Why women do not wish the suffrage
by Lyman Abbott
In 1895, the women of Massachusetts were asked by the state whether they wished the suffrage. Of the 575,000 voting women in the state, only 22,204 cared for it enough to deposit in a ballot box an affirmative answer to this question. That is, in round numbers, less than four percent wished to vote; about ninety-six per cent were opposed to woman suffrage or indifferent to it.
That this expresses fairly well the average sentiment throughout the country can hardly be questioned. There may be some Western states in which the proportion of women who, for one reason or another, desire the suffrage is somewhat larger; on the other hand, there are Southern states in which it is even less. Certainly few men or women will doubt that at the present time an overwhelming majority of women are either reluctant to accept the ballot or indifferent to it.
Why this indifference, this reluctance? This is the question which in this article I seek to answer. Briefly, I believe it is because woman feels, if she does not clearly see, that the question of woman suffrage is more than merely political; that it concerns the nature and structure of society, — the home, the church, the industrial organism, the state, the social fabric. And to a change which involves a revolution in all of these she interposes an inflexible though generally a silent opposition. It is for these silent women — whose voices are not heard in conventions, who write no leaders, deliver no lectures, and visit no legislative assemblies — that I speak; it is their unspoken thought and feeling I wish to interpret.
Open an acorn: in it we find the oak in all its parts, — root, trunk, branches. Look into the home: in it we shall find the state, the church, the army, the industrial organization. As the oak is germinant in the acorn, so society is germinant in the family. Historically, the family is the first organization; biologically it is the origin of all other organizations. Abraham builds an altar, and his wife and children and servants gather about it for the evening sacrifice: the family is the first church. The herds and flocks are driven daily to their feeding grounds by his sons and servants: the family is the first labor organization. He counsels, guides, directs, controls the children and servants; the power of life and death is in his hands: the family is the first government. The brother is carried off in a raid by robber bands. Abraham arms and organizes his servants, pursues the robber bands, conquers and disperses them, and recovers the captive: the family is the first army.
Moreover, it is out of the family that society grows. As the cell duplicates itself, and by reduplication the living organism grows, so the family duplicates itself, and by the reduplication of the family the social organism grows. The children of the family come to manhood, and marry the children of other families. Blood unites them; the necessities of warfare, offensive and defensive, unite them; and so the tribe comes into existence. For the united action of this tribe some rule, some authority is necessary; thus tribal, state, national government comes into existence. These families find it for their mutual advantage to engage in separate industries, and exchange the product of their labor: thus barter end trade and the whole industrial organization come into existence. These families thus united by marriage into one tribe, cemented by war in one army, bound together by the necessity of united action in one government, cooperating in one varied industry, find in themselves a common faith and common aspirations, in a word, a common religion, and so the church comes into existence.
Such, very briefly stated, is the development of society as we read it in the complicated history of the past. Historically the family is the first social organization. Organically it contains within itself all the elements of all future organization. Biologically, all future organization has grown out of it, by a process of duplication and interrelationship. In the family, therefore, we find all the elements of a later and more complicated social organization; in the family we may discover written legibly the laws which should determine the structure of society and should regulate its action; the family, rightly understood, will answer our often perplexing questions concerning social organization — whether it is military, political, industrial, or religious.
The first and most patent fact in the family is the difference in the sexes. Out of this difference the family is created; in this difference the family finds its sweet and sacred bond. This difference is not merely physical and incidental. It is also psychical and essential. It inheres in the temperament; it is inbred in the very fiber of the soul; it differentiates the functions; it determines the relation between man and woman; it fixes their mutual service and their mutual obligations. Man is not woman in a different case. Woman is not man inhabiting temporarily a different kind of body. Man is not a rough-and-tumble woman. Woman is not a feeble and pliable man.
This difference in the sexes is the first and fundamental fact in the family; it is therefore the first and fundamental fact in society, which is but a large family, growing out of and produced by the duplication and interrelationship of innumerable families. For it must ever be remembered that as the nature of the cell determines the nature of the organism which grows out of the cell, so the nature of the family determines the nature of society which grows out of the family. And the fundamental fact, without which there could be no family, is the temperamental, inherent, and therefore functional difference between the sexes.
Because their functions are different, all talk of equality or non-equality is but idle words, without a meaning. Only things which have the same nature and fulfill the same function can be said to be superior to or equal with one another. Things which do not fulfill the same function are not thus comparable. For of two functions, each of which is essential to the life of the organism, neither can be said to be superior to the other. One branch may be equal or superior to another branch; but it cannot be said that the root is superior to the branch or the branch to the root. One eye may be superior to another eye, but the eye cannot be said to be superior to the ear, or the ear to the eye.
Which is superior, a soldier or a carpenter? It depends upon whether we want a battle fought or a house built. Which is superior, Darwin’s Origin of Species or Browning’s Saul? This is like asking which is larger — half an hour or half a yard. Gallantry will bow to woman and say, “You are superior.” Egotism will look with lordly air on woman and say, “You are inferior.” But neither gallantry nor egotism will be rational. These twain are not identical. They do not duplicate each other. Man is not an inferior woman. Woman is not an inferior man. They are different in nature, in temperament, in function. We cannot destroy this difference if we would; we would not if we could. In preserving it lies the joy of the family; the peace, prosperity, and well-being of society.
If man attempts woman’s function , he will prove himself but an inferior woman. If woman attempts man’s function, she will prove herself but an inferior man. Some masculine women there are; some feminine men there are. These are the monstrosities of Nature. She sometimes produces such monstrosities in other departments — grotesque variations from and violations of the natural order — not that we may follow them and attempt to reproduce them, but that we may see by contrast what Nature really is and rejoice the more in her. This distinction between the sexes-inherent, temperamental, functional — is universal and perpetual. It underlies the family, which could not exist if this difference did not exist. It is to be taken account of in all social problems-problems of industrial organization, religious organization, political organization. Should society ever forget it, it would forget the most fundamental fact in the social order, the fact on which is built the whole superstructure of society.
It may not be altogether easy to determine the exact difference in function between the sexes; in minor details those functions may differ in differing civilizations. But speaking broadly, it may be said that the work of battle in all its forms, and all the work that is cognate thereto, belongs to man. Physically and psychically his is the sterner and the stronger sex. His muscles are more steel-like; his heart and his flesh are alike harder; he can give knocks without compunction and receive them without shrinking.
In the family, therefore, his it is to go forth and fight the battle with Nature; to compel the reluctant ground to give her riches to his use. It is not for woman to hold the plough, or handle the hoe, or dig in the mine, or fell the forest. The war with Nature is not for her to wage. It is true that savage tribes impose this unfeminine task upon her; true that modern nations which have not yet fully emerged from barbarism continue to do so; true, also, that in the cruel industrial competitions of modern times there is, in some communities, a relapse into this barbarism.
But whether it is the Indian squaw digging in the corn patch, or the German Frau holding the plough, or the American wife working the loom in her husband’s place — wherever man puts the toil that is battle and the battle that is toil upon the woman, the law of Nature, that is, the law of God, written in her constitution and in the constitution of the family, is set at naught. This is not to say that her toil is less than man’s; but it is different. It may be easier to be the man with the hoe than the woman with the needle; it may be easier to handle the plough than to broil over the cook stove; but these tasks are not the same. The ceaseless toil of the field requires exhaustless energy; the continuous toil of the household requires exhaustless patience. Being a man, the exhaustless patience seems to me at once more difficult and more admirable than the exhaustless energy. But they are not the same.
For like reason it is not woman’s function to fight against human foes who threaten the home. She is not called to be a soldier. She is not to be welcomed with the volunteers nor coerced into military service by the draft. It is in vain to recite the story of Joan of Arc; it is in vain to narrate the efforts of the Amazons. The instinct of humanity revolts against the employment of woman as a soldier on the battlefield. No civilized man would wish to lay this duty upon her; no civilized woman would wish to assume it.
This is not to say that her courage is not as great as his. Greater is it in some sense — but it is different. For the Spartan mother to arm her son and send him forth with the injunction to come home bringing his shield or borne upon it, and then wait during the long and weary days to know which way he is to come — this requires, surely, a heroism not less than his: but it is not the same heroism; higher in some sense it is — but it is not the same. In his courage are pride and combativeness and animal passion, sometimes well-nigh devilish passion; a strange joy in giving and receiving wounds, a music that grows inspiring in the singing of the bullets, an almost brutal indifference to the wounded and the dying all about him, which she could never get and remain woman. True to her woman’s nature is Lady Macbeth’s prayer — “That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here.” For until she had been unsexed, until she had ceased to be woman, she could not play the part which her destiny and her ambition assigned to her.
For like reason society exempts woman from police functions. She is not called to be sheriff or constable or night watchman. She bears no truncheon and wears no revolver. She answers not to the summons when peace officers call for the posse comitatus. She is not received into the National Guard when bloody riot fills the city with peril and alarms. Why not? Is she not the equal of man? Is she not as loyal? as law abiding ? as patriotic? as brave? Surely. All of these is she. But it is not her function to protect the state when foreign foes attack it; it is the function of the state to protect her. It is not her function to protect the persons and property of the community against riot; it is man’s function to protect her. Here at least the functional difference between the sexes is too plain to be denied, doubted, or ignored. Here at least no man or woman from the claims of equality of character jumps to the illogical conclusion that there is an identity of function.
This much then seems clear to me and I hope it is clear to the reader also: —
First, that the family is the basis of society, from which it grows.
Second, that the basis of the family, and therefore of society, is the difference between the sexes, — a difference which is inherent, temperamental, functional.
Third, that the military function, all its forms and phases, belongs to man that he has no right to thrust it upon woman or to ask her to share it with him; that it is his duty, and his exclusively, to do that battling with the elements which wrests livelihood from a reluctant or resisting Nature, and which is therefore the pre-requisite to all productive industry; and that battling with the enemies of society which compels them to respect its rights, and which is therefore the primary condition of government.
For the object of government is the protection of person, property, and reputation from the foes which assail them. Government may do other things: it may carry the mails, run the express, own and operate the railroads; but its fundamental function is to furnish protection from open violence or secret fraud. If it adequately protects person, property, and reputation, it is a just government, though it do nothing else; if it fails to protect these primary rights, if the person is left to defend himself, his property, his reputation by his own strong arm, there is no government. The question, “Shall woman vote?” is really in the last analysis, the question, “Ought woman to assume the responsibility for protecting person and property which has in the past been assumed by man as his duty alone?” It is because women see, what some so-called reformers have not seen, that the first and fundamental function of government is the protection of person and property, and because women do not think that they ought to assume this duty any more than they ought to assume that police and militia service which is involved in every act of legislature, that they do not wish to have the ballot thrust upon them.
Let us not here make any mistake. Nothing is law which has not authority behind it; and there is no real authority where there is not power to compel obedience. It is this power to compel which distinguishes law from advice. Behind every law stands the sheriff, and behind the sheriff the militia, and behind the militia the whole military power of the Federal government. No legislature ever ought to enact a statute unless it is ready to pledge all the power of government — local, state, and Federal — to its enforcement, if the statute is disregarded. A ballot is not a mere expression of opinion; it is an act of the will; and behind this act of the will must be power to compel obedience. Women do not wish authority to compel the obedience of their husbands, sons, and brothers to their will.
This fact that the ballot is explicitly an act of the will, and implicitly an expression of power or force, is indicated not only by the general function of government, but also by special illustrations. Politics is pacific war. A corrupt ring gets the control of New York city, or Minneapolis, or St. Louis, or Philadelphia, or perhaps of a state, as Delaware, Rhode Island, or Montana.
The first duty of the citizens is to make war on this corrupt ring. The ballot is not merely an expression of opinion that this ring ought not to control; it is the resolve that it shall not control. A capitalistic trust gets, or tries to get, a monopoly which is perilous to commercial freedom; or a labor trust gets, or tries to get, a monopoly which is perilous to industrial freedom. A vote is not a protest against such control — it is not a mere opinion that it ought not to be allowed. It is a decree. The voter says, “We will not suffer this monopoly to continue.” His vote means, in the one case, If you do not dissolve this capitalistic combination, in the other case, If you do not cease this interference with the freedom of non-union labor, we will compel you to do so. If the vote does not mean this, it is nothing more than a resolution passed in a parlor meeting.
The great elections are called, and not improperly called, campaigns. For they are more than a great debate. A debate is a clash of opinions. But an election is a clash of wills. One party says, ” We will have Mr Blaine President;” the other says, ” We will have Mr Cleveland President.” Will sets itself against will in what is essentially a masculine encounter. And if the defeated will refuses to accept the decision, as it did when Mr. Lincoln was elected President, war is the necessary result.
From such an encounter of wills woman instinctively shrinks. She shrinks from it exactly as she shrinks from the encounter of opposing wills on a battlefield, and for the same reason. She is glad to counsel; she is loath to command. She does not wish to arm herself, and, as police or soldier, enforce her will on the community. Nor does she wish to register her will, and leave her son, her brother, or her husband to enforce it. If she can persuade them by womanly influence she will; but just in the measure in which she is womanly, she is unwilling to say to her son, to her brother, or to her husband, “I have decreed this; you must see that my decree is enforced on the reluctant or the resisting.” She does not wish that he should act on her judgment against his own in obedience to her will; still less that he shall, in obedience to her will, compel others to act in violation both of their judgment and of his. And yet this is just what suffrage always may and sometimes must involve.
The question, Shall woman vote, if translated into actual and practical form, reads thus: Shall woman decide what are the rights of the citizen to be protected and what are the duties of the citizen to be enforced, and then are her son and her brother and her husband to go forth, armed, if need be, to enforce her decision? Is this where the functional line between the sexes is to be drawn? Are women to make the laws and men to enforce them? Are women to decree, and men to execute? Is woman never to act as a private, but only as a commander-in-chief? Is this right? Is it right that one sex shall alone enforce authority, but the other sex determine when and how it shall be exercised? Is this expedient? Will it promote peace, order, prosperity? Is it practicable? Will it in fact be done?
Suppose that in New York city the women should vote for prohibition and the men should vote against it; is it to be expected that the men would arm themselves to enforce against their fellow men a law which they themselves condemned as neither wise nor just? To ask these questions is to answer them. The functions of government cannot be thus divided. In a democratic community the duty of enforcing the law must devolve on those who determine what the law shall be that is to be enforced. It cannot be decreed by one class and enforced by another. It is inconceivable that it should be decreed by one sex and enforced by the other.
This is the negative reason why woman does not wish the ballot: she does not wish to engage in that conflict of wills which is the essence of politics; she does not wish to assume the responsibility for protecting person and property which is the essence of government. The affirmative reason is that she has other, and in some sense, more important work to do. It is more important than the work of government because it is the work for the protection of which governments are organized among men. Woman does not wish to turn aside from this higher work, which is itself the end of life, to devote herself to government, which exists only that this higher work may be done. Nor does she wish to divide her energies between the two. This higher work, which is itself the end of life, is Direct Ministry to Life.
What are we in the world for? The family answers the question. We marry. Children are given to us to protect, govern, nurture, train. They grow to manhood, and in turn they marry, and to them in turn children are given to protect, govern, nurture, train. The first parents linger a few years that, as grandparents, they may have the pleasure of the little children without the responsibility for them, and then they die. Their work on earth is done, and they go forward to we know not what work in a life to come. The end of life is the rearing and training of children.
As the family is historically the first organization, as it is biologically the unit out of which all other social organisms are formed, so its protection and maintenance are the objects for which all other social organizations have been called into existence and are maintained. Struggle for others, as Professor Drummond has well shown, is an even more vital element in human progress than struggle for self, and in the family this struggle for others receives its first and finest illustration Political economists have told us that self-interest is the mainspring of industry. It is not true. Love is the mainspring of industry. It is love for the home and the wife and the children that keeps all the busy wheels of industry revolving, that calls the factory hands early to the mill, that nerves the arm of the blacksmith working at his forge, that inspires the farmer at his plough and the merchant at his desk, that gives courage to the soldier and patience to the teacher.
Erskine was asked how he dared, as an unknown barrister, face a hostile court and insist on his right to be heard. “I felt my children,” he replied, “tugging at my robe and saying, ‘Here is your chance, father, to get us bread.'” It is this vision of the children, dependent on us, that inspires us all in the battle of life. It is for our homes and our children we maintain our churches. They are not spiritual restaurants where we pay for our own food passed over the counter to us by an attendant priest; they are the instrument, which some of us think God has created, others of us think man has devised, to help us endow our children and equip our homes for life. It is for our homes and our children we tax ourselves to maintain the public school; for our homes and our children we maintain government, that our loved ones may live in peace and safety, protected by law, while we, their natural protectors, are away earning the bread wherewith to feed them; for our homes and our children we fight when peace and safety are endangered, and government is assailed by foreign foe or domestic violence.
Whether we cultivate a farm, or operate a factory, or manage a store, or build and conduct a railroad, or paint pictures, or write books, or preach sermons, or enact and enforce laws — whatever we do, the end of our activity is the nurture and training of children in this primary school, which we call life, in preparation for some life, we know not what, hereafter.
In this work of direct ministry to the individual, this work of character-building, which is the ultimate end of life, woman takes the first place. The higher the civilization the more clearly is her right to it recognized. She builds the home, and she keeps the home. She makes the home sanitary; she inspires it with the spirit of order, neatness, and peace; she broods it with her patient love, and teaches us to love by her loving. Her eye discerns beauty, her deft fingers create it, and to her the home is indebted for its artistic power to educate. If she has not the artistic sense, no purchased beauty, bought of a professional decorator, can supply the vacancy. She instills into the little child the love of truth and purity, the subtle sense of honor, the strong spirit of courage and high purpose.
If her home duties do not absorb her time and energy, she seeks the field of charity or education, or accepts the invitation which these fields offer to her. She becomes a director in or a visitor to some of the innumerable charities in which life is ministered to the unfortunate, the feeble, the incompetent.
If we accept Micah’s definition of religion, To do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God, then we may say that, with rare exceptions, woman chooses to leave to man the sterner task of administering justice, and delights herself in the ministration of mercy. She does so because in these unpaid ministries of mercy, sometimes in institutions, sometimes in private and unorganized service, is the direct impartation of life which is her highest joy. If she has no home in which she can and does minister, she instinctively seeks the schoolroom as her field, and there, substituting for the mother, imparts life, and endows with intelligence, and equips with culture the children intrusted to her charge. If necessity drives her or ambition entices her to other fields, her womanly instinct still asserts itself. If she enters the law, it is generally to be a counselor rather than a combatant; if literature, her pen instinctively seeks the vital rather than the materialistic themes. She is a minister to life. And when mistakenly ambitious women would persuade her to leave this ministry for the woodman’s axe, the farmer’s plough, or the policeman’s truncheon, she does not even entertain the proposition enough to discuss it.
When she looks out of the window of her home or her school and sees the platoon of policemen on a run to quell a riot, or a fire engine dashing by to extinguish a fire, she has no wish to join them; the boy’s eager request, “May I go, mamma? May I go?” awakens no like desire in her. For in her subconscious self is the knowledge that she is doing the work which makes it worth while to quell riots and extinguish fires. She is more than content that her sons, her brothers, her husband shall protect the life to which she ministers, and shall determine how it can best be protected, if she is left to minister to it directly, in peace and safety.
And she is right. If she were to go into politics, she would leave undone the work for which alone government exists, or she would distract her energies from that work, which she knows full well requires them all. Can she not do both? No! no more than man can. He cannot be at the same time in the market winning the bread, in the forum shaping the public policies, and in the home ministering to life. Nor can she. She must choose. She may give her time and thought and energy to building a state, and engaging in that warfare of wills which politics involves; or she may give her time and thought to the building of men, on whose education and training, church, state, industry, society, all depend. She has made her choice and made it wisely.
Necessity, born of an imperfect industrial system, may drive a few thousand women into battle with Nature in bread-winning vocations; ambition may call a few women down and out from the higher vocation of character-building to participate in public debate before the footlights; the clamors of an ill-instructed conscience may force a few more to leave the congenial work of directly ministering to life, that they may undertake the more, indirect ministry through village or city boards, state legislatures, and the Federal Congress; but the great body of American women are true to themselves, to the nature God has given them, and to the service He has allotted to them — the direct ministry to life — and will neither be forced nor enticed from it by their restless, well-meaning, but mistaken sisters.
The Atlantic Monthly; September 1903