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A WOMAN'S RIGHTS DEBATE
THERE never was a time when, on all sorts of subjects,
from Mesmerism to Woman's Rights, the ladies had
so much to say for themselves. There is an ancient
heresy which tells us that, on most occasions, ladies
are prone to have the last word ; but certain it is that
they are making themselves heard now. On the special
subject of her so-called "Rights" the abstract Woman
was, I knew, prodigiously emphatic - how emphatic,
though, I was not quite aware, until having seen from
the top of a City-bound omnibus that a lady whom I
will describe by the Aristophanic name of Praxagora
would lecture at the Castle Street Co-operative Institute.
I went and co-operated so far as to form one
of that lady's audience. Her subject - the "Political
Status of Women" - was evidently attractive, not
only to what we used in our innocence to call the
weaker sex, but also to those who are soon to have
proved to them the fallacy of calling themselves the
stronger. A goodly assemblage had gathered in the
fine hall of the Co-operators to join in demolishing
that ancient myth as to the superiority of the male
sex. My first intention was to have reported verbatim
or nearly so the oration of Praxagora on the subject ;
and if I changed my scheme it was not because that
lady did not deserve to be reported. She said all that
was to be said on the matter, and said it exceedingly
well too; but when the lecture, which lasted fifty
minutes, was over, I found it was to be succeeded by a
debate ; and I thought more might be gained by chronicling
the collision of opinion thence ensuing than
by simply quoting the words of any one speaker, however
eloquent or exhaustive.
I own with fear and trembling - for it is a delicate, dangerous avowal - that, as a rule, I do not sympathize with the ladies who declaim on the subject of Woman's Rights. I do not mean to say I lack sympathy with the subject - I should like everybody to have their rights, and especially women - but they are sometimes asserted in such a sledge-hammer fashion, and the ladies who give them utterance are so prone to run large and be shrill-voiced that their very physique proves their claim either unnecessary or undesirable. I feel certain that in whatever station of domestic life those ladies may be placed, they would have their full rights, if not something more ; and as for Parliamentary rights, I tremble for the unprotected males should such viragos ever compass the franchise; or, worse still, realize the ambition of the Ecclesiazusae of Aristophanes, and sit on the benches of St. Stephen's clad in the nether garments of the hirsute sex. There was nothing of that kind on [-94-] Tuesday night. In manner and appearance our present Praxagora was thoroughly feminine, and, by her very quietude of manner, impressed me with a consciousness of power, and determination to use it. Her voice was soft and delivery almost as that of Miss Faithfull herself; and when, at the outset of her lecture, she claimed indulgence on the score of never having spoken in a public hall before, we had to press forward to the front benches to catch the modulated tones, and men who came clumping in with heavy boots in the course of the lecture were severely hushed down by stern-visaged females among the audience.
Disclaiming connexion with any society, Praxagora still adopted the first person plural in speaking of the doctrines and intentions of the down-trodden females. "We", felt so and so; "we" intended to do this or that ; and certainly her cause gained by the element of mystery thus introduced, as well as by her own undoubted power of dealing with the subject. When the "we" is seen to refer to the brazen-voiced ladies aforesaid, and a few of the opposite sex who appear to have changed natures with the gentle ones they champion, that plural pronoun is the reverse of imposing, but the "we" of Praxagora introduced an element of awe, if only on the omne ignotum pro magnifico principle. In the most forcible way she went through the stock objections against giving women the franchise, and knocked them down one by one like so many ninepins. That coveted boon of a vote she [-95-] proved to be at the basis of all the regeneration of women. She claimed that woman should have her share in making the laws by which she was governed, and denied the popular assertion that in so doing she would quit her proper sphere. In fact, we all went with her up to a certain point, and most of the audience beyond that point. For myself I confess I felt disheartened when, having dealt in the most consummate way with other aspects of the subject, she came to the religious phase, and begging the question that the Bible and religion discountenanced woman's rights, commenced what sounded to me like a furious attack on each.
Now I happen to know - what perhaps those who look from another standpoint do not know - that this aggressive attitude assumed so unnecessarily by the advocates of woman's rights is calculated to keep back the cause more than anything else ; and matter and manner had been so much the reverse of hostile up to the moment she plunged incontinently into the religious question, that it quite took me by surprise. I have known scores of people who, when they came under vigorous protest to hear Miss Emily Faithfull on the same fertile subject, went away converted because they found no iconoclasm of this kind in her teaching. They came to scoff and stopped, not indeed to pray, but to listen very attentively to a theme which has so much to be said in its favour that it is a pity to complicate its advocacy by the introduc-[-96-]tion of an extraneous and most difficult question. So it was, however; with pale, earnest face, and accents more incisive than before, Praxagora said if Bible and religion stood in the way of Woman's Rights, then Bible and religion must go. That was the gist of her remarks. I need not follow her in detail, because the supplementary matter sounded more bitterly still ; and, had she not been reading from MS. I should have thought the lecturer was carried away by her subject ; but no, she was reading quite calmly what were clearly enough her natural and deliberate opinions. I said I was surprised at the line she took. Perhaps I ought scarcely to have been so, for she was flanked on one side by Mr. Bradlaugh, on the other by Mr. Holyoake ! but I never remember being so struck with a contrast as when at one moment Praxagora pictured the beauty of a well-regulated home, and the tender offices of woman towards the little children, and then shot off at a tangent to fierce invectives against the Bible and religion, which seemed so utterly uncalled-for that no adversary who wanted to damage the cause could possibly have invented a more complete method of doing so.
The lecture over, the chairman invited discussion, and a fierce little working man immediately mounted the platform and took Praxagora to task for her injudicious onslaught. But, as usual, this gentleman was wildly irrelevant and carried away by his commendable zeal. Over and over again he had to be recalled to the ques-[-97-]tion, until finally he set his whole audience against him, and had to sit down abruptly in the middle of a sort of apotheosis of Moses - as far as I could hear, for his zeal outran his eloquence as well as his discretion, and rendered him barely audible. A second speaker followed, and, though cordially sympathizing with the address, and tracing woman's incapacity to her state of subjugation, regretted that such a disturbing element as religion had been mixed up with a social claim. He considered that such a subject must inevitably prove an apple of discord. For this he was at once severely handled by Mr. Bradlaugh, who, consistently enough, defended the line Praxagora adopted towards the religious question, and justified the introduction of the subject from the charge of irrelevance. He also deprecated the surprise which the last speaker had expressed at the excellent address of Praxagora by pointing out that in America about one-third of the press were females, a fact which he attributed to the plan of Mixed Education. Then a new line was opened up by a speaker - it was as impossible to catch their names as to hear the stations announced by porters on the Underground Railway. He predicted that if women did get the franchise, Mr. Bradlaugh's "Temple" would be shut up in six months, as well as those of Messrs. Voysey and Conway and Dr. Perfitt. The ladies, he said, were swayed by Conventionalism and Priestcraft, and until you educated them, you could not safely give them the franchise.
[-98-] A youthful Good Templar mounted the rostrum, for the purpose of patting Praxagora metaphorically on the back, and also ventilating his own opinions on the apathy of the working man in claiming his vote. Then somebody got up and denied that ladies were by nature theological. Their virtues were superior to those of men just as their voices were an octave higher. He was for having a Moral Department of the State presided over by ladies. Only one lady spoke ; a jaunty young woman in a sailor's hat, who said that in religions persecutions men, not women, had been the persecutors ; and then Praxagora rose to reply. She first of all explained her position with regard to the Bible, which she denied having unnecessarily attacked. The Bible forbade a woman to speak; and, that being so, the Bible must stand on one side, for "we" were going to speak. That the highest intellects had been formed on Bible models she denied by instancing Shelley. If she thought that this movement was going to destroy the womanhood of her sex she would not move a finger for its furtherance. She only thought it would give a higher style of womanhood. As to women requiring to be educated before they would know how to use the franchise, she pointed triumphantly to the Government which men had placed in power. It was significant, she said, that the first exercise of the working men's franchise had been to place a Conservative Government in office.
[-99-] I daresay I am wrong, but the impression left on my mind by the discussion was that the liberty of thought and action claimed was the liberty of thinking as " we" think and doing what "we" want to have done - a process which has been before now mistaken for absolute freedom. Stripped of its aggressive adjuncts, Praxagora's advocacy of her main subject would be telling in the extreme from the fact of her blending such thorough womanliness of person, character, and sentiment with such vigorous championship of a doctrine against which I do not believe any prejudice exists. Drag in the religious difficulty, however, and you immediately array against it a host of prejudices, whether reasonable ones or the reverse is not now the question. I am only concerned with the unwisdom of having called them into existence. I own I thought that Christianity had been the means of raising woman from her state of Oriental degradation to the position she occupies in civilized countries. But I was only there to listen, not to speak ; and I confess I came away in a divided frame of mind. I was pleased with the paper, but irritated to think that a lady, holding such excellent cards, should risk playing a losing game.