The Need for Women in Politics
June 7, 1920 — Eighth Congress of the international Women’s Suffrage Alliance, Geneva, Switzerland
It is a very great responsibility, as well as a very great pleasure, to represent Great Britain in this congress of women. It is a responsibility because it is rather a revolutionary thing that there should be a woman member of the oldest Parliament in the world, and that she should be entrusted with a mission of this kind.
It is sometimes said by critics that international congresses are ineffective. If that is ever true it is, I believe, because each nation fails to contribute its own special standpoint. Internationalism sometimes ignores differences and difficulties, and that produces a kind of unreality. Now, I think that the war has made us very impatient of unreality. Certainly those of us who have been in the thick of it since 1914 are tired of pious opinions; so I am sure you will forgive me if I am outspoken and if I speak as I feel.
Many of us who are here to-day have been divided by profound differences during the last few years. We may each of us have felt passionately that our own country was fighting for the right. Speaking for myself, I do not think we shall ever entirely lose those convictions. But it is the past; let us try not to keep alive the bitterness of the past, but let us remember the lessons of discipline, and service, and pity for humanity, and, above all, let us face the present and the future with a firm grasp of facts and a courageous desire for reality.
Now, speaking as an official representative of one of the countries that has been at war, it is impossible for me not to speak frankly about the present situation. I don’t want to discuss the rights and wrongs of the war; to do that would be to defeat the objects of this congress; but with our minds full of the horrors and tragedies of the last few years, we are in danger of accepting as true many unreal statements about war. War is a terrible wrong, and we all want to see an end of it. But I do not know that it is necessarily the greatest wrong. I am not sure that slavery, and oppression, and intolerance are not even greater evils. In condemning war, we must not forget that there may be circumstances in which freedom may be worth fighting and dying for. If people believe passionately in a great ideal they will not count the cost of sacrifice. Some of the great things in history have been won at the awful cost of war, and until human nature changes they may still have to be won so. Selfishness and jealousy and greed are the real causes of war, and they are not the monopolies of any class or any country; they are found in all of us, and you will never build a perfect world, however perfect a machinery you create, until there is a right spirit in men’s hearts.
One of the outstanding questions in the world to-day is the League of Nations. Now, whatever some of us may think about the existing form of the covenant, I think all women will agree that the idea underlying the League is a step in the right direction¾that disputes between nations should, as far as possible, be settled by reason and good will, and honest discussion, instead of by armaments and old-fashioned roundabout diplomacy, in which women have taken no small part. Something has indeed already been done in health and labor matters through the machinery of the League. But let us be very careful to avoid talking cant about the League of Nations. The ideal is a fine one¾it means giving fair play and reason a chance¾but do not let us for one moment imagine that the League by itself can do anything. It will be utterly useless unless and until individual citizens in individual countries behave justly to each other, and insist on their governments behaving justly to other countries. If they stop being aggressive, and try to be just; if they stop being suspicious, and try to be fair, then the League provides the machinery that can help to stop wars.
The League of Nations is no new idea. It has been conceived after every great war and it has failed in the past for exactly the same reason which may make it fail in the future unless we can put some reality behind the machinery. If we women here were to go back to our own countries, and protest against aggression, if we were to urge our own countries to take their full share in working out a substitute for war, and if we were to put the whole weight of our influence on the side of fair play and justice, then there might be some hope of the League becoming a real power. It is a great opportunity; women have never had such an opportunity before. Let us resolve, here in this congress, to use it, each one of us, to its fullest extent.
This brings me to what I am really supposed to be talking about¾the need for women in politics.
First of all, there is the fact that we find ourselves in a rather lopsided world, considerably overbalanced on the man’s side. We have therefore to work for the political, economic, and social equality of men and women, for equal opportunities and equal pay, for equal rights as parents, for equal status before the law, and so on. Many women have given devoted service to those objects, and I feel that all of us owe a great debt of gratitude to them. It is up-hill work, but I hope we shall get much help from the discussions on these subjects in this congress.
Discussion is vitally necessary, now that women have the vote, and especially because the vote is leading inevitably to further development¾the presence of women in Parliaments. My experience of Parliamentary work, though still a short one, is that there is no legislation in which a woman’s point of view is not needed, especially at this moment of all others in the world’s history. We wish to take our share directly in reconstruction, and not only through the vote. We believe that we can speak for ourselves in legislative assemblies, and help the minds and imaginations of men (who are generous when once they understand) to realize that the New City we are all longing to build must be planned by the co-operation, the devotion, and the highest ideals of both sexes in all countries.
There are, of course, some spheres which concern women more than men, and men more than women. Women are perhaps specially sensitive to the whole question of human suffering; they tend to think of legislation in terms of men, and women, and children, rather than in terms of theories; that lays on us a special responsibility for securing better protection for children, better care for mothers, better factory conditions, better treatment for the old and blind.
There is still a great deal of prejudice, which is handicapping us heavily and which we have to try and dispel.
Prejudice in either man or woman is one of the most blinding things in the world¾almost as blinding as hate. I find there is a great temptation to meet it by becoming prejudiced oneself¾of course that is a hopeless way to try to get over it; we cannot expect men to drop all at once the traditions they have inherited from all the ages. We must avoid being aggressive; if they bluster, it is no good blustering back. It is worse than useless if we begin looking on them as our natural enemies; they should be our natural helpers. We shall need a great deal of patience, and understanding, and self-control, but I believe we shall in time achieve that equal comradeship which the world needs so badly.
Women, I think, realize in a peculiar way that progress is something more than bread, and houses, and comfort. I believe most thinking women are born social reformers, and to me one of the chief tests of whether a politician is progressive or reactionary is his attitude to women in politics. If he really wants social and moral progress he welcomes the women’s vote, because he knows it will help him to get his reform through. If he is afraid of it, you may depend upon it he is afraid that the moral standard is going to be screwed up uncomfortably high. That at least is the result of my own experience in fighting for temperance. I shall always be glad that I was able to make my first speech in Parliament on “Drink,” because every woman knows how much sorrow and suffering drink brings into homes.
A high morality is the real test of any civilization. It is not easy to attain, but nothing that is worth while is easy. I do not want to underestimate the responsibility of men for our low standards; it is a heavy one. But I sometimes think women do not take their fair share of the blame. We must clean out our own backyard if we want to help to clean out man’s as well. Women cannot altogether escape blame for the continuance of a double moral standard. There are still too many mothers who do not demand the high standard from their sons which they expect from their daughters. They acquiesce in the accepted order of things. Until women as a whole accept a single morality we cannot blame the men alone.
Finally, there is the question of education. One of the most depressing facts in the world is the indifference of the vast majority of people to the things that really matter. So many people seem to believe in taking the world as it is, when most of us are longing for the world as it isn’t. People grow “old, and weary, and wise,” until they become a mere drag on progress. The hope of the world lies in the next generation, and we women have a very large responsibility for their education. Do not let us teach our children, or let anyone else teach them to be worldly wise, and to be on the look out for material wealth; let us help them instead to care for the things of the mind, and of the spirit. Of all laws education laws have the greatest influence on the next generation. What children are taught to think, that they will be. Now that women can, they should demand a direct influence in the details of all educational measures. They should stand for all Local Authorities, School Boards, County Councils, and every body which has to do with education. They should not only let their voices be heard through men, but directly through their own words. I quite realize that every woman cannot work in this way, but I do believe that everyone can care, and should care, about education, and see that all children get the very best.
And I’ll tell you one very important bit of practical work you can do. You can go back home and insist that teachers, men and women, should be paid a living wage which will attract the very best material in brains and character into the profession.
Women, then, are face to face with great problems and great opportunities, and I think they have certain qualities which will help them to respond. My experience is that women have a good deal of moral courage and are not afraid to face facts.
If a few women go into politics for the sake of service, despising personal careers and positions, they will do a great deal to lift the standard of national and international politics. Women have ideals and they are bound, by the nature of things to have a practical knowledge of everyday affairs; a combination, too, of those two qualities is a pretty good contribution to make to public life.
But we must not flatter ourselves. The world will never be put right by woman as she is now, only by woman as she is going to be. No doubt we are suffering partly from failings which are common to all who have been kept in a state of submission, but we have still a great deal to learn. A good many of us have to learn to investigate facts more patiently, and to weigh them more impartially before jumping to conclusions. Some of us have to learn to discipline ourselves, to learn to do “team work” as we say in England, which means playing for the side, not for ourselves.
Most of all, we have got to put our professions of brotherhood into practice. Let us be perfectly certain, when we speak about this spirit, that we mean to live by it. Some of the people who talk most about brotherhood can’t get on with their next door neighbor. It is much harder to love somebody at home who seems to stand for things you despise and dislike than to love a distant comrade in a far country, but it is really more important.
Let us go away from this congress determined that if we, as women, go into the full glare of public life it shall be with an endeavor to live up to our professions in the small things of our daily lives, as well as in the larger issues of the world.
But don’t let us go away with only an ideal. An ideal is of no more use than a headache unless you strive to translate it into action. Now is our chance. Let us pray to God that we may be worthy to take it.
Source: Library of Southern Literature, Compiled Under the Direct Supervision of Southern Men of Letters (Atlanta: The Martin & Hoyt Company) 1923, pp. 12-18.