(Nancy Astor was the first female MP in the British Parliament, elected in 1919. This is an interesting perspective from Margaret)
Among men, it is a common criticism of our first lady MP that she has “chipped in” too much. In a sphere new to women she should have moved and spoken very quietly, modestly, and cautiously (thus they express it to me) until the male members got used to the novel and disturbing presence of a woman in their midst with equal rights to discuss affairs of State.
“They have not got used to it,” a man told me. “And they do not like it. I don’t say that she should not intervene at all, and that she should never express an opinion in debate, but we men feel that she has done the cause of women harm by saying too much.”
Don’t you see the judicial and masterful air with which these words were uttered?
The fact is that there is no woman wise, clever, tactful, modest, courageous enough to act acceptably in the position of our first Parliamentary representative. If she had individuality at all, she was sure to earn condemnation from a large section of her fellow members. If she kept so quietly modest in the background that no remark of hers ever excited comment, her electors and women in general might say, “What is the good of her being there at all? She represents nothing and nobody.”
The truth is that there are very few social circles wherein men and women meet on really equal terms, and on common ground, for the discussion of matters important to themselves and to the whole human race. We are still much too divided. We have not enough in common.
A man says to me, “It is dangerous to enter into a discussion with a woman. If a man expresses his views with force, she is apt to take offence because he is not paying sufficient deference to her opinions or her point of view. He cannot quite frankly state himself as he would to a man.” Which is true, and vice versa. A woman cannot safely say all she thinks to a man without danger of wounding his susceptibilities or his vanity.
But the habit of frank discussion should be cultivated in private life. From experience I know that there is less danger of heat and temper in academical argument between men and women from the very cause given as dangerous. It is a natural instinct to be considerate towards the prejudices and the feelings of a person of the other sex.
Therefore normal men and women of decent breeding and education do not raise their voices and shout or get into a rage with each other when they differ in argument. They endeavour courteously to explain rationally the grounds of their difference, and probably agree in seeing that they could never meet because of the fundamental divergence in training, heredity, convention or function.
Men also say that women are too highly strung to be successful debaters. They are not sufficiently hard of texture. After taking part in a public meeting, or engaging in debate, “these women” are, for the time “nervous wrecks.” Yes, I think there is some truth in that view of it in many cases.
Thousands of years of seclusion and absorption in domestic affairs have developed a temperament that is not at its best on the public stage. That is one chief reason why I attach more importance in the march of the world’s affairs to the influence of women’s arguments in private than in public. And we are only just beginning to arrest men’s attention in private discussion. Without it, public representation is of no avail at all.