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women must awake to save humanity

When Olive Schreiner published her famous book, Women and Labour, nearly thirty years ago, she prophesied that when woman took her place beside man and shared with him the obligations of political responsibility, that day would herald the death of war as a means of arranging human differences.

This prophecy, unhappily, has not yet come true. Recently, when a questioner from a North of England audience asked me: 'Why don't women work for peace in the same way as they worked for the vote?', I could only echo regretfully: 'Why indeed?' For I realized as keenly as the speaker that the prospect of war's ultimate banishment would be far more hopeful if democratic women put the same energy into their quest for peace as they put into woman suffrage.

A certain number of organized women, such as the Women's International League and the Women's Co-operative Guilds, are, it is true, working for a warless world. A few gifted women writers, such as Storm Jameson, Rose Macaulay, and the late Winifred Holtby, have given much of their time and talents to the cause of peace. But behind the handful of women in the van of the peace movement in various countries, a terrible inert mass of womanhood does nothing and cares little for the growing threat of modern war to our civilization and our homes.

This widespread apathy constitutes, in its own way, as great a danger to our children's future as the menace of Fascism itself. All through history, the inertia of the many has led to the death of more societies than the misapplied vigour of the few. Why is it, we may well ask, that women, who have so much to lose in war, are still so far from displaying the energy and initiative with regard to its abolition that Olive Schreiner and other suffrage leaders expected?

In a recent essay, Miss Eleanor Rathbone, MP, provided one explanation. 'Progress for women,' she writes, 'has been rapid where it depended on political action, slow when it depended on changes in heart and habits.' A change of habit depends upon political consciousness, and for the great majority of English women this consciousness is still unawakened. Their experience of political power is as yet too brief, and only the younger women voters have received any political training as part of their education. Victorian and Edwardian schoolrooms were more interested in the marriage market than in politics. Only since the Great War have newspapers been systematically read in girls' schools, and teaching given on current events.

A further explanation lies in the type of moral education inflicted in their youth upon women of the older and middle generations. Almost without exception, the young female conscience of twenty years ago was ruthlessly trained in the virtues of meekness, patience, self-effacement, and resignation to what was falsely known as 'the inevitable'. Women were assumed to be powerless to defend themselves against the larger assaults of destiny. Only by the persistent violation of the values taught us in our childhood, have a few women of my own and my mother's generation learnt that no catastrophe is 'inevitable' unless we do nothing to avert or remove it.

Today, when humanity depends for salvation from its present grim dilemma upon the virtues of courage, initiative and determination, the infinite capacity of women for resignation has become a positive menace to the civilisation which their united efforts could save. That is why I specially welcome the courage and enterprise shown by the organisers of the Women's Demonstration on December 16th. I hope that every woman who realises her personal responsibility for the coming of peace will show by her presence that she intends to play her part.


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