entanglements they would gladly avoid. But with the rapidly increasing prominence of women in English public life this feeling is manifestly declining; and if the demand for a parliamentary suffrage should prove growing and persistent, it is scarcely possible to doubt that it must ultimately triumph.
Emile, livre v. Compare Milton:
Lettres d'un Bourgeois de New-Haven. See, too, his essay, Sur l'admission des femmes au droit de cité (1790).
Mme. de Staël, Considérations sur la Révolution.
Works, iii. 463, 567; iv. 568; ix. 108–9.
Rationale of Political Representation, pp. 236–42.
See Woman's Work, by Bulley, Whitley, and Dilke (1894), pp. 133–37.
Jevons, The State in relation to Labour, p. 87.
A good summary of these provisions will be found in Miss Helen Blackburn's very useful Handbook for Women engaged in Social and Political Work. On the recent continental legislation on the subject, see Chauvin, Professions accessibles aux Femmes, pp. 208–10.
Women's Work (Bulley, Whitley, and Dilke), p. 74. Mrs. Nassau Senior had been appointed poor-law inspector as early as 1873.
Bulley, Whitley, and Dilke, pp. 51, 117.
Jevons, The State in relation to Labour, pp. 73–74.
Spyer's Labour Question, p. 112.
See Miss Collet's report for the Board of Trade on the Statistics of Employment of Women and Girls (1894), pp. 71–74.
The history of this movement will be found in Chauvin's Professions accessibles aux Femmes, pp. 233–39.
See Miss Blackburn's Handbook for Women, p. 42.
Chauvin, Les Professions accessibles aux Femmes, pp. 229–33, 236, 237, 260.
See Miss Parkes's (Mme. Belloc's) Essays on Woman's Work, pp. 201–3.
I am told that in mixed classes lectures become less catechetical than they used to be.
Chauvin, Les Professions accessibles aux Femmes, pp. 196, 202–6, 225; Ostrogorski, La Femme au point de vue du droit public, pp. 178–79.
See an interesting paper on the ‘Higher Education of Women in Germany’ in the Times, December 27, 1893. See, too, the Souvenirs de Sophie Kovalewsky, pp. 220–21, 232–33.
Ostrogorski, pp. 172–73.
Spectator, Nos. 57, 81; the Freeholder, Nos. 23, 26.
For illustrations of this, see a remarkable essay of Mrs. Fawcett, in Essays and Lectures on Social and Political Subjects, by Henry Fawcett and M. G. Fawcett, pp. 195, 267. In France also it has been a matter of great complaint that when the property of the convents, which chiefly conducted the education of French girls, was confiscated, the State made no equivalent provision for their education (Giraud, La Condition des Femmes, p. 26).
2 & 3 Vict. c. 54. See, too, the instructive debate on this Bill in the Lords, July 30, 1838.
36 Vict. c. 12.
49 & 50 Vict. c. 27.
49 & 50 Vict. c. 52.
33 & 34 Vict. c. 93. Some slight additional protection was given by an Act of 1874.
45 & 46 Vict. c. 75.
56 & 57 Vict. c. 63.
See Bridel, Le Droit des Femmes et le Mariage (1893), pp. 39–40, 85–98.
53 & 54 Vict. c. 29.
58 & 59 Vict. c. 39. This Act came into force in the beginning of 1896.
On the continental laws on the subject, see Bridel, Le Droit des Femmes et le Mariage, pp. 149–50.
Revue de Droit International, i. 385.
Ostrogorski, pp. 16–17.
This habit in Ireland was forbidden by a law which was adopted in 697 at the instance of Adamnan (Joyce's Hist. of Ireland, p. 186).
Giraud, La Condition des Femmes, pp. 165–66.
See Stubbs's Const. Hist. iii. 454; Ostrogorski, pp. 40–41.
Bentham's Works, ix. 109.
See Ostrogorski, pp. 72–77.
Ibid. p. 78.
Ibid. p. 84.