Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of Thomas Wentworth Higginson > Text of Follow Your Leaders

An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Follow Your Leaders

Title:     Follow Your Leaders
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

"There go thirty thousand men," shouted the Portuguese, as Wellington, with a few staff-officers, rode along the mountain-side. The action of the leaders' minds, in any direction, has a value out of all proportion to their numbers. In a campaign there is a council of officers,--Grant and Sherman and Sheridan perhaps. They are but a trifling minority, yet what they plan the whole army will do; and such is the faith in a real leader, that, were all the restraints of discipline for the moment relaxed, the rank and file would still follow his judgment. What a few general officers see to be the best to-day, the sergeants and corporals and private soldiers will usually see to be best to-morrow.

In peace, also, there is a silent leadership; only that in peace, as there is more time to spare, the leaders are expected to persuade the rank and file, instead of commanding them. Yet it comes to the same thing in the end. The movement begins with certain guides, and if you wish to know the future, keep your eye on them. If you wish to know what is already decided, ask the majority; but if you wish to find out what is likely to be done next, ask the leaders.

It is constantly said that the majority of women do not yet desire to vote, and it is true. But to find out whether they are likely to wish for it, we must keep our eyes on the women who lead their sex. The representative women,--those who naturally stand for the rest, those most eminent for knowledge and self-devotion,--how do they view the thing? The rank and file do not yet demand the ballot, you say; but how is it with the general officers?

Now, it is a remarkable fact, about which those who have watched this movement for twenty years can hardly be mistaken, that almost any woman who reaches a certain point of intellectual or moral development will presently be found desiring the ballot for her sex. If this be so, it predicts the future. It is the judgment of Grant and Sherman and Sheridan as against that of the average private soldier of the Two Hundredth Infantry. Set aside, if you please, the specialists of this particular agitation,--those who were first known to the public through its advocacy. There is no just reason why they should be set aside, yet concede that for a moment. The fact remains that the ablest women in the land--those who were recognized as ablest in other spheres, before they took this particular duty upon them--are extremely apt to assume this cross when they reach a certain stage of development.

When Margaret Fuller first came forward into literature, she supposed that literature was all she wanted. It was not till she came to write upon woman's position that she discovered what woman needed. Clara Barton, driving her ambulance or her supply wagon at the battle's edge, did not foresee, perhaps, that she should make that touching appeal, when the battle was over, imploring her own enfranchisement from the soldiers she had befriended. Lydia Maria Child, Julia Ward Howe, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Louisa Alcott, came to the claim for the ballot earlier than a million others, because they were the intellectual leaders of American womanhood. They saw farthest, because they were in the highest place. They were the recognized representatives of their sex before they gave in their adhesion to the new demand. Their judgment is as the judgment of the council of officers, while Flora McFlimsey's opinion is as the opinion of John Smith, unassigned recruit. But if the generals make arrangements for a battle, the chance is that John Smith will have to take a hand in it, or else run away.

It is a rare thing for the petition for suffrage from any town to comprise the majority of women in that town. It makes no difference: if there are few women in the town who want to vote, there is as much propriety in their voting as if there were ten millions, so long as the majority are equally protected in their right to stay at home. But when the names of petitioners come to be weighed as well as counted, the character, the purity, the intelligence, the social and domestic value of the petitioners is seldom denied. The women who wish to vote are not the idle, the ignorant, the narrow-minded, or the vicious; they are not "the dangerous classes:" they represent the best class in the community, when tried by the highest standard. They are the natural leaders. What they now see to be right will also be perceived even by the foolish and the ignorant by and by.

In a poultry-yard in spring, when the first brood of duckling's goes toddling to the waterside, no doubt all the younger or feebler broods, just hatched out of similar eggs, think these innovators dreadfully mistaken. "You are out of place," they feebly pipe. "See how happy we are in our safe nests. Perhaps, by and by, when properly introduced into society, we may run about a little on land, but to swim!--never!" Meanwhile their elder kindred are splashing and diving in ecstasy; and, so surely as they are born ducklings, all the rest will swim in their turn. The instinct of the first duck solves the problem for all the rest. It is a mere question of time. Sooner or later, all the broods in the most conservative yard will follow their leaders.

[The end]
Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: Follow Your Leaders