Women in Politics
April 9, 1922 — Town Hall, New York City
I know that this welcome has nothing to do with me. Ever since I entered the “Mother of Parliaments” I realized that I ceased to be a person and had become a symbol. The safe thing about being a symbol is this – you realize that you, of yourself can do thatching, but what you symbolize gives you courage and strength and should give you wisdom. I certainly have been given courage and strength, and I won’t say too much about wisdom.
My entrance into the House of Commons was not, as some thought, in the nature of a revolution. It was an evolution. My husband was the one who started me off on this downward path—from the fireside to public life. If I have helped the cause of women he is the one to thank, not me. He is a strange and a remarkable man.
First, it was strange to urge you wife to take up public life, especially as he is a most domesticated man; but the truth is that he is a born social reformer. He has avoided the pitfalls which so many well-to-to men fall into. He doesn’t think that you can right wrongs with philanthropy. He realizes that one must go to the bottom of the causes of wrongs and not simply gild them up.
For eleven years, I helped my husband with his work at Plymouth – I found out the wrongs and he trie to right them – and this combination of work was a wonderful and happy combination and I often wish that it was still going on.
However, I am not here to tell you of his work, but it its interesting in so far that it shows you how it came about that I stood for Parliament at all. Unless he had been the kind of a man he was, I do’t believe that the first woman member of the oldest Parliament in the world would have come from Plymouth, and that would have been a pity. Plymouth is an ideal port to sail from or to. It has been bidding godspeed to so many voyagers. I felt that I was embarking on a voyage of faith, but when I arrived at my destination some of the honorable members looked upon me more as a pirate than a pilgrim.
A woman in the House of Commons! It was almost enough to have broken up the House. I don’t blame them—it was equally hard on the woman as it was on them. A pioneer may be a picturesque figure, but they are often rather lonely ones. I must say for the House of Commons, they bore their shock with dauntless decency. No body of men could have been kinder and fairer to a “pirate” than they were. When you hear people over here trying to run down England, please remember that England was the first large country to give the vote to women and that the men of England welcomed an American born woman in the House with a fairness and a justice which, at least, this woman never will forget.
The different ones received me in different ways. I shall never forget a Scotch labor leader coming’s guppy’s to me, after I had been in the House a little while, and telling me that I wasn’t a bit the sort of woman he thought I would be — “I’ll not tell you that, but I know now that you are an ordinary, homely, kindly body,” and he has proved it since by often asking my advice on domestic questions.
Then there was an Irish member who said to me, “I don’t know what you are going to speak about, but I am here to back you.” And the last was from a regular Noah’s Ark man, a typical squire type. After two and a half years of never agreeing on any point with him, he remarked to someone that I was a very stupid woman but he must add that I was a “very attractive one,” and he feared I was a throughly honest social reformer. I might add that being the first woman, I had to take up many causes which no one would call exactly popular. I also had to go up against a prejudice of generations, but I must say their decency has never failed, though my manners must have been somewhat of a trial.
Now I must leave the more personal side and get to what it is all about and why we are here. Women and politics—some women have always been in politics, and have not done badly, either. It was when we had the Lancastrian Kings that it was said that the Kings were made Kings by act of Parliament—they did rule by means of Parliament. Then Henry VIII, that old scalawag, accepted the principles of the Lancastrians to rule by Parliament, but he wanted the principle in an entirely different way. He made Parliament the engine of his will: he pressed or frightened it into doing anything he wished. Under his guidance Parliament defied and crushed all other powers, spiritually and temporally, and he did things which no King or Parliament ever attempted to do—things unheard of and terrible.
Then Elizabeth came along. It is true she scolded her Parliament for meddling with matters with which, in her opinion, they had no concern, and more than once soundly rated the Speaker of her Commons, but she never carried her quarrels too far, and was able to end her disputes by some clever compromise; in other words, she never let Parliament down, and that is what I don’t believe any wise woman will do in spite of the fears of some of the men.
Now, why are we in politics? What is it all about? Something much bigger than ourselves. Schopenhauer was wrong in nearly everything he wrote about women—and he wrote a lot, but he was right in one thing. He said, in speaking of women, “the race is to her more than the individual,” and I believe that it is true. I feel somehow we do care about the race as a whole, our very nature makes us take a forward vision; there is no reason why women should look back— of sex legislation with its appalling failures to guide us.
We should know what to avoid, it is no use blaming the men—we made them what they are—and now it is up to us to try and make ourselves—the makers of men—a little more responsible in the future. We realize that no one sex can govern alone. I believe that one of the reasons why civilization has failed so lamentably is that it has had a one-sided government. Don’t let us make the mistake of ever allowing that to happen again.
I can conceive of nothing worse than a man-governed world except a woman-governed world—but I can see the combination of the two going forward and making civilization more worthy of the name of civilization based on Christianity, not force. A civilization based on justice and mercy. I feel men have a greater sense of justice and we of mercy. They must borrow our mercy and we must use their justice. We are new brooms; let us see that we sweep the right rooms.
Personally, I feel that every woman should take an active part in local politics. I don’t mean by that that every woman should go in for a political career – that, of course, is absurd – but you can take an active part in local government without going in for a political career. You can be certain when casting your vote you are casting it for what seems nearest right – for what seems more likely to help the majority and not bolster up an organized minority. There is a lot to be done in local politics, and it is a fine apprenticeship to central government; it is very practical, and I think that, although practical, it is too near to be attractive. The things that are far away are more apt to catch our eye than the ones which are just under our noses; then, too, they are less disagreeable.
Political development is like all other developments. we must begin with ourselves, our own consciences, and clean out our own hearts before we take on the job of putting others straight. So with politics if we women put our hands to local politics, we begin the foundations. After all, central governments only echo local ones; the politician in Washington, if he is a wise man, will always have one eye on his constituency, making that constituency so clean, so straight, so high in its purpose, that the man from home will not dare to take a small, limited view about any question, be it a national or an international one. You must remember that what women are up against is not what they see, but the unseen forces.
We are up against generations and generations of prejudice. Ever since Eve at the apple – but I would like to remind you, and all men, why she at the apple. It was not simply because it was good for food or pleasant to the eye, it was a tree to be desired to make one wise. “She took of the fruit thereof, and id eat: and she gave also unto her husband with her, and he did eat.” We have no record of Adam murmuring against the fruit – of his not doing anything but eat it with docility. In passing, I would like to say that the first time Adam had a chance he lied the blame on woman – however, we will leave Adam.
Ever since women’s consciousness looked beyond the material, men’s consciousness has feared her vaguely, he has gone to her for inspiration, he has lied on her for all that is best and most ideal in his life, yet by sheer material force he has limited her. He has, without knowing it, westernized the harem mind of the East. I don’t believe he knows it yet so we must break ti to him gently. We must go on being his guide, his mother, and his better half. But we must prove to him that we are a necessary half not only in private but in political life.
The best way that we can do that is to show them our ambitions are not personal. Let them see that we desire a better, safer, and a cleaner world for our children and their children and we realize that only by doing our bit by facing unclean things with cleanliness, by facing wrongs with right, by going fearlessly into all things that may be disagreeable, that we will somehow make it a little better world.
I don’t know that we are going to do this – I don’t say that women will change the world but I do say that they can if they want and I coming in from the Old World which has seen a devastating war, cannot face the future without this hope – that the women of all countries will do their duty and raise a generation of men and women who will look upon war and all that leads to it with as much horror as we now look upon a cold-blooded murder. All of the women of England want to do away with war.
If we want this new world, we can only get it by striving for it; the real struggle will be within ourselves, to put out of our consciousness, of our hearts, and of our thoughts all that makes for war, hate, envy, greed, pride, force, and material ambition.
Source: William Safire, Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History (New York: W.W. Norton) 1992, pp. 620-622.