FOR THE WOMEN WRITERS by Elizabeth Robins
Essay from the collection
Way Stations by Elizabeth Robins
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FOR THE WOMEN WRITERS *
by Elizabeth Robins
Hypertext formatting by Joanne E. Gates
To the Women Writers' Suffrage League:
. . . We do not forget that, long before John Stuart Mill wrote about the Subjection of Women, a woman, and a woman of genius, called upon the thinking world to revise its views as to women's relation to civilised society.
Personally, I have never found it easy to divide our human benefits into those coming from men and those coming from women. But the frequent disposition to make this distinction is only a part of a general tendency which Suffragists are concerned to see arrested. My own adhesion to the Suffrage Cause was given largely because I saw that only through political equality may we hope to see established a true understanding and a happier relationship between the sexes.
Changes in the constitution of society, changes lying too deep to be touched on here in the brief time at my disposal, have long been tending towards increased separation between men and women, in practically all the interests of life save one. In the world of industry, of business, of thought--even in what is called society, the growing tendency has
* At the Waldorf Hotel, London, May 4, 1909.
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been to divide the world into two separate camps. Men who are "doing things," or want to do things, have less and less time to give to an order of beings having no share and, as it came to seem, no stake in the varied aspects--save one--of the great game of life.
Briefly then, the conditions of modern life were more and more separating the sexes. Insteat of still further dividing us, Woman's Suffrage is in reality the bridge across the chasm.
As a League of Women Writers in sympathy with this new bond between men and women we may, I think, take a legitimate pride in remembering the origin of the first clear and effectual enunciation of woman's claim to stand beside her brother in the world's work.
We find a peculiar fitness in the fact that the first ordered and reasoned vindication of woman should have been put forth by a woman. If hers was not the first book on the subject, it was the first to affect the thought of the time. And it was the one destined, by its originality and its vigour, to survive the winnowing of a hundred years. Of course, I speak of the work of Mary Wollstonecraft.
I venture to think that no mightier seed has been sown in the world's garden.
If, in all the years since its planting, no writing of so profound a political significance has come from the hand of woman as Mary Wollstonecraft's "Vindication," certainly the spirit that inspired that
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brave book is alive to-day under a myriad guises. Even if that spirit had not recently found expression in so many ways, and in writings so diverse as Miss Cicely Hamilton's "Marriage as a Trade," and Mrs. Sydney Webb's share in the Minority Report on the Poor Law Commission--we must have known that one of the most important, most indispensable services to Social Reform would have to be undertaken by the Writers.
The magnificent platform work being done from various centres must be supplemented and further spread about the world through the medium of the written word. I don't mean merely by frankly propagandist writing (though I am the last to deny the importance of that), but even more valuable is, I think the spirit of fairness, and of nobler thinking about women, a spirit which both men- and women-writers are able in a thousand ways to illustrate and justify.
It is the business (the business as well as the high privilege) of men- and women-writers to correct the false ideas about women which many writers of the past have fostered.
We are sometimes reminded that though there have been Women of Letters for centuries, they have done comparatively little to deserve a place beside Men of Letters, and still less to win a place beside the Philosophers.
But we remember, too, the sort of encouragement that has always been meted out to the femmes
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savantes of the past. We remember the treatment accorded to Mary Wollstonecraft, to Susan B. Anthony and, in a mitigated degreee, to their followers down to this hour. We cannot pretend to feel surprised if the mass of women have hitherto ventured to taste of publicity, as they say the hounds on the Nile bank drink at the river--running, to avoid the crocidile.
But not to go too deeply into the question of the value or the volume of woman's literary work--if we admit (as, of course, we do) that the great mass of the world's literature is of man's making, women may, by so much, hold themselves more innocent than men, of popularising certain errors about feminine nature.
Now, Suggestion is a mighty force. It is perhaps mightier even than has yet been demonstrated by Modern Science. How much, we ask, how much of woman's past and even her present futility is due to writers constantly dinning it into her ears that for purposes of all activity, save one sort, she is a poor creature and, in comparison with her brother, is as moonlight unto sunlight and as water unto wine? 1
Even the noble-minded Wordsworth could say apologetically of love:
"Though his seat be feeble woman's breast."
1 Milton was an arch-cluprit in encouraging this degradation of the idea of womanhood, a fact emphasised in Miss M. W. Thompson's pamphlet "Adam and Eve."
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You remember, too, Wordsworth's idea of the way in which the returned spirit of the Greek warrior would address his well-loved wife?
"Thou, strong in love, art all too weak in reason,
In self-government too slow." [NOTE]
Then we have the verdict of the modern poet, using prose for once that he may be quite clear. Speaking of the old culture, he says that it was "like a good woman." Ah! a good woman. That sounds hopeful. What is the Good Woman like in the estimation of Mr. Modern Poet. You read on and find that a Good Woman "gives all for love." We have noticed a great unanimity about that. It is the condition always named first, as the prime essential in the good woman. "She gives all for love, and" (the poet continues a little anxiously) "is never jealous." That is also important. But listen to the climax. She gives all for love, she is never jealous, and "is ready to do all the talking . . . !" That surprises you. Woman is not accustomed to being invited so cordially to do even a share of the talking. But the poet is quick to guard against our misunderstanding his urbanity. The good woman is ready, he says, to do all the talking "when we are tired."
The ineffable majesty of that "We" is a thing to remember. But we shall forget it. We are rich in pearls of this sort.
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Nothing would be easier than to multiply these quotations, but we prefer to say straightforwardly that we want men to help us not only to win the vote, but to redress the balance of Suggestion. Women realise that they have wasted a great deal of precious time in trying to be as weak as was expected. We have long been told that the cleverest woman is she who successfully conceals her cleverness. I am bound to admit that many of us have succeeded to a charm in that enterprise. But I protest that a great deal of our success was the result of the power of Suggestion. More than one generation was taught that the truly feminine way of meeting any crisis was to fall in a graceful faint. As a womanly accomplishment, swooning long ranked with dancing and wool-work. It survives (that accommodating desire to be as feeble as man may require) in the readiness with which a girl will subdue her physical strength, and allow herself to be helped (even by the most casual and indifferent acquaintance) to mount a stile, or to cross a brook, tasks which the able-bodied young woman is as competent to undertake as is the man at her side. Not the most inveterate romanticist among us has the smallest fear that when the young woman no longer conceals her ability to ford the brook alone--that her cavalier will find no means of showing his manly resourcefulness and his devotion.
For the rest, we need to be told not how weak we
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are, but how strong we are. And I do not think that even in that we differ so much from men.
EARLY in the summer of 1909 Mrs. Pankhurst again adressed the Prime Minister by letter. She told him that a Ninth Parliament of Women would meet on June 29th, that a resolution would be framed, and that it would be taken to him by a deputation which would wait on him at the House of Commons at eight o'clock that same evening. Mrs. Pankhurst added that the deputation could accept no compromise, and must insist upon their constitutional right to be received. The Prime Minister returned the usual formal refusal.
But for the resourcefulness of the W.S.P.U. leaders, the issue of this deputation would have differed in no way from that of the many others. The leaders were wise enough to see that the best immediate change that could be looked for, with any confidence, would be the removal from police-court jurisdiction of the cases arising out of arrest.
The political motive behind these demonstrations would stand a far better chance of ventilation and comprehension if tried by jury.
The legalised number of persons composing the previous deputations had deliberately been exceeded, in the hope that the offenders might, as was threatened, be charged under a Statute of Charles II, which limited the number of petitioners to twelve. But the need, in apply-
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ing this law, to carry suffrage cases out of comparative obscurity, into the strong light of the higher Court, no doubt prevented the revival of the ancient method of dealing with inconvenient demands.
There remained for voteless persons The Bill of Rights.
This concession of the time of William and Mary enunciated the right of the subject to petition the King. As the King, by the custom of our time, abstains from intervention in political affairs, petitions upon any such ground are addressed to the head of the party in power. To the Prime Minister, then, as representing the King, petitioners must submit their grievances. If the petitioners are men, they may find difficulty in securing redress, but no body of people finds difficulty in securing a hearing--with the exception of women who desire Citizen Rights.
A week before the meeting of the Ninth Women's Parliament Miss Wallace-Dunlop stencilled on the wall of St. Stephen's Hall--
BILL OF RIGHTS
"It is the right of the Subject to petition the King, and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitioning are illegal."
Miss Dunlop was escorted out of the Hall by the police before she could make sure the impression was clear. For a second attempt to remind Parliament that the ancient liberties of the English people could not be violated with impunity, Miss Dunlop was arrested, and tried on the charge of wilfully and maliciously damaging
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the wall of the House of Commons. She was convicted, and on refusal to pay a fine she was sent to prison.
Miss Dunlop was in Holloway when the meeting so significantly advertised took place.
The deputation which left Caxton Hall on the 29th of June was headed by Mrs. Pankhurst, Miss Neligan (a lady aged seventy-six, who had been headmistress of a girls' school), and six others.
After scenes of violence and disorder, having their sole origin in the police opposition to the advance of the little band, Mrs. Pankhurst and her companions were arrested. The indignation of their friends and followers found new expression that night.
As the horde of mounted police forced back the crowds that filled Parliament Square, a number of Suffragettes produced small stones round which petitions were wrapped, and choosing the lower windows on the ground floors of Government offices, dark and deserted at that hour, the stones with their messages were sent through the Government glass. A hundred and eight women were arrested. Ninety-four pleaded the right of the subject to petition. Their cases were suspended until "a point of law" had been examined in the High Court. The Lord Chief Justice ruled that the right to petition undoubtedly existed. He proceeded to prove the foolishess of which the laws not infrequently give evidence, by adding that the King's representative was not obliged to receive the petition.
It was like saying to the starving: Here is bread, but whoever eats shall be punished.
Pending inquiry into the validity of the ancient Bill of Rights, the woman who had printed it on the walls of the House of Commons was shut up in Holloway, under such a sentence as is commonly passed on pickpockets and dis-
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orderly drunkards: one month in the Third Division. This was not the first time Miss Wallace-Dunlop had gone to prison in the cause of women's political liberty. But apparently she had now made up her mind that the same treatment as is given to political prisoners when those prisoners are men should be given to political prisoners when they are women. The point was admirably taken. If a woman was able to compel acknowledgment of her political rights in His Majesty's prisons, the continued denial of her political rights outside would be shown its essential absurdity.
Furthermore, in the remaining time during which women are denied political recognition in the world outside, they might (as Miss Wallace-Dunlop was the first to prove) either secure that recognition in prison or secure their release. To do this was to strike shrewdly at authority. But at a cost so great to the prisoner that no one believed it could be borne, least of all by a delicate woman.
Nevertheless, Miss Dunlop secured her release from prison, and all but release from life, by ruthless use of the Hunger Strike.
The effectiveness of this terrible weapon was recognised at once.
The authorities supposed that in Miss Dunlop they had an example of such iron resolution as would not come their way again.
The day that saw her discharge saw fourteen other Suffragettes sent to the same prison. Every one of them demanded political treatment. Failing it, every one of them adopted the Hunger Strike.
The device was new, and little understood by the public.
People who had never missed two consecutive meals in their lives joked and laughed at the idea of adding the
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slow torture of starvation to the other miseries of prison life. People who became savage if the fourth meal in the day were ten minutes late were perfectly certain the women wouldn't hold out.