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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Drawing The Line

Title:     Drawing The Line
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

When in Dickens's "Nicholas Nickleby" the coal-heaver calls at the fashionable barber's to be shaved, the barber declines that service. The coal-heaver pleads that he saw a baker being shaved there the day before. But the barber points out to him that it is necessary to draw the line somewhere, and he draws it at bakers.

It is, doubtless, an inconvenience, in respect to woman suffrage, that so many people have their own theories as to drawing the line, and deciding who shall vote. Each has his hobby; and as the opportunity for applying it to men has passed by, each wishes to catch at the last remaining chance, and apply it to women. One believes in drawing an educational line; another, in a property qualification; another, in new restrictions on naturalization; another, in distinctions of race; and each wishes to keep women, for a time, as the only remaining victims for his experiment.

Fortunately the answer to all these objections, on behalf of woman suffrage, is very brief and simple. It is no more the business of its advocates to decide upon the best abstract basis for suffrage, than it is to decide upon the best system of education, or of labor, or of marriage. Its business is to equalize, in all these directions; nothing more. When that is done, there will be plenty still left to do, without doubt; but it will not involve the rights of women, as such. Simply to strike out the word "male" from the statute,--that is our present work. "What is sauce for the goose"--but the proverb is somewhat musty. These educational and property restrictions may be of value; but wherever they are already removed from the men they must be removed from women also. Enfranchise them equally, and then begin afresh, if you please, to legislate for the whole human race. What we protest against is that you should have let down the bars for one sex, and should at once become conscientiously convinced that they should be put up again for the other.

When it was proposed to apply an educational qualification at the South after the war, the Southern white loyalists all objected to it. If you make it universal, they said, it cuts off many of the whites. If you apply it to the blacks alone, it is manifestly unjust. The case is the same with women in regard to men. As woman needs the ballot primarily to protect herself, it is manifestly unjust to restrict the suffrage for her, when man has it without restriction. If she needs protection, then she needs it all the more from being poor, or ignorant, or Irish, or black. If we do not see this, the freedwomen of the South did. There is nothing like personal wrong to teach people logic.

We hear a great deal said in dismay, and sometimes even by old abolitionists, about "increasing the number of ignorant voters." In Massachusetts, there is an educational restriction for men, such as it is; in Rhode Island, a property qualification is required for voting on certain questions. Personally, I believe with "Warrington," that, if ignorant voting be bad, ignorant non-voting is worse; and that the enfranchised "masses," which have a legitimate outlet for their political opinions, are far less dangerous than disfranchised masses, which must rely on mobs and strikes. I will go farther, and say that I believe our republic is, on the whole, in less danger from its poor men, who have got to stay in it and bring up their children, than from its rich men, who have always Paris and London to fall back upon. I do not see that even a poll-tax or registry-tax is of any use as a safeguard; for if men are to be bought the tax merely offers a more indirect and palatable form in which to pay the price. Many a man consents to have his poll-tax paid by his party or his candidate, when he would reject the direct offer of a dollar bill.

But this is all private speculation, and has nothing to do with the woman-suffrage movement. All that we can ask, as advocates of this reform, is that the inclusion or the exclusion should be the same for both sexes. We cannot put off the equality of woman till that time, a few centuries hence, when the Social Science Association shall have succeeded in agreeing on the true basis of "scientific legislation." It is as if we urged that wives should share their husbands' dinners, and were told that the physicians had not decided whether beefsteak were wholesome. The answer is, "Beefsteak or tripe, yeast or saleratus, which you please. But, meanwhile, what is good enough for the wife is good enough for the husband."

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: Drawing The Line