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The Dawning of the Twentieth Century

1893 — The Congress of Women, Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago IL


We stand today in the dying light of the nineteenth century and in the dawning of the twentieth. If you and I could have chosen when to have existed I think there would have been no more inspiring time than now. Look back fifty years, and from the dim twilight of the tallow candles of those days we stand now in the brilliant electric light of this year eighteen hundred and ninety-three. Look back farther still and we find that the battle of New Orleans was fought three weeks after the treaty of peace had been signed in England, because no electricity bound together the two continents. Now New York and London talk together as two men face to face. A dynamite explosion under London bridge is read by you in your evening paper, one hour after it happened, and by our time five hours before it really occurred. We talk with those we love the best hundreds of miles a way, as though they were in the next room. We catch their dear voices and catch the merry mirth of their laughter. We travel in elegant cars nearly equal to our finest drawing-rooms. We sleep on luxurious beds and dine better than the kings of old on our rail roads that carry us even in midwinter all over this great country without the least discomfort. Look back again fifty years and see our fathers and mothers making their way in cold, comfortless stages over terrible roads, taking days where now we take as many hours. My friends that listen to me today, this progress has not come easy, and if it had been prophesied fifty years ago I think the prophet would have been mobbed or thrown in jail. Again, this progress has not come from conservatism, it has come from the persistent efforts of enthusiastic radicals; men and women with ideas in their brains and courage in their hearts to make them practical. As the first steamship crossed the Atlantic it brought to America the first copies of Doctor Lardner’s book proving that an ocean steamship was an impossibility. What strange reading this book would be now for a traveler after a lapse of fifty years, when twice a week a fleet of ocean steamers leave New York City for the different ports in Europe. There are scores of books prophetic of the impossibility of equal rights for men and women in education, industry and politics that will be even more absurd after an equal lapse of time. In all this progress woman has been in the van. With the prejudice of the ages confronting her on every hand she has pushed steadily forward and the stone wall of opposition is beginning to crumble. Indeed, now it is tot- [Page 680]  tering and we must get out of the way, the stone still standing, before the full dawn of the twentieth century is here. Ever since woman began to think for herself, ever since woman took life in her own hands, the dawning of a great light has flooded this world. We are the mothers of men. Show me the mothers of a country and I will tell you of its sons.

The destiny of the world today lies in the hearts and brains of its women. This world can not travel upward faster than the feet of its women are climbing the paths of progress. Put us back if possible, veil us in harems, take from us all knowledge, make us beasts of burden, teach us we have no souls or brains, and this earth goes back to the Dark Ages. The nineteenth century is closing over a world arising from bondage. It is the sublimest closing of any century the world has ever beheld. The nations of the earth have seen and are still looking at that luminous writing in the heavens, “the truth shall make you free,” and for the first time are gathering to themselves the true significance of liberty. The freedom that endures comes not with the clash of arms and din of battles. The victory that is lasting is not gained on bloody battle-fields or by the selfish arbitration of scheming men. Blood and battles may be a means to an end, but the liberty of the sons of God must be in the souls of men, must be the very blood of that soul’s life, and thus far in the history of this world it has never been fully known. The dying light of the nineteenth century beholds it in the dawning rays of the twentieth, because the mothers of men are, for the first time, putting on the beautiful garments of liberty. We need, and the world needs, our political freedom. Even our social and religious liberty is worthless without political liberty. Let us this morning dedicate ourselves anew to our labor for woman, and go forth with braver souls, cleaner brains and more resolute purpose to our work for these years.

I would have the women of our country so aroused to the greatness of the work and the few years that are left us in this century; so filled with zeal, determination and enthusiasm that the Congress of the United States and our legislatures may know and understand that our freedom must be fully granted to us by 1900, so that the twentieth century shall dawn on a “government of the people, for the people and by the people.” Now it is a government of the men, for the men, and by the men. God bless the men.

It is the evening of the nineteenth century, but its twilight is clearer than its morning. I look back and I see each year improvement and advancement. I see woman gathering up her soul and personality and claiming them as her own against all odds and the world. I see her now asking that that personality be felt in her nation. I see old prejudices giving way. All reforms for the elevation of humanity have the great woman heart in them. Have I been too radical? Would you have me more conservative? What is conservatism? It is the dying faith of a closing century. What is fanaticism? It is the dawning light of a new era. Yes, my friends, a new era for the world will dawn with the twentieth century. I look forward to that time with beating heart and bated breath. I lean forward to it with an impatient eagerness. I catch the first faint rays of that beautiful morning. In the East the star has appeared and soon the full dawn of the twentieth century will be upon us. I see a race of men, strong, brave and true, because the mothers of men are free, and because they gave to their sons the pure blood of liberty.

Hail, then, twentieth century, and hasten on thy coming! Go to thy grave, oh, nineteenth century! A century that will stand out for all time as an epoch that buried slavery and ushered in liberty. A century that had a Lincoln who wrote his name among the stars as a lover of the free. A century that saw enfranchised the colored race and woman. A century that had its peerless Wendell Phillips, its dauntless William Lloyd Garrison, its indomitable Sumner and its irrepressible Seward. A century that had its brilliant Chase, its eloquent Frederick Douglass, its commanding and unconquerable Gerrit Smith and its glorious old John Brown. A century that has known its Greeley, its Garfield and its Grant. A century that has had its great statesmen, [Page 681]  Webster, Clay and Calhoun. A century that has had its Stephen Douglas and its Horatio Seymour. A century that has known its Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose verses wedded together Italy and England. A century that has had its Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” has been read only less widely than the Bible. A century that has had its George Eliot, who took the name of a man that she might reap a man’s reward. A century that has known an Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a Lucy Stone, a Frances Willard, a Florence Nightingale, a Clara Barton, and hosts of other grand women, will stand out to the ages as a century pre-eminent for women of vigorous thought and strong minds, who waged without bloodshed the greatest battle of all time, and whose victories will usher in the dawn of the twentieth century. When the historian shall make up the record of the nineteenth century, these noble men and women will be found on the roll of the illustrious ones who have adorned and ennobled the world.

The late lamented William Hunt of Boston has two paintings in the Assembly Chamber of the State of New York. One is entitled “The Discoverer.” It represents a man in a little boat on the trackless deep. He stands with folded arms looking calmly and fearlessly into the future, for a woman is at the helm and safely guides the little craft. Another woman is partly in the water with her head bowed on her arms which clasp the side of the boat, the very embodiment of despair. That picture fitly represents the nineteenth century. The companion picture is called “Darkness Fleeing Before the Dawn.” The darkness is represented by wild horses that plunge and throw themselves madly about as if to escape the approach of light, and that inspired, that immortal artist painted that dawning as a woman. The picture is ever before me and I leave it with you. Superstition, ignorance, injustice, intemperance, impurity, all fleeing before the coming of women. My friends, that picture represents the dawning of the twentieth century. Then in the effulgence of our nation’s triumphant and glorious career, the noble and the true representatives of fifty millions of women gathering from the North and South, the East and West will meet in the beautiful capitol of our republic and with one loud acclaim shout, “Daughters of America, the home of the brave and the land of the free, arise and shine, for thy light has come and the glory of the Lord is arisen upon thee.”



Source: Howell, Mary Seymour, “The Dawning of the Twentieth Century,”  The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U.S.A., 1893. Ed. Mary Kavanaugh Oldham Eagle (Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company), 1894. pp. 679-681.