How funny would it be if women couldn't vote?

Conservative writer suggests rolling back suffrage, chuckles at own sly wit

By Gabriel Winant
Published October 23, 2009 12:01AM (UTC)
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I had a professor once who argued that American conservatism has dishonesty built right into it. The problem, she said, goes back to the old aristocratic elite, who thought they should run the show and that everyone else -- black and white alike -- didn’t deserve any rights. Obviously, they could hardly go telling poor white folks that. In an influential essay, she put it this way:

The only historical ground that might have nourished such a [conservative] tradition—namely, the slave society of the South—was contaminated by the need to humour the democratic aspirations of a propertied, enfranchised, and armed white majority. Few self-styled conservative politicians in the United States today dare argue on principle (at least in public) that hereditary inequality and subordination should be the lot of the majority.

Sorry to ambush you with some Marxist scholarship right out the gate like that, but it’s worth trying to affix that last sentence to the modern right wing. Let’s be real: It kind of sticks.


It sticks especially well to a character who seems to have sprung from an old-school style of aristocratic conservatism. I’m talking here about John Derbyshire, the British-American columnist for the National Review and all-around insufferable jackanapes. Most recently, he’s an author. In his new book, "We Are Doomed," Derbyshire -- I swear to an angry Calvinist God -- weighs the merits of abolishing women’s suffrage.

Since the book came out a few weeks ago, Derbyshire’s been bopping around making this case, and here at Broadsheet we've largely succeeded in ignoring him. But when National Review Online itself promoted him in a Web TV segment yesterday, I couldn’t resist taking the bait.

In the friendly environment of Derbyshire’s own editorial home, the author and his friendly interviewer make my professor’s point rather neatly for her. It’s not, says Derbyshire, that equality itself is bad. The problem is that when you have equality, sometimes people fail to use the rights so generously extended to them in the proper way. Women, you see, are abusing their privileges by voting Democratic. Which leads to the inevitable question: Is equality worth it? Should they really have those rights?


“I think female suffrage comes under the value of equity,” says Derbyshire. “But it has a downside.”

Notice how Derbyshire, and especially his host, Will Cain, can barely keep a straight face the whole time. These are the smug smiles of a couple of guys who are saying the kind of stuff they know not to say outside closed doors. Obviously, they think they’re being wicked and devilish and oh-so-contrarian.

A few weeks ago, Derbyshire gave an interview to radio host and former Fox News doormat Alan Colmes. Here’s an exchange they had:


COLMES: We’d be a better country if women didn’t vote?

DERBYSHIRE: Probably. Don’t you think so?

COLMES: No, I do not think so whatsoever.

DERBYSHIRE: Come on Alan. Come clean here [laughing].

That last line -- time to fess up, Alan -- makes clear what Derbyshire really thinks: All men really know that women aren’t fit to share the franchise with them. Any dude who says otherwise is lying. Only the stifling power of political correctness prevents American men (especially white men -- Derbyshire has his doubts about civil rights for African-Americans, too) from reclaiming their rightful monopoly of the public sphere.

Of course, he hedges: He’s not really advocating abolishing equal suffrage, just saying we’d be better off if we did abolish it. It wouldn't do, after all, to go telling millions of women that they’ve forfeited their right to vote, with their terrible, woman-ish political judgment. The brave contrarian just says it sotto voce, and chuckles with his friends and colleagues at this silly modern age. Go ahead, commit national suicide by letting women vote, says Derbyshire the pessimist. It’s just a joke to him anyway.

Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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