A wise ancient declared that the most perfect popular government was that 'where an injury done to the meanest subject is an insult upon the whole constitution'. What, therefore, can be said for a Government that deliberately inflicts injury upon a great mass of its intelligent and respectable subjects; that virtually ignores their existence in all that can contribute to their happiness as subjects; that takes a special care to strike at the root of their love of country by teaching them that they have no part in forming or maintaining its glory, while it rigidly exerts from them all penalties; even unto death? What can be said, what urged, in extenuation of this crying evil, this monstrous injustice? 'Custom; use; it has always been so'. This may be enough to say of the past – 'let the dead past bury its dead'; but is it to be remedied for the future? How long are women to remain a wholly unrepresented body of the people? This is a question that has of late been agitated in England, and women in this colony read, watch, and reflect. Though their household cares chiefly occupy them, yet many find leisure in the quiet evening hours to read not only their fashions, and colonial papers, but the English papers also. They cannot remain ignorant of the agitation of this, to them, great matter, and it has struck the writer of these few pages that I might not be wholly vain to make an appeal to the men of this our adopted land.
America has in many things stepped in advance of the mother country. How often has she shown us the advantages of things the English mind feared to attempt, though it does not disdain often to adopt these innovations, and, as Mr Gladstone says, 'Americanise our institutions'? Why should not New Zealand also lead? Why ever pursue that hard-beaten track of ages? Have we not enough cobwebs and mists to cloud our mental gaze, enough fetters to impede our onward progress here, that we must voluntarily shackle ourselves with old world principles in the way of Government. But to come to the point. Why has a woman no power to vote, no right to vote, when she happens to possess all the requisites which legally qualify a man for that right?
She may be a householder, have large possessions, and pay her share of taxes towards the public revenue; but sex disqualifies her. Were it a question of general knowledge and intelligence as compared with men, women might submit unmurmuringly; but this is not the case. The point is, is she as capable as our bullock-drivers, labourers, and mechanics?
It may surely be confidently asserted that when a woman is possessed of sufficient skill and management to retain unassisted the guidance of her family, and remain a householder, she develops more that a moderate degree of capability. The weak and incapable generally elect to live in the homes of others, they naturally shrink from the responsibility of such a position and are thus placed out of the question.
The true position is, that educated thinking members of the State are degraded below the level of the ploughman, who perhaps can neither read nor write. And this is 'law' – called 'justice'! How is the word 'just' weakened and falsified! It is enough to 'make the angels weep'. But we must not despair. We have in our General Legislature statesmen, justly so called, whose powers of intellect, aye, of oratory, would make them shine in the English Parliament. Champions from among these men will step forth and fight the good fight for those fettered weak ones who can only think and suffer. Women's eyes turn in hope – nay trust – on some leading spirits who will not fail them. They but need rousing – the knowledge that we claim our right – that we wake and watch.
It is not difficult to learn in whom dwells the fine old chivalrous spirit towards which the world will ever warm. The women read the Hansard as well as our Punch and Cornhill, though perhaps – magna est veritas – we do skip the figures sometimes.
But let us go a little deeper into the case, and inquire what are the just claims of women to vote, and the objection to their so doing. We live under the dominion of a Queen – England rejects the Salique law. A woman may be an heiress of a country, may nominate a minister who takes charge of the souls of thousands, may vote in joint-stock companies, in vestries for guardians, may, I believe, even be an overseer; while in America women are doctors, lawyers, managers of factories, schools, &c, are Government clerks, and in one place Judges. Indeed, if we ponder on the power of wealth, we are struck with a wholesome feminine awe of Miss Burdett Coutts, who even entered into the matter at issue some time since between the Bishops Gray and Colenso, she having power to withdraw some large endowment bestowed by her upon the Church of Natal. When we consider what great wheels are turned by women, can we fail to wonder at their being so rigidly, so jealously excluded from the touch of this one of voting? And after all, its possession would amount to but a fractional power in our government. What real influence upon society is exercised by a woman like Florence Nightingale? Yet to such women men arbitrarily deny a power granted to a sweep.
It is excellent
To have a giant's strength; but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.
I cannot pretend to follow all the proceedings as they have taken place in England during the close of the last year; but I note that the name of a lady householder had been placed upon the electoral roll in some country, and struck off by the revising barrister. The lady appealed to the Court of Common Pleas, and Judges dismissed the appeal, simply because she was a woman, and therefore had no locus standi, and possessed no right of appeal; though it seems that some time, days even, had been fully occupied in hearing, going into the subject, and finally deciding upon this same appeal, which looks rather paradoxical. It is not worth the trouble to repeat, or even refer to all the reasons given by these astute Judges for their decision in this case; – the majority can but provoke a smile. We are compelled to bend to their law, but decline to receive their logic. One, Justice Probyn, sapiently considers that the right of voting demands 'an improved understanding, which women are not supposed to have'. Ample room for improvement in this Judge's understanding, I fancy. Another, named Bayles, considers that granting this power to them would be 'a premium on women to remain unmarried', or 'to desire that their husbands might die, in order to possess votes as widows'. From these, and such specimens of improved understanding, may we be preserved! This same learned Judge holds to our 'legal incapacity as women'. He says, 'Otherwise aliens might vote.' Aliens we truly are – alienated from natural rights. But it were worse than vain to dwell upon this phase of the proceedings, the law as it now stands is against us. 'Long and undisturbed usage', to quote the words of the Chief Justice, settles it.
About 1300 women in one place (Salford) placed their names upon the list of voters, and more than 5000 in Manchester; but of course the whole question of legal claim is now disposed of.
There was much reference during the proceedings to old and new statutes, inquiries instituted as to whether women were included when the word 'man' was used, which was allowed at once in the words 'manslaughter' and 'mankind', though it appears we are not even 'persons' sometimes. However, the gist of it all is that an express enactment is requisite to enable women to vote. Hence this appeal to the common sense of New Zealand men – of New Zealand law-givers. I cannot appeal to a higher quality in a statesman than common sense, for is it not the sense of the common interest. Let them dispassionately ask themselves whether that interest will not be advanced by the admission of a few female votes. There are but few, comparatively speaking, who could claim to vote on the strength of possessing the minimum amount of property and those few would probably bring pretty keen intelligence on the duty. The infusion of a fresher, purer spirit, and higher tone, would result from the concession of this right to women. As to the bête noir of women sitting in Parliament with men, rely upon it there is scarcely a woman in New Zealand who would desire or consent to do so. It is a bugbear, and absurdly exaggerated view of a notion taken by men whose intellect must be as weak as it is intolerant. Besides, who makes the laws? Men. Theirs is the power to grant or to deny; let them so frame our admission to the privilege we desire, as to exclude us from that duty which we consider clearly incompatible with our necessitous ones.
We ask you, our rulers, to disembarrass yourselves of those tenets of Government, built up during ages upon a system of senseless and credulous trust in those principles which guided our ancestors. Shake them aside, or subject them to a rigid scrutiny, and see how they fit the requirements of the present day. Women are now educated, thinking beings very different from the females of the darker ages. They might have been contented with their lot in those days, and 'ceux-la sont veritable heureux, qui croient l'autre'; but this is not so now. The stride of advancement is rapid, 'the roaring loom of time flies on', and while our law-givers 'work and weave in endless motion', we yearn to feel ourselves borne on by the stream of progress, to be improving as all should be, to feel that our claims have become higher, nobler, and our sympathies wider. Let the laws be fitted to the people and times. Do you still persecute for religious opinions? Do you still burn for witchcraft? Why, when the broad road of progress is cleared for so many human beings, is the Juggernaut car of prejudice still to be driven on, crushing the crowds of helpless women beneath its wheels?
Permit them to take, as their right, an interest, and some small part in the Government of their adopted land. That interest will grow apace, enlarging the scope of their ideas, and in time changing entirely the habit of their thoughts. I cannot more highly compliment the intelligence and equity of those who rule, than quietly to submit to their consideration our bitter grievance.
It is one which has been but little alluded to in New Zealand, but it is seething, yeasting in many minds, I believe, and it must bear fruit.
I do not think we are likely to call together a great female convention, like that over which the Lady Mayoress presided in Manchester; nor is it probable that a society for the promotion of female suffrage will be formed here; yet not the less earnestly do we, in all feminine gentleness, ask redress. Few New Zealand women, I dare say, have read even a review of Miss Becker's thesis on women's rights, which was read before the British Association and excited such deep interest; but we know of such a thesis having commanded public notice, and a feather shows the direction of the wind. A change is imminent – all must feel it to be so. It is but a question of when, and why not be now? Why will not men believe in the hidden wealth of mental devotion and sympathy that waits for their unsealing touch – the quiet strength, ready to support their best efforts? How willingly will women enter into the topics discussed by their husbands and brothers, how much better appreciate all their plans for the well-being of society when their privileges develop the esprit de corps of which they are so susceptible.
Go to our Government schools. Are girls so far behind boys in intelligence there? Converse in society with girls of sixteen or twenty, and compare them with youths of their own age – are they less sensible? I think I might even venture to assert that most girls of eighteen are better informed upon many subjects of general information than their brothers are. After this I grant that the improvement generally goes in an inverse ratio, and as the young man advances in the cultivation of his intellect, the woman's intelligence – particularly if married – narrows more and more to her own immediate circle of duties. Into these duties she casts herself with an energy that might preach a sermon to the men around her upon the sin of so contracting her vast sympathies. Do but observe the idiosyncrasies of the sex with the interest and care they claim from you. Note the delicately nurtured woman, see her wondrous power and energy, her patient, unflagging cheerfulness during the years of banishment to some back station in New Zealand, where she toils until the waste smiles around her; where she rears her poultry, grows her fruit and flowers – aye, and not unfrequently digs her potatoes and chops her wood, while she yet cheers her husband and teaches her children with anxious care lest they drop from the social sphere to which her heart clings. Mark the persistent faith with which she toils on, till, in some happy cases, she returns to grace the settled town in the evening of her days.
Many, alas! have fallen exhausted, spent in the toilsome march of life, fallen like soldiers, doing their duty. Peace to the martyr pilgrim mothers of the land? Let them not be forgotten, but rather let the memory of their fate deepen your sympathy with the sex.
Our women are brave and strong, with an amount of self-reliance and freedom from conventionalities eminently calculated to form a great nation. Give them scope. At present their grasp and power of mind is 'cribbed, cabined, and confined' to one narrow groove. It is weakened and famished by disuse, and only a close observer can detect the latent force, the unspent energy lying dormant in many seemingly ordinary characters.
Mark the sudden questions of a bright eager girl, or the quiet remark of some sensible matron, upon a political matter in the newspaper before her, and see the cold stare of surprise, or hear the rebuke about women seeking to step beyond their province, with which the paterfamilias stops the innovation, and can you marvel that the girl turns to gossip about the new fashions, or the mother takes refuge in discussions upon servants, sewing machines, and other minor domestic details? Women of the middle class suffer most from this open, systematic 'putting down'; for deference to the sex is the best test of real civilisation, and a truly well-bred man will never wantonly give pain to, or tyrannise over a woman, even though that woman be his wife or daughter, and therefore utterly at his mercy. When women shall be interested in the entire contents of newspapers, there will be found fewer inferior novels and serials upon the table. When her enthusiasm can find vent upon topics of world-wide interest, she will furnish criticisms with fewer startling eccentricities. She will become more truly feminine, and our journals will less abound in smartly satirical articles upon 'the girl of the period'; &c. How often now are we pained to read the attacks made upon our dress and manners; many of them, too, having in them the grain of truth that gives a false colouring of sincerity to the whole libel; but the critics of the day delight in nibbling at results instead of dipping deep into causes – they revel in detail, rarely rising to great principles. Thus much venom is spent upon feminine follies, while the cure lies in their own hands – that is, premising them to be male critics, as I take it for granted they be. Men alone can give us the power to rise above our present degradation: they must cease to consider inactivity to be delicacy, and frittering away time upon elegant fancies to be refinement. Women's minds require hardening by the principle of reasoning. Watts says, 'What is it but custom that has for past centuries confined the brightest geniuses, even of the highest rank, in the female world, to the employment of the needle only, and secluded them unmercifully from the pleasures of knowledge, and the divine improvements of reason. But we begin to break these chains, and reason begins to dictate the proper education of youth.' We do but begin now; still having begun, let us make good strides in the noble race for knowledge – knowledge of all kinds tending to the welfare of the community, and some knowledge of and share in the government of our country is imperative. And where, in what land upon the face of the earth, was there ever a finer field for educating the people in the art of government? We have it so satiety. It is a colonial vice, and
The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to scourge us.
Mushroom provinces crop up, shedding forth showers of embryo senators, whose amusing blunders supply fun for the excluded sex; for on the acknowledged rule that lookers-on see the most, women, outside the strife and confusion of party bickerings, often detect the coming storm that will overwhelm the self-satisfied, obtuse senator, and know the mine that will infallibly be sprung beneath his clumsy incautious tread. Truly, if, as has been said, 'we learn by our failures', we shall become a wise nation in the heart of government. And we are improving, we begin to see our faults, and to use the language of Sir James Macintosh, 'who will be hardy enough to assert that a better constitution is not attainable than any which has hitherto appeared? Is the limit of human wisdom to be estimated in the science of politics alone, by the extent of its present attainments? Is the most sublime and difficult of all arts, the improvement of the social order, the alleviation of the miseries of the civil condition of man [Query, woman also?] to be alone stationary, amid the rapid progress of every other art, liberal and vulgar, to perfection! Where would be the atrocious guilt of a grand experiment to ascertain the portion of freedom and happiness that can be created by political institutions?'
In the face of these thoughts, how small a matter seems the simple concession here pleaded. And for that cause how frail a hope seems these few pages, penned in jealous secrecy from every human eye, for such is the ban we live under that a woman naturally learns to shrink from drawing down upon her devoted head the avalanche of man's condemnation, and travels on with 'bated breath', hiding her noblest, highest aspirations! Yet it is a hope. Though like a rope flung to a drowning creature, when we close our eyes in dread of seeing it fall short, it is sent forth. It is the cry of aliens for naturalisation, the wail of the fettered for freedom, and I feel constrained to put forth the prayer – to strive to utter 'the thoughts that lie too deep for tears'. Fully is the difficulty of the task realised, weakness and inability press painfully, yet the counsel of the gentle Italian prevails:
Tanto ti prego piu gentile spirto
Non lassar la magnanima tua impresa
I do but ask for my sex a calm unprejudiced consideration of their condition. I feel that our claim will be granted, that the time is coming, but the hours are passing, 'Periunt et imputantur', and my whole soul yearns to see it 'before I go hence'.
The change is coming, but why is New Zealand only to follow? Why not take the initiative? She has but to inaugurate this new position, all will applaud. 'One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.' It will be the spark to the train now laid in most civilised countries.
Take the instant way:
For honour travels in a strait so narrow.
Where one but goes abreast; keep then the path;
For emulation hath a thousand sons,
That one by one pursue; if you give way,
Or hedge aside from the direct forthright,
Like to an entered tide, they all rush by
And leave you hindmost.