What Have Women Done?
1915 — US Senate Committee, Washington DC
Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen of the Committee:
Since our last appeal was made to your committee a vote has been taken in four Eastern States upon the question of amending their constitutions for woman suffrage. The inaction of Congress in not submitting a Federal amendment naturally leads us to infer that members believe the proper method by which women may secure the vote is through the referendum. We found in those four States what has always been true whenever any class of people have asked for any form of liberty and was best described by Macaulay when he said: “If a people are turbulent they are unfit for liberty; if they are quiet, they do not want it.” We met a curious dilemma. On the one hand a great many men voted in the negative because women in Great Britain had made too emphatic a demand for the vote. Since they made that demand it is reported that 10,000,000 men have been killed, wounded or are missing through militant action, but all of that is held as naught compared with the burning of a few vacant buildings. Evidently the logic that these American men followed was: Since some turbulent women in another land are unfit to vote, no American woman shall vote. There was no reasoning that could change the attitude of those men. On the other hand the great majority of the men who voted against us, as well as the great majority of the members of Legislatures and Congress who oppose this movement, hold that women have given no signal that they want the vote. Between the horns of this amazing dilemma the Federal amendment and State suffrage seem to be caught fast.
So those of us who want to learn how to obtain the vote have naturally asked ourselves over and over again what kind of a demand can be made. We get nothing by “watchful waiting” and if we are turbulent we are pronounced unfit to vote. We turned to history to learn “what kind of a demand the men of our own country made and determined to do what they had done. The census of 1910 reported 27,000,000 males over 21. Of these 9,500,000 are direct descendants of the population of 1800; 2,458,873 are negroes; 15,040,278 are aliens, naturalized or descendants of naturalized citizens since 1800. The last two classes compose two-thirds of the male population over 21. The enfranchisement of negro men is such recent history that it is unnecessary to repeat here that they made no demand for the vote. The naturalization laws give citizenship to any man who chooses to make a residence of this country for five years and automatically every man who is a citizen becomes a voter in the State of his residence. In the 115 years since 1800 not one single foreigner has ever been asked whether he wanted the vote or whether he was fit for it — it has literally been thrust upon him. Two-thirds of our men of voting age today have not only made no demand for the vote but they have never been asked to give any evidence of capacity to use it intelligently.
We turned again to history to see how the men who lived in this country in 1800 got their votes. At that time 8 per cent. of the total population were voters in New York as compared with 25 per cent now. There was a struggle in all the colonial States to broaden the suffrage. New York seemed always to have lagged behind the others and therefore it forms a good example. It was next to the last State to remove the land qualification and it was not a leader in the extension of the suffrage to any class.
In 1740 the British Parliament disqualified the Catholics for naturalization in this country. That enactment had been preceded in several of the States by their definite disfranchisement. In 1699 they were disfranchised by an Act of the Assembly of New York. Although the writers on the early franchise say that Jews were not permitted to vote anywhere in this country in 1701, as they certainly were not in England, yet occasionally they apparently did so. In New York that year there was a definite enactment disfranchising them. In 1737 the Assembly passed another disfranchising Act. Catholics and Jews were disfranchised in most States. It is interesting to learn how they became enfranchised. One would naturally suppose that together or separately they would make some great demand for political equality with Protestants but there is no record that they did. I find that the reason why our country became so liberal to them was not because there was any demand on their part and not because there was any special advocacy of their enfranchisement by statesmen. It was due to the fact that in the Revolution, Great Britain, having difficulty with the American colonies on the south side of the St. Lawrence River, did as every belligerent country does and tried to hold Canada by granting her favors. In order to make the Canadian colonies secure against revolution the British Parliament, which had previously disfranchised the Catholics and the Jews, now extended a vote to them. The American Constitution makers could not do less than Great Britain had done, and so in every one of the thirteen States they were guaranteed political equality with Protestants.
The next great movement was the elimination of the land qualification and on this we find that history is practically silent. In Connecticut and Rhode Island a small petition was presented to the Assembly asking for its removal. In New York in the constitutional convention of 1821 when some members advocated its removal others asked, “Where is the demand? Who wants to vote that has no land?” The answer was that there had been some meetings in New York in behalf of removing this qualification. No one of them had seen such a meeting but some members had heard that a few had been held in the central districts of the State. This constitutes the entire demand that has been made by the men of our country for the vote.
In contrast we may ask what have women done? Again I may say that New York is a fair example because it is the largest of the States in population and has the second city in size in the world and occupies perhaps the most important position in any land in which a suffrage referendum has been taken. Women held during the six months prior to the election in 1915, 10,300 meetings. They printed and circulated 7,500,000 leaflets or three-and-a-half for every voter. These leaflets weighed more than twenty tons. They had 770 treasuries in the State among the different groups doing suffrage work and every bookkeeper except two was a volunteer. Women by the thousands contributed to the funds of that campaign, in one group 12,000 public school teachers. On election day 6,330 women watched at the polls from 5:45 in the morning until after the vote was counted. I was on duty myself from 5:30 until midnight. There were 2,500 campaign officers in the State who gave their time without pay. The publicity features were more numerous and unique than any campaign of men or women had ever had. They culminated in a parade in New York City which was organized without any effort to secure women outside the city to participate in it, yet 20,000 marched through Fifth Avenue to give some idea of the size of their demand for the vote.
What was the result? If we take the last announcement from the board of elections the suffrage amendment received 535,000 votes — 2,000 more than the total vote of the nine States where women now have suffrage through a referendum. It was not submitted in Wyoming, Utah or Illinois. Yet New York suffragists did not win because the opponents outvoted them. How did this happen? Why did not such evidence of a demand win the vote? Because the unscrupulous men of the State worked and voted against woman suffrage, aided and abetted by the weakminded and illiterate, who are permitted a vote in New York. In Rochester the male inmates of the almshouse and rescue home were taken out to vote against the amendment. Men too drunk to sign their own names voted all over the State, for drunkards may vote in New York. In many of the polling places the women watchers reported that throughout the entire day not one came to vote who did not have to be assisted; they did not know enough to cast their own vote.
Those are some of the conditions women must overcome in a referendum. One can eventually be carried even in New York but we believe we have made all the sacrifices which a just Government ought to expect of us. Even the Federal Amendment is difficult enough, with the ratification of 36 Legislatures required, but we may at least appeal to a higher class of men. We were obliged to make our campaign in twenty-four different languages . . .
It is too unfair and humiliating treatment of American women to compel us to appeal to the men of all nations of the earth for the vote which has been so freely and cheaply given to them. We believe we ought to have the benefit of the method provided by the Federal Constitution.
Source: The History of Woman Suffrage, Vol V, ed. Ida Husted Harper (NY: J.J. Little and Ives), 1922, pp. 752-754.