Imatges de pàgina
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1896

"OF WOMEN IN ASSEMBLIES'

A REPLY

The value of one ounce of practice being by general consent accredited as worth pounds of theory is the only excuse I offer for this article. It has lately been advanced in this Review as a truism that the self-consciousness of sex prevents men from being outspoken and businesslike on such public boards as have women members. I prefer to contend that the meeting together of men and women for public work lessens exaggerated sex-consciousness by bringing men and women together on a sound and easy union of common duty.

Thirteen years' experience as poor-law guardian, member of a rural sanitary authority, and frequenter of parish vestries, with just one opportunity (by invitation) of arguing an important subject before quarter sessions, on a matter in which that body and several of the boards of guardians throughout the county were at variance, followed by further experience under the Local Government Act 1894, both as rural district councillor and first chairman of a parish council, ought to entitle me to speak on the utility of the joint work of the sexes in local government; even though my statement be regarded—as of necessity it must be—as an ex parte one.

The theory which has been ventilated in this Review is so charged with life-destroying character that we women, most of us being proud to be united to men by near and dear ties, may well be excused if we fail to accept anything so derogatory to the character of men in general. We are told that the inherent differences of sex so dominate the nature of men as to preclude full and free discussion on their part of any subject when women are present. * That things will appear to be threshed out, but will not be threshed, and yet they will appear so to the woman,' and that she, the woman, will delude herself with having been victorious when in reality she has not been clearsighted enough to correctly apprehend the situation. This reticence on the part of men will be owing to some 'fascination' which women always possess, and which men must always feel, because this fascination 'has existed since the days of the Garden of Eden. And yet, propounding this theory as to the inability of men to be businesslike and candid, the writer goes on to say, 'And yet men VoL, X1-No. 237

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would not like women to lose this “fascination even in the counci) hall!' And further, alas! "This great sensitiveness is so extensive that even if women be old and ugly-unless possibly they keep silence—there is no guarantee that this dominating “ fascination" of the sex will not tongue-tie male auditors.' Now, I think we should ask, where are we? Surely at a point where pathos is dissolved in bathos !

It would seem that women are akin to serpents, which, whether beautiful, old, or ugly, alike exercise in a greater or lesser degree so dangerous a fascination that men must be protected from having to face them. They are advised to double round and scotch them if they can, the result of which advice, if taken, will be that the snakesi.e. the women—will thrive and multiply in the land of public debate: There is another suggestion to protect men, and that is that women might 'be allowed to collect evidence for men to use in debate.' We therefore presume that there should be an end to women giving evidence before committees of the Houses of Parliament or Royal Commissions. In the future we ought to lose such valuable testimony as was given years ago by Miss Louisa Twining on workhouse management, or that of Dr. Annie M'Call and other ladies before the recent Commission on Midwifery. We should dispense with that verbal testimony which from time to time able and philanthropic women can give to the nation.

We are asked to believe that the possibility of rudeness is the indispensable condition of public debate;' that women will never—by rightly constituted men—be subjected to that heckling and sifting which those who love their country'give to men. Therefore women should be kept not only out of Parliament, where they would intensify the already too venomous style of debate, but also off local councils.

Those who are conversant with the modern work of women in local government know that even if women have not been exactly heckled on boards of guardians, they have certainly not been received with uniform courtesy. The success of lady guardians has not been due to any fascination which has struck dumb their male co-workers, but to the signal ability and ease with which they have grasped the possibilities of the poor law. This has doubtless been in part owing to their superior knowledge to men of the needs and characters of the poor.

The women who have taken part in such forms of local government as have been open to them do not believe—nor do the public who have watched the joint work of men and women on boards of guardians believe—that the presence of women has stultified freedom of speech or discussion for men. The Local Government Board and both Houses of Parliament have in every way encouraged the election of women, both as poor-law guardians and as members of the Metropolitan Asylums Board. Those governing powers have realised that

poor law work cannot be thoroughly done without the co-operation of women. Both sexes can bring to the application of the poor law the full complement of facts, and in this way both the poor and the public have been the gainers. I will give as an example of the need of the womanly mind the consideration of three of those Acts of Parliament which for brevity I will call Permissive Acts—they may be applied or not applied—viz. the Notification of Diseases, the Vaccination, and the Cow Sheds and Dairies Acts. Who would say but that women ought to have a voice and vote in the working of those Acts, or that the interest of women in those Acts should be confined to collecting evidence for men to debate' thereon ? There have been most full and free discussions of the working of those Acts on councils composed of men and women, and surely it is reductio ad absurdum to suppose that the most susceptible of men to female influence felt unequal to say all he required to.

If it be granted, as indeed it must be, that questions will sometimes arise touching the most miserable side of the relations of the sexes, I can say that from my fifteen years' experience there need be no reticence in discussion, except that which is of pre-eminent importance in all public work, viz. the choice of fitting and appropriate language.

Long before the modern movement had arisen among women for taking their share in local government, they and men had worked together on joint boards for the management of refuges for fallen women and kindred institutions. To the pure all things are pure.” A loathsome subject carries with itself an antidote for all except those who, if they have attained office, are really not fit to act as public: representatives.

Parish councils have been in existence so brief a time that it is. not possible to report much experience, but so far as that experience has gone

it has tended to show that the presence of women, far from being considered a hindrance by men, has been valued and appreciated by them. Two at least of the lady chairmen who were elected at the first election were unanimously chosen by councils composed entirely of small village traders and labourers, in one case dashed with the Nonconforming element. One at least of those lady chairmen (Mrs. Barker of Sherfield) dealt with the powers under the Act in so. systematic and exhaustive a manner as to serve, in my humble opinion, as a pattern for many a parish council under male control. Both Mrs. Barker and myself (though unknown to each other) resigned at the end of our first year of office, strangely enough for the same

Both were anxious that the educational power of the chair of parish councils should not crystallise, and both were desirous of proving beyond a doubt that a woman could act as chairman and returning officer at the annual parish elections. This would have been impossible had we been candidates for office. By singular good luck

reasons.

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one, if not both, the elections were decided by the casting vote of the lady chairman. Before the publication of this Review Mrs. Barker will have given her most interesting experience at the conference of the Women's Emancipation Union held in London.

If we could gather together the opinions of those women pioneers who have borne the brunt and burden of the day as co-workers with men in public assemblies, there is little doubt but that their testimony would tend to show that sex distinction has been much less oppressive than even they hoped it could be. It is not far-fetched to suggest that the novel position assumed by them minimised sex fascination. Men possibly regarded them as hybrid creatures, partaking of the characteristics of two species, curiosities of nature; but, like all hybrids, limited in sexual power, therefore (though, like the mule, good for hard work and surefootedness) of depreciated value in the scheme of Nature. I think we touch the crux of the matter when we say that

a great vantage-ground has been taken from men who have to sit with women on local boards. It is less easy to air a sex biassed opinion, or give a sex biassed ruling, than of yore. In the past but few men cared to earn the gratitude of women by being enthusiastic on the woman's „side of a question. It was much more comfortable when only one -side need be debated, and that the male side. Though, according to

Mr. Oakley, two thirds of the spoil (I question the proportion), ‘holy or unholy,' gained by men may be appropriated by the women they favour, there will always be some women who will appreciate simple justice above all the good things of this life.

This terrible theory of the impossibility of men doing justice to business in the presence of women has been backed up by a quotation from Dr. Johnson. It is now more than a century since the grand old lexicographer was placed in his grave, and men and women and -theories have moved on since then. Yet I cannot say an unkind word of Dr. Johnson. His practice in regard to women so often excelled his precepts; the good husband of an old wife, the kind protector of destitute women, even to the sheltering of some of them for years in his own home, has gained my love. Even to the wealthy and fascinating Mrs. Piozzi he could blurt out his opinions. He never became weak-kneed in the presence of women.

Experience has taught some of us that many men are more fearful of ventilating their opinions before members of great ability among their own sex than they are of enforcing opinions opposed to those of women. The fear of woman is as nothing compared to the fear of a clever scathing male tongue.

Women have desired that their public work should be on the broad line of homo man—'male and female created He them'—not on the narrow one of sex affinity, much less of sex antagonism. George Meredith, by deep and generous intuition, has sounded in his latest

work the revolt of women from sex appreciation alone. A too late enlightened husband is made to say: 'I do not believe that anything higher than respect can be given to a woman;' and again “When ... woman breathes respect into us she wings a beast. How different are these sentiments from those of Mr. Oakley, who would base all human relationships between men and women on sex fascination alone!

If the disorder be but half as bad as it is represented, there can be only one certain cure. We must have an increase in the representation of women. Women cannot go back, it is undesirable from the enemy's point of view that they should remain where they are, consequently they must go forward. This will reduce the number of men likely to be affected, and secure for women the exercise of those higher qualities of mind, heart, and brain which belong alike to spiritually-minded men and women. Every age has produced women for whom the serious concerns of life have had a greater attraction than its pleasures. The Vestal Virgin exists no longer but as a pure symbol. The Sister of Charity has been for ages among us. The spear of progress presses us on. This generation of women is awake not only to the need of religious but also of civic devotion on the part of women to do battle with dirt, discomfort, and disease.'

HARRIETT MCILQUHAM.

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