Saturday, September 16, 1911, To the Editor of The Yorkshire Weekly Post, “Where Women
This letter is a classic example of the style and structure Davison adopts in the letters she
writes to rebut erroneous and misguided thinking. She begins with an introduction defining
the subject (women’s lack of initiative, termed “cheek”), develops a pun, “painful,” a play on
the name of the man whose words she refutes, reduces his argument to a stereotype in the
last sentence of the first paragraph, and then proceeds to pick at his points one by one. By
the time she has begun her second paragraph she has set up her opponent—-eliding cheek
with initiative and equating initiative with originality– as an exemplar of the very lack of
originality she accuses him of imputing to women. As it unfolds the letter touches on two
topics suffragists invoked to justify women’s right to vote: the fact that women’s lives are
increasingly impacted by legislation means that women need to be part of the legislative
process–“Politics are every day entering more and more into the home, therefore women
must enter politics” and the then popular but now-disputed myth of a population of “surplus
women” who may never marry and who will need to support themselves. Both are subsets of
the larger argument Davison evinces—that the times are changing and women are leading
England forward, even if they have to drag men all the way.
Sir,–In the last week’s issue of your paper you publish an article by Mr. Barry Pain, entitled
“Where Women Fail.” According to this wit, the quality which differentiates men from
women and makes them successful is “cheek.” Mr. Barry Pain takes it upon himself to give
a “painful” interpretation to this slang term, which has now become incorporated in our
language. The nearest equivalent to the particular sense in which Mr. Barry Pain uses it is
the word “initiative.” In other words, he is writing on the old theory that women have no
originality in them.
Now when Mr. Barry Pain asserts that women are lacking in initiative he is
apparently forgetting the fact that for centuries and centuries the faculty of initiative has
been absolutely taboo to “women.” Their education (if it might be so termed),
surroundings and influences were impossible soil for the rearing of originality. They were
trained up in one groove only, one inexorable routine, that of preparing to be housewives
for their husbands, and the only possible departure from that groove was to train to be the
spouse of the Church, a not very dissimilar vocation. Has Mr. Barry Pain forgotten that
until half a century ago or so the women of England rarely received any education at all,
except in the case of a very few ladies of exceptionally high or royal lineage? The women of
earlier days did not even have their minds opened by travel, and spent their lives in a rigid
groove. Yet even then here and there such wonderful women were produced as Caroline
Herschell [sic], the brilliant Sarah Jennings,18 or Hannah More.
Instead, then, of asserting that women are lacking in initiative, in view of the fact
that they have only been encouraged to think for half a century, and have only dared to give
utterance to independent thought during the last decade or so, we should rather stand lost
in amazement and wonder at the way women have come to the front in the last few years.
Feminine progress is, as even Mr. Barry Pain, allows, a truly marvelous feature of the
present age. This young century is already signalized by the title of the Woman’s Century.
In spite of the terrible handicaps against which women have had to fight, England and
France can boast of women in the foremost ranks of scientific achievement, such as
Madame Curie and Mrs. Hertha Ayrton. Women doctors are winning golden laurels. In
France women lawyers constantly win cases by clever initiative. Women are winning
artistic triumphs. In spite of all that Mr. Barry Pain may say, suffragettes are showing
plenty of “cheek,” or initiative, in politics, in the ever-changing nature of their campaign,
which finds new manoeuvres to meet every contingency. Into the field of invention, so
long forbidden ground to women, women are entering more and more every year. Mr.
Barry Pain has only to consult the records of the Patent Office. The peculiarity of women’s
inventions is that they are also of a pre-eminently useful nature.
Mr. Barry Pain quotes the fact that men decree the absurdities of fashion which
women sheepishly follow, as an example of the lack of initiative in women. He forgets
entirely that dress and fashion is entirely due to the convention long-ingrained in women
that it is their duty to dress to please and attract men, and that as a result man has long
held the control of this in his own hands. He also forgets that there is evident a decided
tendency nowadays not to follow Fashion blindly. Originality of design in dress, and an
increasing refusal to follow the slavish dictates of fashion is a notable feature of the modern
Mr. Barry Pain is pleased to remark that “domestic affairs have always been the
province of woman.” If he had said instead that woman has always been trained to be the
unpaid housekeeper of some male, whose likes and dislikes she had to carefully study
almost under pain of death. Mr. Barry Pain would have got a little nearer the mark. It is
partly because women have realized that they must be really rulers in the so-called sphere
of theirs, that they are asserting themselves in public life. Politics are every day entering
more and more into the home, therefore women must enter politics.
With regard to Mr. Barry Pain’s scathing little remarks that men are more in
demand than women even in the kitchen, may I be allowed to remind him that the domain
of “feeding the brute” has always been recognized as the most necessary and paying of
callings. It is therefore, one which in its highest branches commands very high plums, and
these branches have been appropriated, as in most cases, by the male sex. But nowadays,
by training and originality, women are beginning to show that the excellence of the man
chef is an expensive fiction.
Mr. Barry Pain says that women excel rather in observation than in
imagination. Yet it used to be an old tradition that women were too imaginative.
Finally, Mr. Barry Pain asserts that women are handicapped by the fact that they do
not expect to take up a profession permanently, as they expect to marry. That absurd
notion is fast ceasing to be a handicap in these days, when there are more women than
men, and women are sensibly brought up to recognize [the] fact that matrimony may not
come their way, and that even if it does (vide Mr. Lloyd George’s Insurance Scheme) they
may become widows and have once more to earn a livelihood.
What Mr. Barry Pain means by saying that “while woman has progressed, Nature
has stood still,” goodness only knows. If he means Human Nature, that certainly is not the
same as before in these days of Veto, the Advance of Labour, and the Advance of Women. If
he means the world of Nature, that too is changing—-witness the use of Wireless Telegraph,
Aerial Posts, conquests of the Channel by air and sea! Perhaps, however, it does not do to
insist upon too much terminological exactitude from so brilliant a wit as Mr. Barry Pain. –
EMILY WILDING DAVISON
31. Coram Street, London, W.C.