To the Editor of The Sunday Times, August 6, 1911.
“The Spirit Behind History”
This letter reflects Davison’s interest in contemporary currents of historical thought, especially the notion of continuous development of human history toward an apogee of enlightened individual development. The conception of a process driven by “an animating spirit” which Davison elsewhere identifies with God, structures a rebuttal framed as a critique of out-dated thinking. This is a mode Davison frequently uses, believing firmly in ideas of evolution, progress, and the value of contemporary, as opposed to traditional, attitudes and modes of thinking. The former she identifies with freedom from inherited patterns of power. As in other letters, she identifies the enemy of individual liberty as “feudalism” glossed here as “days of privilege,” a metonymy for the entire world of money, property, and class which had controlled England for centuries. (1)
Sir,–Mr. Williams does not belong to the modern comparative school of history or he would not pick out separate events or individuals and make empiricisms from them. All historical students now reject this method and turn instead to the comparative study of history recognizing that it is not “a mere string of episodes, but a continuous development.” A better example of the newer school could not be given than the Cambridge Modern History, which was taken in hand by the late Lord Acton. If Mr. Williams turns up volume after volume he will see that each is entitled after some great world event, such as the Renaissance, or the Thirty Years’ War, the comprehensive study of the origin, development, and result of which sometimes covers many reigns, different countries, and sometimes even centuries. He could not do better than study carefully the scholarly Introductory Note to Volume I. of the work by the late Bishop of London, Dr. Mandell Creighton, on the aims and methods of Modern History, who gets well at the root of the matter when he says: “After marshalling all the forces and ideas which were at work to produce it [history] he [the student] still feels that there was behind all these an animating spirit which he cannot but most imperfectly catch whose power blended all else together and gave a sudden cohesion to the whole.”
It is this illuminating idea—this power of historic vision—which Mr. Williams evidently at present lacks. As a result, he is unable to grasp the true significance which lies behind the days of Cromwell and the Civil War, and of that even greater event, the French Revolution. He cannot see the wood for the trees. He is so busy looking at the little details, the faults and horrors, that he cannot see the true significance of the whole. The real meaning is the destruction of feudalism and the ending of the days of privilege.
May I refer Mr. Williams to the Cambridge Modern History, in Volume VIII., of which he may read: “The French Revolution is the most important event in the life of modern Europe. Herder compared it to the Reformation and the rise of Christianity…. Like them, it destroyed the landmarks of the world in which generations of men had passed their lives, because it was a movement towards a completer humanity, and because it was a religion, with its doctrines, its apostles, and its martyrs…. As Christianity taught man that he was a spiritual being, and the Reformation proclaimed that nothing need stand between the soul and God, so the Revolution asserted the equality of man, conceiving individuals as partakers of a common nature, and declaring each one of them, regardless of birth or religion, to be possessed of certain inalienable rights.”
Finally, in the same chapter Mr. Williams will see that the doctrine that women as well as men had a right to personal liberty really arose at the time of the French Revolution, which doctrine is the reason that women are now fighting the last battle against feudalism.
I am not at all surprised that Mr. Pickup considers reference to the dictionary a work of supererogation; in fact, I should imagine from his use of the words democracy, people, evolution, etc., that it is a habit in which he seldom indulges, but which he might with advantage adopt.
May I just name a few of the injustices of English legislation due to the fact that the women’s point of view is not consulted as well as the men’s?
- The double standard of morality is bad: it injures both men and women, although the toll falls the more heavily upon the latter.
- The mother as well as the father should be recognized as the legal guardian of the child.
- The present unfair position of women in marriage and divorce is a national scandal.
- The Government leads the way in giving lower pay to women because they are women, where they do equal work. The teaching profession is an excellent example. Sweated work done in uniforms is another.
- Legislation is being introduced every day in which the women’s point of view is not fairly treated. The National Insurance Scheme is one example. The present amendment to the Coal Mines Act, which throws 3,000 women out of work, is another.
- The existence of the white slave traffic and the fact that a Bill to check this has no chance of becoming law is a national crime.
I could give many more examples to prove my point that it is “penny wise and pound foolish” policy of the nation to exclude women from citizenship. Acquiescence in such injustice would be sharing in the crime! – Yours, etc.,
EMILY WILDING DAVISON
31, Coram Street, W.C., August 3
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