Only Because of Her Sex
June 1891 — Woman’s Suffrage League, Australia
I support this movement with pleasure, because I think it is impossible that any thinking man can fail to see the justice of our claim or the expediency of taking women’s opinions on the questions that concern women, and through them the whole people, for it is not now with us as it was when the world was scantily stocked with savages. Then the chief employment of men was fighting neighboring tribes, and woman’s business was to produce and train warriors. But the needs and habits of our race have changed; dimly we see the grey dawn of a new day when there shall be war no longer, and even now it is necessary to make every thing subservient to the need of getting a large supply of targets for the latest improvement in killing machines. We have time now to study means for the intellectual development of our race, time to strive to make humanity more godlike. To raise a people to higher aims and nobler impulses we must begin at the beginnings, and the beginnings are with the mothers. Make a mother free, and her children may be noble, trample on her, and they will probably be slaves or rebels. Education has done a great work among woman; she is rising to a consciousness of her duties and her responsibilities. More and more is yearly required of her, and the demand for the suffrage is a necessary sequence of her present position, for we are not living in a state of nature now. That state is dwindling in the grasp of grey-haired Time, and we have a complex civilisation in which the wrongdoing of the few reacts upon the many, in which no member can fail in its duty without every member suffering. Why must any woman be forced to leave undone what she feels be her share of the world’s work? Those who would keep her from it are working in vain, for God made us man and woman one creation, and if we would advance we must do so together on the same broad road of high endeavor. When man pushes woman back he retards himself; when he places obstacles in her way he impedes hi own progress, for we are yoked together. Together we may fall. Together we must advance; only together can we reach the goal. Our constitution is based on the belief that the whole people should be able to make its voice heard, and indeed it is sometimes asserted that we are ruled by legislators chosen by the people from the people for the people. But as things are now this can never be. We are governed by representatives chosen by about half our population — the other half looks on in silence. When a man has attained his majority, nothing less than a prison wall, the result of his own crime, can prevent him exercising his right of choosing the men who make the laws he must live under. But no prison wall is needed to disfranchise a woman. She may support a family, pay her share of taxation and be infinitely superior to many men in sense and virtue but because she is a woman only because of her sex, she must sit behind a barrier built up of the fossil theories of feudal lawyers and cemented with the dust of ages. The men of England fought and died many a year ago for the great principle of no taxation without representation; their sons in the American colonies did the same. “The fathers eat the sour grapes and the daughter’s teeth are set on edge.” Women may for a time continue to pay their share of taxation without representation, but so surely as the barons of England felt their need until they carried their point at Runnymede, so surely as the descendants of Englishmen waited patiently in Valley Forge until they were ready for a harder and more bitter struggle, so will liberal-minded and educated women continue to ask in a womanly way for the representation to which their position entitles them, and I cannot think that the descendants of the barons will deny it to them. There can be no “garment rolled in blood” in our battles; we can command neither cannon nor bayonets, but there can and will be the patient, persistent appeal of women to the men who call us their friends. I know that it is urged that women are not taxpayers, but every woman who works for a daily pittance contributes to the revenue according to her ability, even a woman who is only kept in return for her services does that, and she is therefore entitled to as much representation as the man who does not work at all, because he inherits the thousands of his forefathers. The tide of advancing through which has spread in waves round the civilised world has done much for woman. She has gained everywhere increased facilities for education, and Englishwomen are not alone in their desire for the suffrage. The women of continental Europe are no more satisfied than we are. Before the French revolution Condorcet (whom Mill speaks of as “one of the wisest and noblest of men”) had written and spoken advocating admitting women to the rights of citizenship, and a noble army of French men and women had followed his lead. When Napoleon called together the men who drew up the code which bears his name he professed to look beyond the Feudal system and behind the Gothic codes to the code of Justinian, in which that emperor influenced no doubt by the famous Theodora, had established equality of the sexes in inheritance and otherwise benefitted women. But the man who could brave anything to gratify his own ambition would not make a woman his equal and the Napoleonic code fastened a heavy yoke upon the necks of French women, thought the equalization of the sexes in inheritance has been a blessing to thousands in France. The countries which were subjugated by Napoleon accepted modifications of his code — the Italian code of ’66 was modelled on it. In 1834 England, moved at last, made her first concession to the growing demand for justice to women by doing a little less than Justinian had done in 528. The rights of husband and wife when either died intestate were somewhat equalised. By our probate act, passed in 1890, the shares of husband and wife on the intestacy of either are reduced to exact equality in New South Wales. But though equalisation has been effected in this particular direction there are many other points on which the laws as to women are still grossly unfair. Our Married Women’s Property Act dates from 1879, with a quite unimportant addition of an act of ’86. This Act of ’79 is the English Act of 1870; the great extensions and amendments that have been effected in England since that date have never been adopted here, so that at present all a woman’s personal property becomes the property of her husband upon her marriages. She cannot even make a will disposing of it without her husband’s approval of it and (this is a final and artistic touch) even though he did approve during her life he may withdraw the approval after her death and so avoid the will. As regards real property, the married woman of New South Wales can make no will at all. Whatever her wishes may be in life at death they may be disregarded and her property must be distributed according to law. The only way of avoiding this gross injustice is to make the property hers for, to use a legal phrase, “her separate use.” Now, as to the guardianship of children, I am sure most people will agree that the mother will probably know better than the father what will be the best arrangement to make for the future of her children, but in the law, as it stands at present, a mother’s love and anxiety, a woman’s judgment and d discrimination are counted as less than dust in the balance. The mother who may have sacrificed her life to her children must leave them to the care of persons appointed solely by their father, and should se become a widow (another final and artistic touch) she may not even then choose their guardians, but they must be appointed after her death, so that the children who have now no one on earth who has a parental interest in them are left to the cold mercies of the law. And yet there are people who tell us gravely that women have nothing to grumble about. Other things might be mentioned, but time forbids. There are may who say “I agree with you entirely, but the time has not come. It would be right, but it is better to wait.” When will the nation learn that “Because ‘tis right to follow right were wisdom, in the acorn of the [scorn] of consequence?” When reforms concern human life they cannot come too soon. Did Lord John Russell wait in ’31 for the farmers of England to learn political economy before he brought in his Reform Bill? Did Wilberforce and Clarkson wait for the slave of the American colonies to learn how to use the freedom he never might possess. No. They knew, those great men, that the only way to educate a human soul is to give it rights and to make it feel its responsibility. No one can swim who has never been in the water. There is no way of learning to walk without standing upright. Let every woman know that she has a duty, and that the welfare of her children and the welfare of her country depend upon her manner of her discharging that duty, and in most cases she will prepare to do it. I have fait in my sex. She will vote according to her conscience as well — aye perhaps better — than her fellow man. She may not in the mass quite equal him yet in intellectual power. But she will surpass him in moral power and her ability to judge of character and her natural clear sighted ness will stand her in good stead. The careless woman will give a careless vote, and the idle woman will refrain. So do careless and idle men, but no one would think of depriving the thoughtful of their rights because of the conduct of the indifferent. In the old days it was thought that the work of legislation should be done by the rich and clever man who knew best. The poor looked on with bated breath, and women were obliged to be slaves or schemers but we have left that system of government far behind. It was tried long enough and found wanting. It was completely overthrown on July 14, 1789, when the Bastille fell. The rich and clever men may know best; no doubt they do. But the motto of modern government is “the greatest good for the greatest number,” and we hold that every man be he right or poor so long as he does not infringe the liberty of others, is the rightful judge of what is good for himself. If this be true for men, how can it be untrue for women? And how can consistent men continue to force upon us laws which we had no voice in shaping and which may hinder rather than help us. Female suffrage must be conceded some day. It numbers its advocates by the thousands in England. I hope that in this young and vigorous Australia of ours it may be granted freely and quickly, and that we may thereby set a glorious example to the older countries of the world.
Source: Daily Telegraph, 13 June 1891.
Also: Maybanke: A Woman’s Voice: The Collected Work of Maybanke Selfe-Wolsteholme-Anderson, 1845-1927, ed. Jan Roberts and Beverley Kingston (Sydney: Ruskin Rowe Press), 2001, pp. 58-62.