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Rhode Island Suffrage Association

Oct. 8, 1891 — Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association


In the early days of the settlement of Rhode Island, the women who accompanied our forefathers to these Colonies, bravely shared in all the discomforts and privations incident to the building up of new homes on uncultivated ground and among an uncivilized people. Many of these settlers were refugees from the puritanic persecutions in Massachusetts, and, I presume, if the truth were known, the woman rendered valuable service in devising that rate system of religious liberty and toleration by which our Commonwealth has, more than any other in the world, deserved that worthy name. In the history of that time, stands out the name of one woman, the ancestor of one of Rhode Island’s oldest families, whose memory her descendants now living here, may well hold in the deepest reverence. This was Mary Dyer, wife of William Dyer, the first General Recorder of the province of Rhode Island. Directed, as she believed, by the Hold Spirit, she went to Boston, to plead with the authorities there for money to the persecuted Quakers, and was banished therefrom on pain of death. Returning home to her family, she soon believed she heard the inner voice bringing to her a divine summons to return to Massachusetts on a second mission. This she heroically obeyed; and, in the year 1660, she suffered a cruel death by hanging on Boston Common.

Written history, however, except in rare instances, except in rare instances, makes little mention of women or their deeds; but, tradition often hands down in families, the record of great nobility of character in the private womanhood of past generations. And such records are not wanting here. When the war of the revolution came, Rhode Island women were found ready to perform all the duties and to endure all the hardships of that perilous period. In the year 1777, the island of R. I. was in possession of the British forces. John Fiske, in his history of the American revolution, states that, under the rule of the Commander, “no citizen of Newport was safe in his own house. He not only arrested people and threw them into jail without assigning any reason, but he encouraged his soldiers in plundering houses, and offering insult to ladies.” “If he chanced to meet a Quaker who failed to take off his hat, he would seize him by the collar, and knock his head against the wall, or strike him with the gnarled stick he usually carried.” I know of one Newport woman, whose house was invaded at that time by British officers; they taking its best apartments and its best household supplies, giving such orders as they chose to its inmates. This woman had one daughter, a fair maiden of sixteen, who was one of that galaxy of beauties for which our lovely island was famous. According to the custom of the time, it was this girl’s duty to milk the family cows. That mother let her child out of a bedroom window with her milk-pails, at early morning, and again at evening, and waited to take her in, keeping a constant watch that the eyes of the rude Britishers might ever rest on the fair young face. Every hour of her time, for she had many children, was filled with numerous and wearing cares. One day a French officer was brought bleeding into the house, from a skirmish with the British in a field near by, and placed on a bed in an apartment usually occupied by the enemy. This woman, who did not dare to let her husband enter their rooms, went in herself, to assist in dressing the poor fellow’s wounds. And, when the English officers came rushing in, brandishing their swords and threatening him with instant death, she calmly looked them in the face, and rebuked their inhumanity. Her bearing quelled their savage instincts for the time, and, until he recovered, she continued to minister to his necessities with her own fair hands. What days and nights of anxiety, what care and trouble she endured, what fear she smothered in her own brave heart, no historian has ever chronicled. But, with other women like her, she, Quaker as she was, and hating war, did a worthy and a peaceful part, in giving us a country of our own.

Another woman, a generation earlier still, reared in the town of Smithfield, eight stalwart sons and six noble daughters, who all lived to build up households of their own; and, when her children were well-grown, she took eight friendless, destitute children, one after another, and brought them up in her own house. A grand-daughter of hers, whom I know many years ago, told me that this woman, even in her old age, was the counsellor, the doctor, the nurse and lawyer among the scattered people of all the region round about her; and that no man among them would have bought or sold a farm, or entered into any new business, without consulting “Aunt Margaret,” as she was uniformly called. Her descendants are to be found, at this day, in at least twelve towns in this State; and, among them have been jurists, statesmen, preachers and philanthropists, as well as farmers, merchants and manufacturers; and I have never heard of one of them being supported by any of our towns or by the State, either as a pauper or a criminal. In the long struggle for the overthrow of slavery, when to be an avowed abolitionist meant social disgrace, sectarian disapproval, and danger of mob violence, there were Rhode Island women who braved all these for the sake of the downtrodden slave.

It is too early now to write any sketch of the efforts of Rhode Island women, in the cause of temperance and the prohibition of the liquor traffic; but, in the history written in the future, when men are more just to women, it will be shown that they bore a worthy part in this great reformation.

My own recollections carry me back to a period, when the chief occupation of the citizens of Rhode Island, outside of Newport and Providence was farming. And, all up and down these country roads lived women to whom it was no play to be prosperous farmers’ wives and daughters. The flax from the time it was plucked from the ground, the wool as it was sheared from the sheep, the milk as it came from the cows, with many other products of the farm, were all consigned to the women, to be converted by their never idle hands, into clothing, food, and other comforts and luxuries for the household; the surplus frequently to be disposed of, as a means of furnishing their own wardrobes with such necessary articles as the farm did not produce. And yet, these women, many of them, were not only shrewd in matters of business, but, they were readers of books, and thinkers on all questions which were then considered to be of National, State, or Town concern. They talked politics with their husbands and neighbors, and read with eagerness the current news, as it was brought weekly to their doors, by “The Manufacturers’ and Farmers’ Journal,” at that time, the leading authority in all matters of public interest. Of course, they were bred in the old ideas concerning women; and their duties kept them chiefly confined to their homes. A woman who was often seen abroad, was called in derision, “a spinner of street yarn.” Then, we were under the old common law, as it was inherited from our English ancestry. We had not full manhood suffrage. Only men owning land could vote. The idea of women voting had not entered the Rhode Island mind. Married women had no property rights. Whatever they owned before marriage, or inherited afterward, became at once, the property of their husbands; and it was a common remark, when a rich girl married, that “she brought her husband a handsome fortune.” After marriage, she was expected to “pay her way,” by the various services at that time performed by women in well-to-do households, and, she was considered fortunate, if her husband provided liberally for the support of the family, and especially, if he indulged her tastes in personal expenses. Her identity as a person, was entirely merged in that of her husband. “Man and wife were one,” and that one was the man.

This state of the married woman was reflected upon the unmarried; and the daughters in a family were considered of far less value than the sons, because the work they did brought in no money and so, they were supposed not to earn anything; but to be only an expense to their fathers. The men, old and young, were the heads of the household. Outside of Quaker families, rich men sent their sons to College. It was not thought necessary or wise for girls to learn beyond the three R’s. Brown University was established for the higher education of “the youth of the State;” but that meant only the boys. The women and girls never thought of asking for admission. They were satisfied to stay at home and work, that the boys might go. And yet, as I have said, there was much intellectual and practical ability and wisdom among them, which, combined with that of the men, in the construction and government of the State, might have made thereof a place fit for gods to dwell in. But their time for protest had not come; and it would have cost a woman her reputation, to say she had not all the rights she wanted. And now, with broader opportunities, with more education and enlightenment, with modern improvements, that render household labors and cares less onerous and absorbing, giving leisure to women to look about them for wider activities, in which, as they enter, women are showing remarkable ability and faithfulness, let us consider what is the legal status, what are the customs to which the daughters and successors of those earlier women are now subjected in Rhode Island. Looking over the broad ground of the world, we see every where, signs of growth toward the elevation of women ¾ Australia taking steps for their enfranchisement, India for their education, China and Persia catching glimpses of the light of the advancing sentiment, the whole continent of Europe with Great Britain, rocking under the demand for equality without regard to sex. Our own country has given to women partial suffrage in twenty-two States; and one, Wyoming, is reaping the blessedness of the full and impartial enfranchisement of her daughters. Out own State is behind all these; but even here, we cannot escape the march onward. A crack has been opened in the door of Brown University, in response to our incessant knocking, and its worthy President proposes to make the most of this small privilege. Our antiquated prejudice against women on the boards of control of State institutions, has vanished; and women have been appointed to help establish and manage the State School for Deaf Mutes, while other women are co-operating successfully with good men in making out State Home and School what it was intended to be, a place for the proper training of citizens.

And yet, with all this advancement, for which we are devoutly thankful, Rhode Island is still standing far below the high standard of justice to which her own early declarations and the civilizations of the age are calling her.

Section 1st of Article 1st of our State Constitution reads thus: “In the words of the Father of his country, we declare that the basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and alter their constitutions of government; but that the constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all.”

Section 2nd declares: “All free governments are instituted for the protection, safety and happiness of the people. All laws, therefore, should be made for the good of the whole.” And, in this manner, the twenty-three sections of the 1st Article treat of the rights of “the people,” often using the word “persons;” and both in a manner which any intelligent person could construe in no other way, but as including both men and women. But, when we come to Article 2nd, “Of the qualification of electors,” then comes out the cloven and the cleaving foot. “Every male citizen of the United States, who has had his residence in this State for one year,” etc., “shall thereafter have a right to vote,” etc.

One of the chief qualifications for voting prescribed in this article is the payment of taxes. Women in Rhode Island pay taxes on near a hundred millions of dollars’ worth of property; and that they are citizens, and were not forgotten, is admitted by the use of the word “male.”

Following the State Constitution are the General Statutes, declaring the rights, duties and restrictions of citizenship; all based, of course, on the system of a masculine government, but openly making no discrimination on account of sex, until we come to Chapter 339, “Of the property of married women, and the distribution of the same.” Let us now consider what is the property of a married woman. Whatever of real or personal estate she may have inherited or received as a gift, or acquired by purchase with her own money, either before or after marriage; and whatever she may earn after marriage, by work outside of her duties as wife and mother, is legally hers; and, as the law declares, “shall be absolutely secured to her sole and separate use; neither the same, nor the rents and profits or income of the same; nor any part thereof, shall be liable to be attached, or in any way taken for debts of the husband, either before or after his death; and, upon the death of the husband, in the lifetime of the wife, shall be and remain her sole and separate property.” This sounds fair and just to the unenlightened ear. But, by Section 3rd of this Chapter, it is declared that “the receipt or discharge of the husband for the rents and profits of such property, shall be a sufficient receipt and discharge therefor, unless previous notice in writing shall be given by the wife to the lessor, debtor or incorporate company from whom such rents or profits are payable;” which means that, without a domestic quarrel, a wife has no legal control or “separate use” of her own property.

Section 4th declares: “A married woman may dispose of her real estate, household furniture, plate, jewels, stock, or shares in the capital stock of any incorporated company, money on deposit in any savings bank or institution for savings, with the interest thereon, or debts secured by mortgage on property, when in the deed or conveyance, she is joined by her husband; she privately acknowledging such deed or conveyance to be her voluntary act, and that she does not wish to retract the same.” Section 6th declares: “Any married woman may sell any of her personal estate, other than that described in Section 4th, in the same manner as if she were single and unmarried; but nothing in this section shall be construed to authorize any married woman to transact business as a trader.” Now, it must require a careful search to find what personal property a woman may have to dispose of other than that described in Section 4th, unless is be her clothing, or, as a man versed in the law explained, “she might keep hens and sell the eggs.” And still I cannot see how she could do this without “transacting business as a trader.” Now, lest some misunderstanding might arise from the foregoing that might impair some right of the husband over the wife’s property, Section 14 declares, “The right of the husband in the real estate of the wife, as tenant by the curtesy, and his right to administer without account upon her personal estate, not disposed of by her last will and testament, shall not be impaired by the provisions of this chapter.” Now let us consider what is the property of the husband. Whatever he has received by inheritance or gift, or purchased with his own money, either before or after marriage, is his, of course. After marriage, while the wife keeps the house, bears the children, and performs all the duties of wifehood and motherhood, leaving him free to go out where the world opens to him its avenues to wealth, all the property thus accumulated is legally his; while in her household labors she may, and often does, work more hours every day than he. If he dies intestate, of all this property she is legally entitled only to the use or income of one-third of the real estate during her life; and, if there are children, to one-third of the personal estate, the remainder going to them; but if there are no children she is entitled to one-half, the remainder, with the two-thirds of the real estate, going to his kindred, while, in the event of her death, “as tenant by the curtest,” he has the use or income of the whole of her real estate during his life, and, if she dies without a will, he virtually has the whole of her personal property for his own use, without accountability to children or to her kindred. Again, married mothers have not the same right to their children that the fathers have. Witness Section 1st of Chapter 154, which declares, “Every person authorized by law to make a will, except married women, shall have a right to appoint by will a guardian or guardians for his children during their minority.” Think of that, mothers of legitimate children. Did you know that your husbands, on their death beds, if they are so disposed, may deprive you of all control over your children? I advise you to read the whole chapter concerning the powers of guardians, that you may learn how entirely the right of the mother is ignored by Rhode Island law. Then I think you will never say again, as I fear some of you have said, that you have all the rights you want. Unmarried mothers have the undisputed control of their children.

Also, I advise women to read Chapter 176, “Of descent, distribution and advancement,” where it is declared that intestate estates, if there are no children of the deceased person, shall go to the father of such person, if there be a father. If there be no father, then to the mother, brothers and sisters of such person in equal portions, if any there be. If there be no mother, etc., then to the grandfather if there be one.”

And so on, the male progenitor always having the advantage, if one can be found out of his grave.

Now, my dear friends, I think you will agree with me, that for us whose eyes are opened to see these great wrongs, there is no release from our labor, until women help to make the laws and establish the customs by which humanity shall be governed in its upward and onward way.

And our part in this righteous conflict, this world wide reformation, is to be faithful to our special purpose here ¾ the enfranchisement of Rhode Island women.



Source: Brown Digital Repository. Brown University Library.