THE WOMEN WRITERS by Elizabeth Robins
Essay from the collection
Way Stations by Elizabeth Robins
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THE WOMEN WRITERS *
by Elizabeth Robins
Hypertext formatting by Joanne E. Gates
Dr. Cobb, Ladies and Gentlemen:
Most of what I have to say will be addressed to my fellow Women Writers. But I should like, in passing, to put before the gentlemen present a point of view too often obscured in this controversy of ours. There are people under the impression that Anti-Suffragists have a better opinion of men that Suffragists have. I want to say that the very reverse of that is true. I might go farther, and say that only Suffragists really have faith in men. Only Suffragists really respect them. You cannot respect men if you do not respect human nature. There is such a very great deal of human nature in men.
I was reminded afresh a day or two ago of the way in which Anti-Suffragists (all unconsciously) betray their poor opinion of men. This one of many instances occurs in the speech a woman writer made, a little while ago, at a dinner of the Hardwick Society--a speech against the resolution in favour of women as jury members. What this lady said may be supposed to have had some weight, for she
* At the Criterion, May 2, 1910.
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was chosen as a brilliant and distinguished (deservedly distinguished) representative of our profession--not the founder and leader of the Anti-Suffragist party, but a woman well-accustomed to the success that crowned her efforts on the occasion to which I refer. For the resolution she spoke against was defeated by a large majority. In the course of her speech this Woman Writer said she was opposed to the participation of her own sex in the administration of justice. She declared that woman's nature did not contain "a proper element of justice" . . . . that women were by nature unfair, though (notice this), though their unfairness, in some instances, was a source of fascination. "Where," she asked, "would men get sympathy if women were impartial?"
The report does not say how the great legal lights and other learned gentlemen met that shock--but it is the kind of back-handed compliment the Anti-Suffragist will often pay.
Only the Suffragists appreciate you, gentlemen! If we criticize you from time to time, what does that show but our own good faith, and our confidence in yours. We will criticize you to your faces, and give you a chance to set us right!
Now, to my fellow Women Writers I have something to say about our work--about the field for the exercise of literary talent, and for service to our Cause.
We have agreed before today as to the practically
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limitless power of Suggestion. When we talk about Suggestion we know we are dealing with forces beyond any reach of science as yet to gauge. Still we notice how, for ages, this great factor of Suggestion has been pressed into the service of the education of men. From the time a boy is old enough to follow a fairy tale, he is told how Jack killed the Giant. Jack always kills the Giant, just as David always slays Goliath. When the boy is older he begins to take from history, from the classics, and from literature in general, the incentive and the cue for action.
The Philosophy of History is new in education. Until yesterday history was little more than the record of the deeds of heroes--of men who fought against great obstacles and overcame them.
Now what impression is the eager girl-mind given of the world? That is the place not only where all the great deeds are done by men--but a place where all the great qualities are said to be masculine. The world will never know how much power to serve it has been killed in women's hearts by that old phrase, "Only a girl." The pages of the past are strewn with such records as that which says: "A daughter was born this day to Duke Ercole, and received the name of Beatrice, being the child of Madonna Leonora, his wife. And there were no rejoicings--because everyone wished for a son." Yet what boy of that noble house made so great a figure in fifteenth-century Italy--what Prince of D'Este exercised such influence upon art and politics
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as this same Beatrice? And in whom of all her house is the general reader (as well as the student of the Renaissance) so ready to take an interest in to-day?
My complaint is that enough has not been made of such traces as history preserves of significant lives lived by women. When biographies are attempted, too often they fall into feeble hands. Or worse--into the hands of those literary scavengers who search women's lives in the spirit of Peeping Tom. Some of the greatest women of the past have suffered most from this sort of posthumous dishonor. When we read the pages of such chroniclers as I have in mind, we see again and yet again that the fine work the woman did was an offense--for which she is made to pay by gross intrusion into her private life, and by misleading accounts of some detail which the intrusion revealed. What is there in such biographies to inspire and lead you on? Everything rather to lame the spirit, and drive you back into obscurity. Yet these literary outrages should rather call upon women to take possession of this field themselves.
As an illustration of what a woman can do here, let us take that fine example of art, which was also a fine example of literary friendship, Mrs. Gaskell's "Life of Charlotte Brontë." Very gifted men have tried their hands at that story. Oblivion is their portion.
Would that George Eliot had found a Mrs. Gas-
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kell too! George Eliot's life fell into the hands of a man whom every lover of literature must honour on other grounds. His failure over George Eliot's life was the reward of his secret contempt for greatness when it appeared in the guise of a woman. I think few well-intentioned men can enjoy writing about a woman's life. They do it with so embarrassed an air. Perhaps they feel like a man asked to do housework when he longs to follow the fortunes of soldiers, kings, conquistadores.
But the distaste for recording the domestic life of woman is as nothing compared to the distaste for contemplating her in any other relation. Before that dilemma you will notice how the less irate man will take refuge in facetiousness. When the diplomatists of Great Catherine's day were routed by the Empress, they salved their feelings by calling her "Kitty of Russia"--well behind her back, as has been said. Some of the most distinguished men of the last century, who went to see George Eliot, were disturbed at finding her an object of general homage. They came away joking nervously about the High Priestess, the Oracle, the Sibyl. No such need to ridicule a great influence afflicted these gentlemen at the spectacle of reverence shown George Meredith--reverence so gladly paid by women as well as men. But we must forgive those gentlemen. Shakespeare himself could not resist belittling Joan of Arc.
Men have one excuse for this sort of blindness
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which women have not. Women know that, advantageous as it may be to be born a man, it is a tremendously fine thing to be born a woman. This is the knowledge we must pass on to girls. I hear there are girls who hate so-called girls' books.They cannot have been given Miss Evelyn Sharp's. But why do they hate the ordinary girls' book? Because many a girl resents being put off with mere goody-goody, and variants of the Patient-Griselda theme. They like to hear about girls who feel as they themselves feel, and who do some of the things they long to do.
The average woman, too, takes an interest in other women, and in other women's achievements--an interest which, in the average man, seems largely confined to the love story. The woman likes the love story too. But she knows very well that isn't all there is to be said about a woman's life.
We especially like hearing about people who have travelled our road. The woman in society makes such a run on a book like Lady St. Helier's "Recollections" that The Times' Club has to insert a pathetic little slip beseeching the reader to send back the volume at the earliest possible moment. If you are a member of a profession, no book has for you quite the same fascination as a book by, or about, a woman of the same craft. When I first began to be interested in the Stage I scoured the libraries for lives of actresses. But the biographies seemed to be nearly all about the actors, and very poor when they
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weren't! Not till actresses took to writing their own lives did we have records of women in this art so illuminating, so masterly, as Fanny Kemble's "Recollections." "The Life of Clara Morris," or that work of magic--where between the two boards of a book you shall find the charm, the poetry of a personality that made the English stage a place of enchantment during the reign of Ellen Terry. These, and books like them, are a foretaste of that library that waits to be written.
I stood the other day thinking over these things before a boy's bookcase. Do that, any of you. You will feel afresh how well men have served their half of the world in this great matter of Suggestion. All those stirring stories, those high adventures, whether historic--like "The Life of Nelson" or "The Story of our Empire," whether Miss Yonge's "Greek Heroes" or tales like Stevenson's "Treasure Island," or Kipling's "Kim"; and others, rows and rows!
Which, of these books, tells about a girl's courage, good temper, wit, resourcefulness, endurance? Not one. Have these qualities, then, been lacking in our sex? We know the answer to that. These qualities were all there, but they had to wait for women themselves to celebrate them.
I do not complain of men in this connection. We all write best what we know best. And in one way the untilled field is a piece of good fortune for the Women Writers of the future--the women who
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(among other things) are going to fulfill, at last, the ancient Euripidean prophecy of a day when the old bards' stories--
"Of frail brides and faithless shall be shrivelled as with fire.
. . . . . . . . . . .
And woman, yea, woman, shall be terrible in story.
The tales, too, meseemeth, shall be other than of yore
For a fear there is that cometh out of woman and a glory,
And the hard hating voices shall encompass her no more."
Fellow members of the League, you have such a field as never writers had before. An almost virgin field. You are, in respect of life described fearlessly from the woman's standpoint--you are in that position for which Chaucer has been so envied by his brother poets, when they say he found the English language with the dew upon it. You find woman at the dawn.
Critics have often said that women's men are badly drawn. Ladies, what shall we say of many of the girls drawn by men? I think we shall be safer not to say. But there she stands--the Real Girl!--waiting for you to do her justice. No mere chocolate box "type," but a creature of infinite variety, of curiosities and ambitions, of joy in physical action, of high dreams of love and service, sharer in her brother's
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". . . exultations, agonies,
And man's unconquerable soul."
The Great Adventure is before her. Your Great Adventure is to report her faithfully. So that her children's children reading her story shall be lifted up--proud and full of hope. "Of such stuff," they shall say,"our mothers were! Sweethearts and wives--yes, and other things besides: leaders, discoverers, militants, fighting every form of wrong."
T HE "Antis" had an ally little suspected amongst the rank and file in either camp.
Those persons who were relying on the avowed pro-Suffrage opinions of certain Cabinet Ministers received a rude shock in the course of the debate on the second reading of the Conciliation Bill, July 11th and 12th, 1910.
The measure was supported from the Government bench by Mr. Haldane and Mr. Runciman. From the Conservative side by Mr. Balfour, Mr. Alfred Lyttleton, and Lord Hugh Cecil. Among Labour men by Mr. Snowden, Mr. Keir Hardie, and Mr. Shackleton. Irish support was given by Mr. William Redmond and Mr. Kettle. The expected speeches from consistent Anti-Suffragist Members were coolly received in the House, and made little or no impression outside. But that cannot be said of two other contributions to the debate. To the unbounded delight of the Antis and the stupefaction
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of Suffragists, the frankly "Anti" Prime Minister was supported in his denunciation of the Bill (though ostensibly on different grounds) by two Ministers calling themselves Sufragists.
Mr. Winston Churchill, whose advance in understanding of the question had been so marked during the Dundee election, now, from his safe seat on the Government bench, spoke against the Bill.
Rumours called "wild" were current on the eve of the debate to the effect that Mr. Lloyd George was not so well pleased with the Bill as the Conciliation Committee thought they had reason to believe. But this idea was scouted even by persons not concerned to uphold the seriousness of Mr. Lloyd George's avowed convictions on the subject of Woman Suffrage. Among those who, upon whatever ground believed in the principle, who better than Mr. Lloyd George would understand the importance of sustaining and utilising the hard-won unity of policy declared by the most active friends of Suffrage throughout the kingdom? Who better than Mr. Lloyd George could appreciate the tactical reasons for the moderation of the Bill? Who better realise the futulity of trying to get a wider Bill through at this juncture? Who better know, if he had any right to call himself a Suffragist at all, the importance of not letting slip this best chance that had ever come of securing at least some sort of political recognition for women? Here more than anywhere in the political field, c'est le premier pas qui coûte.
Mr. Lloyd George did all in his power to kill the Conciliation Bill. He afterwards boasted publicly of his success.
The weakening effect of Mr. Lloyd George's desertion
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was less apparent in the immediate than in the secondary results. The predisposition of the House in favour of the Bill was shown in the passing of the second reading by a large majority.
Those who knew anything of the history of the Suffrage question knew that the triumphant second reading was but one step, and not even a decisive one, on the way to serious dealing with the issue. Suffragists who still believed that Mr. Lloyd George had not given conciliation its death-blow, were much perplexed to see the poor Bill fall into one of those traps provided for the hopes of simple-minded reformers by "Parliamentary Procedure." Even persons whose business is to know this game--(none too dignified when used for gambling over issues of grave importance)--were beaten in the next round of "Parliamentary Parcedure." Some of the best-intentioned friends of the Conciliation Bill voted that the measure should now be discussed in the whole House, instead of being sent to a Grand Committee. This vote was carried. Result: deadlock, unless the Government would "give time." The Government, under the leadership of an Anti-Suffragist, naturally declined to give time.
Great are the uses of Parliamentary Procedure.
Every effort was made outside the Commons to induce Mr. Asquith to yield this point of "time." A great campaign was carried on throughout the country with the aim of consilidating, and making yet more evident, the growing volume of opinion to the effect that the head of the Government, standing also as chief interpreter of the will of the poeple, should give heed to a demand so well and so widely supported. Though he should continue to ignore the wishes of women who were Suffragists, he
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might, they hoped, be induced to listen to the increasing number of men who were Suffragists--to the resolutions passed by the great civic corporations of Manchester, Liverpool, Bradford, Nottingham, Glasgow, Dundee, Dublin, Cork, and thirty more, calling on the Government to "give time" for the Women's Bill.
The hopes raised by the support of these popularly elected bodies were dashed by the voice crying out in Wales against Conciliation. Not the Prime Minister himself was more concerned to defeat the Bill, which enjoyed the largest support ever given to a measure for enfranchising women, than the "Suffragist" Chancellor of the Exchequer. What effect Mr. Lloyd George's denunciations had upon the general public we cannot say. But we can speak for their effect upon the people who were working hardest, and caring most whole-heartedly, for the issues bound up in the political recognition of women. Realising Mr. Lloyd George's growing influence in the Cabinet, they began to recognise in him the chief obstacle to a peaceful solution of the Suffrage problem. Hopes of gaining their end by compromise, by conciliation, by truce, waned as the autumn wore on. The sense of uneasiness and suspense increased daily. At last, in response to pressure on the part of women in his constitutency, Mr. Asquith received a small deputation in East Fife. All the encouragement he vouchsafed them was contained in the assurance that facilities for carrying forward the Conciliation Bill would certainly not be granted before the end of the year. When they pressed for something more definite than that, asking what they had to hope in the year to come, his answer was: "Wait and see."
The Women's Social and Political Union felt that it had waited and seen enough.
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The truce was declared at an end. At the next Albert Hall meeting, in a few minutes, a sum of £9,000 was subscribed to the new fighting fund.
In the same month, November, 1910, the Liberal-Conservative Conference publicly confessed its failure to arrive at an understanding. The quarrel between Lords and Commons was to be submitted almost at once to the test of a General Election.
On the Friday after the assembling of Parliament (November 18th, 1910), Mr. Asquith outlined his programme. Those women, more patient than other Suffragists, eagerly listening for some word with regard to the political claims of their half of the world, heard the Prime Minister laying down one after another proposals intended to meet the wishes of electors. When would he remember the women? He found a place even for a proposal which the country had shown no eagerness for, and which many Members of the House of Commons (on divers grounds) had hotly opposed--a proposal to lay upon taxpayers the extra burden of payment of Members of Parliament--men whom women might not vote for or against, but would have to help to pay. No slightest reference to that portion of the public who were women. The nation might have been composed solely of men for all the consideration of the Liberal Government deigned to show to women's special interests, their demands or their very existence.
And what, all this time, was being done with the Conciliation Bill? It had been blessed by a majority made up of all parties, yet it had fallen out of the category of measures having power to achieve the sole end for which they were brought into being. Under the subtle disability of that spell "Parliamentary Procedure" it
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had mysteriously "gone lame." It was not fit, apparently, to enter the open lists. So successfully had it been hamstrung, that it made no perceptible struggle for a place in the programme of important measures. Its sponsors in Parliament seemed to have acquiesced in its being smuggled out of sight--at least for the time being.
By observing how other Bills unwelcome to authority secured attention, women were beginning to realise there is only one fitting season for a measure of admitted urgency, and that is Now.
In anticipation of Mr. Asquith's pronouncement of policy, the day that saw it made public saw the members of the Woman's Social and Political Union holding a public meeting. When they heard of the silence maintained in Parliament on the subject of the Conciliation Bill, when they learned that the sole recognition of woman's existence was the tacit suggestion to levy a fresh tax upon them, the largest deputation yet despatched set out from Caxton Hall to the House of Commons--a via Dolorosa never to be forgotton either by the three hundred volunteers, or by other women in the throng threading Parliament Square and the tributary streets.
The deputation had been divided into detachments, the first headed by Mrs. Pankhurst. Another by a sister of Mrs. Fawcett, Dr. Garrett Anderson, twice Mayor of Aldeburgh. Her venerable face, lined and valiant, reminded me of those battles long ago, when she had pioneered a way for women into the medical profession just as, now at seventy years of age, she was prepared to pioneer a way for women which she could not hope herself to travel far--the broad highway of equal citizenship. Mrs. Cobden-Sanderson, the Hon. Mrs. Haverfield, and
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Princess Sophia Dhuleep Singh were amongst those leading other groups.
Many women not of the duputation, but concerned for it, yielded to the exhortation that they should "stand by," or mingle with the crowd. Even these mere witnesses became quickly aware that a great draft of police new to this sort of exigency had been called out. They were perceived to be carrying into effect, with a ruthless unanimity, some new idea of how women on a deputation to the Prime Minister should be treated. Instead of arresting them after a struggle, the instruction evidently was to use harsher measures than had ever yet been employed in order to avoid the necessity of arrest. These inconvenient women were to be so terrorised that this deputation might be the last, and that the prisons might be relieved of a class of offender highly embarrassing alike to penal authority and to the Government.
I am so far from being the person qualified to write the story of that day, I cannot even read the accounts (attested and sworn) by the women of character who where the chief actors--chief vicitms. I did not myself see the worst, but I saw enough to send me away sick and shuddering, after two hours spent in going through and about the vast crowds, taking back to Caxton Hall or to the nearest tea-shop, or giving for a few minutes the shelter of the cab to now one, now another woman, bruised, fainting, aghast.
I have to set down this fact: I saw no one who had been out in the struggle that day who was not determined, the moment she got back breath and strength, to return to the others--those tragic figures still fruitlessly battling their way towards the Gate for Strangers. One woman was so hurt that we tried to get her away--long enough at
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least for a chance to recover. I thought we had succeeded, and was rejoicing at the police order to drive on, when a break in the crowd showed the vision of an old lady struggling among insulting faces. The woman in our cab, not young herself, broke from us, opened the door, and the last we saw of her she was fighting her way towards the older woman through the shouting, surging mass. No, not the last of her. The police had cleared a way and compelled our chauffeur to move on. But the woman's face kept following us; her words went on beating at our ears: "I didn't know! Oh, I didn't know--until to-day!"
One hundred and fifteen women, persisting in the face of every brutality in trying to reach the Commons, were finally arrested.
No wonder that those responsible for the action of the police that day shrank from seeing the true history of "Black Friday" exposed. A quite unprecedented course was initiated the next morning in the police-court. Every one of the hundred and fifteen prisoners was released, apparently in the hope that (being denied the chance of making public the facts attested by witness) the treatment to which the deputation had been subjected might never be known except to the perpetrators and their victims.
In saying this one seems to record an impression of deliberate cruelty hardly human. Yet we know quite well the cruelty could not have been as deliberate as it seemed. To have forseen it in all its hideousness the instigators must have been men of imagination as well as fiends. I believe they were mere blunderers. I believe they afterwards bitterly regretted the bad statesmanship which devised this new way of evading their
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obligations--and that they shrank with a weakness entirely human from knowing more about the appalling result. Three years before, Authority had missed the one right way of successfully meeting the new need, and all this wild essaying, first one and then another wrong way, only bewildered overburdened wits and strained exasperated nerves.
In nothing had the wrong way failed more signally than in the endeavour to terrorise women. That new knowledge of life and its meaning to others, the admission made by the refuge of a moment springing out of the little haven of the cab, found witnesses in many a heart. Only perhaps through some such conflict could the sheltered learn the need of the shelterless, learn the contempt felt by Authority for women as a sex, the depth of the disrespect felt by the man in the street for the woman in the street.
The implications in that lesson made the sufferings of Black Friday ministrant not to horrified self-pity, but to a new sense of sex solidarity, a new ideal of service to those who have not merely an hour or so of disrespect to endure, but a lifetime.
Three days after the great essay at terrorising women, yet another deputation renewed the attempt to interview the Prime Minister--waiting at Westminister till the House rose. The next day Mr. Asquith thought well to promise that he would give facilities in the new Parliament for effectively proceeding with a Suffrage Bill so framed as to admit to free amendment. But he declined to say whether the opportunity, such as it was, would be given during the first year of the new Parliament.
More at the moment than later the Women's Social and Political Union was blamed for not accepting Mr. As-
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quith's promise as a valuable concession, and blamed for continuing militant acts which resulted in the arrest of one hundred and fifty-nine more women.
At the General Election, which took place at the fag-end of the year 1910, the Woman's Social and Politcal Union consistently opposed the Government nominee. In ten constituencies where the women were active the Government lost. All the expense and dislocation of trade and of life in general, incident to a trial of party strength, resulted in the paltry gain of one additional Liberal seat. To contrast the results of this election with that of 1906, when the Liberals swept the country, was to form some ideal of the fall in Liberal prestige.
Meanwhile, others besides the leaders of the Woman's Social and Politcal Union had reached the conclusion that Mr. Asquith's promise of some facility some day, was on examination a less explicit assurance than could be accepted by serious sponsors for a serious reform. The Conciliation Bill was resuscitated, and its scope somewhat modified in an eneavour to remove Mr. Lloyd George's objections.
In May, at a debate on the second reading of the revised Bill, 255 memebers voting in favour brought in a majority of 167. Surely now, after these repeated endorsements, the Government would grant the necessary "further facilities" at no distant day. Yet distant it was to be.
The year 1911 was yet young when Suffragists heard that the best facilities obtainable for going forward with the Bill were to take effect some time in 1912.
The Militants prepared for protest. Under this spur some clarification of the promise was elicited with great difficulty.
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The Woman's Social and Politcal Union turned from the thoughts of immediate militancy to the work of organising once more a popular demonstration of a nature entirely peaceful.
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