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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

A Safeguard For The Family

Title:     A Safeguard For The Family
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

Many German-Americans are warm friends of woman suffrage; but the editors of "Puck," it seems, are not. In a certain number of that comic journal, there was an unfavorable cartoon on this reform; and in a following number,--the number, by the way, which contains that amusing illustration of the vast seaside hotels of the future, with the cheering announcement, "Only one mile to the barber's shop," and "Take the cars to the dining-room,"--a lady came to the rescue, and bravely defended woman suffrage. It seems that the original cartoon depicted in the corner a pretty family scene, representing father, mother, and children seated happily together, with the melancholy motto, "Nevermore, nevermore!" And when the correspondent, Mrs. Blake, very naturally asks what this touching picture has to do with woman suffrage, Puck says, "If the husband in our 'pretty family scene' should propose to vote for the candidate who was obnoxious to his wife, would this 'pretty family scene' continue to be a domestic paradise, or would it remind the spectator of the region in which Dante spent his 'fortnight off'?"

It is beautiful to see how much anxiety there is to preserve the family. Every step in the modification of the old common law, whereby the wife was, in Baron Alderson's phrase, "the servant of her husband," was resisted as tending to endanger the family. The proposal that the wife should control her own earnings, so that her husband should not have the right to collect them in order to pay his gambling debts, was declared by English advocates, in the celebrated case of the Hon. Mrs. Norton, the poetess, to imperil all the future peace of British households.

Even the liberal-minded "Punch," about the time Girton College was founded in England, expressed grave doubts whether the harmony of wedded unions would not receive a blow, from the time when wives should be liable to know more Greek than their husbands. Yet the marriage relation has withstood these innovations. It has not been impaired, either by separate rights, private earnings, or independent Greek: can it be possible that a little voting will overthrow it?

The very ground on which woman suffrage is opposed by its enemies might assuage these fears. If, as we are told, women will not take the pains to vote except upon the strongest inducements, who has so good an opportunity as the husband to bring those inducements to bear? and, if so, what is the separation? Or if, as we are told, women will merely reflect their husbands' political opinions, why should they dispute about them? The mere suggestion of a difference deep enough to quarrel for, implies a real difference of convictions or interests, and indicates that there ought to be an independent representation of each; unless we fall back, once for all, on the common-law tradition that man and wife are one, and that one is the husband. Either the antagonisms which occur in politics are comparatively superficial, in which case they would do no harm; or else they touch matters of real interest and principle, in which case every human being has a right to independent expression, even at a good deal of risk. In either case, the objection falls to the ground.

We have fortunately a means of testing, with some fairness of estimate, the probable amount of this peril. It is generally admitted--and certainly no German-American will deny--that the most fruitful sources of hostility and war in all times have been religious, not political. All merely political antagonism, certainly all which is possible in a republic, fades into insignificance before this more powerful dividing influence. Yet we leave all this great explosive force in unimpeded operation,--at any moment it may be set in action, in any one of those "pretty family scenes" which "Puck" depicts,--while we are solemnly warned against admitting the comparatively mild peril of a political difference! It is like cautioning a manufacturer of dynamite against the danger of meddling with mere edge-tools. Even with all the intensity of feeling on religious matters, few families are seriously divided by them; and the influence of political differences would be still more insignificant.

The simple fact is that there is no better basis for union than mutual respect for each other's opinions; and this can never be obtained without an intelligent independence, "I would rather have a thorn in my side than an echo," said Emerson of friendship; and the same is true of married life. It is the echoes, the nonentities, of whom men grow tired; it is the women with some flavor of individuality who keep the hearts of their husbands. This is only applying in a higher sense what Shakespeare's Cleopatra saw. When her handmaidens are questioning how to hold a lover, and one says,--

"Give way to him in all: cross him in nothing,"--

Cleopatra, from the depth of an unequalled experience, retorts,--

"Thou speakest like a fool: the way to lose him!"

And what "the serpent of old Nile" said, the wives of the future, who are to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves, may well ponder. It takes two things different to make a union; and part of that difference may as well lie in matters political as anywhere else.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: A Safeguard For The Family