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Idiots and Women

February 20, 1868 — Library Association, Chicago IL


[As reported in the newspaper] — 

Idiots and women! They might say that was not complimentary to her own sex, but what she said was the law. It prescribed that people twenty-one years of age could vote if they were not criminals, paupers, idiots, or women. It was, however, as to the latter class that the law was strictly enforced. What were the poor white in the South but paupers? Yet they voted. Who were criminals if not the men in the South who fought against their country, and the men who, in the North, aided them? Yet they voted. Who too, were idiots, if not the people of the East and West who supported Andrew Johnson? Yet they voted.

She protested against putting our mothers and sisters in the same category with those she had mentioned. When she was told women were excluded from the ballot, etc., on account of a supposed superiority, she could only answer, “Nonsense.” It had been decided some hundreds of years ago in England, that a man could take his wife to the market and sell her; that she had no power over her own children, and that her husband could beat her with a stick the size of his thumb. Such had once been allowed by that common law on which our present laws were based. Had those things been done on account of the superiority of women?

The clearest thinkers and warmest hearts the world possessed to-day were in favor of woman’s having the ballot. They would not be for it if it would tend to degrade women, notwithstanding what the Advance might say. It was said that customs, prejudices, &c., were opposed to the change, and it was true, for custom, antiquity and prejudices were always on the side of existing law. 

Did those who made the laws five hundred years ago know any better than those living to-day what was best for woman, or what was her one? What, then, did the fat amount to that antiquity was opposed to placing the ballot in the hands of women?

All proposed changes were in the minority at first. When people said they did not wish to argue the matter, and that they believed women should stay at home, and that they had a lifelong conviction on the subject, she would ask them how they got that conviction, and whether they had fully and fairly investigated the question. As a general thing it would be found they had not.

Why should a government, professing freedom to all, deny it to about one-half of its citizens? Why should it be stated that taxation and representation went always together, and then have woman’s property taxed, while she was denied representation? Why did it happen that in this land there was the worst of aristocracies where the men were the aristocrats and the women the plebeians?

Some said that women had made men their representatives, and given them their proxies. When did that happen? When was it done? She had never authorized any one to vote or speak for her. Woman had all the advantage of responsibility taken away from her.

She was the most astonished when men stood up in America and said they governed woman because they could do it better than the women themselves could. All history taught that every class legislated for itself and against outsiders. If men legislated better and more generously for women than they would for themselves, how did it happen that there were laws regarding women on the statute-books that were a disgrace to the nineteenth century? Bad laws did not hurt protected women, but they did the helpless ones, and they encouraged bad men in their wicked deeds. 

Not long ago in Wisconsin a man beat his wife until she finally went into a court of law and demanded protection. The court decided that he had full legal authority to do what he had done, and to take her home and to do it as often as he chose. Had any man but that woman’s husband treated her in that way he would have been sent to jail; but her lawful protector was allowed to do what he pleased. 

A woman in Virginia who had been brutally treated by her husband left him and went to another part of the State, and worked and prospered. Her husband found her out, tried to get her to return with him, and, when he failed, entered her home and stole all that she had. When she brought suit, the decision was that her husband had a right to what she earned.

Not long ago a farmer’s daughter married a schoolmaster in the district where she lived. When her father died, the law took his farm, sold it, gave her one-third of the proceeds, and then remaining two-thirds to others, there having been no will. In the State of Pennsylvania, a father could do what he would with his children, while the mother had no power over them.

What was to be thought of the laws she had just mentioned? and who could truly say that they were dead letters on the statute-book? Did such laws show that men legislated as well for women as the latter would do for themselves.

Some said that woman’s representation was in her beauty and in her influence over man. Suppose, however, that the woman was ugly, or that she had no husband to influence, where was her representation?

No taxation without representation was part of our government. It was what our fathers fought for, and it was what all true American citizens believed in. There were sixty voters in the town she came from, who, altogether, only aid one-twentieth of the tax that she did, she knew where their representation was, but where was hers?

There was no such thing as virtual representation known in the law, and woman’s influence over man did not amount to so very much. Had, then, men no influence over women? Was it all the other way? She thought not. If woman did not have time to properly inform herself so as to vote understandingly, neither then did she have time to properly inform herself so as to influence men in political matters. 

The Advance said that no one who was orthodox and believed in the Bible, supported the doctrine of giving the ballot to women. She herself was brought up in the old-fashioned orthodox way. She could quote name after name of orthodox people who were in favor of it. “A woman’s place is at home,” said Dr. Holland, and she agreed with him, when a woman had a home. She agreed, too, that woman’s work was not politics; neither was man’s work politics. It was because woman, whose work was not politics, constantly interfered with those whose work it was, that our country had been saved from shame and disgrace.

If women did not know enough, educate them. Some would say, however, that the trouble lay deeper than that; that it was in woman herself. Did she not know at the very least as much as the ignorant foreigners who came to New York? It was true that some women were good for nothing, and knew nothing. Why? Because God made them so to match some men. 

Some said women should not vote until they could fight on the battlefield. She would reply, physical capacity stood in the way of most women. The answer would then be, stand back from the polls, then. If that was so she would say to every man, physically incapacitated for serving in the army, “How does it happen that you vote? Stand back from the polls.” She would further say to those who from age were exempted from military duty. “Do you, too, stand back from the polls. As such people did vote, however, she concluded that physical incapacity was hardly a bar to voting.

They said woman was incapable of making laws. But they took it for granted that she understood them and punished her if she violated them. It was said that if woman voted, they would also hold offices. Well, what then? One man had asked her if it would not be fine to see a woman President, and to see her at a Cabinet meeting with a little baby in her arms. She replied to him, that if such a thing should happen, and a pure-minded, bright-eyed, clear-brained woman sat in the Presidential chair, with a little child in her arms, she would command at least as much respect from the nation as the drunken, bad, traitorous person now occupying that position. That answer settled the man. 

Some said women would vote for their husbands, or, at least, the same ticket. If the wives of thousands of drunkards in Massachusetts had been able to vote at the late election they would not have voted the ticket those husbands did. It was also said that if a man and his wife voted different tickets there would be strife in the household. She believed there was already strife in some households. Not all husbands and wives had the same religions, but they did not quarrel about it. If woman had the ballot she would be sure of being treated well during the thirty days previous to election. 

She wished the privilege of voting, while her friend on the other side did not want it. Because some women had all the rights they wanted, they should not forget that others had not. The wife who was protected by the strong arms of a true and loving husband might need nothing more, but those women who were poor, unprotected, widows or orphans, did need something more. 

Some said that woman’s strength was her weakness, and her helplessness her protection. Was it so? What answer would the woman who led lives of shame make to that? What answer would those women make to it who barely existed upon the dollar a week they get for their sewing. She looked beyond the women who were protected by strong arms and tender hearts, and she saw thousands of women, poor, starving, shamed, dishonored to bring riches to those women who condemned them. Would that she could bring some thousands of those women there, and let them pass in sad array before those listening to her. Let no one tell such a woman that her weakness was her strength — the very fiends below would mock the words. 

When woman had the ballot given her, new avenue after avenue of work would open before her.

Some said politics were too degrading for a woman to touch, and the voting place too filthy for her to enter, and the primary meetings and conventions too dirty for her to go to. The country would not be governed well until men took their wives and lady friends and went to primary meetings as they would go to church. 

The war could not have been fought to its successful close but for the devotion and ardor of the women of the country. Who could show more right to interfere in the settlement of our difficulties than those wives, sisters and mothers who had given their nearest and dearest to save their country? And the ballot would surely be theirs; it could not be otherwise.

. . . 

I would make these women care for the State by a stake in it.

One cries out in answer to this, she has not time &c . . . A second exclaims, her proper sphere is home, there is her work . .  A third declares that women do not know anything about politics, and therefore should not be entrusted with any part of their keeping . . . Doubted, cries a fourth, denied utterly indeed.

The widows who see the homes they have helped to earn, the lands they have helped to buy, the very house with which they have been served their household work — swept away from them by an unjust decision of a dying husband, and a wicked law. Ae these duly represented and have they all the rights they want already? The toiling wives who, struggling hard to save a home, to educate their children properly and clothe them decently see their wages week after week, year after year, paid to their husbands or taken afterwards by them to be squandered in folly and vice, yet living on, staying on, enduring all things rather than part from their children whom the law would give to the degrading control of the husband. Are these duly represented and have they all the rights they want already?

. . . 

[. . . taking as her text the law that “all people of the age of twenty-one years shall be eligible to office, and have the right to vote, save only criminals, paupers, idiots, and women.”]

Here is a nation that declares that it gains its power from the consent of the governed, and yet never receives and never seeks the consent of one-half the governed! Here is a nation declaring that taxation and representation are inseparable, and yet taxing a woman’s property wherever it can be found, but for ever denying woman the right to say how this tax shall be expended!

And what reason is assigned for this? most men can give no better reason than the bishop gave for believing in the Bible — namely, first, that he was a bishop, and second, that he knew nothing about it!

[She waxed wroth over the law’s injustice to women. She cited one case of a man in Connecticut who married a woman worth 50,000 dollars in her own right. this man, first of all, paid for his wedding-clothes out of his wife’s money, and when he died (as he did within a year), willed to his wife the interest of her own money, so long as she remained a widow!]

Some people tell us that women influence enough by their beauty. But how about those who have no beauty? Have plain-looking women no rights? Others say, “Women’s business is to look after the house.” If this is your position, why do you not carry the argument to its logical conclusion, and say to the storekeeper, “Your business is to sell soft goods, therefore you shall not vote?”

People say that women are silly creatures, not fit to vote. Well, some of them are, and Mrs. Poyser put it, “The Almighty perhaps made them so, to match some of the men.”



Source: “Idiots and Women: Lecture of Anna E. Dickinson Before the Library Association,” Chicago Tribune, February 21, 1868, p. 4.