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Woman as Political Leader

May 1893 — World’s Congress of Representative Women, Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago IL


The foundation of this republic marks an era in the history of the race. The breath of liberty vitalizes all powers of brain and muscle, heart and hand. Individual character, social conditions, community interests, education, labor, trade, commerce, and government seek development and the harmonious adjustment of mutual relations according to the Golden Rule.

Applied science brings the forces of nature to man’s service; applied economics gives honest labor its fair share of wealth produced; popular education makes all men equal competitors for all prizes; applied Christianity cares for the dependent classes and smooths the path for little children’s feet.

Slowly — all too slowly for weary limbs and aching hearts — is being evolved the perfected humanity of which the stoic dreamed, the prophet spoke, and which the gospel of Jesus made possible.

This evolution is pervaded by woman’s presence and influence. There were heroic women in colonial days and in the revolutionary period. There were strong, true women who pioneered in the once new West. There were brave, loyal women in the Civil War, who followed the army to the field and in the hospital, or who did double duty at home, on the farm and in the shop, that brothers and husbands might be free for the dreadful business of war. When peace came, the women who had plowed in the field, sewed in the home, washed at the tub, scraped lint, made bandages, and in every possible way met the demands of the nation’s agony, these same women, having learned the possibilities of their united ministrations outside home walls, took up the organization of missionary and temperance societies, and began reforms of many kinds; they built fountains for the thirsty and planted shade-trees for the weary; they erected hospitals, orphan asylums, retreats in the cities, homes by the sea and on the hillside for waifs and overworked shop-girls; they established day nurseries and kindergartens for little children, and helped to endow colleges and universities for young men and women.

In these works of charity, philanthropy, and reform, woman’s leadership is undisputed; but it is within a comparatively short time that these humanitarian questions have demanded public attention and legislative action. With the growth of population and its diverse character, numberless questions arise, in the solving of which women as well as men are greatly interested.

It is impossible for women to carry movements of social economics in their hearts and in their activities up to the point of the relations of these questions to the government and then suddenly let go their hold, and see these various objects of their solicitude lost in the whirlpool of politics, where, being disfranchised, women have no recognized place. It is too late in the century for women who have received the benefits of co-education in schools and colleges, and who bear their full share in the world’s work, not to care who make the laws, who expound and who administer them. This is why American women are coming more and more to think and act on political questions. It should also be remembered that in this country a large part of the wage-earners are women. The questions of economics which are involved in the present industrial system affect them, and the wives and dependent children of men wage-earners. Some of us are deeply interested in the vital problems of modern American life.

We find ourselves in the midst of conditions which were very recently wholly European. Mixed populations in crowded cities and colonies of foreigners distributed through the country give rise to apprehension in the minds of intelligent women. It is not possible, neither would it be right, to attempt the wholesale exclusion of these foreigners. They are children of the Heavenly Father, whom we call “Our Father.”

Some of our foreign-born citizens are of the noblest fiber; they have brought new luster to the stars, and brightness to the stripes of the dear old flag, but masses of others are the garbage of oriental and European civilizations, the windfalls of monarchical governments and deserters from imperialism and militarism. They all vote, and American women, the daughters and granddaughters of Revolutionary heroes, the mothers, the sisters, and the wives of a later generation of heroes, do not vote.

Behold an anomaly in free institutions! Nevertheless all the political interests that American women hold dear are at the mercy of a government thus constituted. Will women “sulk in their tents because in the evolution of popular government they are not yet enfranchised? Patriotic women, conscious of love of country, and with the repose of self-respect which becomes their heredity and environment, will do the best they can through the agencies at their command.

George Washington said, one hundred years ago: “The preservation of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally, staked on the experiment intrusted to the American people.” In this magnificent experiment women are equally interested with men.

The country needs the political work of woman to-day as much as it has ever needed woman in any other work at any other time. The Constitution provides the machinery of government. That great document has been tested in peace, in war, and through the reconstruction period. It awaits the final test of administration by a government representing a heterogeneous mass of citizens from every clime, many of whom are disqualified by heredity and environment for responsible citizenship.

Thoughtful women know that the nation is a grand whole; that if one member suffers the whole suffers; that if one is blessed all are blessed. Women have no separate interests; if man is elevated and the general tone of society purified, woman receives her share of advantage. Whatever woman can do to help in American politics, by so much she hastens the time of her own recognition as a political equal. The country has made immense strides in material development during the last quarter of a century. Huge commercial enterprises have arisen like giants in armor, and have strode from ocean to ocean, leaving tracks of steel and handprints of light.

The triumphs of mind over matter stamp this period illustrious among the centuries. Within this success there hides danger. The cultivation of one set of faculties tends to the disuse of others. The loss of one faculty sharpens others; the blind are sensitive to touch. Has not the extreme cultivation of the commercial faculty permitted others as essential to national life, to be blighted by disuse?

Out of the heart are the issues of life in politics as well as in religion. Women have much heart. Politics need heart.

Sentiment is the mightiest force in civilization; not sentimentality, but sentiment.

In the earlier years of the world’s history, human needs demanded grosser forms of force, and these received man’s homage. Woman, because of her physical structure, was incapacitated for preeminent service. She was either man’s toy or his slave, as he was noble or brutish. Later, when he passed from the nomadic period, and sought an abiding place under a roof instead of a tent, and developed municipal government, she ruled over temporal things in that home; she was not the companion of man’s brain or heart, and therefore not a factor in his government. With the growth of human brotherhood, and its necessary correlative, popular government, woman, as a part of glorified humanity and elevated with its uplift, found herself side by side with man; his helper not only, as formerly, in things temporal, but his companion in all things. To-day all forces in human existence and human relations have been exalted and refined. As far removed as is the beast of burden from the electrician’s wire, so far is the woman of the earlier years from her sister of the twentieth century’s dawn.

As the humanitarian idea has plowed its way through human history, woman has developed with that idea, and now her finer instincts, her keener intuitions, and her patient heart are the full complement of the robust masculinity which has conquered nature. The two united glorify humanity.

It is no longer a question of man or woman, but of quality of service, and of power to meet the world’s need.

The ideal woman is no longer the pale, white lily of medieval romance; she is a living, breathing, thinking, doing human being — a well-equipped helpmeet in all life’s activities. There is no grander science than that of politics, except the science of theology. How God governs the universe of mind and holds in his hand the universe of matter is the grandest theme the soul can contemplate; next in dignity are the principles and methods which control and apply human agencies to masses of citizens for the general good. This is political science. We pity the narrowness which can not comprehend the dignity of this study; we are patient with weakness which can not grasp it; we make no answer to those who ridicule it; but we give heart and hand in patriotic devotion to the women who reach out to know and to do large things for the home and for the flag.

There is another side of the question which should appeal to all women. None dispute woman’s preeminence in the home, and true woman desires most of all to be faithful there to prepare the food, to make the garments, and to minister in the nursery to little children is the dream of youth and the blessed fruition of mature years; but to many a mother’s heart has come the disappointment of a loss of power, a limitation of influence, when early manhood takes the boy from the home, or when, even before that time, in school or elsewhere, he touches the great world and begins to be bewildered with its controversies, its trade, with questions of economics and politics.

The problems which vex philosophers and worry statesmen knock for admission at the door of his mind. Then, often, comes the mother’s first sense of separation from her child. Disappointing is her answer if she is obliged to say, “My son, I do not know; you must ask somebody else.” Sad indeed will be her heart if she finds that he soon learns to respect those outside the home more than he does his mother in the home, because his inquiries are answered elsewhere. Does the question come, “Where is father; is it not his duty to answer the boy’s questionings?” To be sure it is; but fathers are burdened with the care of providing for the family. They must procure shelter, and food, and clothing. Too often these necessities drive out of sight and out of mind the boy’s education, even in political matters. Mothers always have to do what others leave undone. Happy is that mother whose ability to help her child continues on from babyhood into youth, manhood, and maturity. Blessed is the son who need not leave his mother at the threshold of the world’s activities, but may always and everywhere have her blessing and her help. Thrice blessed are the son and the mother between whom there exists an association not only physical and affectional, but spiritual and intellectual, and broad and wide as is the scope of the being of each. Let no woman fear such association. Let her covet it as a gem in the crown of her maternity. In infancy and babyhood the mother holds her son by her affection and his necessity; in young manhood and maturity the ideal relation is a union so fine and close that touch of brain and thrill of nerve best illustrate it. Such mothers and such sons shall bring to the nation, which is only the larger home, a priceless benediction.

We contend, therefore, that woman’s relation to politics and her leadership therein are justified by the very elements of her nature; by her relation to the human family, as wife, as mother, as the mother of citizens, as a wage earner, as a philanthropist, and as a Christian. When the political power involved in these relations is obtained, the ideal social state will be set up.



Source: World’s Congress of Representative Women, ed. May Wright Sewall (Chicago: Rand, McNally & Company) 1894, pp. 439-445.