Dora B. Montefiore May 1901
A Bundle of Fallacies
Source: The Social Democrat, Vol. V, No. 4, May 15, 1901, pp. 137-141;
Transcribed/Proofed/Corrected: by Dawn Gaitis.
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I have always held that discussions, whether verbal or printed, lead to little good unless they are carried on in a fair spirit on either side, with the sole object on the part of both of the debaters of clearing away prejudices, and of eliciting truths. It is because I believe that Mr. Belfort Bax and myself are both animated by this spirit, and have both au fond an intense desire that the truth should prevail in the interests of Social-Democracy, that I feel these interests will be best served by thrashing out further this really important question of whether sex distinctions should be consigned to the same limbo as class distinctions, under the new order of Social-Democracy, towards the realisation of which we are all working. I cannot help regretting that the word “feminism” has crept into the debate. It is a word of which we have no need in England, and which we might very well have left in its native land, France, where it was coined by men to express the contemptuous lack of understanding of the Boulevard for a phase of strenuous belief on the part of some French men and women, that woman possessed other functions and aspirations outside those of sex; in a word, was a human being as well as a female. It is a lop-sided expression, and leads to lop-sided thinking, just as the term “masculinism” might do, if used in a similar connection. Where education, professions, political rights and public duties are concerned, there is no necessity to emphasise sex; we all meet on the common ground of human beings, having common human interests. In 1897, when speaking at the Women’s Congress in Brussels, I made a similar protest against the word “feminism,” suggesting that we should substitute for it “humanism,” as the advancement of humanity, and not of one sex over another, was the aim and object of the women at that time assembled in conference. The late Madame Potonié Pierre, one of the most large-minded among the French workers in the cause of equal rights for women, felt the justice of my plea, and wrote several articles in the same spirit; but the word “feminism” proved too attractive to the esprit gaulois, and it still reigns supreme in French bourgeois circles, and threatens to invade England.
As Mr. Belfort Bax truly remarks, the questions of Mutterrecht, or of the Matriarchate in remote ages, and of Vaterrecht, or of the Patriarchate, in more recent times, are too large to enter on in a magazine article; but may not a period of Equal Rights for the two sexes be the evolutionary form which is destined to supersede the two imperfect forms of social evolution already alluded to? As evolutionists, we must be reaching out into and working towards the future, just as much as deciphering and learning from the past; and as there is little doubt, when we attempt to study the chaos of existing social and political institutions, that the Patriarchate has, equally with the Matriarchate, failed adequately to fulfil its functions, so the presumption may fairly be that in the future domination may be succeeded by equality.
To come now to the details of Mr. Belfort Bax’s reply to my criticism of one of his “fallacies,” I regret that he considers I employ an unworthy “quibble” when refuting his argument that biological differences are the governing factors between men and women in every relation of life. The “quibble” seemed to me to cover the whole ground, as proving, without need of further serious argument, that organic and biological differences between the sexes need not necessarily be insisted upon in the realm of mental activities, or in that of most physical activities. A woman can, for instance, diagnose a disease, give a legal opinion, write a newspaper article or a novel, paint a picture, shoot straight if her country and home are attacked, and record a vote in a ballot-box, without betraying her sex. Does not this go to prove that she has a life distinct from her sex life, just as a man has a life distinct from his sex life, and that to argue therefore that women should not have the chance of wielding political power because “the position between the workman and his wife is of a totally distinct nature from that between two men, one in the position of employer and the other of workman,” is to argue beside the question entirely?
I cannot help thinking Mr. Belfort Bax gives his case away when he writes, “up till recently the presumption (italics mine) of the general unsuitability of women for the exercise of political power has been tacitly or avowedly admitted.” It is precisely this “presumption,” for it is nothing else, which we have to clear the ground of; and, mixed up as it is with legal, theological and traditional rubbish, the task which reformers and propagandists have set themselves is not an easy one. The whole of English law in the past, as regards women, and much of continental law, is based on the “presumption” that woman is the property of the man, and needs protection by the law in her sole character of property, and not as a human being, having rights and feelings of her own. This legal “presumption” has distorted and placed on a false basis the whole of woman’s position as far as social and economic relations are concerned, and has given rise to many other “presumptions” about women’s unsuitability for certain functions, as wanting in foundation as the one quoted by Mr. Belfort Bax.
Presume a class or a sex unsuitable for certain functions, withhold from them suitable education, legislate for them so that they shall have no chance of ever fulfilling these functions, and give them a religion which teaches them at every turn they are marked out by divine law for the suffering of oppression and of disabilities, and it will not he surprising if general unsuitability for the fulfilling of these certain functions is the result. Until recently the “presumption” of the general unsuitability of women for the exercise of public administrative power was tacitly or avowedly admitted, but we find them now doing excellent work on all the administrative bodies to which the law allows them to be elected; and they would now be continuing their excellent work on the newly-formed London Borough Councils, if a reactionary Government, aided by an obsolete House of Lords and Bishops, had not turned them off those Councils. The presumption of women’s unsuitability for the exercise of political power has been ably rebutted, not only by women themselves in the States and Colonies, where such power has been entrusted to them, but also by the statesmen who direct the affairs of these countries and colonies, and who are yearly extending the franchise to a larger number of women. New Zealand has admittedly the most democratic and the most socialistically inclined Government in the world; and women there, if they do not “ride the whirlwind,” at least aid in directing the storm of human affairs; and that is all, I believe, that women who demand the suffrage aspire to. One after the other, the federated Australian colonies, following the example of South Australia, are granting adult suffrage; and democracy, on the basis of sex-equality, is triumphantly vindicating itself. Even in the exercise of the restricted suffrage for administrative and non-political bodies, which has been granted to the women of Great Britain, they have abundantly proved that their sex brings with it a progressive force, which may be relied on, even in a time of masculine reaction, since the result of a Parliamentary election in 1900, swayed entirely by male electors, spelt “reaction,” whilst the result of a London County Council election, five months later, where women voters were on the register, spelt “progress.” At the School Board elections, where women have also the right of voting, a progressive majority is also steadily maintained.
Mr. Belfort Bax struck an excellent note at the beginning of his article in the April number of the Social-Democrat, the note of Internationalism - in other words, the keynote to Social-Democracy. Having struck that note, he had the whole civilised world before him from which to gather examples and illustrations. I cannot help, therefore, regretting that, when wishing to rebut my assertion that it has been abundantly proved that every extension of the franchise has been followed by a sense of responsibility, he has narrowed down the issue to the “British workman-elector.” I took a wider view of the matter, and was tracing the influence of the spread of political power among the masses, at various times and in different countries; and I still contend that, judged from that wider outlook, and removed from the atmosphere of party politics, the extension of the franchise has been followed by an increased sense of responsibility. It must not be forgotten in judging of results, that political freedom without economic freedom is of little value, and that too often the British workman-elector, especially if he be an agricultural labourer, is an economic slave, whose vote has been presented to him by a far-seeing capitalist Government with a full knowledge of its relative worthlessness to the recipient, and its indirect value to the capitalist employer,
As to reactionaries being unanimous against woman suffrage, Mr. Belfort Bax misses the point in Vandervelde’s and my argument. They are unanimous against Adult Suffrage, which includes the enfranchisement of all adult women. Many of them, and amongst them, those quoted by Mr. Belfort Bax are half-heartedly in favour of a restricted suffrage, based on a property qualification, not, of course, because there is any democratic principle involved in such a suffrage, but because they believe the granting of it might strengthen and bolster up for a time their own reactionary policy. Again, Mr. Belfort Bax narrows down his examples of advanced agitators opposed to woman suffrage, to one English Radical whom it pleases to hold eccentric and unscientific views on the subject of the construction of woman’s brain, and passes over the names of prominent foreign and colonial Socialists, who are openly working for universal adult suffrage.
Finally, by neglecting to repeat in full the short quotation from Rebel cited by me, Mr. Belfort Bax deprives it of its point, and bases thereon a false deduction. Rebel wrote, “No great movement has ever been accomplished in the world without women having played in it an heroic rôle as combatants and as martyrs.” Mr. Belfort Bax quotes this sentence without the five last words, and argues that as, according to Rebel, women have always played a part in politics “therefore the franchise is not necessary to enable really capable and devoted women to exercise an influence on the course of public life.” Surely it is not too much to ask that under Democratic Socialism women should no longer be called upon to play the rôle of either combatant or martyr, but might have assigned to her the less heroic, but more socially useful, rôle of citizen, enjoying, as such, full and equal rights with her male fellow citizens. If that is not to be the case it is scarcely worth the while of the working woman to stand for Social-Democracy, for it must never be forgotten that it is she who under the New Order has all to gain, while the lady — the parasite of modern society— has all to lose by any economic and social change, and nothing to gain. It is the working woman who under the present social order is the daily combatant and martyr, and it is her lot which, I venture to plead, needs changing more than that of any other section of society. In order to change it effectually, her voice must be heard in the matter, for the rule holds good, “The emancipation of the worker must be accomplished by the worker herself.” It is not until we get the mass of organised working women demanding the suffrage that we shall obtain it in England, for the governing classes here have to be terrorised before they will grant any sweeping electoral reforms. The day when the working women from the East End and the South side of the river shall come in their thousands to Westminster to ask our legislators for political enfranchisement; when the West End shall see, feel and dread the forceful pulsing of the great working East End, pushing forward in its millions, and demanding equal political rights for all — Universal Adult Suffrage — that day may see the beginning in England of the sweeping away of many worn-out institutions and superstitions, and may prove to those who are still “sitting on a fence” that the principle of sex-equality in political matters is necessarily involved in Social-Democracy; and that as class distinctions gradually and evolutionally disappear, so sex distinctions — where enlightenment has dispelled their raison d’être, will also disappear, and adult human beings, having worked out their own enfranchisement, social, economic and political, will in the future be able to work, enjoy, and direct the course of their own affairs, side by side, without biological and organic differences being invoked to forbid such “unsuitable” and revolutionary proceedings.
P.S. — In proportion as I feel the importance of the subject under discussion, so at the same time I feel my own shortcomings in dealing with it worthily; I would, therefore, beg all Social-Democrats, interested in the question, to read Karl Pearson’s article on “Women and Socialism,” in his volume “The Ethic of Freethought,” and a little halfpenny pamphlet by Jules Destrée, a Belgian Member of Parliament, called “Le Socialisme et les Femmes.” This latter pamphlet I should be very glad to translate for English readers if a demand were made for it.
Dora B. Montefiore