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Women's Suffrage in the Progressive Era
Women and the Alphabet: A Series of Essays by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote articles in support of women's rights in the mid and late 1800s. Many of his essays appeared in a book entitled Common Sense About Women. A popular book in its day, Common Sense About Women was reprinted in England and later in Germany. An excerpt, from Votes for Women, 1848-1921, appears below. According to Higginson, what roles do men generally assign to women? What arguments does Higginson make to counter the belief held by many men that women should not be allowed to vote because they lacked the "brains" to do so?

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There is one special point on which men seem to me rather insincere toward women. When they speak to women, the objection made to their voting is usually that they are too angelic. But when men talk to each other, the general assumption is, that women should not vote because they have not brains enough-or, as old Theophilus Parsons wrote a century ago, have not "a sufficient acquired discretion."

It is an important difference. Because, if women are too angelic to vote, they can only be fitted for it by becoming more wicked, which is not desirable. On the other hand, if there is no objection but the want of brains, then our public schools are equalizing that matter fast enough. Still, there are plenty of people who have never got beyond this objection. Listen to the first discussion that you encounter among men on this subject, wherever they may congregate. Does it turn upon the question of saintliness, or of brains? Let us see.

I travelled the other day upon the Boston and Providence Railroad with a party of mechanics, mostly English and Scotch. They were discussing this very question, and, with the true English habit, thought it was all a matter of property. Without it a woman certainly should not vote, they said: but they all favored, to my surprise, the enfranchisement of women of property. "As a general rule," said the chief speaker," a woman that's got property has got sense enough to vote."

There it was! These foreigners, who had found their own manhood by causing to a land which not only the Pilgrim Fathers but the Pilgrim Mothers had settled, and subdued, and freed for them, were still ready to disfranchise most of the daughters of those mother, on the ground that they had not "sense enough to vote." I thanked them for their blunt truthfulness, so much better than the flattery of most of the native-born.

My other instance shall be a conversation overheard in a railway station near Boston, between two intelligent citizens, who had lately listened to Anna Dickinson. "The best of it was," said one, "to see our minister introduce her." "Wonder what the Orthodox churches would have said to that ten years ago?" said the other. "Never mind," was the answer. "Things have changed. What I think is, it's all in the bringing up. If women were brought up just as men are, they'd have just as much brains." (Brains again!) "That's what Beecher says. Boys are brought up to do business, and take care of themselves: that's where it is. Girls are brought up to dress and get married. Start em alike! That's what Beecher says. Start em alike, and see if girls haven't got just as much brains." . . .

Of all points this is the easiest to settle: for every intelligent woman, even if she be opposed to woman suffrage, helps to settle it. Every good lecture by a woman, every good book written by one, every successful business enterprise carried on, helps to decide the question. Every class of girls that graduates from every good school helps to pile up the argument on this point. And the vast army of women, constituting nine out of ten of the teachers in our American schools, may appeal as logically to their pupils, and settle the argument based on brains. "If we had sense enough to educate you," they may say to each graduating class of boys, "we have sense enough to vote beside you."
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View the document from which this excerpt was taken, from Votes for Women, 1848-1921. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.