E. Belfort Bax, A Study in Socialist Heresy Hunting, Social Democrat, Vol.13, no.3, March, 1909, pp.114-120.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
The Feminist dogma, including the women’s suffrage plank, first made its appearance in the modern Socialist movement, I believe, at the end of the sixties in the old International, at the instance of Bakounin and his friends, and was one of the few proposals emanating from that quarter which was accepted by the Marxian Party, at least as regards Adult Suffrage. But for a long time the question remained in the background, and as far as my memory serves it was not included in the earlier programme of the German Party. In fact, in the German Party what is known as the “Woman Question” (as apart from the general social question) first received serious attention on the publication of Bebel’s book in 1883, on Woman and Socialism, the first edition of which, more betoken, under the title of Woman in the Past, Present and Future, contained a precious lot of Woman and precious little Socialism. (In the later editions it is only fair to say the proportion has been altered.) In this work Bebel, who virtually admits in his preface that the bulk of the then party was against him, maintained the dogma of the equal capacity of woman with man, with its corollary the right of women to occupy all positions and exercise all functions hitherto held by men. In France, Lafargue and others were active on the feminist side during the early eighties. Since then the feminist dogma has found much favour with Socialists everywhere, and officially the demand for female suffrage has been embodied among the planks in the immediate political platform of the Socialist Party. At the same time a pressure has been exercised among Social-Democrats to prevent dissentients from expressing an adverse opinion. Conservative and Liberal organisations, who have also been coerced by the wave of feminist sentiment into passing woman suffrage resolutions, have left greater freedom of opinion on the subject, it may be observed, to their members.
Time was when manhood suffrage was the cry of all democrats, and there are doubtless plenty of comrades to-day who, at the bottom of their hearts, would be glad enough to return to the old suffrage-platform which was good enough for Chartists and earlier Socialists, if they did but dare.
The fact is, of course, this sex-question cuts athwart other issues. Hence it is that the conventional bourgeois, unwilling as he is to admit the sins of his class toward the proletariat, is often perfectly ready to smite his manly breast and deplore the assumed harshness of his own to the opposite sex. There is no logical reason for Socialism specially championing the position of modern Feminism. That Socialism must bring about changes in the position of women may be allowed, but the special direction of these changes must be the co-efficient of the permanent physiological structure and functions of the female sex with the new economic conditions and the resultant new social forces. To dogmatise on the future as to the precise nature of these changes at the present stage is eminently unscientific.
To come to the practical issue of the suffrage. People commonly talk as if the franchise were an end in itself rather than what it is, simply a means to other ends. Now, I admit that the reasons given for their attitude by some opponents of the suffrage for women do not strike me as altogether conclusive. For example, the argument that the sphere of women is the home is undoubtedly true in the past and retains much of its truth to-day, but there are modifications which cannot in fairness be quite ignored. Then again an esteemed friend of mine and member of the SDP, who opposes woman franchise and has the courage to say so publicly, urges as his ground the desire to keep women undefiled by political life, unspotted from the world of politics, with its intrigue, ambition, sordid rivalries, etc. Here also I don’t think the argument is altogether convincing. The rabid feminist might easily retort that his pet sex would, on the contrary, infuse such an elevating spirit into public life that a whiff of the breath of womanhood would like magic disinfect it of those evils and raise it at once to a level of pure, disinterested virtue. We may personally be quite convinced that such would not be the case but very much the reverse, yet since the, experiment has not been tried (on any large scale) it is difficult to prove this to anyone who chooses to affirm the contrary.
Now, the foregoing and some other arguments are put forward, I think, by many men with the unconscious desire to avoid acknowledging the real ground of their objection to female suffrage. They don’t like to state this ground straight out; some, if hard pressed, will try to shuffle out of admitting it perhaps even to themselves; but their secret conviction is that women, as a sex, are organically inferior to men, not only physically but, intellectually and morally as well, and hence not fit to be trusted promiscuously (i.e., barring exceptions) with political power. Now, no man likes to say this, because it sounds rude and arrogant to “the ladies,” but the evidence, physiological, psychological, historical and common-observational, is too crushing for many. In my essay on Female Suffrage and its Implications I have briefly indicated some of the main heads of this evidence, and do not propose to enter into it again here. But I must insist on the fact that for me (barring one other reason which, though decisive for the moment, is not of a fundamental nature, and which I shall refer to directly) there seems no logical ground for opposition to the granting of the franchise to women save the recognition of inferiority, if not an all-round inferiority, at least, an inferiority ad hoc. If one acknowledges complete equality in capacity between men and women, the case for the suffrage seems to me, in itself, unanswerable.
I have said in itself, since, as things are at present in this and most other countries, even if the capacity for political and administrative judgment were conceded, there is another ground on which, so long as it obtains, it would be just to refuse women the franchise. And this ground is the fact that women at present constitute an almost boundlessly privileged section of the community. A woman may, in the present day, do practically what she likes without fear of anything happening to her beyond a nominal punishment. The English marriage laws, with their right of the wife to maintenance, give her almost unlimited power to oppress her husband. (See a case reported in detail with names, addresses, etc., in John Bull for September 19, 1908.) Only some three months ago a case occurred in the north of England where a workman, out of employment, was about to be committed to prison at his wife’s behest for omitting to pay her the weekly allowance ordered by the court. Exasperated, the poor fellow struck his tyrant a fatal blow – hanged! About the same time a wife, during an admittedly trifling tiff with her husband, stabbed him fatally with a hatpin – released on her recognisances! These two cases are typical. It is this practical immunity of women from all consequences for their actions upon which the crew of Suffragettes trade. Were they liable to one quarter of the penalties men incur they would think a good many times before inciting to raid the House of Commons or to commit other breaches of the law. As it is, they know the worst they have to fear is a short term of pampered imprisonment (with all sorts of privileges thrown in), over which, moreover, they whine like whipped curs. Male Socialists have to go to prison not for trying to raid the House of Commons but for merely breaking some local bye-law while maintaining the right of free speech. No “second division” with hot water to wash in and easy chairs for them! Don’t let us forget that the women who are loudest in bawling for the suffrage do so on the ground that they are not sufficiently privileged already, and that to obtain the supremacy over men, the savagely vindictive laws against men and complete immunity for women they consider their due, they require the leverage the vote will give them. Under the circumstances one would like to examine with a very strong electric light the intellects of those persons who profess to believe in equality between the sexes and who yet, as things are to-day, can advocate female suffrage. Their idea of equality is, I suppose, “All yours is mine and all mine’s my own.” No military service for women and yet they shall dictate war or peace! No corporal punishment for them and yet they shall decide on the maintenance of corporal punishment for men in prisons, &c.! No liability to maintain husband or children; and yet the right to decree laws relating to marriage and many more such anomalies. For let us make no mistake – no feminist has the smallest intention of abandoning any one of the existing privileges of women. On the contrary, the intention of increasing. the power and privileges of the sex is expressly declared without any subterfuge. And be it remembered the “adult suffrage” so much advocated by Socialists means an excess of a million female over male votes so far as Great Britain is concerned.
The SDP proclaims “social and economic equality between the sexes” as one of its aims. Now, as a “stepping-stone” toward this end I would suggest to the advocates of sex equality (so far as our present society is concerned), besides equal wages for equal work, which we are all able to agree to, (1) Obligation of wife to maintain herself, also her husband if sick, and to contribute something to the maintenance of the children of the marriage; and further (2) Equal punishment for equal crime as between men and women; and (3) Abolition of all laws (e.g., the law as regards libel and slander) favouring women at the expense of men; and (4) the liability of women to all duties imposed on men; these items to be incorporated in the programme of the SDP. I can imagine the sort of face the feminists of the body would make at the bare suggestion of these equitable demands. Perhaps it would be better for Mrs. Montefiore, or some of her feminist friends, to move that a note be appended to the clause as to “social and economic equality between the sexes,” explaining that terms connoting “equality” in the SDP programme are (to quote the famous phrase of the “rule in Shelley’s case”) to be taken as “words of limitation” – in short, that the word “equality” is to be understood in a non-natural sense, as implying “all the kicks” for the brute man and “all the halfpence” for the angel woman. This is advisable, for as the sentence stands it might be interpreted by unsophisticated comrades as meaning what they otherwise understand by equality, and think of what a shocking misconception that would be!
Now, personally, as a plain man, I hold, that it would be unjust under any circumstances for women to possess the suffrage until something like the conditions I have above formulated obtain. If other comrades think that giving an already privileged order of human beings the franchise spells equality I do not.
But supposing the present balance of inequality in favour of women were remedied there would then remain solely the question of the average inferiority of women. Now, here I must again point out that the exercise of the vote is mainly a means to an end, the progress and well-being of society. Hence, if women on the average show an inferiority all-round to men, or even an inferiority in the power of practical and equitable judgment in public affairs or in the administration of such affairs, then there is no injustice in refusing them “in the bulk” the right of interfering in these matters, where they are ex hypothesi less competent than men. Here we have to deal with a question of fact and evidence. For those who, like myself, regard the evidence for the inferiority as conclusive, there is no possible alternative to opposition to a disintegrative force such as can only be harmful to Socialism and to progress. To discuss the question as to the nature of the evidence would take us outside the immediate purpose of this article, but I deny that those to whom the evidence for incapacity appears conclusive can be otherwise than opponents of female suffrage in all its forms. For to favour it in the teeth of such a conviction would mean sacrificing the interests of society to a barren abstraction, to wit, the abstract right to exercise a function whether fitted for it or not. And to this no one who really values progress ought, I think, to be prepared to consent.
E. Belfort Bax
Last updated on 5.5.2005