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Owen Mulpetre, BA (Hons) Mphil

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The Dispute Among the Women

W. T. Stead, The Woman's Herald (May 4, 1893) pp. 163-164

It is somewhat difficult to see the wood for the trees, and in the multiplicity of the details of this personal and somewhat multitudinous controversy between the two parties in the British Women's Temperance Association vital questions may easily be ignored. From a man's point of view, the chief question is not whether Lady Henry is right or Miss Docwra, but whether either or both of these disputants can conduct their controversy like reasonable beings. Many men, possibly the majority, are convinced that Women cannot argue, and that their only resource when cornered is to cry. The schoolboy's opinion, is that "it is no use fighting with a girl because she always 'scratches,'" is not a very unfair representation of the ideas of the ordinary average male on the subject of feminine methods of controversy. At bottom it maybe summed up in two words: "Female-Feline." "You may disguise it as you please," said a man the other day, "but they are all cats at bottom, and when they are put to it they always scratch."

My chief interest as a man in the controversy at the Memorial Hall is to discover whether in this debate the disputants have risen above the feline amenities which so often embellish the controversies of the Weaker sex. The issues, broadly stated, are large enough and broad enough to raise even the most inveterate of shrews into a more vital atmosphere. They embrace some of the greatest problems which have perplexed the mind and puzzled the ingenuity of man. The dispute primarily arose out of the old, old controversy as to whether the President should be at mere roi fainéant, a titled figure-head, or whether she should be the active, energetic leader and chief of the association. Lady Henry took her office seriously, and stumps the country to such purpose that she is on the platform every other night all the year round. That, of course, does not suit the good people whose ideal of a president is a gilded image, sitting aloof like a Buddha. in a joss-house or a, guinea-pig director in the Boardroom of a bubble company, and the range of controversy thus opened up is almost illimitable. Out of this sprang another great constitutional question. In a conflict of powers, when the President is in a minority in her own Cabinet, but believes that she has the support of a majority in the constituency which elected both her and her Cabinet, what is the right course to adopt? It is a serious and important question, bristling with many fine points, each of which is well calculated to test the capacity of Woman for dealing with delicate political issues. Behind that question there has arisen another, which has exercised the wit and patience of the Constitution builder in every age. What is the best method of organisation? How can the mind of the Association and all its members best be represented continuously and effectively by the machinery of the executive committees? Related to this there is the subordinate but important question of the relation of London to the rest of the country. All organisations have a tendency to fall into the hands of a ring or clique at headquarters, and the provinces perpetually suffer from the ascendancy of residents in London. All these questions, and others beside with an even wider range, affecting as they do the relations between England and America, and the right to the leadership of Greater Britain, constitute no small tax upon the administrative resources and political sagacity of the British Women.

It is one of the great advantages of this dispute that it forces women to think over these things. All political associations are in their way microcosms of the world, and if we look closely enough we shall find all the issues that perplex Parliament latent in the deliberations of a Parish Council. From that point of view the dispute among the British Women is pure gain. It is a kind of gymnasium in which the political capacity of the sex is being trained for action in a wider sphere. That the capacity exists, and that it sorely needed training, the course of the debate has made abundantly plain. The lordly male is apt in his arrogance to look down upon it as the broil of a parcel of women, without taking the trouble to ascertain how "the illogical creatures" have conducted themselves. But in this case there is, with one or two exceptions, not much room for the supercilious comment of the stronger sex. The Amazons have fought hard on a broad issue, and they have fought ably and well, and, on the whole, with a few exceptions, they have fought fair. The art of capturing the machine and using it without scruple against the party which happens to be in a temporary minority has evidently been thoroughly mastered by the ladies at the Memorial Hall, while Lady Henry has shown quite wonderful resources of patience and of ingenuity in defending her position against the attacks of the majority of the Executive. In fact, there is very little these women have to learn in the craft of the wirepuller or in the art of the debater. They know their own business, and they are doing it too well to stand? in any need of counsel or tuition from Mr. Schnadhorst himself.

But there are one or two points upon which a man finds something to criticise as to the way in which this woman's controversy has been conducted. Women, it is sometimes said by their detractors, have no point of honour, and this sweepingly unjust condemnation does not seem to be altogether unwarranted by the conduct of one or two of the disputants. One episode in the controversy, I confess, leaves a peculiarly unpleasant impression upon the mind of any one accustomed to the amenities of ordinary civilised human intercourse. The majority of the Executive Committee brought a false charge against the President, accusing her of treachery on the specific ground of an allegation that she had attempted to extinguish the present executive, by bringing down a list to the Council containing the names of those who were to be the new officers and form the Standing Committee. Lady Henry at once met this allegation by an absolute denial, and demanded proof. No proof was forthcoming. It was admitted that the alleged document, if it existed at all, which is denied, was a private memorandum, never brought before the Council or submitted to the lady who is understood to claim the dishonour of having read it. As Lady Henry mildly remarked, "It is always probable that when letters or papers not intended for others are read, misunderstandings are likely to ensue." But apart from the dishonourable perusal of private documents, what is to be thought of the conduct of those who, after avowedly basing their accusation on such a discreditable action, are confronted by the absolute denial of the person concerned that any such document ever existed, and still refuse either to substantiate their charge or to withdraw it and apologise? Why, even Mr. Healy or Lord Randolph Churchill or Dr. Tanner would be ashamed of such conduct. It conflicts with the elementary principles of human intercourse. Those who are guilty of it may be ladies, but they evidently have not the ghost of an idea of behaving like gentlemen. The conduct of Ahlwardt, is not exactly that which British women should take as their example. But worse still remains behind. For Mrs. Stewart, the treasurer, after being confronted with the President's explicit statement that no such document existed, and that she had produced the only document that could in any way answer to the description, actually said, "Of course, the one has been destroyed, and the other substituted," and that, mark you, without having a single iota of evidence to justify her assertion! "Here," my anti-woman's-rights' friends of the smoking-room would say, "we have the unmistakable claw of the genuine 'tabby'! A man would be sent to Coventry who said such a thing. But what can you expect from a woman?"

It is this which leads me to look forward with such interest to the Council meeting. For if Mrs. Stewart and Miss Docwra are re-elected, then I shall have to reluctantly admit that, so far as the majority of the Council of the British Women's Temperance Association are concerned, there is some truth in the taunt that women have no sense of honour. If the Council should also re-elect Lady Henry, it would be evident that its members would be equally devoid of the sense of humour and of logic. For it is impossible even for women to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. A clear conception of that fact will probably suffice to save "the British Women from bringing their Association into confusion, and making their sex a laughing-stock by any such lame and illogical a conclusion. Whatever happens, one or other must go. Not even the B.W.T.A can serve both Lady Henry and Mrs. Stewart.

About this website

I founded this website in 2001 to assist me in my own research on W.T. Stead, little knowing then that it would become the largest online resource on Stead's life and career. Today this site is used by students, scholars and institutions around the world and has significantly contributed to the Study of W.T. Stead and the evils which he campaigned against. I hope you find it useful.

If you have a question that explicitly concerns any of the content on this website, feel free to Contact me and I will get back to you at my earliest convenience. However, please note that I no longer work in academia. With a very "busy" business to run, the time I can spare responding to enquiries through this website is finite, to say the least. So, please do not ask me to do research for you or assist in matters of family history.

Finally, though this website includes a section on Stead's obsession with spiritualism, I myself am not remotely interested in the subject. So, if you think you have seen Stead's ghost in your kitchen or believe you are the reincarnation of the great editor himself (or anyone else who died on the Titanic), I beg you not to tell me about it..

Owen Mulpetre, BA (Hons) MPhil