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A Scottish Dozen: Uncollected Poems by Marion Bernstein

Linda Fleming and Edward Cohen



Published in the Glasgow Weekly Herald, 20 January 1883, p. 2.
To do our duty is our right,
   A right we’ll never yield,
For duty done is virtue’s might
   And honour’s shining shield.
To vote for all that’s right and just,
   To vote down all that’s wrong;
These are our rights. For these we must
   Cry out in speech and song.

To be a safeguard to the weak,
   To curb the pride of power,
To give just honour to the meek,
   And poverty to dower;
These are the aims of righteous laws;
   But if the laws are wrong
Our votes must right them. That’s our cause,
   Our work, our prayer, our song.

Though oft oppressed, our steadfast hearts
   Will never be afraid,
The strength a righteous cause imparts
   Will keep us undismayed.
For O! the world is full of need,
   The world is full of wrong;
For freedom to do good we plead
   With pen, and speech, and song.
All her poetic life Marion Bernstein lobbied for women’s rights and for women’s suffrage. Gordon asserts that, although working-class women were not “politically dormant,” it was women from the middle and upper classes who spearheaded the quest for universal suffrage in Scotland (230-31). The ideology that informed this movement was thus influenced by class-based notions about the mission of women to influence political discourse and to redress grievances about access to public participation. In “Woman’s Rights and Wrongs”—written in response to a similarly titled poem by Jessie Russell—Bernstein asserts that winning suffrage for women would be the best means of rectifying the wrongs perpetrated by men. And in one of her best-known poems, “A Dream,” she imagines falling asleep in the present, awaking in the twentieth century, and discovering that “woman’s rights were established,” that “there were female chiefs in the Cabinet,” and that “the Commons were three-fourths feminine / While the Lords were seen no more.” Although much of her verse is consistent with this tone, there are also poems in which she assumes a more radical stance on women’s needs. In “Wanted A Husband” she seeks a man who will not expect his wife to perform her domestic tasks, be “a cheerful companion whenever desired,” and “contentedly toil day and night” without his support in return. In “A Woman’s Plea,” moreover, she affirms what would become an established feminist agenda: “To vote for all that’s right and just, / To vote down all that’s wrong; / These are our rights. For these we must / Cry out in speech and song.” In June 1906, in a deft challenge to gender as grounds for “legal incapacity,” the Committee of Women Graduates of Scottish Universities would ask the court of sessions, Scotland, to rule that, since they had been admitted to graduation on the same terms as men, “they were entitled to receive voting papers, to vote, and to have their votes counted” (Mayhall 66). Although the case was not successful, it did advance the suffragettes’ cause by introducing a new and significant strategy for seeking women’s constitutional rights. Had she not died four months earlier, Bernstein would have been cheered by this extraordinary critique of women’s unequal status under the law.