H.M. Hyndman

Further Reminiscences

Chapter XII
The Revolt of Woman

I HAVE watched the growth of the claim for the suffrage by women for a great many years, and I have known a considerable number of those who have striven for this sweeping change in the basis of political elections. The early champions of votes for women, such as Mrs. Fawcett, Miss Helen Taylor, Miss Anthony, were of a character and conduct that all must now respect. They were capable women who stood up for what they held to be their rights with vigour and ability. Yet they were treated with an amount of ridicule, and even insult, at the time, in the press and by the public at large, which was nothing short of brutal. Women of the highest culture were spoken of as if they were unseemly harridans of the lowest grade. They were denounced as “the shrieking sisterhood,” and by some it was hinted they were persons of loose life. This was at the end of the old period, when women were not only shut out from being doctors, even for their own sex and children, work for which they are eminently suited, but were regarded as unfit for any sort of university training. When not abused they were laughed at.

I have never been able, while fully admitting the justice of giving the suffrage to all women if they claim it, to get up much enthusiasm for female suffrage by itself. The suffrage is and can be only a means to an end: it is not an end in itself. An uneducated electorate has often shown itself to be a danger to the very people who cast the votes. We are in a vicious circle, even with men, when ignorance rules the roost. Keep them voteless, and they will probably still be deprived of education: give them the vote before they are educated, and they will use it to their own detriment. Unfortunately, we have never had a Frederick the Great in this country, who was wise enough to see, having probably learnt it from Rabelais, that education of a high character was absolutely essential for a nation under modern conditions. We have witnessed the result of our neglect time after time at critical periods, and are suffering from it today.

I have never, therefore, been able to look at the vote solely as a matter of abstract justice. Abstract justice in politics has no existence for me. Yet it is upon that ground that the suffrage question has been argued and is argued today. To refuse it was to proclaim the permanent inferiority of the female sex. This was made manifest, until quite recently, by the demand of the most prominent advocates of the vote for women that women should be given the vote on the same conditions as men. And that claim the majority of Socialists have opposed, because the practical effect of it would be to strengthen very largely the class vote of the well-to-do. The immediate effect, also, of giving the suffrage to all women would certainly be injurious to the Socialist Party. Yet it is the fact that Socialists have been active in demanding the vote for all women as the best means for instructing them in the full duties of citizenship, as well as out of gratitude for the splendid work done in the movement by some of its advocates.

On the other hand, there are Socialist writers in Great Britain who have not been slow to point out that women here have advantages under the law which are never accorded to men; that they have been granted these privileges because men have recognised that on the whole this was just; and that women themselves are not slow to cry out that they are most unfairly dealt with, as women, when they are treated as men would be treated under similar circumstances. I am not concerned to defend the provocative and even bitter manner in which my old friend Belfort Bax has arrayed his arguments against the equality of women; but the amusing part of the matter is that it is not so much the style of his writing as the truth of some of his statements in regard to their sex which has made the women suffragists so furiously angry. They do not discuss or refute, they vilify.

Of the women who were prominent in this cause, in the comparatively early days of the struggle, the one who, more than any other, to my mind, stood in the forefront of the fight, on both sides of the Atlantic, was Miss Susan B. Anthony. Never was a pioneer more outrageously attacked and misrepresented than she, and that is saying a very great deal. Having, as I considered, infinitely more important things to do, I have never taken an active part in the work of obtaining the vote for women, though I have always upheld the claim for universal adult suffrage for both sexes. But it is certain that the cause had in Miss Anthony a champion of quite exceptional ability and tact.

The popular impression about her was quite erroneous, as it nearly always is in the case of men or women who adopt and push to the front an extreme programme. Of course she had raised her voice fairly loud, or she never could have been heard at all in the controversies of the time. But there was nothing about her of the shrill virago or infuriated petroleuse. At the time I met her towards the close of her life I found her a charming, dignified, and highly cultured lady with fine grey hair, lively intelligent eyes, a venerable and imposing face, and a delightful smile – the sort of person who would do credit to any movement.

In the course of our conversation she spoke quite calmly and confidently of the success of the cause to which she had devoted her life – years may have brought the philosophic mind, but I was told she had always been the same – and altogether she gave me the impression of being a reasoning enthusiast who only used the emotions to give force to vigorous argument. I gathered from her conversation that, although she believed firmly in the absolute right of her sex, as being at least as important an element as man in society, to have all the political rights which man possessed, yet that which stirred and supported her most in her long campaign was the conviction that in no other way could woman as a whole relieve herself from the condition of semi-slavery to which modern civilisation still doomed her. Only by the vote could women obtain that freedom and recognition to which they were entitled.

I pointed out in reply to her contention that vast numbers, it might be said the great majority, of men were economically in the same position, and that, so far, the vote had done little to emancipate them. Then, she replied, women, if they had the vote, could scarcely do worse, and at least they are entitled to try in turn what they can make of the suffrage. From her point of view the position of woman in regard to the family and the State could never be put on a sound basis until she had her full share in voting for or against the laws she was bound to obey. That women were behind men in education and initiative she attributed to the fact that they had never had a fair chance.

There can be no doubt that the work done and the influence exerted by Miss Anthony had a great share in bringing the question of votes for women to the stage which it has reached today. In fact, the grant of the municipal suffrage to women is unquestionably due to what was done by women of her description in Great Britain. It is a little significant also that this vote has been almost invariably cast against Socialists in all local elections, even when we alone were trying to obtain better conditions for women in their ordinary worka-day life. Abstract justice works out queerly when class questions are brought into the political or municipal field. In this case it has meant the strengthening of the reactionary and slave-driving element in municipal contests.

But the old spade-work of the women and their champions seems a long way off, now that we have arrived at what it is no exaggeration to call the Pankhurst-Pethickian era of anarchistic sabotage. The intermediate period was remarkable for the enthusiasm and vigour displayed, which, beyond all question, produced a great effect upon the public mind. Not that, from the first, hysteria was far from the surface. I have known Mrs. Pankhurst and her family for many long years. Her husband, Dr. Pankhurst, was a barrister, a semi-Socialist, and in action a thoroughly independent politician, who stood for Parliament as a Radical-Labour man and was, of course, bitterly opposed by the highly paid hacks of the Liberal Party, who grovel to those who have intrigued themselves into office and do their utmost to crush down any attempt at real progress which might endanger the official programme of make-believe. Dr. Pankhurst was not strong enough to make head against these mean influences, and consequently a useful and pleasing personality, who did all he could do for the benefit of the people according to his lights, and would have done more if opportunity had offered, was kept out of the House of Commons and unfortunately died before the tide could set his way.

Mrs. Pankhurst had always been a strong champion of woman suffrage, but at the time I knew her best she was a Socialist first and a Suffragist afterwards. It was in her capacity as Socialist that she took the chair for me at a big meeting in one of the Manchester Theatres, and delivered an exceedingly good speech. Active, well-read, pleasant, and very good-looking, Mrs. Pankhurst was at this time a valuable “asset,” to use Keir Hardie’s word, applied by him in a much more doubtful connection, of the Independent Labour Party. She did at that time an immense amount of good and useful work, and though more advanced than her husband supported him most loyally and vigorously in all his political and social undertakings. At this meeting I refer to, I incidentally alluded to Universal Suffrage, and, without any intention of limitation, spoke of man as a generic name to include both sexes.

Afterwards, when the meeting broke up and I went behind the scenes, Miss Christabel, then a girl of not more than eighteen, whose acquaintance I had made when she was quite a child, came up to me and assailed me with the utmost virulence by reason of this wrong I had done her sex. I could not believe at first, seeing that we had always had Universal Adult Suffrage on our programme, and that Herbert Burrows and other Socialists had vigorously asserted, and, if anything, over-asserted, the claims of women, that the young lady, as charming in appearance as she was vehement in her discourse, was in earnest in her stalwart objurgations.

But she speedily made it apparent to me that she was. Then, I am bound to say, I began to laugh. This made matters worse still, and she took up her parable against me with a whole-souled prophetic indignation which, for the life of me, I could not regard except from the ridiculous side. It was all sex. I was like unto the rest of that section of the human race to which, owing to accident of birth, I belonged, and it was my object, as I showed by my use of the word “manhood,” to keep women in permanent subjection. It has not been my experience of life that women, whatever may be their general social disabilities as a sex, are very easy to put upon or subjugate as individuals. I told the fair Miss Christabel this, and even went so far as to hint to the young lady that this attack of hers was a not unfair example of the truth as manifested unto me in the past, and I still laughed. I offered at last to shake hands with her, but she would not.

I have not spoken to Miss Pankhurst from that day to this, but I have heard her speak frequently at elections and elsewhere, and, as knowing something myself in days gone by of the exhausting nature of out-of-door oratory, I have been quite amazed at her marvellous powers of endurance and her admirable capacity for exposition and repartee. In the North-West Manchester Election in particular, when Mr. Winston Churchill met with a crushing rebuff, I recall Miss Christabel’s efforts at outdoor gatherings as having been quite remarkable. At one open space we were exhorting the crowd almost in competition with her, and I admit that she quite held her own. She is also one of the best-educated young women in Great Britain. Yet all through it, somehow, I hear that strained hysterical note which first assailed me at the meeting I have spoken of. However, if a tinge of hysteria will keep her going at this rate, there is more physical and mental vigour to be got out of that nervous overstrain than I had ever imagined.

Anyway, call it hysteria, enthusiasm, or what you will, it is indisputable that the women in their agitation for many years past have taught the men a great deal in the way of determination and self-sacrifice. I cannot believe in the suffrage, limited practically to well-to-do women, as being worth any serious effort. But the women themselves did and do so believe, and they made the utmost use of their sex privileges under man-made law and custom to get as far as they could before giving actual battle. Small blame to them for that. It was their sole object to gain their point, and they used the means at hand to attain it.

One great advantage they had almost from the start, when Mrs. Pankhurst gave up her position at Manchester to throw herself into the movement with the energetic and irreconcilable Christabel, backed up by such splendid workers in the cause they had adopted as Mrs. Despard, Mrs. Cobden Sanderson, Mrs. Montefiore, whose passive resistance to taxes at Hammersmith created a stir, and many more. Most of these women were ladies of the highest culture and good means. And the one great advantage to which I refer was that plenty of money was always forthcoming. Everybody who has had anything to do with great public agitations knows what this means. Enthusiasm and religious fervour will do immense things, have done and are doing great work. But by themselves and without ample money to take advantage of opportunities, they are bound sooner or later to flag. In this case, however, thousands of pounds were always to be got, not only from the men and women, particularly Mr. and Mrs. Pethick Lawrence, who were in the forefront of the movement, but from quite a large section of well-to-do sympathisers. This made all the difference. I do not believe anything like the same amount of funds could have been obtained at that time for a propaganda in favour of the suffrage for all women. Then the question became more and more one of sex against sex. This, I know, is not infrequently denied. But I have read their literature, I have heard their speeches, and there is no doubt in my mind that this was the main motive power of the whole movement.

That does not at all detract from the merit of the work done for what they believed in – the emancipation of women on the same plane as man by political means. When women such as those named above went deliberately to gaol and stopped there for the sake of an idea, they obviously were acting in perfect good faith. Neither can their action be laid to the door of a desire for selfadvertisement. Mrs. Cobden Sanderson, Mrs. Despard, and Mrs. Montefiore, not to speak of others, were all obtaining as much advertisement as they could possibly want beforehand, in and out of the Socialist movement of which they were and are a part. Knowing them all very well, I have indeed wondered what induced these ladies to exchange their comfortable homes and enjoyable and useful lives in them for unpleasant and even almost torturing immurement – for Holloway Gaol is a filthy hole infested with vermin – in a worthy specimen of a bourgeois prison-house.

I know very well I would not run half a risk of such punishment in order to get votes for the two or three millions of my fellow-males still unenfranchised, nor certainly to get a vote which I have not got and could easily get for the asking for myself; though I might be ready to undergo similar treatment on more serious grounds. However, they did it, at a time of life when the first ardour of self-sacrificing youth had passed away. It was quite in the line of Russian or Italian self-immolation for a cause, though, of course, not so terrible. And what is more surprising to me, they would all of them be ready to do the same again, and, if they wearied or were regarded as having done their share, still others would be eager to rush to the front in the same way.

And the result of all this fervour and the trials and condemnations was soon seen. Public opinion was turning round .towards the granting of their claim for the Limited Bill, though all really genuine democrats, invariably the minority, were against it. Politicians of both parties first thought, after the heckling and abuse they received at election times, they might lose votes by opposing the measure; then began to believe they might gain votes by granting the demand; and the misguided Labourists, led astray as usual by mere sentiment, backed it.

The great meeting in Hyde Park was, it may be said, a crowning effort on these lines of public agitation and passive resistance. I have seen many immense demonstrations in Hyde Park, and have myself helped to organise not a few, including the great International Congress Demonstration referred to elsewhere. But I have never seen a larger, better-managed, or in every way more imposing gathering than this one. The procession of women comprised many of the most distinguished persons of their sex in Great Britain, and I felt, as I looked on and listened, that – though a large number were present no doubt out of sheer curiosity, and some of the opponents did not behave any too well – this whole affair was unconsciously something more than a mere suffrage demonstration. It was part of that almost universal revolt of woman against present social conditions, which has gone on side by side with the simultaneously growing protest of the wage-slaves, and will not improbably be combined with that movement before any important result is achieved. However that may be, this vast concourse of women, brought together for one object, was exceedingly impressive, and I for one felt that the Limited Bill, much as I disliked it, would become law within a calculable period. Right or wrong, it was almost impossible for a middle-class government to resist such pressure from the most intelligent female members of the middle class.

But nobody could have anticipated what followed. The Suffragists knew that victory was within their grasp. Never had such a victory been won within so short a period and, all things taken into consideration, at so small a cost. That was how it looked when all parties in the House of Commons, whether they liked it or not, were prepared to see the so-called “Conciliation Bill” passed into law before many years were over. But this was not enough for the more vehement advocates of the suffrage, male and female. Already many things had been done by the women, which, had the same breaches of the law – assaults upon the police, etc. – been committed by men, would have met with very serious punishment; but because, and only because, the law-breakers were women, they had been treated very lightly. Then, as we all know, downright Anarchism, backed by very large sums of money, got the upper hand, and society was to be terrorised by breaking shopkeepers’ windows, axe-throwing, and theatre-incendiarism.

I know some of the people who indulged in these vagaries very well. One of the latter is the mother of grown-up girls, and in all other matters of life a perfectly sane, sensible, and admirable woman. Her husband, a leading Socialist like herself, supported her, and was and is quite proud of her action. Another leading Socialist openly declared that he regarded the question of votes for women as more important than Socialism itself. Argument was quite useless, and was even regarded as offensive by the people to whom it was addressed. Their vigour and self-imposed martyrdom rendered women, to those who were caught in this tornado of hysterical futility, absolutely immune from criticism. It was monstrous to speak against them, cowardly not to sympathise with and support them. I saw and heard a good deal of this quite close at hand. What their view would have been if the two or three millions of men still unenfranchised had resorted to similar methods of enforcing their claims it is difficult to say. But I doubt if it would have met with the same tolerance.

It is no business of mine to argue out here the whole question of Anarchism and sabotage as a means of propaganda. I have always been vehemently opposed to it, and I am now – except in cases where free speech, freedom of the press, and right to combine are suppressed, when I consider that all forms of violence, assassination included, are perfectly justifiable. But in this case the women were winning, they had all the rights of agitation which men had secured for them by centuries of sacrifice, and the resort to such action was wholly unnecessary, and therefore unjustifiable.

But reason ceases to have any influence when passionate emotion is roused; and the forcible feeding business has undoubtedly produced a great effect on men, because – there is the funny part of the matter – it has been applied to women! If it had been only men who had been thus kept from reaching the point where nature would have herself led to the demand for food, there would not have been any strong feeling about the matter at all.

What, however, I regard as the most unfortunate part of the whole agitation is that many of the women who have gone into it have given up those important social matters, specially affecting their sex, in which they could have rendered the very greatest service. Thus, at the present moment, as for many a long year past, women are competing with men on a much lower standard of life, which, of course, means lower wages, in almost every department of industry. Such competition is increasing rapidly, to the disadvantage of both women and men. It is one of the worst features of our modern industrial society; for in many ways it tends to injure not only the present but the next generation. And the overwhelming majority of these women are wholly unorganised to resist employers or to restrict competition among themselves. In fact, they have to rely upon the men to defend them against the results of their own weakness.

Moreover, in Lancashire and many parts of Yorkshire the abominable sweating of their own children as half-timers is upheld by the mothers themselves; though this bringing in of the children into the mills and factories not only tends to reduce the wages of the adults, but is also injurious to the children’s vitality, and cuts at the very root of a sound national physique. It is on such points as these that women of the educated class who are so enthusiastic about the suffrage could be immensely useful. But since the suffrage movement became all-important to them, they have nearly all, from Mrs. Pankhurst and her daughters onwards, abandoned this very important work.

Yet the time is fully ripe for organised effort in that direction, and attempts at improvement on their part would relieve the Suffragettes from the damaging attacks of Miss Violet Markham on this very point. Here, as in other directions, industrial and political work should surely go hand in hand. It is impossible, in my opinion, that either should succeed by itself if divorced from the other, under the conditions of our time, and I consider it a great mistake of the militant Suffragists that, apart from their methods, they should have laid themselves open justly to the imputation that they prefer sex equality in politics to sex and child emancipation in economics. Nevertheless, mistaken as they may be in their tactics, I heartily wish men representatives of the working class would show even a fraction of their vigour and determination in regard to the affairs of their daily social life.

And there is something else. Here am I, not, I believe, usually regarded as addicted to cowardice, except by some fraternal Socialists of the Independent Labour Party, such as Mr. Ramsay Macdonald and Mr. Philip Snowden, downright afraid to discuss in earnest a subject which, if prudishly tabooed, renders any sound, not to say reasonable, solution of the relations between the sexes impossible. Many years ago I was guilty of the unspeakable audacity of delivering a series of addresses upon Woman – only that, and nothing more! – in the hall of the old Social-Democratic Federation at 337 Strand. These were the lectures, by the way, attended by the famous American advocate of temperance, Miss Frances Willard, who, at the close of them, joined our party. I was lecturing, I say, with that genial imprudence which my friends tell me, in confidence, is my leading characteristic, on Woman, and permitting, as we always do, questions and discussion at the end of the address. I expected to be “ heckled “; for what the brilliant Henri de Marsay stated in fiction, I, at the age of seventy, hereby reaffirm in fact “ have studied them all my life, and if I were to tell you all I know, I should not tell you much.” I refer you to Balzac for the epigram that followed and my lack of comprehension was doubtless manifest to my auditors. But that which I did not foresee as usual occurred. At the close of one address a handsome and able lady, whom I have since learnt to know well, and who has done admirable work for her own sex as well as for Socialism, arose and flung with all her force an explosive hand-grenade right into my midriff: “Do you not think, Mr. Hyndman, that one of the greatest curses of society is love?”

Just read that through again and imagine yourself to be a strenuous lecturer, full of earnestness and running over with zeal, waiting with timidity to be questioned, but hardly prepared to be “bombed” right off. “Do you not think, Mr. Hyndman, that one of the greatest curses of society is love?” It something dashed me: it gave me pause. I thought of St. Paul to the Corinthians and his eulogy of love. Romeo and Juliet, Heloise and Abelard, Francesca and her lover floating through space, all rushed through my brain in a few seconds. I even felt a little inclined to laugh; but that relief to my shattered nerves I could not permit myself to indulge in. I merely confessed in all meekness and humility that I had never looked at love from that point of view. Neither, to judge from the attitude of the audience, had any one else present, man or woman.

But my questioner, on being challenged, explained fully what she meant. And, as she put it, the theory which Miss Margaret Macmillan thus negatively propounded was by no means so baseless, and certainly not in any way so laughable, as when heard thus suddenly propounded without a word of warning. Briefly and forcibly Miss Macmillan pointed out that throughout the history of what we call civilisation woman as a sex had been the victim of her softer disposition and more self-sacrificing nature where her heart was involved, and that love had been habitually made use of by man as a veneer for much grosser emotions. This was not merely a matter of economic inferiority as some Socialists were in the habit of arguing, but of the trading upon the higher qualities of woman by the coarser but more immediately powerful faculties of man to maintain her permanently on a lower plane.

“Love,” in fact, had been employed by man against woman as a tremendous psychological weapon, in the half-disguised but wholly active sex warfare, to ensure the subjugation and even the degradation of woman; over and above the domestic enslavement to which her physiological disabilities have condemned her, at any rate since the institution of private property and the establishment of the man-controlled family and home. That was the position taken up by Miss Macmillan, and it is a thesis which she may since have worked out. That it is well worth consideration at a period when all our social and ethical arrangements are obviously going into the melting-pot is, I think, clear.

I had myself pointed out, following, of course, upon Lewis H. Morgan and others, that so long as women were collectively in control of the gentile communal home and even much later; so long even as property and inheritance and rank were determined by the status of the mother in the semi-communal tribal society which followed, as is the case in many parts of the world today; women held a far higher position relatively to the men of the tribe than that which they occupy under modern conditions, and especially under direct Christian property-marriage. And this in nowise runs counter to the view that even man-made law in England may be more considerate of women than of men. That is a mere concession by superiority to weakness, not certainly an admitted equality due to social services rendered, which then adapts itself to the less powerful characteristics of the female sex. It is precisely this which the advanced women resent They recognise that they are not the same as men but that they are complementary to them and have a right to perfect equality on that ground.

What I object to in the Woman Suffrage movement is that, as already said, they carefully leave not only the economic but the sexual sacrifice of their sisters entirely on one side. In their eagerness for political equality for the educated and well-to-do of their sex they disregard the economic and social disabilities to which alike the majority of women, the working wage-earners, and the minority of women, those of so-called loose life, are subjected. Yet this last is a degradation which can only be effectively removed by the efforts of women.

There is no similar class or section among men. That portion of the sex is deliberately embruted by society now, under Christianity, as it was for thousands of years under paganism, in order to maintain the virtue of the rest. Yet the very same women who so furiously denounce men for their unfairness and brutality are altogether indifferent to this social blot upon their “equality,” are quite contented to accept St. Augustine’s cynical summary of the position as sound, or even go so far as to throw the whole responsibility for this convenient accompaniment of simple property-marriage, unknown in communal life and even among the Mormons, upon men.

I hold, however, that the revolt of woman, though so far to a great extent unconscious, and aiming therefore mostly at unessentials, will be forced alike by its own impetus and by the concurrent work and criticism of Socialists, to go a very great deal farther than is at present contemplated by the hysterical but self-sacrificing minority of fanatics who at present are in control. Already they have been compelled to expand their demand from fine-lady suffrage to universal adult suffrage by pressure from without. At the same time, and quite independently of any effort of theirs, equal pay of women for equal work with men is being enacted by public bodies. Simultaneously, the break-up of the home, upon which we English pride ourselves, is making itself manifest in all the manufacturing districts, and the contrast between free love and compulsory love is being recognised for the hypocritical nonsense that it is. I am hopeful, therefore, that ere long the revolt of woman will take a much more serious and therefore formidable shape than it has adopted at present, and will abandon its ignorant and irritating Anarchism for a thoroughgoing programme of scientific democracy and social revolution. A few Clara Zetkins in England and America would soon breathe a new and more capable spirit into the well-meaning women who, in their craze for mere political enfranchisement as an end, lose sight of the most important evils which afflict their sex. I am ready to admit, however, that even misguided stir is better than highly intelligent apathy.

Meanwhile, we have only to study the position of unmarried girls of the well-to-do class in other countries and to compare it with that which they hold in England, America, and the English Colonies, to understand how far the movement has already gone in English-speaking territory in relation to that class. It is high time, indeed, that at least equal freedom should be obtained for women of all classes.

Last updated on 1.11.2007