Revisiting Suffrage

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One hundred years later, an examination of 19th-century predictions.

Esolen_07-2019

One hundred years have now passed since both houses of Congress passed the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting women the right to vote.

For a long time, both major parties were ready to grant the suffrage, should American women clearly ask it of them.  The question was never whether women were worthy of it.  It was rather what, if anything, the change would mean for men, women, family life, and the common good.

Men and women of letters, male and female reformers and religious leaders, ranged on both sides of the issue. The liberal Theodore Roosevelt, for example, was for suffrage, while Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer, first woman architectural critic, was solidly against. A public debate over the matter took place in the pages of the August 1894 issue of The Century Magazine. Arguing against women’s suffrage was Rev. James Monroe Buckley, Methodist minister and editor of the influential weekly newspaper Christian Advocate. For suffrage was Senator George Frisbie Hoar (R-Mass.).

It’s worth looking closer at what these 19th century prophets predicted would result from suffrage, so that we can know them by their fruits, and use their insights to judge the modern results of suffrage. Voting is a mechanism, a tool, and so should be judged by the work it does: the nation and culture it produces. Only a fool continues to use a crooked T square. If the house falls, of what avail was your philosophical commitment?

Rev. Buckley, whom one might expect to engage in theological abstractions during his argument against women’s suffrage, does no such thing. His analysis is relentlessly pragmatic and steeped in an awareness of how frail were the bonds that in his time could form human culture. Buckley does not argue for refusing Woman the vote on any ground that would apply to a foreigner, a criminal, a madman, or a child. The picture that such invidious comparisons portray, he writes, “is not true to life, and the ideas which it is designed to suggest confuse rather than elucidate the question whether women should be eligible to vote, and hold office, upon the same terms as men.”

Buckley thus begins his argument against suffrage with an anti-ideological and anti-democratic move. Suffrage is simply not a natural right, he writes, for “what fundamental principle gives to two millions the absolute right to rule over two millions less one?” The rules regarding suffrage are therefore not philosophically deduced, Buckley writes, but are “compromises to which the people submit for the sake of the results.”

Buckley’s case is based upon two claims. The first is that there are differences between men and women, wherein the strengths of each sex make up for the shortcomings in the other. The second is that political action is meant to serve the common good, whose root is the health and power of the natural family.

Enumerating the differences between the sexes, Buckley cites the English radical and progressive, Frederic Harrison, who observes that not one man in 10 can match an ordinary woman in “tact, subtlety of observation, in refinement of mental habit, in rapidity, agility, and sympathetic touch; in sudden movement, in perseverance, in passive endurance, in dealing with the minutest surroundings of comfort, grace, and convenience.” While in men, Harrison says, we find “a greater capacity for prolonged attention, intense abstraction, wide range, extraordinary complication, immense endurance, intensity, variety, and majesty of will.”

Readers may cavil with these descriptions here or there, but in the main I believe Harrison is correct, and that, as Buckley observes, “from the same difference arise the virtues and the vices, respectively, of the sexes, modified by different degrees of physical strength.” If there is no such thing as a separate feminine nature, and if we are to raise women as we raise men, then, writes Buckley, “there is no reason for exempting women from the responsibilities of government.” 

Buckley then asks the reader to see beyond the discussion of the abstract rights of individuals and to consider the well-being of society and the nation state. Individuals who do the voting and governing are transient and will die. The nation-state endures, Buckley writes, “because there are constantly fresh arrivals through the families into which society is divided.” The family, as a germinal society in miniature, is left unsupervised and free, so long as the parents are not criminally negligent. “In proportion as this State within a State is maintained in its integrity, is the nation strong, happy, and prosperous,” Buckley writes. “[The family] is the fountain of private, and the source of public, morality.”

It’s Buckley’s argument that suffrage undermines the family—that institution of personal bonds that transcends the generations. Families cannot thrive when male and female are clashing political actors, “two natures of the same kind, debating all questions in the same plane, with no natural predominating tendency,” Buckley writes. The union of man and woman is not a legal or business partnership. It is a union “of two manifestations of a common human nature, masculine and feminine of soul as well as body.” 

To vote is to become masculine, Buckley argues. It is “to think and act in the imperative mood; and to be qualified as voters, girls must be trained to think, feel, and act in the spirit of boys.” That would unfit woman, in the general case, for life in the home, making her position there “an insupportable restraint…. Imbued by the governing spirit, she will become as restive in her position as would he if similarly placed.”

Have women in fact become “restive?” Consider the modern depiction of the female by Hollywood—that storytelling conglomerate that can no longer tell a story. The silver screen has collapsed into a whirl of comic book heroes run amok, festooned with computer-generated images meant to fool you into believing in a world without physical laws or limits to human nature.

These are worlds in which a superheroine can do a tour jeté and send a pack of linebackers sprawling—a feat as likely as seeing an ant-man spring fully winged from another universe. It is a world not of the imagination but of its impostor, a wearisome and jittery fantasy, making wild work that has nothing to do, physically, morally, or culturally, with anything you will ever meet.

But a man is more likely to shoot spider-strands from his wrists and scale the skyscrapers of the nocturnal city, than to make a titan of intellect and juridical reason out of the stuff of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Yet that’s what Hollywood is aiming to do, if I am to judge by the film On the Basis of Sex.

Nothing’s easier than to be an ideologue with one idea. The one idea of Ginsburg in this film is that laws or customs that distinguish between men and women are wicked. What genius does it require to apply the idea? If the women of Virginia wanted to keep the Virginia Military Institute all male, and if students and teachers and alumni wanted it to remain so, and if the discipline of the school was peculiarly masculine and—as VMI’s president Josiah Bunting testified—ideal for boys coming from troubled backgrounds, no matter! All of that is nothing against the power of Ginsburg’s ideological monomania.

“So what?” asks Justice Breyer. It is the motto of the stuck-in-mud progressive, who will not hear about what has worked and might still work; who will not be troubled with humanity’s traditions. And so, Justice Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion in United States v. Virginia, which sounded the death knell for all-male public education in the U.S.

The egalitarian idée fixe is a juggernaut. It is not complicated, like human nature. It is not subtle, like thought. It is not beautiful, like the heavens powdered with stars tossed hither and yon, in magnitude from the dimmest to the brightest. It does not produce greatness in the arts. It levels, sands, bleaches, and obliterates.

Senator Hoar begins his argument for suffrage with an appeal to plain justice, saying that American women were governed by laws they had not helped to make. But he hardly mounts the rostrum before he delivers a pair of statements that, viewed in one way, appear utopian, and in another, contradictory: 

The sublimest thing in the universe, except its Creator, is a human will governing itself by a law higher than its own desire. The sublimest manifestation of that self-control is the self-government of a free State in which each of its citizens has his or her equal share.

Central to any human culture is the need to teach people not merely to follow their desires, which Hoar admits. But he doesn’t acknowledge that the justification for woman suffrage is not predicated upon that obedience. It is rather will to power, and not submission, that insists upon an “equal share.” Moreover, every utopia since The Republic of Plato—if he meant it to be taken seriously—elides the difference between the person and the state, as if scale did not matter, and as if a man were a state in miniature, or the nation-state a man writ large. If a man is a little polis, it is one embroiled in intervisceral war. “For the good that I would I do not,” says St. Paul, “but the evil which I would not, that I do.” If the state is one organism, its name is Leviathan, and that monster balks at having a hook put in his nose.

Hoar also admits that advocates of women’s suffrage “seek to change a relation which has existed from the foundation of the earth.” Yet man has braved other changes, he writes, and been the better for it: democracy, for one. That is an odd lapse for Hoar, who had lived through the Civil War and the miserable “democratic” aftermath called Reconstruction. Then he notes that women have begun to do many other things that they had not done before, such as to practice medicine, so that “the changes of the last fifty years have demolished one by one most of the prejudices and most of the arguments which woman suffrage has now to encounter.”

The senator is nothing if not chivalrous in his argument. Women “are a little more than one half of the population, but they endure far more than one half of the suffering and evil caused by bad legislation or bad administration.” Hoar apparently measures such evil by anecdote, as he brings up a story of a bad husband who “comes home besotted from a den of vice, his faculties benumbed to an unconsciousness of his own degradation.” Hoar asks, should not that man’s long-suffering wife be permitted to cast a vote?

Chivalry having cleared the field, Hoar calls on the Declaration of Independence, as a supra-constitutional touchstone. The Constitution itself is imperfect, in Hoar’s view: “It has not been in all cases consistent with the general principle upon which its framers propose, in their bills of rights or preambles, to construct it.” That the Constitution is not a political Koran traced in gold upon the pillars of eternity, I readily admit. That therefore the Declaration is so traced in gold—without qualification, and without theological meditation upon the word “equal”—I do not. In any case, Hoar wishes to extend what he considers to be the basic principles of the Constitution and of the state constitutions. “You find,” he writes, “that those principles involve an affirmation of equal title to woman to share in the government.”

He then addresses objections. The first two have to do with a woman’s stake in the country and her attachment to it. Hoar’s chivalry returns. No landowner or businessman can possess “a stake in the country like that a mother has in her children.” That defense sounds odd now, when Hollywood celebrates a feminist like Ginsburg for defending women against the children they have conceived. The feminist stake in children is a wooden one: hammered into the heart. As for attachment, says Hoar, “man values the objects of his affection for the comfort and dignity and benefit that comes to him from them,” but “woman values herself only for the comfort which she can be to the objects of her affection.” Man, then, if I may be sour about Hoar’s viewpoint, is a selfish lout, and woman a meddlesome troublemaker. 

Women are also superior judges of character, especially in times of political turmoil, according to Hoar. That judgment is what elected Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and would have elected Al Gore.

The senator concedes that women are not fit for certain offices, nor are most men, but “the public functions for which intelligent women are fitted are quite as numerous and quite as important as those for which men are fitted,” a statement his opponent, Rev. Buckley, would not disagree with, except to note that it is beside the point. 

Hoar finally puts his finger on the great fear of suffrage opponents, that “many intelligent people feel that the nature of woman and the government of States have something in them which are repugnant to each other; that women will debase government and that government will debase women.”

 When people ask Hoar whether woman will forsake her home for loftier places (think of today’s feminist bumper sticker, “A Woman’s Place Is in the House—the White House”), he accuses them of a failure of imagination: “Such people cannot conceive that a modest and pure woman shall do or help to do these things without changing her nature, or of these things being done under the direction of feminine intellect without being badly done.”

That is the key. Hoar makes two arguments here. He disparages the men, who mainly vote a party line, and he turns to the ablest of women and the considerable things they are already doing, to note that they are important agents in political life. Using American Red Cross founder Clara Barton as an example, he writes, “If women keep themselves to these things, and keep off the ground which the opponents of woman’s suffrage seem to dread to have them occupy, they still are helping largely in the work of the State. I do not see how it is to degrade them to have their votes counted.” 

In other words, Hoar argues that admission of women to the electorate will compel men to make politics a little more decent. Nothing else will change. “Shall women leave the cradle, or the parlor, or the kitchen, to plunge into politics?” he asks, and answers his own question: “No.”

When debating suffrage, the 19th-century conservative says, “This will undermine the common good, and here is why,” and he makes a practical case. The liberal plays his ace of trumps, the grand egalitarian idea, and says, “The sky will not fall! Nothing of consequence will happen.” But the master who plays the puppet’s strings knows better. Men like Hoar, says Buckley, make light of “the simple dropping of a piece of paper into a ballot-box.” What could come of that? But many advocates of women’s suffrage, says Buckley, admit that they desire that disruption of the home, and “the more consistent go fearlessly to the end, and define marriage as a civil contract to be terminated at the will of either party, and society as a collection of independent units instead of an assemblage of families.”

I observe here that if marriage is so defined, it is hardly marriage anymore, and if society is so defined, it is not society anymore. Families are good solid blocks, enduring beyond the life of a single man and extending beyond his flesh. The individual is a grain of sand. Families can build a temple. Individuals as such make a sand hill that cannot stand against the encroachments of the mass phenomena, prime among which is the mass State.

Hoar had called to witness men of letters such as John Greenleaf Whittier and Ralph Waldo Emerson. I love the Quaker Whittier’s poetry, but he was an abstracted fellow, and anyone who would entrust a practical enterprise to Emerson deserves to be cast into debtor’s prison prospectively. Buckley counters with the opinions of British Prime Minister William Gladstone and Bishop John H. Vincent, founder of the Chautauqua adult education movement. These were liberals both.

Gladstone’s fortunes were at their nadir. He had everything to gain by agreeing with the suffragettes, and he had seemed to favor their cause in the past. But when the question came before him as Prime Minister, his conservative instincts won out. He saw suffrage as “a fundamental change in the whole social function of woman,” and not just the extension of an already existing principle. At this change he demurred, appealing to the “vast difference of type” imprinted by the Maker upon man and woman, and confessing a fear “lest beginning with the state, we should eventually have been found to have intruded into what is yet more fundamental and more sacred, the precinct of the family, and should dislocate, or injuriously modify, the relations of domestic life.”

Once built, the way from the woman’s living room to the capital bears traffic in both directions, but not equally so. The woman beats a footpath to Congress, and Congress lays down a superhighway to every home in the land, subjecting it to surveillance from social workers, doctors, nurses, teachers, policemen, and evil-minded neighbors. It takes a leviathan to swallow a child and his family whole.

Bishop Vincent, also once an advocate of women’s suffrage, wrote to Reverend Buckley, saying that after many years of close observation of social issues, he now opposed it. Vincent understood the movement as “a protest against the representative relations and functions by virtue of which each sex depends upon and is exalted by the other.” To sweep those relations away, relations based upon “the natural and divine order, must make man less a man, and woman less a woman,” Vincent said. If it be said that woman needs the ballot to protect herself against man, then “the foundations of society are already crumbling,” in which case it ill behooves the wise to accelerate the decay.

The bishop argues that politics is a nasty business that corrupts its participants. Women, “free from the direct complications and passions of the political arena,” might exert a conservative influence upon men when they have breathed too much of the bad air of politics. If man, “through his mistaken courtesy,” plunges her into that arena, she will not exalt it. It will debase her, Vincent said.

Buckley asks us to think of political feuds. When women are not involved, the feuds are tempered “by the undisturbed relations between the wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters of the combatants,” he writes. Take that away and expect enmity without rest. He cites the liberal theologian Horace Bushnell, “[Women] are to be no more mitigators now, but instigators rather, sweltering in the same fierce heats and commotions, only more fiercely stirred than we.”

Buckley seconds this observation from his personal experience in the Civil War, saying that “in the last war in this country, the women on both sides were more intense and irreconcilable than the men.” Lincoln himself, a liberal who at the outset of his career seemed to favor suffrage, afterwards kept the matter at arm’s length, for “his later experience led to a profound conviction that the temperament of women was such as to make it more difficult to compose public feuds among them than among men,” Buckley writes.

“The female of the species,” wrote Rudyard Kipling, “is more deadly than the male.” She must be so when she protects her cubs. Her vision is keen and near. She cannot, in her protective and practical position, be far-sighted and abstracted, making common cause with the wolf for the sake of a distant public good. Nor would you want her ambassador to the wolf. The dynamic enmity of Man, who exalts himself through a worthy opponent, and who can respect and collaborate with the able enemy he hates, finds no analogue in woman—nor should it be so.

That is to view the matter from the harm to be suffered. Buckley also alleges a great good that women will lose. He cites women themselves, including the liberal social reformer Dorothea Dix. Her biographer says that she believed in “woman’s keeping herself apart from anything savoring of ordinary political action. She must be the incarnation of a purely disinterested idea, appealing to universal humanity, irrespective of party or sect.” She can achieve a great deal precisely because, in bringing a case before a legislature, she can employ persuasion rather than the implied force of electoral opposition. Women do not find men hard to persuade.  

They do find them hard to rule. If women enter into political life, both parties, says Buckley, will try to pass laws to please them, which, if they do not please the men, will be dead letters or, for their enforcement, will “involve a change in the character of the government in the direction of despotism.”

Woman thereby loses “the might of her gentleness,” the “proud dependence of woman on manliness, reciprocated by man’s reverence for womanliness,” very little of which, I think, is to be found in our time, when neither sex as such has anything of wonder or gratitude to say about the other. “Meanwhile,” the reverend concludes, “the office-holding, intriguing, campaigning, lobbying, mannish woman will celebrate the day of emancipation—which, alas, will be the day of degradation,—when, grasping at sovereignty, she lost her empire.”

Set aside the lofty prose of these combatants if it is not to your taste. But consider Rev. Buckley’s prediction about suffrage’s effect on divorce. At the end of the 19th century, he writes that divorce was increasing rapidly, especially in areas of the U.S.“where there has been a persistent and almost fierce demand for the ballot.” Today, about half of all marriages end in divorce.

Buckley also worried about the health of the family. Today’s family is child-poor, fragile, and politically feeble.  It scrapes and ducks, hat in hand, before the governors of the local school. Fatherhood and motherhood are regarded risible, or wicked. Women dress their sons as girls and pimp them in front of sodomites, and are celebrated for it.  Mass culture is coarse, without the leaven of a single beautiful ideal: the most scabrous of Martial, without Virgil.

“No person desires to change the essential character of American womanhood,” Hoar writes. Hoar’s own words are a judgment against him. American womanhood is characterized by “beauty, dignity, grace, sweetness, and power.” It will not, he says, “be affected in the slightest degree for the worse if her vote shall be counted. On the other hand, when she shall be admitted to complete citizenship, these qualities of American womanhood will become more and more the qualities of American citizenship itself.”

What’s done is done. That is not the question before us. What then? I can do no otherwise than to speak as in Frost’s “The Oven Bird:”

The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.

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