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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

How To Make Women Understand Politics

Title:     How To Make Women Understand Politics
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

An English member of Parliament said in a speech, some years ago, that the stupidest man had a clearer understanding of political questions than the brightest woman. He did not find it convenient to say what must be the condition of a nation which for many years has had a woman for its sovereign; but he certainly said bluntly what many men feel. It is not indeed very hard to find the source of this feeling. It is not merely that women are inexperienced in questions of finance or administrative practice, for many men are equally ignorant of these. But it is undoubtedly true of a large class of more fundamental questions,--as, for instance, of some now pending at Washington,--which even many clear-headed women find it hard to understand, while men of far less general training comprehend them entirely.

Questions of the distribution of power, for instance, between the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of government,--or between the United States government and those of the separate States,--belong to the class I mean. Many women of great intelligence show a hazy indistinctness of views when the question arises whether it is the business of the general government to preserve order at the voting-places at a congressional election, for instance, as the Republicans hold; or whether it should be left absolutely in the hands of the state officials, as the Democrats maintain. Most women would probably say that so long as order was preserved, it made very little difference who did it. Yet, if one goes into a shoe-shop or a blacksmith's shop, one may hear just these questions discussed in all their bearings by uneducated men, and it will be seen that they involve a principle. Why is this difference? Does it show some constitutional inferiority in women, as to this particular faculty?

The question is best solved by considering a case somewhat parallel. The South Carolina negroes were considered very stupid, even by many who knew than; and they certainly were densely ignorant on many subjects. Put face to face with a difficult point of finance legislation, I think they would have been found to know even less about it than I do. Yet the abolition of slavery was held in those days by many great statesmen to be a subject so difficult that they shrank from discussing it; and nevertheless I used to find that these ignorant men understood it quite clearly in all its bearings. Offer a bit of sophistry to them, try to blind them with false logic on this subject, and they would detect it as promptly, and answer it as keenly, as Garrison or Phillips would have done; and, indeed, they would give very much the same answers. What was the reason? Not that they were half wise and half stupid; but that they were dull where their own interests had not trained them, and they were sharp and keen where their own interests were concerned.

I have no doubt that it will be so with women when they vote. About some things they will be slow to learn; but about all that immediately concerns themselves they will know more at the very beginning than many wise men have learned since the world began. How long it took for English-speaking men to correct, even partially, the iniquities of the old common law!--but a parliament of women would have set aside at a single sitting the alleged right of the husband to correct his wife with a stick no bigger than his thumb. It took the men of a certain State of this Union a good many years to see that it was an outrage to confiscate to the State one half the property of a man who died childless, leaving his widow only the other half; but a legislature of women would have annihilated that enormity by a single day's work. I have never seen reason to believe that women on general questions would act more wisely or more conscientiously, as a rule, than men: but self-preservation is a wonderful quickener of the brain; and in all questions bearing on their own rights and opportunities as women, it is they who will prove shrewd and keen, and men who will prove obtuse, as indeed they have usually been.

Another point that adds force to this is the fact that wherever women, by their special position, have more at stake than usual in public affairs, even as now organized, they are apt to be equal to the occasion. When the men of South Carolina were ready to go to war for the "State-Rights" doctrines of Calhoun, the women of that State had also those doctrines at their fingers'-ends. At Washington, where politics make the breath of life, you will often find the wives of members of Congress following the debates, and noting every point gained or lost, because these are matters in which they and their families are personally concerned; and as for that army of women employed in the "departments" of the government, they are politicians every one, because their bread depends upon it.

The inference is, that if women as a class are now unfitted for politics it is because they have not that pressure of personal interest and responsibility by which men are unconsciously trained. Give this, and self-interest will do the rest, aided by that power of conscience and affection which is certainly not less in them than in men, even if we claim no more. A young lady of my acquaintance opposed woman suffrage in conversation on various grounds, one of which was that it would, if enacted, compel her to read the newspapers, which she greatly disliked. I pleaded that this was not a fatal objection; since many men voted "early and often" without reading them, and in fact without knowing how to read at all. She said, in reply, that this might do for men, but that women were far more conscientious, and, if they were once compelled to vote, they would wish to know what they were voting for. This seemed to me to contain the whole philosophy of the matter; and I respected the keenness of her suggestion, though it led me to an opposite conclusion.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: How To Make Women Understand Politics