E. Belfort Bax, Outraged Feminism, Social Democrat, April 1901, pp.100-104.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
In an article in the January issue of the Social-Democrat I pointed out what I deemed a fallacious argument commonly employed by woman suffrage advocates. No attack was made on the principle of woman suffrage as such, which so far as concerned my contention, might, in itself, have been absolutely unimpeachable. I merely criticised a particular demagogic form of appeal sometimes used by its supporters. Nevertheless, the mere fact of having laid a critical hand on any argument that had ever been employed in the sacred cause of Feminism, seems to have been enough to raise a hornet’s nest about my ears.
What I stigmatised as a fallacy, and that it is a fallacy I am still prepared to maintain, was the assertion of a necessary logical connection between woman suffrage and “democracy,” either political or Socialistic. “Democracy” has always meant the abolition of class-distinctions – political or economic or both – but until within the last few years has never been twisted into meaning the confusion of the social spheres of the sexes or the admission of the female sex to political functions. Modern democracy, which took its rise as one of the phases of the bourgeois revolt against feudalism and the absolutist bureaucracy that followed on feudalism, which again was one of the conditions of the rise of modern nationalities, was naturally at first patriotic and national. During the French Revolution the instinct of Internationalism sporadically asserted itself in democracy, and grew in the subsequent decades till Marx demonstrated the bankruptcy of nationalism and the essentiality, logically, economically, and ethically, of Internationalism as a basis for the realisation of modern Social-Democracy, which he expressed in the well-known formula. Thenceforward Social-Democracy, at least, became definitely internationalist, since the fall of class-barriers was seen to be inextricably bound up with the fall of race-barriers equally – at least so far as the progressive races are concerned. One can easily show that Social-Democracy involves many other points of belief and political practice, but the logical necessity for democracy of the general admission of women, as such, to political power has never been attempted to be shown. Destruction of class and of race-barriers does not necessarily carry with it the destruction of sex-distinctions as such, since, as I have pointed out, in sex you have to do with an organic difference, not with an economic difference, as with classes, or with a mere difference of political, linguistic, and other tradition, as with more or less allied races. This organic difference goes to the root of the physiological structure of each. Such a physiological difference takes the question out of the sphere of class and race, and places it in quite a different category, requiring to be dealt with by different arguments. Up till recently the presumption of the general unsuitability of women for the exercise of political power has been tacitly or avowedly admitted. 
Now, it is clearly admissible to attempt to rebut this presumption, to show it to be unfounded and to prove the complete capacity of “Woman” (blessed be her name!) to ride the whirlwind and direct the storm of human affairs, and the advantage to progress of her doing so; in other words, to show that woman’s suffrage and democracy are inextricably bound up together. But as yet I have seen no serious attempt to do this, although I have known of many endeavours to “rush” the position by sentimental appeals, fallacious statements, flimsy rhetorical apologies for argument, followed by sorry struggles to retreat from objectors under cover of feeble jokes. The fact is the majority of democrats and Socialists are consciously or unconsciously not quite sincere on this question. They do not take it altogether seriously. Indeed, I sometimes wonder whether, when two male woman’s suffrage democrats meet each other in private they keep their countenances, or whether their interview doesn’t resemble that of Cicero’s two augurs. I am persuaded there are a vast number of male Socialists who, like our friend in Paris whose remark to Vandervelde is quoted by Mrs. Montefiore, simply do lip-homage to the feminist movement, and who regard anyone who takes them seriously as an amusingly naive fool. I know this to be the ease with some. However, for my part, I cannot help regarding their playing with fire to be as dangerous politically as it is unworthy otherwise. The man who regards feminism as wholly or in part injurious to progress ought, in my opinion, not only in common honesty, but as a duty to his party, to say so undeterred by the abuse or sneers of the shrieking brotherhood and sisterhood.
Be it remembered in the case of the suffrage the question is not of social or economical justice, but of the effect of the exercise of political power by a biologically new element. This may be all right; it may be, as I heard a very superior idolatress of her sex say some years ago, that the mere political enfranchisement of women will solve the whole social problem. I am unable to believe so myself, but still “one never can tell.” All I say is, no serious attempt as yet has been made to rebut the presumption against the desirability of women being indiscriminately endowed with political power as things stand at present. Let us take Mrs. Montefiore’s article in the February Social-Democrat. Instead of setting herself to the task of pointing out the fallacy of the assumption by which women are regarded as (in the bulk) unfitted to exercise political power, she thinks it necessary to quibble about a phrase of mine in which I alluded to the fact that the difference between two men, one in the position of employer and the other of workman, was of a totally distinct nature to that between the workman and his wife, and hence the demand for political equality in the latter case could not be placed on the same footing as in the former. Were not a lady in question, I should be inclined to quote in full Hamlet’s observation anent the grave-diggers. However, in dealing with this question, I promise Mrs. Montefiore “to speak by the card” in future, even at the risk of making my article resemble in prolix pedantry an auctioneer’s catalogue or a house-lease of a generation ago. Mrs. Montefiore thinks sex has nothing to do with the exercise of the suffrage. She may be right, but as it stands her assertion is a mere begging of the question. The suffrage means the exercise of political power, and there are a good many benighted individuals, some of them not quite so incapable of studying questions historically, either, who think otherwise. I am accused of “sapiently” remarking that the question of “sex-equality differs in mind from that of class-equality.” (What I wrote was, of course, in kind, but I assume “mind” to be a misprint). Thereupon Mrs. Montefiore thinks “it might be useful” if I would “explain” how I propose “giving class-equality to the male sex without extending it to the female sex,” and waxes funny over “duchesses and countesses flourishing in the land.” Now, I submit that it would not be at all useful for me to waste words over a piece of nonsense, the product of Mr Montefiore’s imagination, which she foists upon me but which I venture to assert no possible twisting of my words could have suggested to an unbiassed reader. Perhaps Mrs, Montefiore will not take it amiss if I suggest that such controversial tricks, such cheap pieces of Effect-hascherei, as that of the paragraph in question are unworthy of a woman capable of writing some of the articles I have seen over her name.
The whole of the genuine argument (as opposed to jokes and quibbles) to be found in the article under discussion is contained in the two last paragraphs. Mrs. Montefiore finds that the suffrage ought to be given irrespective of sex just as “education is given irrespective of sex, as taxation is applied irrespective of sex, and as the civil and criminal law is enforced irrespective of sex.” As regards this I would point out that, as a rule, the question of sex enters very largely into education. I am not discussing whether it ought to or not, but as a matter of fact it does. The number of girls or women who follow the same course of education (other than elementary) as men is a mere handful. That taxation is applied irrespective of sex is nothing to the point, since taxation is based on property rather than on the person. This argument, therefore, is only good for those who would base the franchise on a property rather than a personal qualification, which I presume not to be the case with Mrs. Montefiore. The civil and criminal law is enforced irrespective of sex! Is it? If my fair disputant will procure the pamphlet, The Legal Subjection of Men, published some five years ago by the Twentieth Century Press, the statements of law as well as the facts contained in which have never been refuted, or even if she will endeavour to put away prejudice and study impartially for herself any considerable file of “cases” in which women are concerned, she will hardly venture to repeat such a statement. Women, thinks Mrs. Montefiore, with Vandervelde, “must awake to political life” through Socialism. With all my heart! But I would point out that there are many indirect means by which women who have the grit in them, can even now influence political life, without the concession of the franchise to women in general. As to its having been “abundantly proved” that every extension of the franchise has been followed by “a sense of responsibility” in those to whom it has been extended, that is only true if Mrs. Montefiore takes the bourgeois view that “a sense of responsibility” is shown by the reactionary character of the vote given. If so, she might certainly cite the British workman-elector as a convincing instance in point. I am aware that this has been triumphantly put forward by the Liberal-capitalist press, but to hear a Socialist quote it with admiration is new.
Mrs. Montefiore thinks Vandervelde “pertinently” asks “How it comes to pass that all reactionaries combat woman suffrage?” Now, I should have said the question had precisely the “pertinency” of the celebrated query addressed by Charles II, to the Royal Society, “Why a dead fish weighed more than a living one?” the fact being, of course, that if there is one question on which reactionaries are not unanimous it is just this one. Again, you find such revolutionary persons as Mr. Balfour, Mr. Haldane, Lord Grey, and Mr. Woodall on the suffrage side, and such hard-baked reactionaries as Mr. Labouchere in the opposition. That all Socialists agree, even in principle, in demanding the suffrage for women is not even now true, although many have allowed themselves to be “rushed” by sentiment and clamour into nominally giving in their adhesion to the proposal. There are, of course, some stupid reactionaries who will oppose any change merely because it is a change; but there are plenty of shrewder and cleverer men in the reactionary camp who are quite alive to the fact that reaction has, in all probability, a good deal more to gain than to lose by this particular change. In fact, as I have elsewhere pointed out, the peculiarity of the whole feminist movement which shows its absolutely unique character is that it entirely crosses all the lines which otherwise mark party divisions, and which are all based directly or indirectly on economical or class distinctions. You will find the most brutal advocate of strike-breaking and coercive legislation oftentimes weep tears of blood over the cruel oppression his imagination sees women groaning under at the hand of the wicked ogre – man. Lastly, if it be true, as Bebel has it, that no great movement, has ever been accomplished without women playing a part in it, it must be remembered that women have hitherto not had the political franchise, as a rule. What more conclusive argument, therefore, can you wish for in proof of the fact already referred to, that the franchise is not necessary to enable really capable and devoted women to exercise an influence on the course of public life? Q.E.D.
I have dealt at length with Mrs. Montefiore’s article because it is a good specimen (i.e., a favourable specimen) – since it contains at least two paragraphs of something like argument – of feminist if not of feminine logic. The contention in my article on “fallacies” remains unshaken by anything she has said. The advocacy of woman suffrage, as of feminism generally, is not logically involved in the democratic or Socialist position – at least, that it is so is, up to date, a mere assumption unsupported by any argument that will hold water for a single instant. The burden of proof, at least, lies with those who make the affirmative proposition. Up to the present time the whole feminist position has been smuggled through democracy and Socialism by dint of shrieky assumptions and fatuous jokes. That woman suffrage may be an admirable thing I have not denied. All I have contended and do contend is, that it has never yet been shown that it is necessarily involved in political democracy or Social-Democracy at the present time.
P.S. – A reference has been made by our comrade Askew in Justice to myself, or others who may disapprove of woman suffrage, in connection with his specially retained brief (as it seems) to whitewash the German Party for its cowardly conduct in not expelling Bernstein. This is surely very weak. Every member of a party must logically be bound by the fundamental principles on which the party is based, but every member is not bound personally to accept every “plank” in the party programme for the year, which has been passed probably by a majority vote, and hence which he and others of the minority may he expected only to acquiesce in as a matter of form and “under protest.”
1. If we assume a period in early society, of female domination, of the Mutterrecht, as having been general, my contention is only strengthened, since the presumption is obvious that female dominance fell and was superseded by male through the inability of the former to adequately fulfil its functions – by the survival of the fittest in social evolution, in short. This, however, is too big a subject to enter upon in detail here and now, and hence I only allude to it in passing.
Last updated on 29.6.2005