by Julia Ward Howe

The following article, written by Julia Ward Howe in 1879, outlines some arguments for women’s suffrage. It is a response to an earlier article in the same journal by Francis Parkman which opposed woman suffrage.




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.

Representation is what the friends of woman suffrage demand for one half of the community from which it has hitherto been withheld. The slaveholder was formerly supposed, by a legal fiction, to represent his slaves. By a similar fiction, men are held to represent women at the polls. The slaveholders represented their own interests, and men, in voting, do the same. It might be said in both instances that the true interest of the two parties is the same. This is true in a sense so enlarged that few male voters will be found to take it in. The good of each and the good of all are really one and the same. But men, even while professing this as their faith, rarely exemplify it in their voting. In much of their social and political action, they will pursue personal advantage as it presents itself to them, in the form of some immediate gain, and will only in rare instances consult that larger conception of the general good which holds that what is best for the community is also best for the individual. And, even if men in general were disposed to do this, are they so wise that women should be satisfied of their ability to do it? Even from this point of view, Mr. Parkman’s statements are not encouraging. He tells us that the best men among us naturally shun politics. All of our women, then, the best included, are subject to the legislation of a set of men whom he characterizes as “practiced tricksters,” or as “hungry and rapacious crowds.” And their knowledge of this state of things will, he thinks, induce only “the coarse and contentious among women” to draw near to the political arena. It is, to say the least, a singular method of argument to adduce the imperfections of government as actually administered, as so many reasons why good women should be satisfied to keep aloof from participation in any attempt to make it better.

A very short space having been allotted to us for the consideration of a topic which Mr. Parkman has been allowed to treat in extenso, we must necessarily be content to pass his arguments in the briefest review, though not with cursory criticism. And we must say, in the first place, that these arguments are already very familiar to the advocates of woman suffrage. In every suffrage convention, and in legislative hearings on this subject, each of the points which he tries to make is taken up and carefully considered, full opportunity being granted to those who think otherwise to bring forward their view of the case. We can not remember any of those occasions in which the advantage has not remained with the friends of the measure. 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.

We have now breathlessly rehearsed the greater part of Mr. Parkman’s objections to woman, or, as be calls it, female suffrage. Despite the narrow limits here assigned us, we will take time to reconsider one or two of them. The argument that women should not vote because they can not fight is a very threadbare one. It is an instance of that imaginary relation between two circumstances which leads the incautious thinker to link them together as cause and effect. What real connection is there between the act of fighting and the act of voting? A certain proportion only of the men of this or of any community are able to bear arms. Of these, a still smaller number will be called upon to do so, and that during a certain term of years only. Will those fighting men show any characteristics which shall make the ballot safer in their hands than in those of their non-fighting fellow citizens? The contrary impression seems generally to prevail among thoughtful people. The blind, unreasoning obedience of an army to its chiefs is felt to be at variance with the spirit of inquiry in which a voter should study the claims and merits of his candidate. Shall we say that the military are the guardians of the public peace? That office, in our day, seems to belong more clearly to the mother and the schoolteacher. Justice claims the right to govern. Education enforces the recognition of law, the respect of right, the claim of duty. The agencies which moralize society are its true defense, its real bulwark. The merciful and patient work of women can spare more bloodshed to any generation than can the whole military order.

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.

But chivalry is not limited to the domain of men. Its heroic compassion is also at home in the hearts of women. The growing concern of the best women for the welfare of their sex has latterly led, in many countries, to studies and efforts which tend to its true protection. The labors of Mrs. Butler (of Liverpool) and her fellow workers, culminating in such events as the Congress of Public Morality, held in Geneva, in September, 1877, have associated many noble men and women in a crusade against the low standard of sexual morality, hitherto held to be binding upon the male sex. When such men as M. Pressens, of the French Parliament, and Mr. Sternfeld, of the English House of Commons, take part in the proceedings of such a Congress, we may perceive that a new theory and influence are already making themselves felt in the administration of public morals.

Touching the justice of the claim of women to the elective franchise, Mr. Parkman says that “government by doctrines of abstract right, of which the French Revolution set the example, and bore the fruits, involves enormous danger and injustice.”

We answer that government which opposes abstract right is fraught with far greater danger and injustice. Granted that while the recognition of a principle of right may be immediate, its embodiment in practice will remain a matter of slow and difficult endeavor. When, nevertheless, the principle has attained recognition, the policy which looks away from it, and excuses the neglect of a sacred duty by the inconvenience of its fulfillment, is short-sighted in its wisdom and short-lived in its success. But a sentence a little further on puzzles us extremely. Mr. Parkman says: “It is in the concrete, and not in the abstract, that rights prevail in every sound and wholesome society.” Is right in the concrete, then, opposed to right in the abstract, and, where rights are enforced in the concrete, are they necessarily violated or neglected in the abstract? The woman-suffragists ask that an abstract right should be embodied in a concrete form, and Mr. Parkman replies to this by postulating a contradiction between abstract right and its concrete expression, which is valuable if viewed as a reductio ad absurdum.

To what authority can the concrete institutions of government appeal, if not to the principles of abstract right? The work which the French Revolution and our own essayed to do was to rectify concrete abuses by a return to the principles of ideal justice. While neither of these great efforts can be said to have been entirely successful, the measure of success which they did achieve is the most important attainment of the century which came to an end three years ago.

Mr. Parkman, like others of his creed, attempts to aid his reasoning by an analogy borrowed from the vegetable kingdom. “The palm,” he says, “will not grow in the soil and climate of the pine.” This metaphor seems to us peculiarly unfortunate, since man and woman, his pine and palm, necessarily grow in the same soil and climate. The question is, whether the pine shall make up his mind to allow the palm as much of the common soil and climate as he finds necessary for his own well-being. Or, rather, we should say that man and woman correspond to the male and female palms, for which every circumstance, except that of sex, is identical.

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

Source of this article by Julia Ward Howe: