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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

How Will It Result?

Title:     How Will It Result?
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

"It would be a great convenience, my hearers," said old Parson Withington of Newbury, "if the moral of a fable could only be written at the beginning of it, instead of the end. But it never is." Commonly the only thing to be done is to get hold of a few general principles, hold to those, and trust that all will turn out well. No matter how thoroughly a reform may have been discussed,--negro emancipation or free-trade, for instance,--it is a step in the dark at last, and the detailed results never turn out to be precisely according to the programme.

An "esteemed correspondent," who has written some of the best things yet said in America in behalf of the enfranchisement of woman, writes privately to express some solicitude, since, as she thinks, we are not ready for it yet. "I am convinced," she writes, "of the abstract right of women to vote; but all I see of the conduct of the existing women, into whose hands this change would throw the power, inclines me to hope that this power will not be conceded till education shall have prepared a class of women fit to take the responsibilities."

Gradual emancipation, in short!--for fear of trusting truth and justice to take care of themselves. Who knew, when the negroes were set free, whether they would at first use their freedom well, or ill? Would they work? would they avoid crimes? would they justify their freedom? The theory of education and preparation seemed very plausible. Against that, there was only the plain theory which Elizabeth Heyrick first announced to England,--"Immediate, unconditional emancipation." "The best preparation for freedom is freedom." What was true of the negroes then is true of women now.

"The lovelier traits of womanhood," writes earnestly our correspondent, "simplicity, faith, guilelessness, unfit them to conduct public affairs, where one must deal with quacks and charlatans.... We are not all at once 'as gods, knowing good and evil;' and the very innocency of our lives, and the habits of pure homes, unfit us to manage a certain class who will flock to this standard."

But the basis of all republican government is in the assumption that good is ultimately stronger than evil. If we once abandon this, our theory has gone to pieces, at any rate. If we hold to it, good women are no more helpless and useless than good men. The argument that would here disfranchise women has been used before now to disfranchise clergymen. I believe that in some States they are still disfranchised; and, if they are not, it is partly because good is found to be as strong as evil, after all, and partly because clergymen are not found to be so angelically good as to be useless. I am very confident that both these truths will be found to apply to women also.

Whatever else happens, we may be pretty sure that one thing will. The first step towards the enfranchisement of women will blow to the winds the tradition of the angelic superiority of women. Just so surely as women vote, we shall occasionally have women politicians, women corruptionists, and women demagogues. Conceding, for the sake of courtesy, that none such now exist, they will be born as inevitably, after enfranchisement, as the frogs begin to pipe in the spring. Those who doubt it ignore human nature; and, if they are not prepared for this fact, they had better consider it in season, and take sides accordingly. In these pages, at least, they have been warned.

What then? Suppose women are not "as gods, knowing good and evil:" they are not to be emancipated as gods, but as fallible human beings. They are to come out of an ignorant innocence, that may be only weakness, into a wise innocence that will be strength. It is too late to remand American women into a Turkish or Jewish tutelage: they have emerged too far not to come farther. In a certain sense, no doubt, the butterfly is safest in the chrysalis. When the soft thing begins to emerge, the world certainly seems a dangerous place; and it is hard to say what will be the result of the emancipation. But when she is once half out, there is no safety for the pretty creature but to come the rest of the way, and use her wings.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: How Will It Result?