1910s >> 1914 >> no-115-march-1914

Book Review: A New Cure for an Old Disease (C.Pankhurst)


The Great Scourge and How to End it,” by Christabel Pankhurst, (LL.B. London : E. Pankhurst, Lincoln’s Inn House, Kingsway.)

The average person in the street, if sounded upon, the agitation conducted by the “Peths” and the “Panks” would be found to entertain the idea that the end and object of it all is the obtaining of Parliamentary suffrage for women. To be told that the vote for women is anything but an end in itself; that the agitation for the vote is but a part of a wide feminist movement, would cause these inestimable persons considerable surprise. For this the propaganda is no doubt to be blamed. At any rate, Miss Christabel Pankhurst’s book, “The Great Scourge and How to End it,” will do little to dispel the idea, for from cover to cover it bears the obvious impress of having been produced, not with the object of contributing to the suppression of the “Great Scourge,” but for the purpose of providing another peg whereon to hang the lying legend : “Votes for Women.”

For the purposes of this review Miss Pankhurst’s book may be divided into two portions— her facts, and her “arguments.” Regarding the former, our author tells us that “men’s favourite method of arguing against women is to deny their statements of fact.” Thus is the present scribe disarmed on the very point of denying the “statement of fact” set forth in the words (p. 77): “as the Bible tells us, the sins of the fathers are visited in the form of syphilitic maladies upon their children and their children’s children.” If it were not that it would be “so like a man,” I would have suggested that when the Lord promised to “visit, the sins of the fathers upon the children,” he did not, according to the Bible, indicate syphilis as the means.

However, I am not going to deny Miss Pankhurst’s statements of fact. On the contrary, I cheerfully admit that they are gruesome enough to be worth the price of the book. But then the “arguments” fully justify one in demanding one’s shilling back.

The “Great Scourge,” of course, is sexual disease, concerning the widespread prevalence of which Miss Pankhurst adduces much authoritative evidence. But when she says in the introduction, “in the following pages will be found a proposed cure for the great evil in question,” one knows from experience what to expect. In the Suffragist eye the cure for every ill is “Votes for Women” (occasionally in conjunction with something else just about as pertinent).

“The cause of sexual disease,” says Miss Pankhurst (p. 13), “is the subjection of women,” and (p. 21) “the only cure is Votes for Women.” In between these two statements she manages, very incautiously, to squeeze another, which makes it a very easy matter to tumble the whole sophistic fabric of her argument about her ears. The statement is (p. 19) referring to the sufferings of women due to sexual disease, “so long as the subjection of women endures and is confirmed by law and custom, so long will the race be injured and degraded.” To show, then, that the enfranchisement of women of itself will make no difference to their position of subjection (to use Miss Pankhurst’s term without admitting any special subjection of women), is to dispose of the author’s argument that “Votes for Women ” is a cure for the evils she embraces within the title of the “Great Scourge.”

Let us take, first of all, Miss Pankhurst’s statement on page VIII (Introduction) : “Votes for Women will strike at the Great Scourge in many ways. When they are citizens women will have the power to secure the enactment of laws for their protection, and to strengthen their economic position.” The arguments on pages 116-117 give to the latter portion of this statement the meaning that the vote is necessary to enable women to work for wages, and will have the effect of enabling them to do so. The claim on page 22 that “the weapon of the vote will enable them [women] to break down existing barriers to honest livelihood” confirms this view. Other passages in the book also show that it is contended that the enfranchisement of women is going to give them such a measure of economic freedom as will obviate the need for any of them to resort to prostitution. Out of a bewildering jumble this appears to be the way of the cure of the “Great Scourge.”

Now this is sheer nonsense. Nobody but the Suffragist requires to be told that, as far as it can materially affect the question of prostitution, wage-slavery is open to women to-day. In one or two directions, aspirants to which are hardly the women whom economic pressure forces into selling themselves upon the streets (the law and professional politics may be instanced) women are debarred by law. All other careers, such as they are, are legally open to women, hence, whatever the reason they fail to establish themselves in certain avocations filled exclusively by men, it is not due to any legal barrier, and for that reason is not to be affected by votes for women.

Of course, it may be argued that the enfranchisement of women will enable them to secure such reforms in the customary matrimonial arrangements as will set married women free for the labour market. Indeed, this line of argument is foreshadowed on page 115, where our author tells us that “a great bulwark of sex subjection” (which we have already been told is the cause of prostitution), is that “a married woman must derive her livelihood from her husband—must eat out of his hand, as it were.”

Unfortunately for the success of this argument, it cannot be denied thnt prostitution by no means depends for its votaries upon married women. On the contrary, the ranks of the “unfortunate class” are composed for the most part of women who have never had the opportunity of eating out of a husband’s hand. They have needed no women’s franchise to make them “economically independent” (in Miss Pankhurst’s sense of the term). The labour market has been as freely open to them as to men. They have had the same prerogative that male wage-workers have—the prerogative of selling their labour power when there is a demand for it.

Women, both married and unmarried, have not had to wait for votes for women in order to achieve this “economic freedom.” It has been thrust upon them by the development of the capitalist system of production. It is therefore absurd to claim that Votes for Women are going to abolish prostitution by “breaking down the barrier to honest livelihood.” That barrier, as far almost as it can be broken down under the conditions resolutely clung to by the eminently capitalistic W.S.P.U., is so broken down. The law stands in the way in the case of but one or two professions which, if they loom large with importance in the eyes of certain ambitious, axe-grinding “blue-stockings,” can hardly affect the general conditions which drive women into the horrors of prostitution.

As a matter of fact, nothing has contributed more largely to the increase of prostitution than the widespread entry of women into industry. Household service, at all events, yielded a fairly secure subsistence, and the woman who did “eat from her husband’s hand,” had not, so long as she could do so, to take the desperate step of an unemployed and despairing bread-winner. But when the development of machinery dragged girls and women into the factory (which in Miss Pankhurst’s view was giving them economic independence), it placed not only their labour-power, but also their sexual attributes, at the service and disposal of the master class.

It has been admitted by “captains of industry” that prostitution is a pillar of their system. It has been admitted that the low wages they pay their female workers are rendered possible only by the latter laying their virtue on the altar of their employers’ balance sheet—by them selling their bodies in order that they may get strength to do their employers’ work. This is what the so-called economic independence of women has done for the race. That it is humiliating for a married woman to ”eat out of her husband’s hand” may be granted. No doubt it comes especially hard to those “spiritually developed” women Miss Pankhurst is so fond of babbling about, who think they need but opportunity to shine in the legislature, the bar, or the pulpit. But speaking of the bulk of women, is it less humiliating to bring even their sex attributes into competition with the labour-power of their fathers, brothers, and husbands ?

The claim that to “break down the barriers to honest livelihood,” (meaning to throw open to women every avenue of gaining a living) gives women “economic independence,” is rubbish. The proof of this lies in the fact that the barriers are imaginary. The world of industry is open to women, and they find it so little to their liking that they are glad to seek refuge from it in marriage. Just as men who must sell their labour-power must necessarily be in a position of dependence, so also must the women of the same class be economically dependent so long as class distinctions exist. Votes for Women cannot alter this fact, any more than votes for men have altered it in their case. Talk to the miner, driven into the death-trap pit for four or five shillings a day, about his economic independence, or to the locked-out carman or the striking teacher, or the unemployed worker in any trade, and see what the reply will be.

Miss Pankhurst shows her bias when she says (p. 44): “where women are economically dependent upon men, they more readily become the victims of vice.” This is utterly false. The truth is that it is where women become more directly dependent upon capitalist exploitation that they more readily become the victims of vice. This exploitation is carried on by the capitalist class —by women as well as men. The hollowness and hypocrisy of all this frothy bluster about curing the ”Great Scourge” are clearly shown by this incontestable fact. For the W.S.P.U. is essentially a rich women’s organisation. We know, therefore, that it has no intention of finding a cure for prostitution, since the only cure lies through the overthrow of the class these rich women belong to and the establishment of Socialism.

All the wild words of the Suffragists about the “Great Scourge” being a “women’s question” strike mocking echoes from this solid fact. To judge from the vapourings of the Suffragists one would imagine that all social ills are the outcome of male control of society, and that all that is needed to abolish every social evil—at least as far as they affect women and children— is that women shall have the vote. According to these mentally lop-sided cranks all the goodwill, all the tenderness, all the humanity, are resident in the female breast. If one did not know that women of the capitalist class spurned with their dainty shoes the living entrails of the disembowelled heroines of the working class, as they lay on the .pavements of the Paris boulevards in the red days after the Commune!

Just as the men of the master class would run all the risks inseparable from prostitution, even were they multiplied ten-fold, rather than abolish them in the only way in which they can be abolished—that is, at the cost of their social domination—so also would the women of the capitalist class—who are the financial bulwarks of the W.S.P.U.

To sum up, it is a lie to say that the “Great Scourge” is a woman’s question : it is a class question ; it is a lie to say that sexual disease is due to the subjection of women : it is due to the subjection of the working class ; it is a lie to say that women’s franchise can cure the “Great Scourge” : only the emancipation of the working claas can do that.

A. E. Jacomb