SUFFRAGE CAMP RE-VISITED by Elizabeth Robins
Essay from the collection
Way Stations by Elizabeth Robins
Way Stations page 50
SUFFRAGE CAMP RE-VISITED *
by Elizabeth Robins
Hypertext formatting by Joanne E. Gates
Miss Christabel Pankhurst, Ladies and Gentlemen:
I have come a great way to perform a small duty. Yet far as London is from Florida, these leagues of land and sea may not, in some eyes, seem to constitute the chief obstacle in the way of my addressing you about a matter of political moment.
The English people have often listened to comment upon English affairs from men of foreign birth. But, as I am told, for a woman, not a subject of the King, to pick a flaw in that proudest of your national boasts--the Freedom of the Briton--would be to show herself unwarrantably meddlesome.
There are two considerations which prevent my holding that view, even though recently reminded that it is shared by one of the military heroes of this country. He has asked me how a person who has not convinced her own countrymen of the wisdom of enfranchising women, dares raise her voice in this domestic quarrel?
There are obvious reasons why most people confine their activities to the land of their birth; though to do so has not been the distinguishing character-
* A lecture given at the Portman Rooms, London, March, 1908.
Way Stations page 51
isitc of the English. You had a saying that, years ago, touched the imagination of the world. "No slave," your fathers said, "could breathe in English air." The moment one of our unfranchised negroes set foot upon your soil, that instant he stood forth free.
Ladies and Gentlemen, that was not what happened in my case. I can no more acquire citizen rights in England, than I can claim them in Kentucky, or in Florida. I find something fitting therefore, in the fact that one of the sex discriminated against should point out where the English boast breaks down.
But my real answer to the charge of the soldier before mentioned, and my answer to any objector here is, first and foremost: this of yours is not a "mere domestic quarrel." It is the working out of the most fundamental problem of civilisation.
All who keep abreast of foreign news know in how many directions, and how far, your English voices are reverberating. I myself am too recently returned from America not to know how closely over there they are following your agitation, getting from it enlightenment and courage for their own different task. The eyes of all women are upon the English Suffragists. The hopes of thousands of women you will never so much as hear of, and the fate of their children's children, are largely in your keeping. So my first answer to the suggestion that I should attend to my own affairs is: this is my af-
Way Stations page 52
fair. The battlefield is English soil, but the issue belongs to the human race.
My second answer to the charge of officious interference is that your Cause is even peculiarly my affair. England owed me nothing, and has given to me with both hands. I have lived in London more than twice as long as I have lived in any other one place since I was born. I have paid taxes here for seventeen years without diminishing my debt. Here in London I have spent the best part of my life and have done here the most rewarding of the little work I have accomplished. Living in your midst for all these years, having found happiness as well as bread and friendship here--how is it possible that I should take so much at your hands and feel I need not give you even sympathy in return?
Just as I find it impossible to divorce the interests of men and women, so in this long debt of mine I cannot remember women's claim upon me without acknowledging the claim of men. Yet, as my conception of the larger good for this country and for the civilised world, does not march with--that of my soldier friend, for instance, let us for a moment look into the causes that lie at the root of our difference.
In the first place, let those of us who are Suffragists admit the present state of things to be the common misfortune of men and women.
Some of you may not agree with me when I say that women have had a large share, if not in bring-
Way Stations page 53
ing about the conditions we are attacking, at least in keeping them as they are.
I must assume that you are all familiar by this time with the arguments in favour of Woman Suffrage and with the answers to the few--the beggarly little array of serious objections. Among the reasons why this Cause does not march forward to an even speedier triumph than ultimately awaits it, I will speak to-night of three:
1. The unreasoned, instinctive clinging, on the part of men, to the ideal of male superiority.
2. The comparative poverty of women, even in well-to-do families.
3. The deadening illusion entertained about, and shared by, the "Exceptional Woman."
Taking these obstacles in their order, we have first to deal with the masculine prejudice in man's own favour. This, if looked at fairly, is nothing worse in its origin than the feeling every healthy boy (or girl) brings with it into the world: namely, that there is nothing upon the earth so important as itself. The current idea of the difference in value of the two sexes, seems to grow out of the fact that in the case of the girl the wholly natural and quite essential first conception (having served its purpose) is early corrected and "put away" along with other "childish things." [NOTE] This comes about, not through any special grace or wisdom on the part of woman, but through the lessoning of circumstance.
In man, the preliminary notion about his place
Way Stations page 54
in the universe is corrected late by an effort of the reason, or it is indulged in to the end.
I am afraid there is not doubt but what, in the common survival of this early view of man's importance, we women have our discreditable share.
Who among us here can lay her hand on her heart and say: I never flattered the idea of "sex superiority" in any man? I never tried, in the cause of peace and pleasantness, to perpetuate for an hour that ancient error?
Among all the people in this room I do not feel sure of--but one.
I am not that one.
Can you believe that women have not had a share--a very large share--in obscuring the truth for such as the eminent Professor, who recently wrote to a London paper, to say he feared men were not opposing with sufficient energy this lamentable and growing agitation for Woman Suffrage? He sounded a piercing bugle-call to waken his too-confiding brethren to their common danger. Did men realise, he asked, all that was being imperilled? Did they not know that if a woman got the Vote she would no longer care to make the home beautiful? Not only that. He says she would give up "dancing and singing" for man's diversion. Much as man, according to this sprightly biologist, would lose by the arrangement, the opposite sex would gain nothing. "Woman," says the man of science, "can only gain" (these are his words) "by continuing to as-
Way Stations page 55
tonish man by all she does for his enchantment and delight, to serve him and to crown his life. . . ."
Now, could even a man who for forty years has peered through a microscope, could he bring away from his studies in Natural History this comic-opera view of the uses and the value of one-half the species, unless Womankind had breathed upon the lens and fogged it?
That we ourselves have borne false witness seems to be the chief indictment against us. The eminent gentleman I have quoted 1 is one of thousands who are ludicrously misled. Women are, to the gay Professor, simply flowers strewn along his gladsome way--or weeds in some obscure by-path. He is spared all realisation of the whirlwind of laughter that swept through at least one drawing-room wherein his scientific views were read aloud to an exultant company--each one vying with the other in conjuring up rapturous pictures of dancing girls and
1 Sir ___ _____ E.C.B., F.B.S., in the "Daily Telegraph," March 3, 1908, ". . . fear that the great business of making the nest beautiful, producing and tending the young, nursing the sick, helping the aged, consoling the afflicted, rewarding the brave of dancing and singing and creating gaiety within the charmed circle where political contests and affairs of State are of no account, would be neglected and without honour. In the end these amenities of life would probably fall into the hands of commercial companies and be sent out at so much a head--imported from Germany. Woman would not be the gainer, for she can only gain by continuing to astonish man by all she does for his enchantment and delight, to serve him and to crown his life--she will only suffer by becoming 'independent.'"
Way Stations page 56
fair women proudly devoting the flower of their days to performing enchantments for the "delight and astonishment" of the Professor of Biology. No echo of that laughter will reach him. Be sure he has found some woman who, in honest stupidity, or in cheerful mockery, will applaud, and in so far as she can, will realise for him his Mohammedan Heaven.
But not only in private life have women borne false witness. Those who doubt this have only to look through the books written by women for the guidance of women--books, English, French, German, and American, published in the early or middle years of the last century. These works are more instructive to us to-day than they ever were to the poor souls for whom they were written. The books to which I especially refer were not cast in the frivolous form of fiction. They were offered as serious guides to life. Since they were, in point of fact, early contributions to the Woman Question, and since some of them enjoyed a wide popularity, they had their share in maintaining, if not in creating, the conditions we are face to face with to-day. These writings help us to understand our professor and many another man.
Let us then, in the cause of enlightenment, consider for a few minutes one of the more successful of these publications--an excellent example to offer for your consideration, since it was written by an Englishwoman, and had a large circulation in Amer-
Way Stations page 57
ica. How much harm it did over there I cannot say--but I am confident our professor's male progenitor recommended it warmly to his womankind.
I came upon this priceless work in the form of an American reprint, which saw the light in 1843. "The Wives of England," as it is called (dedicated, by special permission, to Her Majesty the Queen), is written by Mrs. Ellis, author of "The Women of England" and "The Daughters of England." Having dealt separately with the various aspects of her sex, Mrs. Ellis, it would seem, wound up by presenting woman collectively as "The Poetry of Life." That, at all events, is my interpretation of the title of the final work set to her credit. "The Poetry of Life" has not yet come my way. As a significant "et cetera" appears even after "The Poetry," we are left to grope in the void as to what more Mrs. Ellis found to say about her sex. Still, you will see, from the quoted array of works, that she was no raw hand; and that in a day when it was not a commonplace for women to write books, our Mrs. Ellis had such encouragement that she persevered. You may read on the cover of an American reprint in a quotation from an admiring critic, that "'The Wives of England' is a work fitted to promote the happiness of every family circle." If you read further you come to believe in the validity of that boast.
In Chapter I, called "Thoughts before Marriage," Mrs. Ellis calls upon the weaker, and as she
Way Stations page 58
says, "consequently more easily deluded party, to pause and think again." If, she says, without a smile, you feel ashamed of the gentleman before marriage, "there is little probability that you will afterwards evince toward him that respect and reverence which is right and seemly in a wife. Although," she says, "I am one of the last persons who could wish to introduce in any plausible form, to an upright and honourable mind, the bare idea of the possibility of breaking an engagement; yet as there are cases," etc. etc. . . . "I cannot help thinking," she goes on, "that, of two evils, it is in this case especially desirable to choose the least; and to prefer inflicting a temporary pain, and" (mark this) "enduring an inevitable disgrace to being the means of destroying the happiness of a lifetime." She gives her advice with evident trepidation: "I am aware," she says, "that the opinion of the world and the general voice of society are against such conduct" (as a girl's daring to admit before it was too late, that she had come to realise she did not love the man), "and I am equally aware that no woman ought to venture upon breaking an engagement, on such grounds, without feeling herself humbled to the very dust. . . ." And so on.
But, if to withdraw from an engagement is such dire disgrace what may be anticipated under the best conditions of love and prosperity, by going through with the business? "What are you expecting?" Mrs. Ellis asks the trembling bride. "To
Way Stations page 59
be always flattered? Depend upon it, if your faults were never brought to light before, they will be so now. Are you expecting to be always indulged? Depend upon it, if your temper was never tried before it will be so now. Are you expecting to be always admired? Depend upon it, if you were never humble and insignificant before, you will have to be so now. Yes, you had better make up your mind at once to be uninteresting as long as you live, to all" (she clutches desperately at a fleeting hope) "except the companion of your home; and well will it be," she says with recovered firmness, "well will it be for you if you can be interesting to him. You had better settle it in your calculations that you will have to be crossed oftener than the day; and the part of wisdom will dictate, that if you persist in your determination to be married you shall not only be satisfied, but cheerful to have these things so." She goes on to tell you that when a woman has brought down "every rebellious thought to subservience and"--I am still quoting Mrs. Ellis--"an earnest and prayerful determination entered into, to be but a secondary being in the great business of conducting the general affairs of social life" (even of social life, you observe), "there are a few things yet to be thought of before the final step," etc.
One of these final things is Mrs. Ellis's warning to the girl never to breathe a word to her lover about the addresses of any other suitor. Let him think
Way Stations page 60
he is the only man she ever became really aware of, otherwise, Mrs. Ellis says, your confidences "will be remembered against you at some future time when," she adds in her cheerful way, "each day will be sufficiently darkened by its own passing clouds." The bride, she observes on page 12, is to note that it is of the utmost importance not to offend her husband's relatives by any appearance of contradiction or self-will. "He and his friends will be better judges than you can be," says Mrs. Ellis. The woman is called upon not only to regard herself as a novice, but "in taking upon herself the honorable title of wife, to sit in humility and self-abasement in the lowest seat." That is textual, though how the "honour" and the "lowest seat" are compatible in the Ellis mind, I will leave to you.
"In being unobtrusive, quiet, impartially polite to all and willing to bend to circumstances, consists the great virtue of the bride; and though to sink into an apparent nonentity may be a little humbling to one who has perhaps occupied a distinguished place among her former friends, the prudent woman will be abundantly repaid."
You have Mrs. Ellis's word for it.
But will you believe me when I say that in Chapter III, on "The Characteristics of Men," before our author deals with "spots on the sun" (as she bids us to consider the shortcomings of men), she tells us that in the character of "the truly good man there is a power and a sublimity so nearly approach-
Way Stations page 61
ing what we believe to be the nature and capacity of angels, no language can describe the degree of admiration and respect that the contemplation of such a character must excite. To be permitted," she goes on (and here we see the happiness of the family circle being actively promoted!), "to be permitted to dwell within the influence of such a man, must be a privilege of the highest order: to listen to his conversation must be a perpetual feast; but to be permitted into his heart, to share his counsels, and to be the chosen companion of his joys and sorrows!"--Mrs. Ellis is here breathless with ecstasy, and merely flings down a point of exclamation. But after adding a dash she winds up--"it is difficult to say whether humility or gratitude should preponderate in the feelings of the woman thus distinguished and thus blessed."
Now, how are you to treat this paragon once you have secured him? "It is little use," says Mrs. Ellis, "that you esteem and reverence your husband in the secret of your heart, if you do not by your manners, both at home and abroad, evince the proper deference and regard. At home it is but fitting that the matter of the house should be considered as entitled to the choice of every personal indulgence, unless indispoisiton or suffering on the part of the wife render such indulgences more properly her due; but even then they ought to be received as a favour, rather than claimed as a right."
Much space is devoted to consideration of how a
Way Stations page 62
woman by the simple device of seldom saying anything at all, may keep the affections of her husband. It requires much tact, as well as delicacy, we are told, to know how to render even expressions of endearment appropriate and consequently acceptable. But Mrs. Ellis is reassured by remembering that "not the highest intellectual attainments" united to the noblest gifts of nature, "will be able to efface for a moment the delicate perceptions of a truly sensitive woman, or to render her in the deep and fervent love of which she is capable, otherwise than humble and easily subdued; especially when she comes with childlike simplicity to consult the dial of her husband's love, and to read there the progress of the advancing or receding shadows, which indicate her only true positon through the lapse of every hour."
There is a wonderful passage, which I have not time to quote, about the occasional laying aside of his dignity, on the part of what Whistler used to call "the Bow-Wow British Husband." "For the wife," says Mrs. Ellis, it might be a dangerous experiment, even in her fondest and most unguarded moments, to make any allusion to scenes and circumstances of this description: especially to presume upon having necessarily assumed, at such times, the stronger and more important part. When her husband chooses to be dignified again and is capable of maintaining that dignity, she must adapt herself to the happy change and fall back into comparative insignificance."
Way Stations page 63
We could take leave of Mrs. Ellis and her like more gaily were it not for the attitude she seems to share in common with other of these old advisers on the subject of the unfaithful husband. "There is nothing," she says, "but uncomplaining loneliness and utter self abasement for the wife who cannot keep her husband's heart. It is in this spirit alone that with any propriety, or any hope, she can appeal to a husband's feelings . . . casting herself upon his pity as one struck down by a beloved hand will kiss the instrument of her abasement. . . ."
Is it not clear that this sort of attitude on the part of women who were influential accounts for much?
Some of us who have not the excuse of speaking for the public of sixty years ago--some of us have upon our souls sins not so different, after all, from those of Mrs. Ellis. I am here not so much to bewail those sins as to inquire how shall we wipe them out?
To register a vow never voluntarily to contribute more to ignoble notions of women--that is not enough. You, especially you Suffragists who are young, are not content with that, and you should not be. We have too much leeway to make up. The mere withholding of the Vote means too much of daily injustice to the industrial army; too much of constant danger to the economic safety and therefore to the moral safety of all women.
It is not enough to recognise these facts privately. It is not enough to admit them publicly without fear of criticism and without hope of applause. I say
Way Stations page 64
this not unmindful of the obstacles in many a would-be helper's way. My point is that our difficulties, more than anything else, should open our eyes--should educate us, and finally should nerve us to sweep those difficulties out of the world.
Women of the type of the majority here to-night (women from whom so much is rightly expected) find themselves in a world where things--the big effectual things--are done by men. If a woman is to accomplish a piece of work "out in the world," as it is called--the achievement must usually come about by means of the grace of men. It is they who hold all the influential posts. They have nearly all the money. When it is a question even of money nominally belonging to a woman, she is often not free to use it as she thinks best.
Hearing, just lately, of cases illustrating this last point, I have been reminded of the impression made upon me as a child by my mother's telling me of the trouble she had in persuading her trustee to allow her to manumit her slaves. She found herself in the same position in which certain of our friends find themselves to-day with regard to helping the Suffrage treasury. Their husbands, brothers, guardians, "do not see the necessity." The Kentucky trustee of long ago saw in slaves only property; and in his ward he saw only a romantic young woman whose foolishness must be kept down with a firm hand. But the romantic young woman saved enough out of her pin-money to buy the liberty of one of her slaves
Way Stations page 65
each year. That, however, was not the part of the story that interested me any more than it will you. The significant part of it was the sum the slave-owner had to save up before she could set free a certain favourite negress. All concern in the transaction was merged for me in sheer envy of that black woman who, in the open market, was worth such a lot of money. Should I ever be worth a thousand dollars to anybody? It was unthinkable.
This is the sort of soul-searching that no little male-child in a comfortable home ever knows at its highest poignancy. The boy has no misgiving as to his value. The man has still less. It is not only that, through their superior opportunities, men are those who make the large fortunes--to speak of "value" of the most obvious kind. Where there are great sums to bequeath, with you in Engalnd, they go not to the daughter who is debarred from making large sums for herself. They go to the son, for whom all doors swing wide.
The effect of the law of primogeniture is not merely to mass all the great fortunes in the hands of men. The principle set up by that law hypnotises even the people who have no estates and no far-descended titles to pass on. It coerces the imagination of the million into fixing its hopes, and spending such money as it can scrape together, on the son. He may be an idler. It doesn't matter. He may be semi-idiotic. It is all one. The daughter may, with scant encouragement, arrive at what excellence you
Way Stations page 66
will--as long as there are any sons about--or even nephews or cousins, the lion's share, as the saying presages, will go to the male.
If the woman instists on practising some art or profession, if, against all odds, she achieves distinction--no official honour for her. Not one of the great wordly prizes will ever come her way. 2 Not through character, not through gifts, not through service--only through the gate of Wifehood is any woman allowed to come to honour.
With regard to those glittering baubles--baronies, peerages, laureateships, and the like (which I am credibly informed men eagerly compete for)--Woman's position reminds me of a fire that took place in Atlantic City, while I was over on the other side. A little boy and girl coming home from school found their house in flames. The two children and a girl-neighbour, all under eight years of age, went "pluckily," as the dispatch records, into the burning house "to bring out the two-year-old Blanche, who was alseep in her go-cart in the kitchen." Neighbours came, as the children dragged the scorched go-cart with its burden out of the room, which was already on fire. "Sammy is going to be a fireman when he grows up," said his sister, "so Mary and me went in to help him get the baby out. . . ."
It is an old story for woman to "go through fire"
2 I am glad to be reminded there is an exception to this rule. In the short space of time during which one great International honour has been open to both sexes, twice the Nobel Prize has been won by women.
Way Stations page 67
with the man. She may bring out the baby, but it is the man who brings out the medal.
With regard to the opportunity of service given by money, I am not forgetting that, hampered as women are, they are said to keep the great charities alive. It is largely a case of many a little making a mickle. It is also true that some of you are almoners, and have the handling of large sums which your husbands place at your disposal. But, suggest to these gentlemen that instead of giving to charities for the next year, you will give to the Suffrage Movement?--and see how free you are to choose what Cause you will help! Your restricted liberty, even here, is one of the reasons that some women (agreeing with us in their hearts) make no sign. They wear all the marks of wealth, but they have nothing really their own.
One of my most curious experiences, since my return from the other side of the world, has been to see some old acquaintance at one of the Suffrage meetings, and to say with an impulse of pleasure: "Oh! I never thought I should find you here!" "Why not?" my interlocutor has answered, a little injured; "I was a Suffragist long before you were." I could only murmur that I had never suspected it, and wonder in my heart if anybody else ever had!
But even in the case of women openly with us and of independent means, a common excuse for not doing something for the Cause is that same honourable-sounding one of "Charities." I am reminded
Way Stations page 68
in this connection of an American working-girl who was sent to ask a certain rich woman, of well-known liberality, to help the funds of a Trade Union to which the girl belonged. The lady offered no objection to the principle of Trade Unionism, and she listened to the story of the work this particular body was doing, kindly enough--but to all appeals for help returned the one answer, that she "had her charities"--her Working-Girls' Clubs, her Friendly and Rescue Societies, and the rest--till at last the girl, heart-sick at her failure, burst out with: "Don't you see what we are trying to do is to get rid of the need of your charity?" "But no!" the working-girl said, in telling about the interview, "there's lots like her. They've got the charity-habit. It is the stuff that sends 'em to sleep!"
Now there is another sort of "stuff" that sends women to sleep. Remembering it brings me to the remaining reason which I suggest as one of the three that bar our rapid progress. The other narcotic is provided by the illusion entertained about the lady whom the world labels "Exceptional."
She is sometimes tolerably well-informed. She, unlike the mass of her sex, often has independent means. She usually can make people listen to her. Why has she not done more to further this reform? For nobody pretends that it was left for our own age to produce, now and then, a woman who could think straight and speak without fear. Long before most of us here were born, a woman-friend of Emerson
Way Stations page 69
and member of the Brook Farm group, was writing against "the habit of talking about woman's Sphere, as if it really were at present, for the majority, one of protection and the gentle offices of home. The rhetorical gentlemen and silken dames who, quite forgetting their washerwomen, their seamstresses, and the poor hirelings for the sensual pleasure of Man, that jostle them daily in the streets--talk as if woman need be fitted for no other chance than that of growing like cherished flowers in the garden of domenstic love."
Even earlier, your Mrs. Jamieson was writing about what she calls "the anomalous condition of woman," pointing out "as a primary source of incalculable mischief the contradiction between woman's supposed and her real position; between what is called her proper sphere and what has become her real sphere by the laws of necessity."
Well, Ladies and Gentlemen, what came of all this brave nineteenth-century talk that has to our ears such a twentieth-century ring? Why didn't these women accomplish more? Why have they left so much for you to do? I will remind you why; for our most siginificant lesson lies in the answer to that question.
In the days when these women thought and wrote, the secret of combination was not known. These excellent people failed to further the Cause they advocated, because they tried to do alone what can only be accomplished if we work together.
Way Stations page 70
Hitherto, public opinion has been man's opinion. It has consistently begged the question of the fitness of women in general to advise in public affairs. And it has done this by dint of labelling "exceptional" those women whose capacity could not be denied.
As I have said, the worst of it was that woman herself was induced to accept that summing up of the matter. The flattery implied in the assurance that she was unique, clouded her judgment of the rest of her sex. It checked her generosity. It turned to a barren self-conceit what would have been fertile seed if cast upon the common fields.
I have come to the conclusion that the reason the Exceptional Woman is one of our chief obstacles is because she is a Drug in the Market! I can scarcely find one of my sex whom someone has not been ready to persuade of her Exceptionalness!
A year or so ago I was present during a conversation between a lady and a gentleman, in which, by way of good-humouredly belabouring me, some laughing reference was made to Woman Suffrage. The lady promplty disavowed all sympathy with that Cause, but justified her own conspicuous activities by admitting there were certain public duties which men could not adequately perform without women's aid. She instanced the supervision of the great hospitals. She told how, years ago, being appointed among the officers of one of your large institutions, she asked for an explanation of a certain considerable item of expense. Nobody could furnish any
Way Stations page 71
details, and her brethren on the Board were not inclined to go into the matter. That item had always been there. No one had ever questioned it before. But the newcomer on the Board was not abashed. Upon persisting in her search for knowledge, she was referred from one authority to another till finally she confronted the Matron. The Matron was haughty, and said the sum had gone in "the usual necessaries." She had, of course, kept and account of them? "Oh, of course." Then would the Matron produce her account? "No." It was something that no man in nineteen years had ventured to ask of her.
In less than nineteen days a dishonest Matron was removed, and serious leakage of public money was stopped.
The gentleman who listened to this recital gave it as his opinion that there were few women who could keep their own accounts, let alone detect misappropriation of Public Funds. But, he added, with his most gracious smile, it was no news to him that the lady who had succeeded in doing this was an Exceptional Woman. "You must not think," he admonished her, "that many women are as able as you."
As I have said, the phrase is one which every woman can hear at some time from somebody--but in the pleased complacence with which the great lady in question accepted the narrowing down of a principle into an assertion of her own superiority, I
Way Stations page 72
seemed to see why she did not believe in Woman Suffrage. To be able to believe in the value of the Suffrage you must be able to believe in other people. You must neither think too much of yourself, nor too meanly of the rest of the world.
Whether it be our New England Margaret Fuller "declining" (in the words of her brother and biographer) "to join any organised body"; "refusing," as he says elsewhere, "to merge her individuality"; or whether it be that great spirit, George Eliot, or Lady Mary Wortley Montague, preaching subservience to others and herself practising the largest liberty--each one fancied herself not in her gift alone, but in her fundamental needs, to be an Exceptional Woman. The love of liberty which these notable ladies shared in common, their passionate insistence upon it for themselves, each took for the head and front of her Exceptionalness. They seemed to think with Lady Mary Wortley Montague, that so far man was right. Liberty probably would be bad for other women. To "the Exceptional" it was so dear, so indispensable, they would pay any price society exacted even for the maimed and doubtful makeshift that they won.
What I want to emphasise is that because these brilliant women insisted on Freedom only for themselves, they lost it even for themselves. For liberty seems to be a plant that needs the air. It will not grow in confinement. It really looks as though you
Way Stations page 73
could not keep Freedom alive unless it is free--to everybody.
Those who were "great ladies" by the accident of birth, or the chance of marriage; those who were successful artists, able to command a hearing--priactically all who had some measure of liberty, seem to have lived in the fog of this old illusion.
They were "Exceptions," not merely in opportunity or in gifts, but in the essentials which lie behind these things.
Yet in any project of reform, the most richly endowed woman in the world can count for little more, outside her own door, than a voice crying in the wilderness, unless the charge of her "Exceptionalness" is proved unfounded through the response she wins from others like-minded with herself. Like-minded, as aforesaid, in essentials.
Happily, women are learning, at last, what men had to learn before they could achieve their freedom--the fact that surface differences in one's fellows do not necessarily make for disaccord.
It is one of the by-products of the new processes of thought that women are less disposed in these days to over-estimate their individual value.
Speaking only of the province of Art and Letters, wherein women have longest been able to compete--if no single fame emerges to-day as notable as that of certain figures towering out of the past, intelligent women know that the sum of feminine achievement
Way Stations page 74
is for the first time a factor in that Welt politik which is the shaping of public opinion.
UPON the retirement of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, and the accession to leadership of Mr. Asquith, the Women's Cause lost a weak friend and gained a determined enemy.
The next oustanding event after the change in Premiership was the campaign of a prospective Cabinet Minister, Mr. Winston Churchill, seeking re-election for Northwest Manchester. His indeterminate attitude on the woman question brought him the full weight of the W.S.P.U. electioneering organisation. Remarkable as it was even at that date, many persons, then as later, were ready to assign any and every reason for a Liberal candidate's defeat except the reason frequently contributory, sometimes decisive. Mr. Churchill's successful opponent, Mr. Joynson-Hicks, in publicly thanking his electors, said: "I acknowledge the assistance I have received from those ladies sometimes laughed at, but who, I think, will in future be feared by Mr. Churchill--the Suffragists."
A "safe" seat was, of course, ultimately found for the Government nominee, but this second by-election, for the purpose of enabling Mr. Churchill to join the Cab-
Way Stations page 75
inet, presented his women opponents with an excellent opportunity for conducting an educational campaign in a new field.
Whether instructed by the events in Northwest Manchester, Mr. Churchill was prepared to be a little more precise and encouraging in his pronouncements at Dundee. The Suffragettes were "hornets," but all the same, "No one," he declared, "can be blind to the fact that, at the next General Election, Woman Suffrage will be a real practical issue; and the next Parliament, I think, ought to see the gratification of the women's claims."
But all efforts failed to draw from Mr. Churchill some definite undertaking to forward the Cause, whose justice he now admitted.
Mr. Asquith had refused to "give time" for Mr. Stanger's Bill. But owing, some thought, to the action of a body of dissatisfied Liberal women, he said later (speaking of the need to abolish Plural Voting, and other electoral anomalies) that, though he would not give Woman Suffrage a place in the contemplated Reform Bill, he would not oppose a woman's amendment, if framed on democratic lines; if accorded the strong and undoubted support of the women of the country as well as of the electorate; and if such amendment were approved by the House of Commons. Thus the Prime Minister put up barrier after barrier--demanding prospectively of women of all political creeds that their sharing in the elementary right of civilised citizenship should advantage one party--Mr. Asquith's own. He, moreover, demanded proof that, in spite of that fundamentally unfair proviso, all the country should care so much more about women's having that elementary right than
Way Stations page 76
about any party advantage, that the country as a whole (unlike the Prime Minister) would agree with one voice that women should accept these one-sided terms rather than wait for any that might be fairer.
Even supposing this miracle of public unanimity could be wrought, Mr. Asquith still had countless ways of quietly influencing the Cabinet-ridden Commons. No one could know better than the Prime Minister what were the obstacles in the way of a concentration of forces in favour of a far-reaching reform known to be repugnant to the head of the party in power.
But those were days when women knew less about "the wheels within wheels" of politics. The Liberal women and the Constitutional Suffragists of all parites imagined that Mr. Asquith had made a valuable concession.
Even the militants took up that part of the challenge which by implication denied the general and "democratic" character of the demand. They knew that at the time of the agitation on the part of politicans to extend the vote to the agricultural labourer, opponents of that proposed extension said with truth what no one could say of the women's agitation: that there was no demand amongst the section to be franchised. The answer of the great Liberals of the past had been that the fact of the agricultural labourers not demanding the vote was a proof the more of their need to exercise it and so to learn its value.
But to the "weaker sex" the heavier task.
It was gallantly undertaken.
On June 21st an impressive historical and symbolical pageant, organised by the National Union of Suffrage Societies, marched through crowded, cheering streets
Way Stations page 77
from the Embankment to the Albert Hall. Under the chairmanship of the President, Mrs. Fawcett, a mass meeting was held of such size and enthusiasm as men of long political experience declared had seldom been equalled.
A week later came the monster demonstration in Hyde Park, under the auspicies of the Women's Social and Political Union.
"The Times" said of it:
"Its organisers had counted on an audience of 250,000. That expectation was certainly fulfilled, and probably it was doubled, and it would be difficult to contradict anyone who asserted that it was trebled. Like the distances and number of the stars, the facts were beyond the threshold of perception."
The "Standard" said:
"From first to last, it was a great meeting, daringly conceived, splendidly stage-managed, and successfully carried out. Hyde Park has probably never seen a greater crowd of people."
The "Daily News" said:
"There is no combination of words which will convey an adequate idea of the immensity of the crowd around the platforms."
The "Daily Express":
"The Women Suffragists provided London yesterday with one of the most wonderful and astonighing sights that have ever been seen since the days of Boadicea. . . . It is probable that so many people never before stood in one square mass anywhere in England. Men who saw the great Gladstone meeting years ago said that compared with yesterday's multitude, it was as nothing."
Way Stations page 78
The "Daily Chronicle" said:
"Never, on the admission of the most experienced observers, has so vast a throng gathered in London to witness an outlay of political force."