American Equal Rights Association
May 9, 1867 — American Equal Rights Association, Church of the Puritans, New York City
First Day – Morning Session
I have but little to say because it is almost 2 o’clock, and hungry and weary people are not good listeners to speeches. I shall confine my remarks therefore to one special point brought up this morning and not fully discussed.
Sojourner Truth gave us the whole truth in about fifteen words:
“If I am responsible for the deeds done in my body, the same as the white male citizen is, I have a right to all the rights he has to help him through the world.”
I shall speak for the slave woman at the South. I have always lifted my voice for her when I have spoken at all. I will not give up the slave woman into the hands of man, to do with her as he pleases hereafter. I know the plea that was made to me in South Carolina, and down in the Mississippi valley. They said, “You give us a nominal freedom, but you leave us under the heel of our husbands, who are tyrants almost equal to our masters.”
The former slave man of the South has learned his lesson of oppression and wrong of his old master; and they think the wife has no right to her earnings. I was often asked, “Why don’t the Government pay my wife’s earnings to me?” When acting for the Freedman’s Aid Society, the orders came to us to compel marriage, or to separate families. I issued the order as I was bound to do, as General Superintendent of the Fourth Division under General Saxton. The men came to me and wanted to be married, because they said if they were married in the church, they could manage the women, and take care of their money, but if they were not married in the church the women took their own wages and did just as they had a mind to. But the women came to me and said, “We don’t want to be married in the church, because if we are our husbands will whip the children and whip us if they want to; they are no better than old masters.”
The biggest quarrel I had with the colored people down there, was with a plantation man because I would not furnish a nurse for his child. “No, Nero,” said I, “I cannot hire a nurse for your child while Nancy works in the cotton field.” “But what is we to do? I’se a poor miserable man and can’t work half the time, and Nancy is a good strong hand; and we must have a nurse.” He went away in utter disgust, and declared to the people outside that I had got the miserablest notion he had ever heard, to spoil a good field hand like his Nancy to nurse her own baby. We were told the other day by Wendell Phillips, upon the Anti-Slavery platform, that it takes people forty years to outgrow an old idea. And he proved to us, if his silver words are good for anything, that it took five years to outgrow old ideas. The slave population of the South is not yet removed a hundred years from the barbarism of Africa, where women have no rights, no privileges, but are trampled under foot in all the savagism of the past. And the slave man has looked on to see his master will everything as he willed, and he has learned the lesson from his master.
Mr. Higginson told us that the slave-master never understood the slave. I know that to be the fact. Neither do men understand woman to-day, because she has always been held subservient to him. Now it is proposed to give manhood the suffrage, in all these Southern States, and to leave the poor slave woman bound under the ban of the direct curse of slavery to him who is the father of her children.
It is decreed upon all the statute books of slavery that the child shall follow the condition of the mother. That has been the decree from the beginning of this awful slave system; that the whitest woman, the child of a slave mother, whose hair curled down to her waist, and whose blue eyes of beauty were a lure to the Statesman of the South, should be a slave, though the Governor of the State were her father. Are you to leave her there yet, and desecrate marriage, by making it such a bond of slavery that the woman shall say, “I do not want to be married to suffer oppression!” Are you to force prostitution and wrong upon those people by these unjust laws?” Are you to compel wickedness and crime? Are you going to let it stand upon the statute books of the southern States that the only woman free to work for her own child shall be the mother of illegitimate children? That is the consequence of what you are doing to the people who in all time past, since they have lived upon this continent, have been denied the right of sacred marriage; and who must have, as Wendell Phillips tell us, forty years to outgrow the past, or to educate them.
We are told by Mr. Phillips to flood the South with spelling-books. Who is to carry them there? Who, to-day, is teaching the southern people;–for I am talking now in behalf of the colored woman of the South, forgetting my own degradation. Who have carried the spelling-book to the South? The women of the North, gathering up their strength, have been sent down by all these great Societies to teach. The colored men of the South are to vote, while they deny the ballot to their teacher! It is said that women do not want to vote in this country. I tell you, it is a libel upon womanhood. I care not who says it. I am in earnest. They do want to vote. Fifty-two thousand pulpits in this country have been teaching women the lesson that has been taught them for centuries, that they must not think about voting. But when fifty-two thousand pulpits, or fifty-two thousand politicians, at the beginning of this war, lifted up their voices and asked of women, “Come out and help us,” did they stand back? In every hamlet, in every village, in every cabin and every palace, in every home in the whole United States, they rose up and went to work. They worked for the government; they worked for the nation; they worked for their sons, their husbands, their fathers, their brothers, their friends. They worked night and day. Who found women to stand back when this great public opinion that bad been crushing them so long and forbidding them to work, at last lifted itself up and said, “You may work?”
I have been travelling all winter long, with a few intervals of rest, talking not upon Equal Rights, but upon the subject of Temperance; and whenever I said to my crowded audiences that we must give to woman the right to vote that she may purify the nation of this great sin, there went up shouts and clapping of hands of men and women. They are ready for this work. What we want is to crystallize the public opinion of all ranks of society in its favor. There is great fear that if woman is allowed to vote, she will lose something of her high and excellent character. If it is right for woman to have the suffrage, it is not right to talk of expediency. If giving woman the ballot will cause her to lose her prestige, it is because she ought to lose it. If she gains physical strength, and loses that effeminate delicacy that provides for nothing and cares for nothing but its own selfish, quiet enjoyment, I shall rejoice with joy unspeakable. My strong hands have titled the fields; and in my early childhood have harnessed the horse, and brought the wood to the door; have led him to the blacksmith’s shop to be shod. These are things I do not often tell in public. I have braved public opinion; I have tilled my garden; I have brought myself up from fainting weakness occasioned by accident and broken bones. I have taken care of myself, supported myself, and asked nothing from the world; I find my womanhood not one bit degraded.
A thousand times in the last years, in this struggle for bread, have I been asked, “Why don’t you let you sons support you?” My answer is, “My six sons have their own duties. My six boys have their own labors. God gives me strength to earn my own bread, and I will do it as long as I can.”
That is what I want to teach the womanhood of the country. I did not mean to talk so long, but I assure you I talk in earnest. If I sometimes, by a slip of the tongue, make some little mistake — for I have not been educated in the schools, (a log cabin schoolhouse in the wilderness gave me all I have) — you will excuse me, for I mean no injustice to any one. And if to-night it will not crowd some better woman or man from the platform, I shall be glad to speak to you again.
[Speeches by Lucretia Mott, Stephen S. Foster and Rev. S.J. May]
GAGE: During the last fifteen years, with the utmost industry I could use in ascertaining the public opinion in this country, I have never found one solitary instance of a woman, whom I could meet alone by her fireside, where there was no fear of public opinion, or the minister, or the law-maker, or her father, or her husband, who did not tell me she would like to vote.
I never found a slave in my life, who, removed from the presence of the people about him, would not tell me he wanted liberty — never one. I have been in the slave States for years. I have been in the slave-pens, and upon the plantations, and have stood beside the slave as he worked in the sugar cane and the cotton-field; and I never found one who dared in the presence of white men to say he wanted freedom. When women and young girls are asked if they want to vote, they are almost always in just that situation where they are afraid to speak what they think; and no wonder they so often say they do not want to vote.
[The meeting adjourned until evening.]
First Day – Evening Session
It seems to be my fate to come in at the eleventh hour. We have been talking about the right to the ballot. Why do we want it? What does it confer? What will it give us? We closed our argument at three o’clock to-day by a discussion whether the women of this country and the colored men of this country wanted the ballot. I said that it was a libel on the womanhood of this country, to say they do not want it; and I repeat that assertion. Woman may say in public that she does not want it, because it is unpopular and unfashionable for her to want it; but when you tell her what the ballot can do, she will always answer you that she wants it. Why do we want it? Because it is right, and because there are wrongs in the community that can be righted in no other way.
After the discussions we have had to-night, I want to turn to a fresh subject. Last evening I attended the meeting of the National Temperance Association at Cooper Institute. A great audience was assembled there, to listen to the arguments against the most gigantic evil that now pervades the American Republic. Men took the position that only a prohibitory law could put an end to the great evil of intemperance. New York has its two hundred millions of invested capital to sell death and destruction to the men of this country who are weak enough to purchase. There are eight thousand licensed liquor establishments in this city, to drag down humanity. It was asserted there by Wendell Phillips that intemperance had its root in our Saxon blood, that demanded a stimulus; and he argued from that standpoint. If intemperance has its root in the Saxon blood, that demands a stimulus, why is it that the womanhood of this nation is not at the grog-shops to-day? Are women not Saxons? It was asserted, both by Mr. Phillips and by President Hopkins, of Union College, that the liquor traffic must be regulated by law. A man may do what he likes in his own house, said they; he may burn his furniture; he may take poison; he may light his cigar with his greenbacks; but if he carries his evil outside of his own house, if he increases my taxes, if he makes it dangerous for me or for my children to walk the streets, then it may be prohibited by law. I was at Harrisburg, a few days ago, at the State Temperance Convention. Horace Greeley asserted that there was progress upon the subject of temperance; and he went back to the time when ardent spirits were drank in the household, when every table had its decanter, and the wife, children and husband drank together. Now, said he, it is a rare thing to find the dram-bottle in the home. It has been put out. But what put the dram-bottle out of the home? It was put out because the education and refinement and power of woman became so strong in the home, that she said, “It must go out; we can’t have it here.”
Then the voters of the United States, the white male citizens, went to work and licensed these nuisances that could not be in the home, at all the corners of the streets. I demand the ballot for woman to-day, that she may vote down these nuisances, the dram-shops, there also, as she drove them out of the home.
What privilege does the vote give to the “white male citizen” of the United States? Did you ever analyze a voter — hold him up and see what he was? Shall I give you a picture of him? Not as my friend Parker Pillsbury has drawn the picture to-night will I draw it. What is the “white male citizen” — the voter in the Republic of the United States? More than any potentate or any king in all Europe. Louis Napoleon dares not walk the streets of his own city without his bodyguard around him, with their bayonets. The Czar of Russia is afraid for his own life among his people. Kings and potentates are always afraid; but the “free white male citizen” of the United States, with the ballot in his hand, goes where he lists, does what he pleases. He owns himself, his earnings, his genius, his talent, his eloquence, his power, all there is of him. All that God has given him is his, to do with as he pleases, subject to no power but such laws as have an equal bearing upon every other man in like circumstances, and responsible to no power but his own conscience and his God. He builds colleges; he lifts up humanity or he casts it down. He is the lawgiver, the maker, as it were, of the nation. His single vote may turn the destiny of the whole Republic for good or ill. There is no link in the chain of human possibilities that can add one single power to the “white male citizen” of America.
Now we ask that you shall put into the hands of every human soul this same power to go forward and do good works wherever it can. The country has rung within the last few days because one colored girl, with a little black blood in her veins, has been cast out of the Pittsburg Methodist College. It ought to ring until such a thing shall be impossible. But when Cambridge, and Yale, and Union, and Lansing, and all the other institutions of the country, West Point included, aided by national patronage, shut out every woman and every colored man in the land, who has anything to say? There is not a single college instituted by the original government patronage of lands to public schools and colleges, that allows a woman to set her foot inside of its walls as a student. Is this no injustice? Is it no wrong?
When men stand upon the public platform and deliver elaborate essays on women and their right of suffrage, they talk about their weakness, their devotion to fashion and idleness. What else have they given women to do? Almost every profession in the land is filled by men; every college sends forth the men to fill the highest places. When the law said that no married woman should do business in her own name, sue or be sued, own property, own herself or her earnings, what had she to do? That laid the foundation for precisely the state of things you see to-day.
But I deny that, as a class, the women of America, black or white, are idle. We are always busy. What have we done? Look over this audience, go out upon your streets, go through the world where you will, and every human soul you meet is the work of woman. She has given it life; she has educated it, whether for good or evil. She it is that must lie at the foundation of your country, because God gave her the holiest mission ever laid upon the heart of a human soul — the mission of the mother.
We are told that home is woman’s sphere. So it is, and man’s sphere, too; for I tell you that that is a poor home which has not in it a man to feel that it is the most sacred place he knows. If duty requires him to go out into the world and flight its battles, who blames him, or puts a ban upon him? Men complain that woman does not love home now, that she is not satisfied with her mission. I answer that this discontent arises out of the one fact, that you have attempted to mold seventeen millions of human souls in one shape, and make them all do one thing. Take away your restrictions, open all doors, leave women at liberty to go where they will. As old Sojourner Truth said twenty years ago, at the first Women’s Rights Convention in Ohio, “Leave them where God left them, with their inalienable rights,” and they will adjust themselves to their convictions of their duties, their responsibilities, and their powers, and society will find harmony within itself. The caged bird forgets how to build its nest. The wing of the eagle is as strong to soar to the sun as that of her mate, who never says to her, “back, feeble one, to your nest, and there brood in dull inactivity until I give you permission to leave!” But when her duties called her there, who ever found her unfaithful to her trust? The foot of the wild roe is as strong and swift in the race as that of her antlered companion. She goes by his side, she feeds in the same pasture, drinks from the same running brook, but is ever true also to her maternal duties and cares.
If we are a nation of imbeciles, if womanhood is weak, it is the laws and customs of society which have made us what we are. If you want health, strength, energy, force, temperance, purity, honesty, deal justly with the mothers of this country; then they will give you nobler and stronger men than higgling politicians, or the grogshop emissaries that buy up the votes of your manhood.
Why is it that Republicans are so weak and wavering to-day? There is a law upon the statute book of every southern State that the child shall follow the condition of the mother. There is a law in the physical code of humanity, written by the finger of the Almighty, that never was and never will be repealed, that the child shall follow the condition of the mother. You have never taught the women of this country the sacredness of freedom. You have never called out the mother to generous action. You have never said to the motherhood of this country, “Upon you rests the responsibility of making the Republic what it should be. We invest you with the power; now assume that responsibility and act upon it, or we shall call you to account for your neglect of duty.”
It has been charged upon woman that she does nothing well. What have you given us to do well? What freedom have you give us to act independently and earnestly? When I was in San Domingo, I found a little colony of American colored people that went over there in 1825. They retained their American customs, and especially their little American church, outside of the Catholic, which overspread the whole country. In an obscure room in an old ruin they sung the old hymns, and lived the old life of the United States. I asked how this thing was, and they answered that among those that went over so long ago were a few from Chester County, Penn., who were brought up among the Quakers, and had learned to read. Wherever a mother had learned to read, she had educated all her children so that they could read; but wherever there was a mother that could not read, that family had lapsed off from the old customs of the past.
Give us education. When we have a right to vote, there will not be a school-door in the United States shut to woman. When we have the right to vote, I believe that the womanhood that demanded that the dram-bottle should go out of the home, will demand that the dram-bottle shall be put away from among men. She will say, You have no right to take poison, and make my home a discomfort, or destroy the greenbacks, which should be the mutual possession of the household, by lighting your cigar. She will tell the world, under the new regime, that it is not the Saxon blood that demands a stimulant; but in the new morality it will be as wicked for a man to be drunken as for a woman to be drunken — as disreputable for a man to be licentious as for a woman to be licentious — as wicked and perverse for a man to go down to the lower depths of iniquity and folly as for a woman. And the great law uttered upon Sinai amid its thunders, will again be remembered, and will apply as much to man as to woman. Now, it is not so. One code of morality governs the voter, another the woman. As the slaveholder enacted laws that made his own vices crimes in the slave, so men enact laws that make their vices crimes in woman. And this is why we want suffrage for woman.
I ask the ballot, not because of its individual advantage to myself, but because I know and feel that individual rights, guaranteed to every citizen, must harmonize the world, if there is any power to do it this side of heaven. And so, not quite eighty years old, as old Sojourner said she was, but standing upon the brink of threescore, having looked this question in the face from my girlhood up — having labored in almost every vocation in life that falls to the lot of womanhood, as a worker on the farm, a worker in the household, a wife, a mother, a seamstress, a cook — and I tell you, my friends, that I can make better biscuit than I can lecture — as one who has tried to study what is for the best interest of society, I ask you candidly to survey this subject in all its bearings. Why may we not take our position as human beings enjoying all the privileges which the Creator bestowed, without restriction other than falls upon every other human being in the community?
A friend of mine, writing from Charleston the other day, just after the ballot went down there, says that he was told by a colored man, “I met my old master, and he bowed so low to me I didn’t hardly know which was the negro and which was the white man.” When we hold the ballot, we shall stand just there. Men will forget to tell us that politics are degrading. They will bow low, and actually respect the women to whom they now talk platitudes; and silly flatteries, sparkling eyes, rosy cheeks, pearly teeth, ruby lips, the soft and delicate hands of refinement and beauty, will not be the burden of their song; but the strength, the power, the energy, the force, the intellect and the nerve, which the womanhood of this country will bring to bear, and which will infuse itself through all the ranks of society, must make all its men and women wiser and better.
Source: History of Women’s Marches — The Political Battle of Suffragettes (Complete 6 Volume Edition): Including Documents, Images, Letters, Newspaper Articles, Conference Reports, Speeches, Court Transcripts, Laws… Up to Today’s Equal Pay Issues & Latest Statistics, eds. Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Matilda Gage, Harriot Stanton Blatch, Ida H. Harper.