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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Manners Repeal Laws

Title:     Manners Repeal Laws
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

There is in Boswell's "Life of Johnson" a correspondence which is well worth reading by both advocates and opponents of woman suffrage. Boswell, who was of an old Scotch family, had a difference of opinion with his father about an entailed estate which had descended to them. Boswell wished the title so adjusted as to cut off all possibility of female heirship. His father, on the other hand, wished to recognize such a contingency. Boswell wrote to Johnson in 1776 for advice, urging a series of objections, physiological and moral, to the inheritance of a family estate by a woman; though, as he magnanimously admits, "they should be treated with great affection and tenderness, and always participate of the prosperity of the family."

Dr. Johnson, for a wonder, took the other side, defended female heirship, and finally summed up thus: "It cannot but occur that women have natural and equitable claims as well as men, and these claims are not to be capriciously or lightly superseded or infringed. When fiefs inspired military service, it is easily discerned why females could not inherit them; but the reason is at an end. _As manners make laws, so manners likewise repeal them_."

This admirable statement should be carefully pondered by those who hold that suffrage should be only coextensive with military duty. The position that woman cannot properly vote because she cannot fight for her vote efficiently is precisely like the position of feudalism and of Boswell, that she could not properly hold real estate because she could not fight for it. Each position may have had some plausibility in its day, but the same current of events has made each obsolete. Those who in these days believe in giving woman the ballot argue precisely as Dr. Johnson did in 1776. Times have changed, manners have softened, education has advanced, public opinion now acts more forcibly; and the reference to physical force, though still implied, is implied more and more remotely. The political event of the age, the overthrow of American slavery, would not have been accomplished without the "secular arm" of Grant and Sherman, let us agree: but neither would it have been accomplished without the moral power of Garrison the non-resistant, and Harriet Beecher Stowe the woman. When the work is done, it is unfair to disfranchise any of the participants. Dr. Johnson was right: "When fiefs [or votes] implied military service, it is easily discerned why women should not inherit [or possess] them; but the reason is at an end. As manners make laws, so manners likewise repeal them."

Under the feudal system it would have been absurd that women should hold real estate, for the next armed warrior could dispossess her. By Gail Hamilton's reasoning, it is equally absurd now: "One man is stronger than one woman, and ten men are stronger than ten women; and the nineteen millions of men in this country will subdue, capture, and execute or expel the nineteen millions of women just as soon as they set about it." Very well: why, then, do not all the landless men in a town unite, and take away the landed property of all the women? Simply because we now live in civilized society and under a reign of law; because those men's respect for law is greater than their appetite for property; or, if you prefer, because even those landless men know that their own interest lies, in the long-run, on the side of law. It will be precisely the same with voting. When any community is civilized up to the point of enfranchising women, it will be civilized up to the point of sustaining their vote, as it now sustains their property rights, by the whole material force of the community. When the thing is once established, it will no more occur to anybody that a woman's vote is powerless because she cannot fight, than it now occurs to anybody that her title to real estate is invalidated by the same circumstance.

Woman is in the world; she cannot be got rid of: she must be a serf or an equal; there is no middle ground. We have outgrown the theory of serfdom in a thousand ways, and may as well abandon the whole. Women have now a place in society: their influence will be exerted, at any rate, in war and in peace, legally or illegally; and it had better be exerted in direct, legitimate, and responsible methods, than in ways that are dark, and by tricks that have not even the merit of being plain.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: Manners Repeal Laws