Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Mystic London, by Charles Maurice Davies, 1875 - Chapter XI - A Woman's Rights Debate

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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 [-93-] 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.

source: Charles Maurice Davies, Mystic London, 1875