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Unimportance of Women in Republics

A visitor of the Easy Chair who seemed to have no conception of his frequency, and who was able to supply from his imagination the welcome which his host did not always hurry to offer him, found a place for himself on the window-sill among the mistaken MSS. sent in the delusion that the editor of the Chair was the editor of the magazine.

"I have got a subject for you," he said.

"Have you ever heard," we retorted, "of carrying coals to Newcastle? What made you think we wanted a subject?"

"Merely that perfunctory air of so many of your disquisitions. I should think you would feel the want yourself. Your readers all feel it for you."

"Well, we can tell you," we said, "that there could be no greater mistake. We are turning away subjects from these premises every day. They come here, hat in hand, from morning till night, asking to be treated; and after dark they form a Topic Line at our door, begging for the merest pittance of a notice, for the slightest allusion, for the most cursory mention. Do you know that there are at least two hundred thousand subjects in this town out of a job now? If you have got a subject, you had better take it to the country press; the New York magazines and reviews are overstocked with them; the newspapers, morning and evening, are simply inundated with subjects; subjects are turned down every Sunday in the pulpits; they cannot get standing-room in the theatres. Why, we have just this moment dismissed a subject of the first interest. Have you heard how at a late suffrage meeting one lady friend of votes for women declared herself an admirer of monarchies because they always gave women more recognition, more honor, than republics?"

"No, I haven't," our visitor said.

"Well, it happened," we affirmed. "But every nook and cranny of our brain was so full of subjects that we simply could not give this a moment's consideration, and we see that all the other editors in New York were obliged to turn the cold shoulder to it, though they must have felt, as we did, that it was of prime importance."

From a position of lounging ease our visitor sat up, and began to nurse one of his knees between his clasped hands. "But if," he asked, "you had been able to consider the subject, what should you have said?"

"There are a great many ways of considering a subject like that," we replied. "We might have taken the serious attitude, and inquired how far the female mind, through the increasing number of Anglo-American marriages in our international high life, has become honeycombed with monarchism. We might have held that the inevitable effect of such marriages was to undermine the republican ideal at the very source of the commonwealth's existence, and by corrupting the heart of American motherhood must have weakened the fibre of our future citizenship to the point of supinely accepting any usurpation that promised ranks and titles and the splendor of court life."

"Wouldn't you have been rather mixing your metaphors?" our visitor asked, with an air of having followed us over a difficult country.

"In a cause like that, no patriotic publicist would have minded mixing his metaphors. He would have felt that the great thing was to keep his motives pure; and in treating such a subject our motives would have remained the purest, whatever became of our metaphors. At the same time this would not have prevented our doing justice to the position taken by that friend of votes for women. We should have frankly acknowledged that there was a great deal to be said for it, and that republics had hitherto been remiss in not officially acknowledging the social primacy of woman, but, in fact, distinctly inviting her to a back seat in public affairs. We should then have appealed to our thoughtful readers to give the matter their most earnest attention, and with the conservatism of all serious inquirers we should have urged them to beware of bestowing the suffrage on a class of the community disposed so boldly to own its love of the splendors of the state. Would it be sage, would it be safe, to indulge with democratic equality a sex which already had its eyes on the flattering inequality of monarchy? Perhaps at this point we should digress a little and mention Montesquieu, whose delightful Spirit of Laws we have lately been reading. We should remind the reader, who would like to think he had read him too, how Montesquieu distinguishes between the principles on which the three sorts of government are founded: civic virtue being the base of a republic, honor the ruling motive in the subjects of a monarchy, and fear the dominant passion in the slaves of a despotism. Then we should ask whether men were prepared to intrust the reins of government to women when they had received this timely intimation that women were more eager to arrive splendidly than to bring the car of state in safety to the goal. How long would it be, we should poignantly demand, before in passing from the love of civic virtue to the ambition of honor, we should sink in the dread of power?"

Our visitor was apparently not so deeply impressed by the treatment of the subject here outlined as we had been intending and expecting he should be. He asked, after a moment, "Don't you think that would be rather a heavy-handed way of dealing with the matter?"

"Oh," we returned, "we have light methods of treating the weightiest questions. There is the semi-ironical vein, for instance, which you must have noticed a good deal in us, and perhaps it would be better suited to the occasion."

"Yes?" our visitor suggested.

"Yes," we repeated. "In that vein we should question at the start whether any such praise of monarchy had been spoken, and then we should suppose it had, and begin playfully to consider what the honors and distinctions were that women had enjoyed under monarchy. We should make a merit at the start of throwing up the sponge for republics. We should own they had never done the statesmanlike qualities of women justice. We should glance, but always a little mockingly, at the position of woman in the Greek republics, and contrast, greatly to the republican disadvantage, her place in the democracy of Athens with that she held in the monarchy of Sparta. We should touch upon the fact that the Athenian women were not only not in politics, but were not even in society, except a class which could be only fugitively mentioned, and we should freely admit that the Spartan women were the heroic inspiration of the men in all the virtues of patriotism at home as well as in the field. We should recognize the sort of middle station women held in the Roman republic, where they were not shut up in the almost Oriental seclusion of Athenian wives, nor invited to a share in competitive athletics like the Spartan daughters. We should note that if a Spartan mother had the habit of bidding her son return with his shield or on it, a Roman mother expressed a finer sense of her importance in the state when she intimated that it was enough for her to be the parent of the Gracchi. But we should not insist upon our point, which, after all, would not prove that the decorative quality of women in public life was recognized in Rome as it always has been in monarchies, and we should recur to the fact that this was the point which had been made against all republics. Coming down to the Italian republics, we should have to own that Venice, with her ducal figurehead, had practically a court at which women shone as they do in monarchies; while in Florence, till the Medici established themselves in sovereign rule, women played scarcely a greater part than in Athens. It was only with the Medici that we began to hear of such distinguished ladies as Bianca Cappello; and in the long, commonplace annals of the Swiss commonwealth we should be able to recall no female name that lent lustre to any epoch. We should contrast this poverty with the riches of the French monarchy, adorned with the memories of Agnes Sorel, of Diane de Poitiers, of Madame de Montespan, of Madame de Pompadour, following one another in brilliant succession, and sharing not only the glory but the authority of the line of princes whose affections they ruled. Of course, we should have to use an ironical gravity in concealing their real quality and the character of the courts where they flourished; and in comparing the womanless obscurity of the English Commonwealth with the feminine effulgence of the Restoration, we should seek a greater effect in our true aim by concealing the name and nature of the ladies who illustrated the court of Charles II."

"And what would your true aim be?" our visitor pressed, with an unseemly eagerness which we chose to snub by ignoring it.

"As for the position of women in despotisms," we continued, "we should confess that it seemed to be as ignobly subordinate as that of women in republics. They were scarcely more conspicuous than the Citizenesses who succeeded in the twilight of the One and Indivisible the marquises and comtesses and duchesses of the Ancien Régime, unless they happened, as they sometimes did, to be the head of the state. Without going back to the semi-mythical Semiramis, we should glance at the characters of Cleopatra and certain Byzantine usurpresses, and with a look askance at the two empresses of Russia, should arrive at her late imperial majesty of China. The poor, bad Isabella of Spain would concern us no more than the great, good Victoria of England, for they were the heads of monarchies and not of despotisms; but we should subtly insinuate that the reigns of female sovereigns were nowhere adorned by ladies of the distinction so common as hardly to be distinction in the annals of kings and emperors. What famous beauty embellished the court of Elizabeth or either Mary? Even Anne's Mrs. Masham was not a shining personality, and her Sarah of Marlborough was only a brilliant shrew.

"At this point we should digress a little, but we should pursue our inquiry in the same satirical tenor. We hope we are not of those moralists who assume a merit in denouncing the international marriages which have brought our women, some to think tolerantly and some to think favorably of a monarchy as affording greater scope for their social genius. But we should ask, with the mock-seriousness befitting such a psychological study, how it was that, while American girls married baronets and viscounts and earls and dukes, almost none, if any, of their brothers married the sisters or daughters of such noblemen. It could not be that they were not equally rich and therefore equally acceptable, and could it be that they made it a matter of conscience not to marry ladies of title? Were our men, then, more patriotic than our women? Were men naturally more republican than women?

"This question would bring us to the pass where we should more or less drop the mocking mask. We should picture a state of things in which we had actually arrived at a monarchy of our own, with a real sovereign and a nobility and a court, and the rest of the tradition. With a sudden severity we should ask where, since they could not all be of the highest rank, our women would consent to strike the procession of precedence? How, with their inborn and inbred notions of the deference due their sex, with that pride of womanhood which our republican chivalry has cherished in them, they would like, when they went to court, to stand, for hours perhaps, while a strong young man, or a fat old man, or a robust man in the prime of life, remained seated in the midst of them? Would it flatter their hopes of distinction to find the worst scenes of trolley-car or subway transit repeated at the highest social function in the land, with not even a hanging-strap to support their weariness, their weakness, or, if we must say it, their declining years? Would the glory of being part of a spectacle testifying in our time to the meanness and rudeness of the past be a compensation for the aching legs and breaking backs under the trailing robes and the nodding plumes of a court dress?"

"That would be a telling stroke," our visitor said, "but wouldn't it be a stroke retold? It doesn't seem to me very new."

"No matter," we said. "The question is not what a thing is, but how it is done. You asked how we should treat a given subject, and we have answered."

"And is that all you could make of it?"

"By no means. As subjects are never exhausted, so no subject is ever exhausted. We could go on with this indefinitely. We could point out that the trouble was, with us, not too much democracy, but too little; that women's civic equality with men was perhaps the next step, and not the social inequality among persons of both sexes. Without feeling that it affected our position, we would acknowledge that there was now greater justice for women in a monarchy like Great Britain than in a republic like the United States; with shame we would acknowledge it; but we would never admit that it was so because of the monarchism of the first or the republicanism of the last. We should finally be very earnest with this phase of our subject, and we should urge our fair readers to realize that citizenship was a duty as well as a right. We should ask them before accepting the suffrage to consider its responsibilities and to study them in the self-sacrificing attitude of their husbands and fathers, or the brothers of one another, toward the state. We should make them observe that the actual citizen was not immediately concerned with the pomps and glories of public life; that parties and constituencies were not made up of one's fellow-aristocrats, but were mostly composed of plebeians very jealous of any show of distinction, and that, in spite of the displeasures of political association with them, there was no present disposition in American men to escape to monarchy from them. We cannot, we should remind them, all be of good family; that takes time, or has taken it; and without good family the chances of social eminence, or even prominence, are small at courts. Distinction is more evenly distributed in a democracy like ours; everybody has a chance at it. To be sure, it is not the shining honor bestowed by kings, but when we remember how often the royal hand needs washing we must feel that the honor from it may have the shimmer of putrescence. This is, of course, the extreme view of the case; and the condition of the royal hand is seldom scrutinized by those who receive or those who witness the honor bestowed. But the honor won from one's fellow-citizens is something worth having, though it is not expressed in a ribbon or a title. Such honor, it seems probable, will soon be the reward of civic virtue in women as well as men, and we hope women will not misprize it. The great end to be achieved for them by the suffrage is self-government, but with this goes the government of others, and that is very pleasant. The head of our state may be a woman, chosen at no far-distant election; and though it now seems droll to think of a woman being president, it will come in due time to seem no more so than for a woman to be a queen or an empress. At any rate, we must habituate our minds to the idea; we must realize it with the hope it implies that no woman will then care socially to outshine her sister; at the most she will be emulous of her in civic virtue, the peculiar grace and glory of republics. We understand that this is already the case in New Zealand and Colorado and Wyoming. It is too soon, perhaps, to look for the effect of suffrage on the female character in Denmark; it may be mixed, because there the case is complicated by the existence of a king, which may contaminate that civic virtue by the honor which is the moving principle in a monarchy. And now," we turned lightly to our visitor, "what is the topic you wish us to treat?"

"Oh," he said, rising, "you have put it quite out of my head; I've been so absorbed in what you were saying. But may I ask just where in your treatment of the theme your irony ends?"

"Where yours begins," we neatly responded.

William Dean Howells