Max Eastman

Confession of a Suffrage Orator

Published: The Masses, November 1915
Transcribed:Sally Ryan for in 2000

It was never a question of making people believe in the benefits of women’s freedom, it was a question of making them like the idea. And all the abstract arguments in the world furnished merely a sort of auction ground upon which the kindly beauties of the thing could be exhibited. Aristotle, in his hopeful way, defined man as a “reasonable animal,” and the schools have been laboring under that delusion ever since. But man is a voluntary animal, and he knows what he likes and what he dislikes, and that is the greater part of his knowledge. Especially is this true of his opinion upon questions involving sex, because in these matters his native taste is so strong. He will have a multitude of theories and abstract reasons surrounding it, but these are merely put on for the sake of gentility, the way clothes are. Most cultivated people think there is something indecent about a naked preference. I believe, however, that propagandists would fare better, if they were boldly aware that they are always moulding wishes rather than opinions.

There is something almost ludicrous about the attitude of a professional propagandist to his kit of arguments—and in the suffrage movement especially, because the arguments are so many and so old, and so classed and codified, and many of them so false and foolish too. I remember that during the palmiest days of the abstract argument (before California came in and spoiled everything with a big concrete example) I was engaged in teaching, or endeavoring to teach, Logic to a division of Sophomores at Columbia. And there was brought to my attention at that time a book published for use in classes like mine, which contained a codification in logical categories of all the suffrage arguments, both pro and con, and a priori and a posteriori, and per accidens and per definitionem, that had ever been advanced since Socrates first advocated the strong-minded woman as a form of moral discipline for her husband. I never found in all my platform wanderings but one suffrage argument that was not in this book, and that I discovered on the lips of an historical native of Troy, New York. It was a woman, she said, who first invented the detachable linen collar, that well-known device for saving a man the trouble of changing his shirt, and though that particular woman is probably dead, her sex remains with its pristine enthusiasm for culture and progress.

But the day of the captious logician, like the day of the roaring orator, is past. What our times respond to is the propagandist who knows how to respect the wishes of other people, and yet show them in a sympathetic way that there is more fun for them, as well as for humanity in general, in the new direction. Give them an hour’s exercise in liking something else—that is worth all the proofs and refutations in the world. Take that famous proposition that “womans sphere is the home.” A canvass was made at a women’s college a while ago to learn the reasons for opposing woman suffrage, and no new ones were found, but among them all this dear old saying had such an overwhelming majority that it amounted to a discovery. It is the eternal type. And how easy to answer, if you grab it crudely with your intellect, imagining it to be an opinion.

“Woman’s sphere is the home!” you cry. “Do you know that according to the census of 1910 more than one woman in every five in this country is engaged in gainful employment?

“Woman’s sphere is the home! Do you know where your soap comes from?

“Woman’s sphere is the home!—do you know that in fifty years all the work that women used to do within the four walls of her house has moved out into the —

“Woman’s sphere is the home! Do you know that, as a simple matter of fact, the sphere of those women who most need the protection of the government and the laws is not home but the factory and the market!

“Why, to say that woman’s sphere is the home after the census says it isn’t, is like saying the earth is flat after a hundred thousand people have sailed round it!”

Well—such an assault and battery of the intellect will probably silence the gentle idealist for a time, but it will not alter the direction of her will. She never intended to express a statistical opinion, and the next time you see her she will be telling somebody else—for she will not talk to you any more—that “woman’s proper sphere is the home.” In other words, and this is what she said the first time, if you only had the gift of understanding, “I like women whose sphere is the home. My husband likes them, too. And we should both be very unhappy if I had to go to work outside. It doesn’t seem charming or beautiful to us.”

Now there is a better way to win over a person with such a gift of strong volition and delicate feeling, than to jump down her throat with a satchel full of statistics. I think a propagandist who realized that here was an expression primarily of a human wish, and that these wishes, spontaneous, arbitrary, unreasoned, because reason itself is only their servant, are the divine and unanswerable thing in us all, would respond to her assertion more effectively, as well as more pleasantly.

The truth is that any reform which associates itself with the name of liberty, or democracy, is peculiarly adapted to this more persuasive kind of propaganda. For liberty does not demand that any given person’s tastes or likings as to a way of life be reformed. It merely demands that these should not be erected into a dogma, and inflicted as morality or law upon everybody else. It demands that all persons should be made free in the pursuit of their own tastes or likings.

Thus the most ardent suffragist might begin by answering our domestic idealist—"Well, I suppose it is a charming and beautiful thing for you to stay in your home, since you are happy there. I myself have a couple of neighbors who have solved their problem of life that way too, and I never have an argument with them. Why? Because they recognize that all people’s problems are not to be solved in the same way. They recognize the varieties of human nature. They recognize that each one of us has a unique problem of life to solve, and he or she must be made free to solve it in her own unique way. That is democracy. That is the liberty of man. That is what universal suffrage means, and would accomplish, so far as political changes can accomplish it.

“Let us agree that woman’s proper sphere is the home, whenever it is. But there are many women who, on account of their natural disposition perhaps, or perhaps on account of their social or financial situation, cannot function happily in that sphere; and they are only hindered in the wholesome and fruitful solution of their lives by the dogma which you and your society hold over them, and which is crystallized and entrenched as political inequality by the fundamental law.”

Thus our agitation of the woman question would appear to arise, not out of our own personal taste in feminine types, but out of our very recognition of the fact that tastes differ. We would propagandize, not because we are cranks and have a fixed idea about what everybody else ought to become, and what must be done about it at once, but because we are trying to accept variety and the natural inclinations of all sorts of people as, by presumption at least, self-justified and divine. We want them all to be free.

Such is the peculiar advantage that the propaganda of liberty has over all the evangelical enthusiasms. It does not at the first gasp ask a man to mortify his nature. It merely asks him to cease announcing his own spontaneous inclinations as the type and exemplar of angelic virtue, and demanding that everybody else be like him. It tries to remove another old negative dogmatic incubus from the shoulders of life, aspiring toward variety and realization. That is what the suffrage propaganda is doing.

It would be folly to pretend, however, that the principle of equal liberty is the only motive behind the suffrage movement. I have said that it is the primary one. It is at least the broadest, the surest, the one upon which the conversion of a person whose taste opposes yours can be most graciously introduced.

But there is yet another way of changing a person’s wish, and that is to show him that he himself has deeper wishes which conflict with it. And there is one deep wish in particular that almost all women, and most men possess, and that is a wish for the welfare and advancement of their children. And just as “Woman’s sphere is the home” typifies the voluntary force opposing woman suffrage, so “Women owe it to their children to develop their own powers,” typifies the force that favors it.

Universal citizenship has meant in human history universal education. That has been, next to a certain precious rudiment of liberty, its chief value. That will be its chief value to women for a long time to come. And by education I do not mean merely political education. I do not mean that it will awaken in women what we call a "civic consciousness,” though it will, I suppose, and that is a good thing. Then that by giving to women a higher place in our social esteem, it will promote their universal development.

We are not educated very much by anything we study in school or see written on the blackboard. That does not determine what we grow up to be. The thing that determines what we grow up to be is the natural expectations of those around us. If society expects a girl to become a fully developed, active and intelligent individual, she will probably do it. If society expects her to remain a doll-baby all her life, she will make a noble effort to do that. In either case she will not altogether succeed, for there are hereditary limitations, but the responsibility for the main trend of the result is with the social conscience.

"Sugar and spice and everything nice,
That is what little girls are made of;
Snips and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails,
That is what little boys are made of."

There is an example of what has been educating us. That kind of baby-talk has done more harm than all the dynamite that was ever let off in the history of the world. You might as well put poison in the milk.

All that is to be ended. And this is the chief thing we expect of women’s citizenship. It will formulate in the public mind the higher ideal that shall develop the young girls of the future. They will no longer grow up to be, outside the years of motherhood, mere drudges or parlor ornaments. They will no longer try to satisfy their ambitions by seeing who can parade the most extreme buffooneries of contemporary fashion on the public highway. They will grow up to be interested and living individuals, and satisfy their ambitions only with the highest prizes of adventure and achievement that life offers.

And the benefit of that will fall upon us all—but chiefly upon the children of these women when they are mothers. For if we are going anywhere that a sane idealism would have us go, we must first stop corrupting the young. Only a developed and fully constituted individual is fit to be the mother of a child. Only one who has herself made the most of the present, is fit to hold in her arms the hope of the future.

We hear a good deal about “child-welfare” in these days, and we hear the business of child-welfare advanced as one of the arguments for woman suffrage. To me it is almost the heart of the arguments, but it works in my mind a little differently from what it does in the minds of the people who write the child-welfare pamphlets. I do not want women to have, for the sake of their children, the control of the milk-supply and the food laws, half so much as I want them to have, for the sake of their children, all the knowledge-by-experience that they can possibly get. That is the vital connection between child-welfare and woman suffrage—that is the deeper ideal. No woman is fit to bring children into this world until she knows to the full the rough actual character of the world into which she is bringing them. And she will never know that until we lift from her—in her own growing years—the repressive prejudice that expresses itself and maintains itself in refusing to make her a citizen.

A man who trains horses up in western New York put this to me very strongly. “If you’re going to breed race-horses,” he said, “you don’t pick out your stallions on a basis of speed and endurance, and your mares according to whether they have sleek hides and look pretty when they hang their heads over the pasture fence. And if you’re going to raise intelligent citizens you’ll have to give them intelligent citizens for mothers.” I do not know whether he was aware that an actual tendency to select the more intelligent, rather than a mere training of the intelligence of all, is the main force in racial evolution. But that is what he said. And, either way, it is a piece of cold scientific fact. The babies of this world suffer a good deal more from silly mothers than they do from sour milk. And any change in political forms, however superificial from the standpoint of economic justice, that will increase the breadth of experience, the sagacity, the humor, the energetic and active life-interest of mothers, can only be regarded as a profound historic revolution.

In these broad effects upon the progress of liberty and life, not in any political result of equal suffrage, are to be found an object of desire which can rival and replace the ideal that opposes it. They are the material for the propaganda of the will. And while we noisy orators are filling the air with syllogisms of justice, and prophecies of the purification of politics, and the end of child labor, and what women will do to wars, and the police department, and the sweat-shops, and the street-cleaning department, and the milk-wagons, and the dairy farms, and how they will reform the cows when they come into their rights, we ought to remember in our sober hearts that those large warm human values, which have nothing to do with logic or politics or reform, are what will gradually bend the wishes of men toward a new age.