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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

How Women Will Legislate

Title:     How Women Will Legislate
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

It is often said that when women vote their votes will make no difference in the count, became they will merely duplicate the votes of their husbands and brothers. Then these same objectors go on and predict all sorts of evil things for which women will vote quite apart from their husbands and brothers. Moreover, the evils thus predicted are apt to be diametrically opposite. Thus Goldwin Smith predicts that women will be governed by priests, and then goes on to predict that women will vote to abolish marriage; not seeing that these two predictions destroy each other.

On the other hand, I think that the advocates of woman suffrage often err by claiming too much,--as that all women will vote for peace, for total abstinence, against slavery, and the rest. It seems better to rest the argument on general principles, and not to seek to prophesy too closely. The only thing which I feel safe in predicting is that woman suffrage will be used, as it should be, for the protection of woman. Self-respect and self-protection,--these are, as has been already said, the two great things for which woman needs the ballot.

It is not in the nature of things, I take it, that a class politically subject can obtain justice from the governing class. Not the least of the benefits gained by political equality for the colored people of the South is that the laws now generally make no difference of color in penalties for crime. In slavery times there were dozens of crimes which were punished more severely by the statute if committed by a slave or a free negro than if done by a white. I feel very sure that under the reign of impartial suffrage we should see fewer such announcements as this, which I cut from a late New York "Evening Express:"--

"Last night Capt. Lowery, of the Twenty-seventh Precinct, made a descent upon the dance-house in the basement of 96 Greenwich Street, and arrested fifty-two men and eight women. The entire batch was brought before Justice Flammer, at the Tombs Police Court, this morning. Louise Maud, the proprietoress, was held in five hundred dollars bail to answer at the Court of General Sessions. _The fifty-two men were fined three dollars each, all but twelve paying at once; and the eight women were fined ten dollars each, and sent to the Island for one month._"

The italics are my own. When we reflect that this dance-house, whatever it was, was unquestionably sustained for the gratification of men, rather than of women; when we consider that every one of these fifty-two men came there, in all probability, by his own free will, and to spend money, not to earn it; and that probably a majority of the women were driven there by necessity or betrayal, or force or despair,--it would seem that even an equal punishment would have been cruel injustice to the women. But when we observe how trifling a penalty was three dollars each to these men, whose money was likely to go for riotous living in some form, and forty of whom had the amount of the fine in their pockets; and how hopelessly large an amount was ten dollars each to women who did not, probably, own even the clothes they wore, and who were to be sent to prison for a month in addition,--we see a kind of injustice which would stand a fair chance of being righted, I suspect, if women came into power. Not that they would punish their own sex less severely; probably they would not: but they would put men more on a level as to the penalty.

It may be said that no such justice is to be expected from women; because women in what is called "society" condemn women for mere imprudence, and excuse men for guilt. But it must be remembered that in "society" guilt is rarely a matter of open proof and conviction, in case of men: it is usually a matter of surmise; and it is easy for either love or ambition to set the surmise aside, and to assume that the worst reprobate is "only a little wild." In fact, as Margaret Fuller pointed out years ago, how little conception has a virtuous woman as to what a dissipated young man really is! But let that same woman be a Portia, in the judgment-seat, or even a legislator or a voter, and let her have the unmistakable and actual offender before her, and I do not believe that she will excuse him for a paltry fine, and give the less guilty woman a penalty more than quadruple.

Women will also be sure to bring special sympathy and intelligent attention to the wrongs of children. Who can read without shame and indignation this report from "The New York Herald"?


Peter Hallock, committed on a charge of abducting Lena Dinser, a young girl thirteen years old, whom, it was alleged, her father, George Dinser, had sold to Hallock for purposes of prostitution, was again brought yesterday before Judge Westbrook in the Supreme Court Chambers, on the writ of habeas corpus previously obtained by Mr. William F. Howe, the prisoner's counsel. Mr. Howe claimed that Hallock could not be held on either section of the statute for abduction. Under the first section the complaint, he insisted, should set forth that the child was taken contrary to the wish and against the consent of her parents. On the contrary, the evidence, he urged, showed that the father was a willing party. Under the second section, it was contended that the prisoner could not be held, as there was no averment that the girl was of previous chaste character. Judge Westbrook, a brief counter argument having been made by Mr. Dana, held that the points of Mr. Howe were well taken, and ordered the prisoner's discharge.

Here was a father who, as the newspapers allege, had previously sold two other daughters, body and soul, and against whom the evidence seemed to be in this case clear. Yet through the defectiveness of the statute, or the remissness of the prosecuting attorney, he goes free, without even a trial, to carry on his infamous traffic for other children. Grant that the points were technically well taken and irresistible,--though this is by no means certain,--it is very sure that there should be laws that should reach such atrocities with punishment, whether the father does or does not consent to his child's ruin; and that public sentiment should compel prosecuting officers to be as careful in framing their indictments where human souls are at stake as where the question is of dollars only. It is upon such matters that the influence of women will make itself felt in legislation.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: How Women Will Legislate