E. Belfort Bax

Women’s Privileges and “Rights”

(September 1909)

E. Belfort Bax, Women’s Privileges and “Rights”, Social Democrat, Vol.13 no.9, September 1909, pp.385-391.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

An anonymous lady writing over the signature “Fair Play” treats the readers of the Social-Democrat to what an admirer describes as a “spirited reply” to my article Why I am an Anti-Suffragist. There is one thing for which I am grateful to my “spirited” opponent and that is that she has the candour to throw overboard at starting the hollow pretence that sex-equality is the aim of the female-suffragists. “Women demand,” she says, “both deference from, and equality with, men.” So there we have it. She goes on to state that they lay claim to this “deference” on the ground of their sex. Socialists who profess to believe in equality and also in Feminism, please note! This “deference” to sex she apparently claims on the ground of chivalry, but here I would remind “Fair Play” that, as she herself points out, chivalry has nothing to do with sex as such. Chivalry may exact a “deference” toward a sick or an aged woman as it may toward a sick or infirm man. But the attempt to make it run on the lines of sex-distinction is untenable on any rational ground. An ordinary healthy strong woman has no more claim to be an object of special chivalry than an ordinary healthy strong man. If men are muscularly stronger than women, women are, as has often been pointed out, constitutionally stronger than men. Women can bear much severer strains than men can, with impunity. The recuperative power of the female organism is well-known to physiologists.

But there is a curious zeal on the part of Feminists to insist on this point of the muscular inferiority of women to men while indignantly repudiating inferiority in all other directions. Thus “Fair Play”: “But though nature has handicapped women physically, she has not done so as far as brains are concerned.” Now as far as most persons’ observation and reading of well-known facts are concerned, it is indubitable that they point, prima facie, to an, at least, equally great, if not greater, mental inferiority to men than the physical (muscular) inferiority – so strongly emphasised by Feminists. It is neither less nor more easy to rebut or contest the physical inferiority than it is the mental. The reason of the aforesaid procedure on the part of Feminists is, however, not far to seek. The only semblance of ground for the privileging of women, for their exemption from all the disagreeable duties of citizenship, is this ground of physical weakness. But when it comes to the question of mental weakness that is quite another story. Although we might naturally expect inferiority on the physical side to involve inferiority on the psychical side also, not perhaps in any given individual, but taking the sex as a whole, and although facts point to, at least, equally great mental as physical inferiority between the average woman and the average man, we are nevertheless asked to ignore all these considerations, and in a humble and contrite spirit accept the Feminist dogma that women, while physically weaker, are mentally as good as men – with the practical corollary, of course, that while all honourable or remunerative functions ought to be open to women, they are to be jealously guarded from all arduous occupations as also from the legal consequences of their own criminal or tortious acts.

I instanced the Tooting tramway incident as an act of commendable pluck on the part of those concerned in it to boldly challenge the attempt of woman’s righters to “jump the claim” to chivalry as a special right of the sex they champion. But there is another point Feminists conveniently overlook. It is this: That granting the “weakness” argument, this very weakness, to whose claim chivalry may per se be granted, forfeits its claim when it presumes upon that claim and becomes aggressive. Aggressive weakness deserves no quarter – à la guerre, comme à la guerre.

“Fair Play” indulges in the usual talk about the injustice of women who pay taxes not having votes. “No taxation without representation” has been, as we all know, the political mot d’ordre of the middle classes in their struggle for independence against noble and monarch. It is the affirmation of the dependence of political power on acquired property; but the modern Socialist is precisely engaged in combating the notion of basing political rights on a property qualification at all, so for him, at least, the argument in question can have no special weight. For the rest, the terrible grievance of taxation without representation seems to me, in any case, somewhat exaggerated. I rent a humble dwelling in a French town, for which I duly pay my “impôt de l’état,” without any right to vote for candidates for the Chamber; but yet, strange to say, I don’t feel myself groaning under a particularly monstrous injustice. Provided the recognised governmental functions of protection, etc., are duly carried out, I fail to see that the payment of a moderate tax for them involves such an outrageous violation of rectitude as many other things in our present social order. Taxes rest on private property, which is guaranteed to the holders by the existing State. Hence it seems not unnatural that all possessed of private property should pay proportionate taxes, quite apart from the question of direct representation. When the State levies a personal or blood tax – e.g., conscription – it is quite a different matter. This does not rest on property, but on the personal life and labour of the individual. Here a claim to direct personal participation in the machinery of government is infinitely stronger. But an obligatory personal service of this nature the State never claims from women.

Women bear children, it is said. Good. But there is no governmental compulsion that they should do so. They do so in the performance of a natural function, not as a public duty. All that the State demands of women in this connection is that they shall not kill their babies when they have them, and even this is considered hard on the poor, oppressed creatures (cf., the Daisy Lord agitation). The absurdity of comparing the risks of childbed with those of the battlefield and its horrors, only shows the extremities to which Feminists are reduced for weapons to refute a very obvious and straightforward argument.

“Fair Play” commends Georges Sand for her disregard of convention in her life. But who is it that most slavishly licks the boots of Mrs. Grundy in questions, say, of free marriage, in which Georges Sand so conspicuously (and rightly as I think) asserted her claim to personal freedom? Just women! It is precisely on the ground of the servile puritanism of women to conventional moral shibboleths that many persons, not otherwise adverse to woman suffrage, dread any increase in the direct influence of women in public affairs. “Fair Play,” like other Feminist advocates, seizes upon questions of minor social “deferences” and carefully omits to notice the main indictment of anti-suffragists, namely, the privileged legal position of women under “man-made law” and administration, a position which the avowed aim of Suffragists is to strengthen and extend. The woman, who is alleged to be mentally equal to man, is excused the legal punishment for her crime because she is a woman. A workman was hanged in Ireland last week for flogging his female child to death; a woman a few years ago, also in Ireland, in a well-known cause célèbre, for a precisely similar offence, viz., torturing a child to death, got twelve months’ imprisonment. Let “Fair Play” defend such iniquities as this (which, in a minor form, are occurring weekly and daily) if she dare! The WSPU would presumably, while maintaining the death sentence on the man, reduce that of the woman to three months’ imprisonment as a first-class misdemeanant!

The cant about “brute force” is not impressive. As “Fair Play” must know, “brute force” is the final appeal of every institution and every right. What Feminists want is to have the “brute force” at the disposal of men exercised in favour of women. They want to set men to “bully” other men into submission to the demands of the female sex. This is the true meaning of the agitation for the franchise. It is not a question of sweet reasonableness versus brute force, but of brute force exercised on behalf of one sex rather than another. Suffragists want to place the female sex in a position to legislate, i.e., to command the brute force of the State (wielded by men) in their own interests. Hence the denunciation of “man-made law” which already gives woman a position of legal domination over the man, but not enough apparently to satisfy the rapacious will-to-power possessed by the Feminist members of the sex.

The task of Feminism is to paint a privileged sex in the colours of an oppressed one. Naturally this difficult task can only be accomplished by a game of “bluff” of the most impudent kind and by the wholesale “hocussing” of public opinion by falsehoods, and at the same time by the most strenuous attempts to prevent the light of fact being let in. Of the latter there has been evidence only recently within the SDP in the demand of Mr. Herbert Burrows at the Conference that the pamphlet published by the Twentieth Century Press, The Legal Subjection of Men – in which the present state of the law and its administration as between the sexes is given – should be suppressed, and also in the representations made to the Editor from a “Women’s Committee” of the body that I should be muzzled and any statement of mine adverse to Feminism be excluded from the party organs. For the former we have only to consult the current literature of Feminism in the daily and weekly press. The desperate attempt to secure privileges for the Suffragettes is a topical case in point.

Those who “gas” most about “political” offences and “first-class” prison treatment know perfectly well (1) that there is not and never has been any distinction in English law or custom drawn between “political” and other offences as regards prison treatment. They know well enough that men galore, among them Socialist speakers imprisoned for the technical offence of obstruction, have had no “first-class” treatment and that no one has suggested they should have. They also know (2) that even if the distinction as to “political” imprisonment existed – breaking windows, assaulting the police, persistent personal molestation, etc., could not possibly be regarded as other than common law offences obnoxious to an ordinary common-law punishment. In fact, the sympathisers with Suffragettism are quite aware that they are playing a comedy in the hope of hoodwinking public opinion. This comedy became screaming farce when Mr. Keir Hardie posed as the innocent and indignant redresser of female wrongs, and suggested to the Home Secretary that the law needed amending to raise prison treatment of women to a level with that of men! Fancy these petted and pampered hussies – who, after deliberately breaking the law, are allowed to assault warders, throw their food and untensils out of window, having previously smashed the same – with practical impunity – having then only to go without their dinners for a day or two in order to have their sentences of two or three months remitted; and think of what would happen to a man did he venture upon but a tithe of the outrages these despicable females on the hunt for cheap martyrdom allow themselves with perfect assurance, relying upon their sex immunity and the limitless forbearance of male authorities! Heroism is a cheap commodity when one knows beforehand there is no danger of any unpleasantness worth speaking of, no matter what one does. For men the lash, the plank-bed and weeks of semi-starvation and solitary confinement! For women, at worst, a few days of arrest in cells, the airiness and comfort of which the Secretary of State personally supervises! And yet there are Socialists who profess to think it unjust that a section of the community, weltering in privilege of every description, should not, at the same time, be accorded the political rights accruing to the section deprived of these advantages. Truly, there is no accounting for the operations of sex-prejudice in certain minds. No, no, my “spirited” female friend, justify the name you have assumed and show us that you have a distant notion, at least, of what constitutes “Fair Play,” as regards this question!


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 5.5.2005