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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

For Self-Protection

Title:     For Self-Protection
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

I remember to have read, many years ago, the life of Sir Samuel Romilly, the English philanthropist. He was the author of more beneficent legal reforms than any man of his day, and there was in that very book a long list of the changes he still meant to bring about. It struck me very much, that among these proposed reforms not one of any importance referred to the laws about women.

It shows--what all experience has shown--that no class or race or sex can safely trust its protection in any hands but its own. The laws of England in regard to woman were then so bad that Lord Brougham afterwards said they needed total reconstruction, if they were to be touched at all. Yet it is only since woman suffrage began to be talked about, that the work of law-reform has really taken firm hold. In many cases in America the beneficent measures are directly to be traced to some appeal from feminine advocates. Even in Canada, as was once stated by Dr. Cameron of Toronto, the bill protecting the property of married women was passed under the immediate pressure of Lucy Stone's eloquence. And even where this direct agency could not be traced, the general fact that the atmosphere was full of the agitation had much to do with all the reforms that took place. Legislatures, unwilling to give woman the ballot, were shamed into giving her something. The chairman of the judiciary committee in Rhode Island told me that until he heard women argue before the committee he had not reflected upon their legal disabilities, or thought how unjust these were. While the matter was left to the other sex only, even men like Sir Samuel Romilly forgot the wrongs of woman. When she began to advocate her own cause men also waked up.

But now that they are awake they ask, Is not this sufficient? Not at all If an agent who has cheated you surrenders reluctantly one half your stolen goods, you do not stop there and say, "It is enough. Your intention is honorable. Please continue my agent with increased pay." On the contrary, you say, "Your admission of wrong is a plea of guilty. Give me the rest of what is mine." There is no defence like self-defence, no protection like self-protection.

All theories of chivalry and generosity and vicarious representation fall before the fact that woman has been grossly wronged by man. That being the case, the only modest and honest thing for man to do is to say, "Henceforward have a voice in making your own laws." Till this is done, she has no sure safeguard, since otherwise the same men who made the old barbarous laws may at any time restore them.

It is common to say that woman suffrage will make no great difference; that women will think very much as men do, and it will simply double the vote without varying the result. About many matters this may be true. To be sure, it is probable that on questions of conscience, like slavery and temperance, the woman's vote would by no means coincide with man's. But grant that it would. The fact remains,--and all history shows it,--that on all that concerns her own protection a woman needs her own vote. Would a woman vote to give her husband the power of bequeathing her children to the control and guardianship of somebody else? Would a woman vote to sustain the law by which a Massachusetts chief justice bade the police take those crying children from their mother's side in the Boston court-room a few years ago, and hand them over to a comparative stranger, because that mother had married again? You might as well ask whether the colored vote would sustain the Dred Scott decision. Tariffs or banks may come or go the same, whether the voters be white or black, male or female; but when the wrongs of an oppressed class or sex are to be righted the ballot is the only guaranty. After they have gained a potential voice for themselves, the Sir Samuel Romillys will remember them.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: For Self-Protection