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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Individuals vs. Classes

Title:     Individuals vs. Classes
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

As the older arguments against woman suffrage are abandoned, we hear more and more of the final objection, that the majority of women have not yet expressed themselves on the subject. It is common for such reasoners to make the remark, that if they knew a given number of women--say fifty, or a hundred, or five hundred--who honestly wished to vote, they would favor it. Produce that number of unimpeachable names, and they say that they have reconsidered the matter, and must demand more,--perhaps ten thousand. Bring ten thousand, and the demand again rises. "Prove that the majority of women wish to vote, and they shall vote." "Precisely," we say: "give us a chance to prove it by taking a vote;" and they answer, "By no means."

And, in a certain sense, they are right. It ought not to be settled that way,--by dealing with woman as a class, and taking the vote. The agitators do not merely claim the right of suffrage for her as a class: they claim it for each individual woman, without reference to any other. If there is only one woman in the nation who claims the right to vote, she ought to have it. In Oriental countries all legislation is for classes, and in England it is still mainly so. A man is expected to remain in the station in which he is born; or, if he leaves it, it is by a distinct process, and he comes under the influence, in various ways, of different laws. If the iniquities of the "Contagious Diseases" act in England, for instance, had not been confined in their legal application to the lower social grades, the act would never have passed. It was easy for men of the higher classes to legislate away the modesty of women of the lower classes; but if the daughter of an earl could have been arrested, and submitted to a surgical examination at the will of any policeman, as the daughter of a mechanic might be, the law would not have stood a day. So, through all our slave States, there was class legislation for every person of negro blood: the laws of crime, of punishment, of testimony, were all adapted to classes, not individuals. Emancipation swept this all away, in most cases: classes ceased to exist before the law, so far as men at least were concerned; there were only individuals. The more progress, the less class in legislation. We claim the application of this principle as rapidly as possible to women.

Our community does not refuse permission for women to go unveiled till it is proved that the majority of women desire it; it does not even ask that question: if one woman wishes to show her face, it is allowed. If a woman wishes to travel alone, to walk the streets alone, the police protects her in that liberty. She is not thrust back into her house with the reproof, "My dear madam, at this particular moment the overwhelming majority of women are indoors: prove that they all wish to come out, and you shall come." On the contrary, she comes forth at her own sweet will: the policeman helps her tenderly across the street, and waves back with imperial gesture the obtrusive coal-cart. Some of us claim for each individual woman, in the same way, not merely the right to go shopping, but to go voting; not merely to show her face, but to show her hand.

There will always be many women, as there are many men, who are indifferent to voting. For a time, perhaps always, there will be a larger percentage of this indifference among women. But the natural right to a share in the government under which one lives, and to a voice in making the laws under which one may be hanged,--this belongs to each woman as an individual; and she is quite right to claim it as she needs it, even though the majority of her sex still prefer to take their chance of the penalty, without perplexing themselves about the law. The demand of every enlightened woman who asks for the ballot--like the demand of every enlightened slave for freedom--is an individual demand; and the question whether they represent the majority of their class has nothing to do with it. For a republic like ours does not profess to deal with classes, but with individuals; since "the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, for the common good," as the constitution of Massachusetts says.

And, fortunately, there is such power in an individual demand that it appeals to thousands whom no abstract right touches. Five minutes with Frederick Douglass settled the question, for any thoughtful person, of that man's right to freedom. Let any woman of position desire to enter what is called "the lecture-field," to support herself and her children, and at once all abstract objections to women's speaking in public disappear: her friends may be never so hostile to "the cause," but they espouse her individual cause; the most conservative clergyman subscribes for tickets, but begs that his name may not be mentioned. They do not admit that women, as a class, should speak,--not they; but for this individual woman they throng the hall. Mrs. Dahlgren abhors politics: a woman in Congress, a woman in the committee-room,--what can be more objectionable? But I observe that when Mrs. Dahlgren wishes to obtain more profit by her husband's inventions all objections vanish: she can appeal to Congressmen, she can address committees, she can, I hope, prevail. The individual ranks first in our sympathy: we do not wait to take the census of the "class." Make way for the individual, whether it be Mrs. Dahlgren pleading for the rights of property, or Lucy Stone pleading for the rights of the mother to her child.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: Individuals Vs. Classes