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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Too Much Prediction

Title:     Too Much Prediction
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

"Seek not to proticipate," says Mrs. Gamp, the venerable nurse in "Martin Chuzzlewit"--"but take 'em as they come, and as they go." I am persuaded that our woman-suffrage arguments would be improved by this sage counsel, and that at present we indulge in too many bold anticipations.

Is there not altogether too much tendency to predict what women will do when they vote? Could that good time come to-morrow, we should be startled to find to how many different opinions and "causes" the new voters were already pledged. One speaker wishes that women should be emancipated, because of the fidelity with which they are sure to support certain desirable measures, as peace, order, freedom, temperance, righteousness, and judgment to come. Then the next speaker has his or her schedule of political virtues and is equally confident that women, if once enfranchised, will guarantee clear majorities for them all. The trouble is that we thus mortgage this new party of the future, past relief, beyond possibility of payment, and incur the ridicule of the unsanctified by committing our cause to a great many contradictory pledges.

I know an able and high-minded woman of foreign birth, who courageously, but as I think mistakenly, calls herself an atheist, and who has for years advocated woman suffrage as the only antidote to the rule of the clergy. On the other hand, an able speaker in a Boston convention soon after advocated the same thing as the best way of defeating atheism, and securing the positive assertion of religion by the community. Both cannot be correct: neither is entitled to speak for woman. That being the case, would it not be better to keep clear of this dangerous ground of prediction, and keep to the argument based on rights and needs? If our theory of government be worth anything, woman has the same right to the ballot that man has: she certainly needs it as much for self-defence. How she will use it, when she gets it, is her own affair. It may be that she will use it more wisely than her brothers; but I am satisfied to believe that she will use it as well. Let us not attribute infallible wisdom and virtue, even to women; for, as dear Mrs. Poyser says in "Adam Bede," "God Almighty made some of 'em foolish, to match the men."

It is common to assume, for instance, that all women by nature favor peace; and that, even if they do not always seem to promote it in their social walk and conversation, they certainly will in their political. When we consider how all the pleasing excitements, achievements, and glories of war, such as they are, accrue to men only, and how large a part of the miseries are brought home to women, it might seem that their vote on this matter, at least, would be a sure thing. Thus far the theory: the fact being that we have been through a civil war which convulsed the nation, and cost half a million lives; and which was, from the very beginning, fomented, stimulated, and applauded, at least on one side, by the united voice of the women. It will be generally admitted by those who know, that, but for the women of the seceding States, the war of the Rebellion would have been waged more feebly, been sooner ended, and far more easily forgotten. Nay, I was told a few days since by an able Southern lawyer, who was long the mayor of one of the largest Southern cities, that in his opinion the practice of duelling--which is an epitome of war--owes its continued existence at the South to a sustaining public sentiment among the fair sex.

Again, where the sympathy of women is wholly on the side of right, it is by no means safe to assume that their mode of enforcing that sentiment will be equally judicious. Take, for instance, the temperance cause. It is quite common to assume that women are a unit on that question. When we look at the two extremes of society,--the fine lady pressing wine upon her visitors, and the Irishwoman laying in a family supply of whiskey to last over Sunday,--the assumption seems hasty. But grant it. Is it equally sure, that when woman takes hold of that most difficult of all legislation, the license and prohibitory laws, she will handle them more wisely than men have done? Will her more ardent zeal solve the problem on which so much zeal has already been lavished in vain? In large cities, for instance, where there is already more law than is enforced, will her additional ballots afford the means to enforce it? It may be so; but it seems wiser not to predict nor to anticipate, but to wait and hope.

It is no reproach on woman to say that she is not infallible on particular questions. There is much reason to suppose that in politics, as in every other sphere, the joint action of the sexes will be better and wiser than that of either singly. It seems obvious that the experiment of republican government will be more fairly tried when one half the race is no longer disfranchised. It is quite certain, at any rate, that no class can trust its rights to the mercy and chivalry of any other, but that, the weaker it is, the more it needs all political aids and securities for self-protection. Thus far we are on safe ground; and here, as it seems to me, the claim for suffrage may securely rest. To go farther in our assertions seems to me unsafe, although many of our wisest and most eloquent may differ from me; and the nearer we approach success, the more important it is to look to our weapons. It is a plausible and tempting argument, to claim suffrage for woman on the ground that she is an angel; but I think it will prove wiser, in the end, to claim it for her as being human.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: Too Much Prediction