IN CONCLUSION (Woman's War) by Elizabeth Robins
Essay from the collection
Way Stations by Elizabeth Robins
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IN CONCLUSION *
by Elizabeth Robins
Hypertext formatting by Joanne E. Gates
THE later history of the Women's Movement will be more readily recalled than the circumstances I have set down, circumstances which furnish the key to more recent happenings.
Unprejudiced minds will have noted how women passed from stage to stage, trying all peaceful measures, trying them over and over with a persistence and a hopefulness that in retrospect moves us to marvel not that some women sometimes showed impatience, but that so many for so long repressed impatience. 1
And what, finally, has been the effect alike of patience and impatience?
The vote is not yet won. It is irrevocably coming, as its opponents know and frequently admit. In despair at relinquishing their hope to do more than delay Woman Suffrage for a space, the Antis are filling the void with Cassandra-prophecies of the evils that Suffrage will bring. They point to manifestations which Militancy has made common among women as heralds of the bitter days to be.
* Printed in McClure's Magazine, for March, 1913, under the title of: "Woman's War."
1 Since writing this, the same view has been publicly expressed by a member of the Government, Mr. F. W. Acland, Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs.
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We do not deny that women are changed. They are more changed than their critics know.
Let us consider some of the more obvious changes wrought by Militancy, first upon the individual, and second upon the generality.
Take the effect upon individual women. These years of conflict--of severance from friends, of brutalities suffered in the streets and at public meetings, of torture undergone in prison--have for their immediate effect upon the individual the strengthening of many a soul and the shattering of a good many bodies. In addition to this, some observers think they see the marks of the long strain upon the public policy of individual women in the movement, and in the private relationship between certain of the workers.
To have escaped some such result of a struggle so protracted and kept at so high pitch, women must needs have ceased being human. Admittedly, the opponents of Woman Suffrage have never been able to hamper our advance as have other Suffragists--whether by leading a section of the forces off the main route, or by standing neutral at some crisis when not to be for was to be against. This is not an experience peculiar to women's parties. Nor for the first time in the history of political movements have these errors been encouraged or instigated by the enemy. For an ally to take the wrong road in all good faith, or for conscientious Doubt to call a halt (Doubt full as honest as the Conviction that
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cried "on")--incidents such as these could, at their worst, only complicate and momentarily hamper the campaign. The morale of the Woman's Movement could be affected only by the setting in opposition forces which had been fighting for the same end. To do this has always been a highly effectual tactic on the part of the common enemy--the more effectual, perhaps, when employed by men against the subtler forces of women in revolt than in conflicts between men.
When the present First Lord of the Admiralty was Home Secretary he unfolded to a soldier-friend his difficulty in dealing with the Militants, and told of precautions he was taking for the future--extra police protection and severities of sorts. The soldier shook his head. "You will never make a success," he said, "of setting men to fight women. Your only hope is to set women against women." This theory was turned into visible practice when it was so ably supported by the strategist of the Cabinet, the "Suffragist" minister who drove the wedge of discord into the compact body of Suffragist support to the Conciliation Bill of 1910.
But if what has befallen men's parties, time after time, befalls women's also--what then?
What if that close union within the Union is dissolved? We would rather the dissolution had never come, or had come after the vote was won. Yet who shall feel sure that the purpose for which the association was formed had not already been accom-
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plished? Its true mission was the Awakening of Women. Not solely to get them votes, but to make them realise the power resident in the vote; and the woman's need (man's need as well) that women should exercise that power. Touched by the pathetic fear of the Anti that Woman Suffrage spells chaos and old England's doom instead of her Regeneration, Suffragists of the "soothing" sort have been known to point to places where giving the vote to women has "made no perceptible difference." If such comfort is not illusory, it is a shame to any land of which it could be justly said. It is a shame to the women of that land--a proof that they are unfaithful stewards of their trust, or that even more needful than we knew was the fuller enlightenment the Militants have won.
Had the Powers That Be as much foresight as they have inflexibility, they would have granted a meagre instalment of Woman Suffrage as soon as the demand became earnest. Deprived of the main ground of complaint (since the principle would have been conceded), the majority even of enfranchised women would have looked upon the vote with so little realisation of its power, that the weapon might have lain in their hands, little used, perhaps for a generation.
The longer all the women in the country are denied a vote, the wider must be the door which ultimately admits them, and the greater the changes which their entrance on the scene will effect. Meanwhile,
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they have learned from the repressive measures of those who would keep them out, more than ever the Suffrage leaders could teach them.
As I have admitted, those who cry, that Militancy has left its mark on women, are right. So far as concerns the active Militants themselves, we have seen that women who were so concerned to know that Government offices were empty before they sent stones through the windows in June, were less concerned in November for the bodily safety of those within. Why was that? Not solely because women en bloc are very much like men en bloc, nor merely because all women will not turn the other cheek any more than will all men. The consideration that urged on the Militants in November, was that the officials nominally behind Government windows were found to be in no danger so great as the danger of remaining indifferent to, or ignorant of, their non-performance of public duty. No public servant, however unfaithful, had suffered, or was likely to suffer, as scores of women had been made to suffer. We do not deny that the earlier concern for the bodily safety of officials became secondary to a concern for Suffragists, after seeing them come out of prison sick and broken from the disgusting struggle with prison authority armed with hose-pipes and unclean nasal tubes.
Each individual woman who went through the horror of such experience became a centre of enlightenment for all whom she might thereafter reach. Never again for her, or for her friends, any cobweb
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left of that old illusion as to the chivalry of the average official. "This and this they did to me rather than admit my purpose honest, rather than treat me as decently as they treat men convicted of the baser crimes."
Is it rational to expect these experiences to leave a woman unchanged? If she were to remain unchanged would she not prove herself more insensate than the brutes?
People who would insist that such things shall leave a woman unmoved are not merely those who would deny her right to the ballot. They would deny her right to the feelings of a human being.
A great deal of water will flow under Westminster Bridge before women forget what men were willing to see them suffer rather than see them voters; before they forget the forbearance shown to malcontents in Ulster and at Tonypandy, as contrasted with the brutality shown malcontents at Wrexham and Llanistumdwy. Much as we desire to see understanding and good-will between the sexes--do we want women to forget these lessons?
Let us be frank about this.
Let us recognise that many a woman who took no part in it owes to the public struggle her first knowledge of those struggles, carried on for ages, out of the public eye. This dear-bought knowledge has changed the intellectual outlook on the world for many a woman who has no fault to find with her own individual lot, nor with the attitude towards her-
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self of the men she has known best. The first shrinking realisation of what kind of a world this is to tens of thousands of women has brought many a happy and peace-loving soul to wonder whether the fiery ordeal in the open, and the lonely battle in the gaols, may not have been needed to set free the spirit of a sex limited for ages, to those small garden plots of life--to stray outside which was to fall upon dishonour.
The most ardent pacifist will hesitate to deny the truth of that militant saying: "Few of us believe in peace at any price." Who, seeing a little child attacked or in need of protection from violence, who of us would withhold help, even if help (to effect its end) involved our using physical force? Tolstoy told a private friend that even in such a case he would refrain. Few other men, I think, and few women.
Those who thought it permissible only in men to defy tyranny, had said that nothing but evil could come of women's expressing moral indignation with all their might, and as variously as men have done, at every crisis in history.
Only evil could come of it? One of the best things in civilisation has come of it. Proof of moral and physical courage in women not as a rare exception, here or there, at call of motherhood, or of any personal devotion, but as a basis in character, to be looked for, counted on.
The militant campaign has not yet won votes? No. But the Militants have campaigned to such
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purpose that there are to-day more free women in England than in anywhere in the world--free with a freedom of which the ballot will be a symbol, but which the ballot cannot in itself endue with the essence of liberty, or charge with effective authority.
Those who have watched the chains fall off from one after another during these last half-dozen years will understand. Persons from whom these moral and spiritual experiences have been hidden may allow me, in a page or two, to illustrate what has been happening.
One object-lesson came at a time of such need that, if it can be passed on faithfully enough, it may hearten others.
At perhaps the most crucial hour in the history of women's struggle for the vote, certain politicians from whom better things were expected had made a grave mistake--through lack of information, as some women believed. How to bring that information home was the concern of those who (in face of some evidence to the contrary) held to their faith in men's fundamental fairness. Those who spend their lives in the House of Commons could not get this information there. And, at the time I speak of, they could not get such information from the press, since, owing to the tension, that often open door was closed. Word was brought of letters to the more influential papers being refused, or held back till they were useless.
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To a woman lying ill came an appeal that she should set down a statement of how the matter looked to a Suffragist. The first impulse to call such an undertaking impossible was repressed. An article, destined for an editor wide-minded, chivalrous, was written--at what cost need not be insisted on. Time was the great factor. The editor had telegraphed he would reserve space. The article was finished; but it might be thought too long, or in some detail need revision. The writer left her bed and took the article to London.
She found the editor genial and serene, even a little jocular on the score of "the eternal theme." He read the first paragraph, and under the eyes of his old contributor became a stranger--a man she had not only never seen before, but never guessed at. What he said was less illuminating than what he looked.
What! to want to talk about the motive behind deeds that called for nothing but wholesale condemnation? "And this . . . this stone-throwing! You justify . . . !"
"I explain it," she answered.
"Isn't it possible for you to understand! An article like this would bring down a charge of conspiracy on any one who signed it." The contributor's readiness to take the risk was fuel on the flame. Any editor who published such opinions would be indictable! He stood up with that changed face, repeating "Stones!--and people like you"--etc., pelt-
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ing the contributor again, and yet again, with "Stones!"
Only for unadulterated blame and execration of Militancy was any admittance there, or anywhere else--according to the most open-minded of editors.
The initial "Conspiracy," then (that of the authorities to deny fair hearing to their women opponents) was, as we have been told, matched by conspiracy in the press. The public was to be shut out from so much as a chance of hearing the other side.
The spare hour before train-time was spent at a confectioner's near the station. No one else in the tea-room behind the shop. The repulsed contributor drew up shivering to the fire, going over what had happened. She had come far to try to help a little towards better understanding. All she had achieved was a realisation that better understanding wasn't wanted. The mere attempt at it resented as mortal offence.
The worst of what had happened was that the experience did not stand alone. Better women had fared worse. If those women in prison could be so profoundly misunderstood, how was the understanding ever to come? A sense of the immensity of the undertaking Suffragists had shouldered overwhelmed her; she sat bowed down. Presently, a consciousness that someone had come in. Not the waistress--she had been and gone. The woman by the fire lifted her
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head to see a girl standing near, straightening her hat at the overmantel glass, touching the hair that showed intensely dark against her smooth forehead. As the girl looked at herself, the woman looked at her too. Genus: shop-girl, sixteen or seventeen; not very refined; a round face, heavily pretty; full lips, showing the scarlet of health. Not the least made up; her clothes noticeably poor, with an effort at being in the mode. While the girl and the woman both looked at the young face in the glass, the young face changed and turned to confront a man who evidently counted on meeting her in this dull, eminently repspectable place. The man was of superior class; forty-odd; fattish, thick-necked, slightly bald, very sleek and well-turned out. The two sat down at the nearest table. He ordered tea. The woman by the fire, full of other thoughts, forgot them, till presently an accent in the man's voice reached her. He was urging some point. The girl said little. The woman looked again in the fire. The fragments of talk that forced their way to her inattentive ear seemed to take the form of questions: "Didn't you go?" "Why didn't you go?" "Don't you ever go anywhere?" "Why don't you?" The girl was gaining confidence. She answered with growing assurance and a poor little flirtatiousness which he, leaning to her, encouraged with eye and smile. The usual hour for tea was past. No one else there but a tired, abstracted woman and those two. The man made no effort to disguise his quest. The woman
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made no effort to catch even the general drift of what was passing, thinking still of those girl-teachers, women-doctors, Poor Law guardians, social workers and the rest shut up in Holloway--and why some of them had gone there. Presently the woman (whose different way of helping had failed) found that between her and that mental vision of the stone-thrower in her cell the picture at the tea-table had forced its way: the cheap little cockney beauty, bridling, only half-reluctant, wholly provocative, excited, sixteen! The man of forty, his thick neck red below the thin, brilliantined hair, arms on table, head thrust forward turtle-like, the low, educated voice coaxing the ill-paid, ill-educated girl. The gulf between her and the women in prison! So wide, so deep, thought itself was baulked to bridge it.
Even the wayfarer by the fire was too far away. What could the sick, disheartened woman say, what had she to offer this poor, pretty creature so plainly marked out for treading the primrose path to the everlasting bonfire?
To have reached her one must have found her before to-day, in time to make her demand more of life than . . . this.
Then, in the little space of time needed for drawing on a glove, a well-nigh incredible fact in the psychology of the times was presented and made clearer than could have been done by a library of books.
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The "fact" was that the women shut up in prison had got into communication with this girl.
"A previous engagement, have you?" the man was laughing at the excuse. "Who with?" And then, softly, "Who's going to take care of you?"
"Lottie and me are going to see after ourselves."
"You can't. You must let me--"
"Oh, you think we can't do anything except what you say." She put up her chin. Then in the heavily pretty face an odd flash. "Haven't you heard," she said, "that we can break windows?"
The turtle-head drew in as though one of the stones had struck it.
"Stones!" The editor's voice came back. "An educated, decent woman throwing a stone!"
The man at the tea-table was not more surprised than the woman by the fire at seeing what strange shores the widening ripples reached. In the girl's face an instant's reflection of the daring! Bond Street!--the Paradise of such as she, where the windows flash with jewels and blossom with laces and silk--a window smashed in the face of all that luxury was to this poor fly struggling in the meaner web the type of a courage she would never know.
I am afraid the women in Holloway, or out, were too late to save that girl. But the women in Holloway had given her a glimpse, at least, of a possible defiance hurled at evil--one flash of that bright weapon in the air before the dark of yielding.
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I am fully aware that this object-lesson would mean very little to many. In the first place, it presents a concatenation of circumstance too common. In the second, it has been too often sentimentalised clean out of sight of its gruesome end. Men (women too) who have looked on undisturbed at that sort of thing--are full of honest horror at the stone-thrower.
One could almost sympathise with the officials who, all unprepared, were called on to deal with militant women. Men trained to govern and to dominate; brought up from their schooldays to think of women as a race apart, creatures for drudgery, or for smiling and the coy assent in youth, for crooning lullabys in the later years. What wonder the militant women not only angered but dumbfounded the official mind to bewilderment's verge, and toppled it over the verge into the pit of persecution.
Nothing out of the way in a middle-aged man's having a little flirtation with a work-girl over a cup of tea. But a thing monstrous that girls and women should be demanding different conditions in industry, a different wage-scale, a different sort of attention from "kind" gentlemen. And when the kind gentlemen refuse, if, instead of acquiescence, in some hands a stone--the end of the world is at hand unless these "mænads" are severely punished.
You shall search history in vain for a spectacle more tragi-comic than the juxtaposition of the old-fashioned official and the girl in college cap and gown
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--so innocent-looking as seeming to invite the paternal pat on shoulder, until the firm voice puts some highly embarrassing interrogatory about a friend in Abergavenny Gaol. Bad enough to have old or middle-aged women asking inconvenient questions, without having some one who looks the very type of
"Prim little scholars . . .
"Trained to stand in rows, and asking if they please," [NOTE]
standing up at a public meeting to ask: "Why do you sentimentalise about benevolence instead of doing justice?" "Why do you talk of making the Franchise truly representative, when you leave out the women?"
The "kind gentlemen" at Nottingham the other day not only left women out of his "truly representative scheme"--he let them be thrust out before his eyes--after appealing to them to be quiet and "sweet."
"Sweet! People steeled by knowledge of what women are compelled to bear in factories, in sweatshops, and in prisons, were to save their own skins by dint of being "sweet"! The recommendation has a somewhat musty smell. Upon the women's failure to accept it, let us hope for sake of the Liberal gentleman looking on at the subsequent hustling, dragging, gagging, and throwing out--let us hope that not too plain was his satisfaction at the penalty inflicted upon women who decline to be "sweet."
"Why did you go?" was asked of the well-born,
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educated girl lying broken in bed after Llanistumdwy. "You were warned what to expect."
"That was why we went," came the answer.
And then an excuse supplied by a local critic of W.S.P.U. autocracy, "You were sent, I suppose?"
"No," the girl said, "we happened to be near on our holiday."
She and her friend had heard that two women were going to make a protest against a "Suffragist" Minister's offering the public a gift, when his overdue public debt remained unpaid. For that protest "two weren't enough," the girl said; "so we thought we'd better go."
She stopped the flow of pity for her wounds by a feeble attempt to burlesque the trouble she would have when she was better, in doing her hair so as to cover the bare place where a handful had been wrenched out. She refused to be commiserated for that and worse. "It wasn't so bad. I did hear the voices shouting horrible things. I saw the distorted faces, fists and sticks in the air. But I never felt the blows. I remembered the women at Wrexham. I'd do it again."
And here I come to the chief gain that emerges from these years, next after (or perhaps even before) those lessons in the protection afforded by the vote. People make much of division among Suffragists. Division among politicians is not new in the world. What is new is the passion of impersonal loyalty
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which the fuller knowldege has evoked amongst rank and file.
The women of the past were never aware to the extent that we are now aware of the penalty other women pay for our mean content with a better lot.
No one has been able to say that in the evil days behind, any body of independent women realised the price other women had to pay for the supineness of the fortunate. If woman's loyalty to her sisters were to fail now, that failure would be a stigma upon all concerted effort of the future; a weight to drag down the hope of all the women (and through them all the men) yet to be born. If this newly awakened conscience were waked in vain--if it ever slept again, then, indeed, might women and men, too, despair.
Believing, as we do, in the impossibility of that, women are full of hope. And men? Beyond a doubt some men are very angry.
Beyond a doubt the sufferings of the militant women--who, if not most in earnest, have paid heaviest for their share in instructing us all--beyond a doubt these sufferings in welding women together have (by no wish of their own--often with pain and grief and irretrievable loss) ranged women against those men most determined to crush out the revolt.
The resultant irritation felt by men has not by any manner of means been wholly evil. It has pricked many to knowledge, and some to enlightened action.
Unable to see but one side of the shield, some women
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(not consciously weighing their private difficulties against the public good) have been unduly disturbed.
They would agree with Mrs. Creighton that the vote may be a small thing, but that the refusal of the vote has been a very serious thing. Mrs. Creighton did not seem to mean by the last half of that sentence what the Militant means. She seemed to glance at a regrettable change in the relationships between men and women.
I believe that many like myself were much more troubled at the beginning of the conflict by the mere hint of sex-antagonism (at a time when so little of that feeling was expressed or, as we thought, felt) than later, since men have shown us how great was the sex-antagonism already operant in the world.
Well, why are we not appalled?
For two good reasons. First, because such proof of sex-antagonism as comes our way is not created by the Suffrage agitation. The Suffrage agitation has brought it out of hiding. The more thoroughly we go into the lives of poor, dependent women (and they are the immense majority), the more clearly we see that the evil which this contest has brought to the surface was always there. The condition of its remaining there, to fester and to breed its myriad progeny, the sole condition upon which it could continue, was that it should not be brought to the surface. The evil of bad relationship between the sexes is not the new thing. The attack upon it is the new thing.
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If not for us individually, that sex-contempt was there. The active Suffragist feels that she can bear it better than those for whom it was formerly reserved.
The second reason we are not appalled, but rather consoled and heartened, is that precisely through this struggle we have been taught more faith both in man-nature and in woman-nature--which is to say in that human nature which alike they share.
The more generous-minded among men (or the better instructed) have responded generously, understandingly, to the new claims made by women. I will not dwell on the more obvious marks left on society and laws by men's response to the newly awakened spirit among women. With Militancy in the air, the reactionaries on the Divorce Commission had not the courage to press for their advocacy of the double moral standard. This fruitful cause of injustice and race degeneracy has only in these last months been given an effectual coup de grâce. There were men serving on that Commission who had admitted no flaw, had seen no flaw, in the divorce laws until--well, until the last few years.
Never in all the years of women's wandering in the political wilderness, never before Militancy have men formed societies to help women to freedom.
Before history was written men, as the songs and sagas tell us, did battle for women, ostensibly for some one particular "faire ladye," often in reality for the excitement of the tourney and the honour of
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the knight. Till these days of the new Militancy few were the men who entered the lists to do battle for women whom they did not know, women in grim, unpicturesque need, women who could never reward these latter-day knights, and were not asked for reward.
Never before Militancy have men given up valuable posts, risked livelihood, sacrificed ambition, faced private ridicule and public execration, blows, broken limbs, gone to prison--all that is since Militancy.
In many ways the sensitive observer will mark the enlightening effect on men of the new standards. They begin to speak of women in public with less flummery; they write of her with an accent less cocksure, and yet more worthy of assurance.
Mr. J. M. Barrie's Twelve Pound Look is since Militancy, and many a glance less shrewdly directed to masculine fatuity.
But women must not expect the scales to fall over-soon from the general eye.
The old superciliousness will be long in dying. Women will mark it still in its thousand forms, especially in the elderly-minded. Men will go on naïvely crowning one another, bestowing on one another all the lucrative and power-conferring posts and all the sinecures. They will sit sole sex on the great Committees controlling Art and Science as well as Law and Administrative Government.
They will dine in fullness and permit women to come in afterwards like the good children--save
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that, unlike the children, women will be hidden to sit apart and not speak, but listen--feeding upon the manna of masculine eloquence.
But these are all very little things in comparison with the respect that must in the near future be given to the essentials--as women see life; to the reverence shown children and the very old of both sexes; to education and care for the public health. The rest can wait.
What could not wait was acceptance of the root-idea of this thing called Militancy. The root-idea is: the application to women of the duty to rise up against evil; the baseness of lying down under evil. Women see at last that they must share that duty with men, or else with men share the waste and ruin of evasion.
We do not deny that women have put into their politics a passion not usual with men. We may even think this duty of revolt against evil may sound a sterner call to women. With men these things are largely an intellectual gymnastic, exercises in the Theory and Practice of Government, expression of this or that school of Philosophy or [un] applied Science.
With women these matters are the stuff of existence, their daily bread.
Men in dealing with social abuses, are cabined and confined by formulæ, doctrines, laws; by Parliamentary Procedure--by this intellectual fetish or that.
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In the case of women the practical end is kept in sight by no keener conscience than men's, and certainly by no clearer apprehension of the abstract good. The end is kept well in the sight of women by an admonishment which Nature denied to man.
If women have shown in their brief commerce with politics an energy and a resolution which have astonished and bewildered male authority, the reason seems to be that behind women's politics is a force peculiar to women. Among a growing number, whether open or secret aiders and abettors of Militancy, women have come (some consciously, some unconsciously) to feel that Militant Suffragism is the outgrowth of a fierce, race-protecting passion. It is the expression of that mother-instinct which rules in the spirit as well as in the body of our half of the world. It is the force that does indeed make the female more deadly than the male, if she descries a menace to her charge--the future of the species. Those who wished her to remain ignorant of the menace, those who wished to arrest the "uplift" of a vast submerged area of human possibility, or those who less foolishly wished it brought to light more gradually, and by a birth less fierce in labour-pain, had only one course to pursue: to eschew repression.
The reactionary should not make too much of the fact that the women of the British Isles have not yet attained political liberty. Hundreds and thou-
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sands of them have been given the Freedom of the City of the Soul.
Any Suffragist who reviews the history of the Militant Movement, and in any hour of discouragement between now and that sure day when the vote is yielded--anyone who for a moment supposes the militant party to have failed, confesses to shallow thinking. In Militancy (acting, as we are the first to admit, in conjunction with a world-wide tendency) a force was set to work six years ago which needed only counter force, needed only ruthless repression, to develop an explosive power which should crack the crust of ages.
Of that immeasurable, underlying region, only isolated peaks had hitherto appeared--lonely islets above the waters. Other peaks would have risen slowly, slowly the waters have receded and the upward tendency been spread over a wide extent of time--without thunder, rage, and cataclysm.
But in England, no.
Like one of those vast, irresistible movements in physical nature which has sunk the old high places under in-rushing seas, and, from the seat of internal fires has forced up mountain-chains to cool their heads in snow, so have the deeps of the submerged sex been upborn to light, to the bright danger of the peaks, by those very forces which sought to hold her down.
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