Endorsing Women’s Enfranchisement
October 20, 1870 — The Decade Meeting, Apollo Hall, New York City
Gentlemen and Ladies: — It seems scarcely fitting that I, so young in the cause of women’s enfranchisement, should venture to speak on this occasion, and in presence of these veteran soldiers for the right.
Remembering, as I must, that the first of these gatherings was presided over by her who is our distinguished chairman to-night, and that she has given to this cause not only earnest sympathy and persevering labor, but a genius versatile and brilliant; that by her side was found then, as to-day, those two grand women, Mrs. [Lucretia] Mott and Mrs. [Elizabeth Cady] Stanton; that then, as now, the irrepressible Susan stood as a pillar of strength, against whom the waves of opposition and the storms of contention beat as against the granite rock-when I remember all this, and realize that these older champions of liberty are all before you, I feel now pale must by my light beside these stars of the first magnitude.
But I am, after all, as much interested in the subject as they are; and so I venture to stand upon the platform at this decade meeting, and hail, with them, the gradual awakening of the women of this land to a consciousness of their lofty origin. the sacredness of their duties and the glory of their destiny.
Hitherto these indefatigable laborers have sought to inspire their country-women; in the future it is to be their country-women who will inspire them. Whatever they to-day think of feel, whatever yearning after liberty thrills their hearts, is but a feeble pulsation of a sentiment that beats warm and full in the hearts of the women of America. An educated, thinking people cannot and will not remain in slavery. And, too, such a people cannot choose but despise that which is not worthy of respect; and I ask, are men worthy of respect, who profess to be republican in sentiment, yet constitute themselves, each and all, despots in their own families, and fortify themselves in that position by laws framed in the name of liberty? Gentlemen, do you see the shoals upon which you are drifting? for, believe me, “the time cometh and now is,” when he would be loved and respected by women must be just to women.
Point not exultingly to our frail bodies. The body is but clay, and though you hold that in subjection you gain nothing. The soul-the fine spirit-escapes you. The real woman is beyond your power-calm, self-poised, and triumphant. Would you grasp a shadow for a substance? Where is your so-called free republic? Where your boasted equality? How protect you domestic happiness? You say it is founded upon love. Very well, can love exist without respect? Is respect born of injustice? Does justice consist in holding one human being subject to another? Alas! we have neither home, country or freedom, for nothing is ours truly which is not ours to hold and defend. It is a duty which you owe to yourselves to look this matter fairly in the face, remembering that the better part of valor is discretion. These old agitators and agravators must soon pass off the stage of action, but from their dust will spring another band of laborers that will remind you of a couplet in the story of Jack, the Giant-Killer:
“Though he be dead, there comes another,
Still more dreadful than his brother.”
The woman question is the ghost that will not go down in American politics. What part have we in the Constitution? It ranks us with criminals and paupers. What to us in the county’s flag? It floats not over one free woman. If fortune had made slaves of us all, you and us, we could have borne it, but that our own husbands and brothers should hold us in subjection to themselves, this, this is too much for our quivering heart-strings! Of what worth is love encrusted with selfishness? Men require unselfish love, purity and truth in woman. Have we not an equal right to demand these attributes in men?
It is said we are supported and should be content. Nine-tenths of the American women support themselves. But if men claim that they support us, let all women cease to labor. Let all the factory women, all the sewing women, the wives of farmers, mechanics, day-laborers, seat themselves at their ease, leaving all the so-called woman’s work to be done by men, that they may earn the title of supporters. Nonsense, say you, and so say I. And now, since women must labor, I ask for her equal educational advantages and fair and open business field. Who says she will forsake her “sphere?” Are any of God’s creatures given to sphere forsaking? Do fish fly in the air? Do birds seek a home in the deep? Do beasts walk erect like men and perform men’s duties? Do men transform themselves into beasts-but I will stop there lest I weaken my argument.
It is the sphere of beasts, birds and fishes to do anything which their nature prompts, and men claim the same thing for themselves. And when God did all else so well shall we suppose he failed in his last and crowning work? Made an imperfect, unruly being, beyond his management, and so was compelled to call in man as an assistant, lest this wild creature scale the barriers and forsake her sphere? Gentlemen, you put a bird in a cage, give it food and drink and expect it to repay your cruel kindness with a song as sweet as though trilled amid the green leaves of its native wild-wood. But do you succeed in changing its nature? Do the wings cease to grow because unused? Does not your prisoner dart out of his cage at the first opportunity and leave you? But the robin you have not harmed sits in the branches by your window, chirps a song for you ear and eats the crumbs you drop upon your window-sill. You can no more change the nature of a woman than that of a bird, and while you hold her a captive the song you covet will be bereft of its sweetness. If she is not contented in her present position, it is proof positive that she is not in her proper sphere.
It is a shame to this Republic, and the men of this Republic, that I, or any other woman, should stand upon a public platform and plead and supplicate for our right of the franchise.
When Kossuth came to this country the whole heart of America shouted anthems of welcome. Greece was in distress, American sympathized. Then came a cry for help from the classic shore of distant Crete. That cry was echoed and re-echoed from ocean to ocean. The electric cry of “Vive la Republic” came like music waves across the Atlantic, and America’s enthusiasm was unbounded.
The men of this Republic thus declare themselves the champions of liberty. But what of one half of America’s own citizens? Bow your heads, oh ye law-makers, and blush for shame that ye place the crown of citizenship upon the brows of men, who are the off-shoots, the dregs, the scum of European Dynasties; yet practically say your own wives and daughters are not worthy to wear it! They have helped you to conquer independence, to protect if from rebellion and treason, and this is their reward.
But while I contend that men are doing women a great wrong, I am willing to believe they will do her justice yet. I will not have the impertinent arrogance to say that the equality which they declare the centre and starting-point of all their national policies is but an idle joke upon the most sacred interest of humanity. No, gentlemen, I will accept your republican sentiments as real, and in behalf of women will claim the natural, logical, unavoidable consequence of your freely chosen government policy; a right to shape her own destiny, a right untrammeled as an American citizen to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Your last Congress said that any citizen who is liable to taxation or punishment for crime is entitled to the ballot, and therefore the negro should vote. Will you be as just to us as to the negro?
Remember that the logic of politics is absolute; that either the government of the one is best or the government of the all is best; we must go back to the government of the one or advance to the government of the all. To doubt Universal Suffrage is to doubt Democracy. Equality denied, this nation will die, and ought to die. It must have no law-made cause of contention. And, gentlemen, one reason why I wish the suffrage for women is because it will be for your interest to grant it. The mass of women now expend their time and your money in frivolous amusements and extravagant dress. The treasure that is squandered upon useless finery, and which finds its way into foreign coffers, would in a few years pay the National Debt. And more men are ruined financially, through the unwise expenditures of wives and daughters than by all other means combined. Make woman a responsible citizen; make her your business partner, secure thus her interest in your own, business and its success, as well as in the financial condition of the country, and at the same time remove the temptation to dress extravagantly by relieving her of the necessity of marrying for a home. Do this, and witness the advent of a new type of womanhood, women worthy to be the wives and mothers of freemen, women worthy to be loved, fought for, died for.
America was not made to be a prison for any class, nor for our husbands more than for ourselves, and until this principle is acknowledged there is no earthly power that can knit a lasting tie between the ruler and the ruled. Men and women to-day, even while bound together by golden links of love and friendship, seem to regard each other as in some sort natural antagonists. Women berate and slander men as a class, men berate and slander women as a class. The newspapers are filled with flings and poor jokes at the expense of women.
This state of things interferes with legal justice. It lowers the value of womanhood in the eyes of judge and jury. It is alleged that women have the advantage in courts of law. In isolated instances and peculiar circumstances it may be true, but in the aggregate is untrue. A few days ago, in this city, a woman was held to bail in $2,000 bonds for stealing $21.00. On the same day, in the same court, a man was held to bail in $500 bonds for murdering his child, and nearly murdering his wife. Thus it is practically said that it is four times as great a crime in a woman to steal $21.00 as in a man to commit a double murder. Nearly every crime is worse punished when committed by a woman, unless the woman has influential male relations to befriend her.
A man commits a horrible murder, pleads insanity — McFarland like — and is cleared by law and turned loose upon society; and his insanity is no obstacle to citizenship. A woman-had she escaped the gallows-would have been lodged in a mad-house.
Thousands of women secure food and shelter by unholy means. This fact is trumpeted abroad, flung in the face of virtuous women as proof of the natural depravity of the sex, and with taunting doubts as to the trustworthiness of any. But where are their partners in the guilt? Mingling unblushingly in “refined society;” crowding round the polls to make laws for the government of women; denouncing woman-suffrage on the ground that the vote of unworthy women would lower the value and dignity of the ballot.
Yet we are expected to smile while our sex is degraded; to have no desire for a ballot to hurl against this false social system; or at least, we are advised to be moderate in our demands, to have a care not to excite the anger of men, to play upon their vanity; to say to Congress and State Legislatures, “We humbly pray your honorable body.” And we have done this; we have prayed, we have expostulated. Our petitions have been greeted with contemptuous smiles; they are not respected; they are pearls cast before-“honorable bodies.”
I will never sign a petition for suffrage; I will not so humbly pray for what is mine by right. And thousands of women feel as I feel in regard to this. Were it not so, Congress would be fairly inundated with petitions. What, then, I am asked, is to be done? We cannot take the ballot by physical force. Neither could the negro. The advancing principles of American civilization liberated the negro. We must educate the masses-create a just popular sentiment. Thus can we best hasten the end in view.
I believe that God has decreed that women shall be free, and what he decrees will be accomplished. He fights the battles of the weak. I rest my cause with him, and am safer with him, if that cause be just, than with all the soldiers America can muster. He raised up for the American Colonies foreign help against England. He created a military necessity which emancipated the negro, and a political necessity which gave him the ballot. It matters not whether woman fight or not, her battles will be fought. This question is to be adopted freely by an educated, reasoning people, or it is to be prayed for and fought for. Will the men of this nation be just to-day, or will they wait till heaven made circumstances shall wrest justice from them? Humanity moves onward toward the goal of freedom. What nation shall reach it first? Will it be America? Not if America neglect to recognize and act upon that principle of universal liberty which is at once its pride and glory, for, believe me, when the song of thanksgiving arises to God from the liberated millions, woman’s voice will not fail.
I beseech you, my countrymen, let not another nation secure the crown America should wear. Have something better to give this cause than the respectful hearing and the generous applause with which you have honored me, and for which I thank you; give a brother’s voice, a brother’s hand in our behalf. When we kneel — as I feel we yet shall — beneath the stars and stripes, to thank God that we have at last a flag, a country and a home, let our happiness have the crowning joy of knowing that it was the greatness and justness of the men of America that placed the standard in our hands, and said to the world: “Henceforth our wives and daughters shall help us to hold this ensign steady.” Let us say, our husbands spoke, they acted and we are free. And at this act of theirs, tyrants will tremble, for it will be a proclamation to the world that the time has come when men are expected to do right from principle, and not because might enforces it.
Found this nation on a rock-on truth, nature and the whole people, on universal culture and political freedom. Close the last gate of barbarism, and listen to the triumphant shout of humanity as it is heard creaking on its hinges. Sweep caste and class legislation from this beautiful land, and show to the watching world how out of free church, free schools, free assembly, and the EQUALITY OF EVERY CITIZEN, institutions, federations and empires are made.
* Some sources say this speech was delivered on January 10, 1871.
Source: Hazlett, Adelle. “Endorsing Women’s Enfranchisement.” In A History of the National Women’s Rights Movement, (New York: Journeymen Printers’ Co–operative Association) 1871, pp. 52-57.