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Julia Ward Howe

American Writer


A selection from

Narrated by Celeste Lawson

Download mp3 file: The Other Side of the Woman Question:
A Response to Francis Parkman

This file is 6.5 MB; running time is 14 minutes
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The woman question, from the man's point of view, is very apt to be only the man question, after all. And the man, according to Mr. Parkman, questions thus: "Do we wish our women to vote? and, if we do not, what arguments can we find against their voting?" Starting from this point, with a zeal which can scarcely be mistaken for a candid spirit of inquiry, it is not surprising that very eloquent papers can be written, and a very plausible statement made, by individuals of one sex against the political enfranchisement of the other.

Argument of this sort is no novelty nor rarity. The white man reasoned on this wise against the political enfranchisement of the black man. In fact, against every enlargement of representation many reasons have always been, and may always be, found.

"Those who vote already," it is said, "vote so badly. Why should we increase the number of fools who go to the polls?"

The danger of trusting mankind at large with the care of their own interests appears, and is, very great. The wise, among men as among women, are few. Culture, which quadruples the mental power of either sex, is not possessed by any majority in the known world. Ignorance may be deluded and misled, may even be bought and sold. Volumes of argument are written and spoken in this sense. And yet, representative government in time always makes good its position and right to exist. One reason of this is that it not only founds itself upon popular education, but is in itself an education. Under its dominion, men are educated to their duties by the exercise of their rights. The greatest truths, moreover, in politics as in religion, are often bidden from the wise and prudent and revealed to the simple multitude. It soon appears that the dangers foreseen in the enlargement of representation are dangers to the exceptional privileges of a class, not to the community.

A person who wished to be rude to an eminent literary man told him that her own father had always advised her to avoid a schoolmaster. The gentleman replied, "It is evident that you have." The tenor of Mr. Parkman's remarks makes it very evident to us that, in his study of the woman-suffrage question, he has avoided the opportunities of enlightenment which its friends would gladly afford him. When he accuses them of occupying the platform with "frothy declamation" and the press with sensational stories; when he avers that, instead of claiming for women what is theirs, "a nature of their own, with laws of its own, and a high capacity of independent development, they propose, as the aim of their ambition, the imitation of men" the friends of woman suffrage may be sure that Mr. Parkman has neither attended their meetings, nor read the journals and pamphlets in which their views are set forth. He can not have heard William Lloyd Garrison and Lucy Stone he can not have read George William Curtis and Mary Eastman.

Why should one sex assume to legislate for both? Because it always has done so? That is no reason. All the innovations which have blest mankind might have been excluded from use on the same ground. Because the sex which claims the right to do this has the stronger muscles? It does not use these in the act of voting. Because the sexes differ from each other in certain moral and mental characteristics? This would seem to make it important that the necessities of each should bave equal representation in a fair government. Because there is, on the whole, a substantial agreement between them in feeling and in interest? This fact, if granted, would merely make it very safe for women to represent their own side in their own way. Because the political enfranchisement of the hitherto non-voting sex would overthrow the family? In this view it is strange that the male advocates of woman suffrage are oftenest found among married men. Because one sex is military and militant, the other pacific and unmilitant? Do the fighting men of a community govern it? Woe to it if they do! Military rule is armed despotism. The solid sense of mankind to-day is against it. Because women have already possessed political power, and have abused it? This argument can be used with triple force against the other sex, whose abuse of political power is in large proportion to their use of it.

What Mr. Parkman says about sex makes us feel that the masculine view of this attribute, too often reflected in the feminine mind, is liable to great exaggeration. Like every leading attribute of human nature, it is either a weakness or a power, according as it is intelligently trained or blindly followed. When men intentionally use it as a power, they naturally desire that it should become a weakness in those upon whom they wish to exert that power. Sex is certainly an important agent in human affairs, but not the most important. Its influence is easily exaggerated and lost. Men and women may have too much sexuality as well as too little. Society, if impoverished by the insufficiency of this quality, is also degraded by its excess. In men or in women sex is a power only when it is made subservient to reason, when thought and duty common to both sexes are brought forward and dwelt upon, uplifting both alike to self-forgetfulness and self-sacrifice.

It is a great mistake to state the career of either sex as if its boundaries were necessarily definite and predetermined. Men are forced to undertake many things which are abhorrent to the ease which human nature covets. It is not their sex which leads them to do this, but some inner or outer necessity. Women are subject to these same necessities, and must again and again sacrifice personal convenience and inclination in view of offices whose performance becomes imperative. The farmer's wife digs potatoes in the field when he is too busy to do it. The farmer's daughter rides the mowing-machine when the men of the family are away with the army. The wife and mother, for whom domestic seclusion is made by theorists such a sine qua non, must feed helpless children by her labor, and support an invalid or profligate husband. Daughters keep aged fathers out of the almshouse. Sisters work at the loom to send a brother through his college course. In these cases the convenience of sex has to be set aside. The woman is obliged to ask, not "What is my sex?" but "What is my necessity, and how can I meet it?" The opponents of woman suffrage find nothing unfeminine in these acts, which tax the physique of the more tender sex far more severely than does the twofold effort of considering the merits of a candidate and recording one's conclusion by dropping a ballot in a box.

The liberties of women are necessarily abridged, in Mr. Parkman's view, by the dangers to which the unbridled passions of men give rise. He says, "A man in lonely places has nothing to lose but life and property, and he has nerve and muscle to defend them." In another place he speaks of the common theory that chastity is a virtue only in women, as one to which society holds to-day as firmly as it ever did. In both of these respects we think that a change may be not only looked for, but recognized, in the cruel manners of the world. Let us look at the first. The greatest danger of woman lies in the brutal sexuality of man. Her defense is supposed to lie in the chivalry of man. How shall she be assured, in trusting to the other sex the defense of her honor, that ferocious passion shall not get the better of chivalrous compassion?

Existing provisions fail to give to woman this promised protection.

Violence may dog her harmless footsteps in her own garden, may cross the threshold of her home, and find her there, as elsewhere, defenseless. Restriction of the woman's movements does not, then, prove an availing defense. The restriction must be sought and enforced elsewhere. The man can be taught as effectually to subordinate this part of his nature to reason and conscience as any other. If, as is claimed, he is the stronger party, let him be trained to show his strength in self-restraint, since self-indulgence shows only his weakness.

Mr. Parkman has no valid ground for assuring his readers that the granting of suffrage to women would bring into political efficiency women of the worst and most undesirable class, and leave "those of finer sensibilities and more delicate scruples" in what he would consider a masterly inactivity. In these remarks, and many others, Mr. Parkman shows a want of acquaintance with the character of the women engaged in the suffrage cause, which is singular, even in an antagonist. The question whether, in the case supposed, the vicious and ignorant would go to the polls, and the intelligent and virtuous stay away from them, is one often brought before a legislative hearing. At one of these, in which arguments on both sides had been heard, Mr. Garrison rose and said: "It seems to me that the present occasion is in itself an answer to this question. Here on the one side are character, intelligence, education petitioning for suffrage; and on the other are ignorance and vulgarity petitioning against it." than are Mr. Parkman's predictions about "the bad time coming." This reign of peace and justice will be greatly promoted by the influence and action of women, who have everything to gain from it. While it can efface no substantial feature of either sex, it will secure fair play to both. To borrow one of Mr. Parkman's antitheses, it will bring us the concrete embodiment of the abstract truth uttered by St. Paul, that in the Christian harmony there is neither male nor female, but equal freedom for either sex to bear its burdens and perform its duties according to its own best wisdom and highest resolve.

In his portrayal of the female politician of the future, Mr. Parkman shows an unusual power of conjuring up, from the abyss of the unknown, unlovely female phantoms with which to electrify the minds of his readers. Let them not mistake this, as he obviously does, for a true spirit of prophecy. Imagination can create such forms at will, and can easily set imaginary female voters to destroy an imaginary state. But this is not its noblest use. The future, like the past, can be read from an adequate or inadequate point of view. He who fails to seize the sense of the present can give no true account either of what has been or of what shall be. The true prophet discerns the signs of the times, the deep, normal tendencies of human nature, which are ever more and more toward amelioration, and the greater good of the greater number. That the future of human society is to be more and more dedicated to the peaceful development of human resources, that the reign of justice is gradually and permanently to supplant the reign of violence these are prophecies far more ancient and weighty.

More information about Julia Ward Howe from Wikipedia

More selections (60) in this category: History/Society/Politics

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