Texts Related to the Works of Sarah Orne Jewett
The Voting of Women
A momentary lull in politics enables us to revert to matters which are better discussed at some distance from an election. We received, some time since, an appeal from ladies who are warmly working for female suffrage, with the request that we would "please notice and quote." The culmination of the letter -- first addressed to the Republican and Democratic committees -- was in an appeal to admit women to the suffrage for three reasons:
1. For the sake of the public welfare.
2. To save women from the stigma which attaches to a disenfranchised class.
3. To save Massachusetts from the historic discredit of holding its loyal women to the rank of Jefferson Davis.
The third we confess to be so dim before our comprehension as to carry with it no urgency whatever. The second we can understand. But there are many thousands of intelligent, cultivated, upright and every way worthy young men in the land between eighteen and twenty-one years of age, who cast no ballots, yet no mark of infamy attaches to them in consequence. Lucy Stone, Mrs. Julia Ward Howe, and their associates in this "Letter" have not used language accurately. Legal infants are not a "disenfranchised class: -- they have never been enfranchised. And the same is true of women of Massachusetts. A "stigma" may "attach" to persons who, having enjoyed a privilege, have had it taken away from them; because the presumption would be that such disenfranchisement was for cause -- a cause lying in some ascertained unworthiness of, incapacity for, or infidelity to, the trusts involved. But never yet to have received those trusts is a different thing altogether; implying no "stigma" -- only a judgment that the general good is more to be promoted by leaving things as they are.
The first claim then which these ladies make is really the only one fairly deserving serious consideration. They plead for admission to the elective franchise on the ground that public welfare demands that they, as well as men, should vote. Were this true it might, and it might not, be immediately conclusive in favor of the proposition which it is designed to support. But we question its truth. We incline to the opposite opinion. As we look at it, the public welfare much more demands that women should not be admitted to the polls. And there are two remarks which it is well to make in a preliminary way. The first is that all motion in this direction needs to be especially gradual and well-considered for the reason that the case is not one of a statute which, found to work ill on trial, can readily be repealed; but it is one of those ratchet movements which never go backwards. Once established, however deplorable its practical results might prove to be, it would still perpetuate itself by furnishing the votes always to bar its own abrogation. And, like the shirt of Nessos, the more the pain it caused might prompt the body politic to disrobe itself of it, the more irremovable would become its malign adhesion. The other remark is, that to concede all which is claimed as to the injustice and wrong involved in the case of a few women who pay taxes but cannot vote, would fall short of establishing justice of the demand founded thereon. In the imperfect conditions of this world a great deal of abstract right fails, and must necessarily fail, to become concrete. Technical, or plausible, or blundering wrong very often triumphs over abstract right in our courts of justice; but we accept the inevitable, try to minimize the discomforts, and do not abolish the courts. Millions more of property in the United States are today owned by male minors under guardianship, than are in possession of spinsters or widows. Yet the minors can take no part in the governmental control of that property; and their guardians, if they vote, vote on their own private account, and in no sense in any official relation to the estates under their charge. The question to be practically settled is not what is abstractly right, so much as what is concretely the most sagacious arrangement practicable by which the nearest approach to abstract right can be interwrought into the conduct of human affairs.
Approaching the subject before us thus admonished that it is one making extraordinary claim upon thorough consideration, before the Commonwealth shall modify positions which for generations have commended themselves to the good sense of our fathers; and that, even were we sure the voting of women would accord with abstract right, such a conviction alone could not demonstrate valid claim for recognition by the State, unless it could also first be shown to lie within that averaging line of rights, duties and responsibilities, which, in this imperfect world, must be made the basis of all prudent action; we proceed to say:
1. We doubt the wisdom of admitting women to vote, because we do not believe the great majority of women desire to take what of privilege may lie in access to the ballot-box, in the face of what of duty and discomfort must go with it. Two sorts of women unquestionably favor the enfranchisement of the sex. One is a very small class of highly cultivated females, some of whom are "in public life," and with whom this is a hobby. The other is a much larger class, at the other extreme of society, who would welcome the opportunity to sell themselves for a good price at every election, or to "co-operate" with the priest on the one hand, or the barkeeper, the bully and the black-leg on the other, in carrying measures dear to their hearts. We believe the virtuous, accomplished and influential leaders of society, the wives, mothers, and daughters who fill, and nobly fill, the first social rank among us, and who were so admirably represented by a few of their number who addressed to the Legislature, some months ago, a request counter to the appeal of the woman suffragists, mainly desire no change in this regard. And we are almost certain that the immense majority of those pious and intelligent women of New England, whose fidelity to all that is good for many generations has made our towns and villages what they are, while sending out streams of blessing to enrich the land through all its breadth to the far Pacific, could they cast a free preliminary vote, would be found almost with one accord against the measure.
2. We doubt the wisdom of admitting women to vote, because -- take the mildest view of it -- it would create a new burthen, with little or no compensative benefit. One prevalent aspect of the case would doubtless be found in peaceful, moral and intelligent country towns, where, as all interests like along the same plane, no great differences of judgment divide the people. There may be, perhaps, a thousand inhabitants, and two hundred families, with one hundred and fifty male voters. The adding of one hundred and fifty more, of their wives and daughters, while it would claim from each new voter a journey to the polls, would only carry all the old measures by a larger vote, and the ladies would but "get their labor for their pains." And, to take that opposite phase which would show itself in our denser communities, like Lowell and Boston, while going to the polls would become a much more disagreeable duty, it would also be one much more imperative with all women of patriotic impulse, because it could not be blinked out of sight, that, in view of the thousands upon thousands of unintelligent and vicious -- not to say the abandoned -- of their sex who would be let loose upon the ballot-boxes, the least that could be done in the endeavor to avert the new peril would be for every godly and virtuous female to compel herself to go to the voting-place, not only to cast her own vote, but to act, so far as might be, as a missionary to forefend harm from the ill influence of others who share her new right to be there.
3. We doubt the expediency of the proposed new measure, because we think that instead of elevating men, it would be much more likely to degrade women. It is all very well to talk about "high morality," and the need of the introduction of the feminine element into our politics to purify them. But to turn pure water into a cess-pool, usually is to dirty the water more than to clean the receptacle. And since the fact is that in those localities where politics most need purifying, the kind of feminine element that would be poured in is largely impure to start with, we take leave to question whether the fact and the argument would not be the other way than is claimed by the friends of this "reform."
4. We doubt the propriety of woman suffrage because we do not believe that women were made for it, while that arrangement which is against God and nature, in the long run cannot prosper. We hold the divine idea of society to be that of an aggregation not of units, but of households. The family is the seminal principle of the Commonwealth. And the father of the family represents it. He supports, controls, and typifies it. Other families are inchoate in it, and will be developed out of it, as sons and daughters emerge into majority and independence; but that is first, last and always, sole and single in its self-completeness; and the husband and father stands for it, earns for it, pays taxes for it, does military service for it, and votes for it. To drag the wife and mother away from her household joys and cares to compel her to mingle in the selfish strifes of the caucus, the coarse clash of the canvass, the heated hurly-burly of the elections, would be as unnatural as to station her with a bayonet as a midnight sentry, or to send her up the mainmast shrouds in a squall to furl the top-gallant sail. Doubtless the Eastern nations go to an extreme in the seclusion of their women, but that is no reason why we should strip ours of the tender charm and sweetness of home. We have often been saddened to see in Germany a woman -- coarse, hard-featured, brawny, stolid and every way defeminized -- harnessed with an ox in a cart. Let us take heed that we do not, by unnatural extension of women's "rights," reach a like goal by a different path.
5. We doubt the wisdom of conferring the franchise upon women, because it would put a new and fearful weapon into the hands of the worst enemies of the Republic. Such are the tendencies of human things that a larger percentage of bold, bad women than of timid, good ones would be apt to vote, and so more would be lost than could be gained. As the rule, every Roman Catholic woman would vote, and vote as the priest directed. It could not be doubted that all the lawbreaking element would largely fortify itself from its female constituencies.
But worse than this, every danger to free institutions which now surrounds a pure ballot would be enhanced. It would be much more difficult to prevent repeating, and to detect false registration, did women vote, than now. In what way it could be made reasonably possible to prevent obscure females from voting again and again in different precincts under different names, is not apparent.
Much is pleaded for the gain to come to good legislation were the wives of drunkards permitted to vote against the rumseller; and, no doubt, in many cases a perceptible addition to the temperance strength might thus be realized. But what would that be by the side of the wholesale corruption rendered possible, and the fearful subsidizing of that new vote to political corruption made certain, by woman suffrage. [no question mark] Who doubts that, while thousands of the best women of the Commonwealth would have voted against him, Governor Butler would have been triumphantly re-elected, if that vast source of addition to his disciplined fighting force had been within his power, which could have been furnished by the adult females of the cities of this Commonwealth.
By all means, then, we plead with our fellow citizens to hasten slowly in this thing. If the woman suffrage movement really be good, and from God, let it be fairly proven such, and we will all assent to and advocate it, as we see it to be such. But do not let us leap into a gulf like this before we look.
This editorial appeared in The Congregationalist, November 22, 1883, p. 402.
Edited by Terry Heller, Coe College.