Select Page

Woman as an Economic Factor

February 13-19, 1898 – National American Woman Suffrage Association Convention, Washington DC


It is often urged that women stand greatly in need of training in citizenship before being finally received into the body politic. This argument is usually put forward in a tone of weighty wisdom by the opponent who thinks his demand is only prompted by a question of national welfare, but which in truth results from never taking cognizance of the fact that women are the first class who have asked for the right of citizenship after their ability for political life has been proved.

I have seen in my time two enormous extensions of the suffrage to men – one in America and one in England. But neither the negro in the South nor the agricultural laborer in Great Britain had showed before they got the ballot any capacity for government; for they had never had the opportunity to take the first baby steps in political action.

Very different has been the history of the march of women toward a recognized position in the state. We have had to prove our ability at each stage of progress, and have gained nothing without having satisfied a test of capacity. The history of the conferring upon women of the right o vote for and be elected members of school boards in England illustrates this point, and is typical of our political achievements in other lines. Before the education acts of 1870, women were appointed here and there as school managers, because some local c circumstance made the need of them felt. When the new departure in education was made and election boards established, it was but a natural development, a conservative recognition of their usefulness, for women to become elected representatives on the new educational bodies. By provided work in the first position, women gained popular assent to the exercise of a further privilege of citizenship. And so in America, after having been appointed or elected to small township offices, they have passed on to wider spheres in county or state, and finally have been elected to legislatures. In England there are to-day over 2,000 women sitting as popularly elected representatives on school boards, boards of guardians, on parish and disttirck councils. These women are elected to perform these important duties of citizenship time after time, and are almost invariably returned at the head of the pop. All this surely is a quiet, steady, reasonable verdict upon how women carry out their work as administrative officers. 

The right to vote has always been considered more sacred than the right to be elected to office, and has consequently been more safe-guarded and more cautiously conferred. Therefore, to urge that women have proved useful to the community as officials does not convince a political student that they are fitted to be electors. Nor do I wish to claim their fitness on such grounds. I rest our emend here, as in the other case, upon the safe foundation of proved ability. We were given a small local vote here, or the school suffrage there, and wider and wider duties where conferred only after capacity for government was shown in the narrow sphere. Nowhere has complete enfranchisement been conferred on women, as it was on negroes, with the stroke of the pen. Slowly, step by step, women have gained every vote in England receipt the parliamentary suffrage. 

Just as slowly, in America, they have made their way, until, in a few states, they aren ow full citizens. The last franchise in England will be conferred when public opinion is fully convinced of the conscientious manner in which women are exercising the rights they have, and the older and more conservative states of the union will give vote after vote to us as we prove the value of our work in political life. The contention of our opponents, then, that we must get political training before c claiming citizenship, is but a display of ignorance regarding the history of our emancipation; for our political evolution has not come through abstract reasoning about man’s natural rights, but as the result, if I may be permitted the phrase, of a civil-service examination of a searching nature into our capacity for citizenship. 

Now, as “proved worth” has been the cause of our progress so far, it is evident that along that line future efforts must be made. The value of a voter depends largely upon the conscientious manner in which he endeavors to inform himself upon public questions; and therefore such association as the league directed by Dr. Jacobi and Mrs. Sanders in New York, in so far as they are forming a scholarly habit in the study of political questions among women, are building up a class which will prove in time of the highest value to the State, and which will have on that account an irresistible claim to citizenship. When the various clubs of women the country over have developed more thoroughly their study of political and economic problems, they will have educated all their members into seeing that a preblic must have from each and all of its citizens self-denial and devotion – that there is no room for the shirk except under a Russian despotism. 

The public demand for “proved worth” suggests what appears to me the chief and most convincing argument upon which our future claims must rest – the growing recognition of the economic value of the work of women. I intentionally do not say an increase in their work, for it is a popular mistake to suppose that women are rushing in large numbers into gainful pursuits. This falls impression has come about my women of the well-to-do class taking it for granted that the doings of their tiny body are of great importance and typical of all classes. For instance, because women architects increased from 1 to 22 in the years between 1870 and 18980, chemists, assayers, and metallurgists from nothing to 46, and women in the ministry from 67 to 1,237, it has been hastily concluded that these enormous percentages (though, mark you, absurdly small absolute numbers) were characteristic of industrial employments; but no less authority than Carroll D. Wright truly says: “The proportion of women laborers is increasing a little less than 3 per cent.”

There has been a marked change in the estimate of our position as wealth producers. We have never been “supported” by men; for if all men labored hard every hour of the twenty-four, they could not do all the work of the world. A few worthless women there are, but even they are not so much supported by the men of their family as by the overwork of the “sweated” women at the other end of the social ladder. From creation’s dawn. our sex has done its full share of the world’s work; sometimes we have been paid for it, but oftener not.

Unpaid work never commands respect; it is the paid worker who has brought to the public mind conviction of woman’s worth. The spinning and weaving done by our great-grandmothers in their own homes was not reckoned as national wealth until the work was carried to the factory and organized there; and the women who followed their work were paid according to its commercial value. It is the women of the industrial class, the wage-earners reckoned by the hundreds of thousands, and not by units, the women whose work has been submitted to a money test, who have been the means of bringing about the altered attitude of public opinion toward woman’s work in every sphere of life.

If we would recognize the democratic side of our cause, and make an organized appeal to industrial women on the ground of their need of citizenship, and to the nation on the ground of its need that all wealth producers should form part of its body politic, the close of the century might witness the building up of a true republic in the United States.



Source: Blatch, Harriot Stanton. “Woman as an Economic Factor.” In The History of Woman Suffrage. Vol IV. Indianapolis: Hollenbeck Press, 1902, 310-311.

A version of this speech was also delivered as testimony to a US Senate committee in Washington DC on February 15, 1898.