Municipal Suffrage for Women
If we are to approach the great measure of woman suffrage by any preliminary measures, no one seems to me more appropriate than that of municipal suffrage, giving as it does to women the opportunity of beginning the exercise of their rights and the fulfillment of their duties on a small scale, and in regard to matters of which they may easily acquire full knowledge, and in which they have a deep personal interest.
The unit of society is the individuals, and self-control or individual liberty is the basis of all free life and all free government. Society is an association of individuals recognizing the rights of each; and the first object of government is to secure the welfare of all without sacrificing the freedom of any one. The next institution is the family or home, an aggregate of individuals bound by a common tie. This is a natural society, which will exist and continue in spite of all civil failures. The right of women in the family has been more or less recognized in all ages, , and our own laws have been constantly becoming more just and fair in regard to her legal position here. Yet the family is not recognized as a civil institution. The law deals with individuals. It is not the head of the family, but the man, woman or child of responsible age who is punished for misdeeds.
The township or municipality is the earliest and most important institution which is purely civil in its character, and it is the bulwark of all social freedom and conservative government. The liberties, and even the existence of Roman, Italian, German, and French States have been preserved in the towns or communes when empires and states crumbled and went to decay. France especially has sustained a good local government through periods of anarchy in the central government, not even changing her mayors and local officers. The town is near to the hearts and hearths of the citizens. It should e the guardian of the home, the protector of the helpless, the educator of the children, the preserver of health, the avenger of crime, the bond of social union. Wander where he will, the citizen may claim his settlement and come home to his town to be cared for in sickness and old age. The government of the original town is simple and direct. The idea of true democracy is better carried out in the original town-meeting than anywhere eels. Here every citizen meets on an equal footing, and the plainest man may make his influence felt on whatever subject he understands better or feels more deeply on than his neighbor. Hence it is the greatest of educational institutions, for everything is brought to the test of free, earnest discussion. The town-meeting is the nursery of independent thought and natural eloquence.
Think of the importance of the subjects here treated of: the comfort and convenience of the people depends upon the road, the bridge, the street lighting and grading. The beauty of the town is to be cared for by shade-trees, fountains and public buildings. The children are to be educated, teachers selected, schoolhouses built, The water supply, the drainage, the health provisions, the restrictions of the traffic in liquor, the prevention of vice, the peace of the streets, the arrest of criminals — these subjects are all to be discussed and settled in tow-meeting, and every citizen has a direct and personal interest in their settlement. Active business men leave their offices to attend them when any important measure is up.
There is thus a double value to the individual in sharing in the government of his town. First, he can care directly for his own interests in all these near concerns of human welfare, on in those which he has made his own, like education, temperance or morality, through a broad sympathy with humanity. Secondly, he gains the best of all practical education, by a free intercourse and discussion of important matters with his equals. Even to be a listener is to assist in these discussions, as the French express it. The city, as a matter of convenience, adopts a different machinery of government, but the original benefit is not wholly lost.
Now why should women be shut out from a participation in both these advantages? Let us lay aside our prejudices and consider the subject as a fresh, new question. Here they are; here they must and will be — a majority of the inhabitants of the commonwealth, as intelligent, as virtuous, as patriotic, as honest as any others, are they not? Why should they not share directly, by voting, in the government of the towns in which they live? Do they not care for the material welfare, the convenience and beauty of the town? If not, why admit them to your village improvement societies, where you know they are often foremost in raising the money and forwarding the work? Would you not consider it perfect folly to plan such an association without taking them into account? Are they not competent to judge of educational matters? You have decided that question by giving them a vote on the election of school committees, and declaring them eligible for such offices. We have more than a hundred women on school committees. They act as supervisors and on the boards of education, and as your agent testifies, to the great advantage and welfare of the schools. Why confine their action to these specialities.. Cannot a woman judge of the location of a schoolhouse as well as of the qualifications of a teacher? Are they not intelligent enough to judge of these simple matters of every day life? Why then commit seven eighths of the teaching of the commonwealth to their care? We carefully build normal schools to fit them for the great work of bringing up future citizens, and shut them out from the great school of life and responsibility which gives strength of character and self-reliance. Do they not have regard to public health? Why then do you demand their services in your hospitals, your law requiring a woman physician in certain institutions? Would not care for health in the home fit them for this public care, and the public experience and react favorably upon the home?
Are they afraid of questions of drainage and sewerage, as we have been told? The Alumnæ Association of College Graduates, some five hundred strong, have devoted their work to these very subjects, and have brought out a body of valuable statistics, which has commanded the attention of those best acquainted with these subjects. There are college-educated women, and they have turned their studies voluntarily to precisely the questions which belong to municipal government. Every town and city in our Commonwealth is suffering from the want of just such intelligent, conscientious, disinterested work in all these directions. We have, in every town, educated, intelligent women, who could add their work to that of men in helping forward the progress of good government, in all these matters. It is not the most wasteful policy to throw out all this power and let it be expended in matters of private concern only?
The good housekeeper is well fitted to be a good town-keeper, looking after won expenses as rigidly as her own. She might, perhaps, manage to audit books so carefully as not to allow defalcations to run unrepressed for fifteen years. The good mother is far on her way to be a good school committee woman; and for the perfection of all workers, commend me to that most precious of women, the good aunt, of whom Theodore Parker said: “When father and mother forsake him, she, like the Lord, will take him up.” There are hundreds of such, known to be wise, unselfish and untiring in work, who should have charge over your almshouse, reformatories and gaols. You have wisely given the girlsl thrown on the mercies of the State into such charge. Give the noble women who have claimed this duty a legal, open right.
As the first step towards utilizing this power for the highest good, we ask men to make women equal citizens of the towns to which they have been born and reared, by giving them the right of municipal suffrage.
Source: Woman’s Journal, Boston, December 10, 1887.