Address on Behalf
of the Women of the City of New York
May 31, 1894 — Committee on Suffrage, New York State Constitutional Convention, Albany NY
Gentlemen: It is with a deep sense of the momentous importance of our errand that we present ourselves before you on this occasion. Never in the history of the world has a greater question teen submitted to a deliberative body for discussion than that which we now pray you to consider. Other conventions, in this and other lands, have framed constitutions for a State, have laid down laws for a people, have enfranchised social classes, have even called entire nations into being. But we ask you to consider that part of the State about which constitutions have been silent; to enfranchise a class so immense that it constitutes the full half of all social classes; to call into political existence a vital half of the nation, which hitherto, though personally, socially, and legally recognized, has been, politically, non-existent. Although we are only entitled to speak, and you authorized to reply for a single State, it is certain that the enfranchisement of women in the State of New York would necessarily be followed, after no great lapse of time, by similar measures in all the other States of the Union. And further, as manhood suffrage in America has set an example which Europe has felt herself constrained to follow, so it is certain that the irresistible tendency to equalization of conditions among civilized nations would compel imitation in this particular also. And thus the enfranchisement of women in America would be the signal for the enfranchisement of women throughout the civilized world.
Momentous as would be this change, and far-reaching its consequences, it implies no sudden shock or overturning of established order, such as has attended political changes of far less importance and significance. We are well aware that this Convention is no revolutionary tribunal assembled to sap the foundations, or to overthrow the structure, of existing society. But the wise foresight which has imbedded in our State Constitution the provision for its own amendment every quarter of a century, admits by implication that in course of time, and in the orderly evolution of complex modern societies, new conditions are liable to arise, sufficiently serious to demand the modification of even our fundamental organic law. Such new conditions have arisen in the status of women.
Since 1846, when was framed the Constitution under which this State has since lived, immense changes have been effected in the industrial, legal, and educational status of women. The tremendous influence of untrammelled liberty of thought, in America, has brought about, not only an unrivalled degree of liberty for men, but a degree of personal liberty for women hitherto unparalleled. The tremendous activity of industrial expansion, has drawn women into the vortex of industrial life, so that they have become important and recognized factors in the wealth of the State.
In 1840, only half a dozen forms of employment other than household labor were open to women. In 1884 they were found employed in three hundred and fifty-four subdivisions of industries catalogued in the census. In 1892, it has been shown that there are few lines of remunerative employment not open to women. The United States Census of 1880 showed more than two and a half million women engaged in gainful employments. And of these over 360,000 were so engaged in the State of New York.
We believe that a proper study of the facts of history shows that women have never been — as is sometimes asserted — a dependent class; that even when confined to household labors, their work has been of a character and importance to as justly demand recognition by the State, as that of work carried on in the wholesale factories. In the great department of agricultural employments, that constitutes an entire fourth of all the industries enumerated on the census, the wives of the farmers bear a full share of the work of the farm, even though their work is not catalogued among the gainful occupations. Even when the men who furnish the raw material for their industry are the men of their own family — their fathers, husbands, or brothers, — the women who prepare the food, who make the clothing, and who keep in order the habitation of the men of the State, should be justly reckoned among its productive laborers, and not, as is commonly the case, assumed to be idlers, dependent on the bounty of relatives. When, however, the women, from choice or necessity, cross the threshold of their homes, and engage in distinctly non-domestic employments, no further illusion is possible as to their position. They have entered the ranks of industrial producers, have become independent contributors towards the wealth of the community, and are so recognized on the census. From this moment their distinct recognition as individuals by the State, as units in its body politic, entitled to an equal place with all other units discharging the same or equivalent functions, becomes an imperative necessity, a demand to be formulated alike by expediency, by justice, and by common sense. In a republican industrial community, those to whom such equal recognition is refused, fall out of the ranks of citizens, or never enter them. Whatever may be the personal privileges of their lot, whatever the legal protection accorded to their earnings, the public status of such a class remains strictly that of aliens. At the present moment this vast and constantly growing army of women industrials constitutes an alien class. The privation for this class of political right to defend its interests is only masked, but not compensated by its numerous inter-relations with those who have rights. The menace offered to the harmonious equilibrium of the State, by the presence in it of this alien class, is concealed by the peculiar physical weakness of its members, which renders them incapable of physical violence. But a menace may lie in a poison or a narcotic, as well as in a blow. Where — as in a democratic society is the case — it is necessary for every one to be alert, vigilant, intensely awake, the apathy of aliens, the indifference of aliens, the inability of aliens to unite for the common good, is as dangerous as a dead-weight clogging the wheels of delicate machinery. Women industrials contribute to the wealth of the State, yet often, through their relative helplessness, embarrass the progress of their fellow-producers. Conscious of their individual weakness, and ignorant of their strength in combination, they are constantly liable to weaken the strength of combinations made by those stronger than themselves. Weakness kills force, for force can suffer and die, but weakness desires to live. Innocent Delilahs, the working women are often, employed by the Philistines to undermine the strength of the Labor Samson. As perpetual minors, they should be entitled to protection from the State. But the State is no foster-mother; it only protects those who can protect themselves; and its last stretch of courtesy is reached when it has put every one in a position to energetically demand and secure their own protection.
It is not as industrials alone that women to-day occupy important relations to the wealth of the State. They are large holders of property, acquired either through their own exertions, through gift, through marital right, or by inheritance. It is estimated that throughout the State women hold property in their own name to the amount of at least five Hundred millions of dollars. In the little city of Rochester alone they pay taxes on twenty-nine millions; in the city of Brooklyn on a hundred and three millions, — or twenty-two per cent, of all the taxable property of the city.
On this immense property women pay taxes, and yet remain unrepresented in the legislatures that apportion the taxation. It is not necessary to remind this Convention that from the beginning of history the question of taxation has constituted a continually recurring grievance. The equitable adjustment of taxation is one of the surest indications that a government is just and a people prosperous. The insistent demand of Anglo-Saxon people on both sides of the Atlantic, that no government shall tax a people, but that the people alone, through their representatives, shall tax themselves, has been a chief influence in securing for these peoples freedom, limitless expansion, and power. The only reason that it has been deemed just to tax women without representation is that, until very recently, women — that is at least those holding the normal position of their sex in marriage — have not really possessed their own property; they have not been, in the eye of the law, persons.
Two years after the session of the Constitutional Convention in 1846, the Legislature of the State of New York, urged by the representations of Mrs. Stanton and other women working for suffrage, did for women in regard to the law the very thing we now pray this Convention to secure the means of doing in regard to political status — it made married women persons. The women, whose personality up to that precise date had been, in the language of the Common Law, ” merged in that of their husbands,” were then disengaged as distinct individuals. By a series of enactments extending from 1848 to 1862, a married woman became entitled to hold her property instead of being held by it: to administer it, to bequeath it by will, contract for it, to sue and be sued — in her own name, — to assume, in fact, all the responsibilities towards herself, her inheritance, her earnings, and finally her children, which belonged to a woman who had no husband to represent her, or to a man entitled, in law and in politics, to represent himself.
This Convention is thronged with lawyers, among the ablest in the State. We know that of all classes of men in the community, lawyers, from the very nature of their preoccupations and habitual lines of thought, must be the most conservative. Yet we appeal to them, as best fitted to answer, whether any change of statute or constitutional law, except those which emancipated slaves, could effect, or could imply, so complete a revolution in ideas, could determine so great a change in status, as that which made of women who had been legally non-existent, persons, with full legal and individual responsibilities?
It will be as logical for this Convention to complete the legislation of 1848 by now equalizing the political rights of women, as it was for the French Revolution of 1848 to confer political rights upon the men who had become equal before the law in 1793.
The industrial work of women, the possession of inherited wealth, the legal emancipation, and enforced assumption of responsibility, would all have been inadequate without correlative improvement in the education of women. So rapid has been this improvement, so generally is now accepted the claim of women to the highest education, that it is often forgotten in how recent times women were refused access to even the lowest. Less than a hundred years ago, in this State and in New England, girls were excluded from even the elementary public schools; or, when admitted, untaught even in arithmetic; or, when this began to be conceded, allowed to learn addition, but forbidden to proceed to the three other rules. Not until 1821 was a high school open for women, and that was at Troy, New York.
This State has taken the lead, not only in legislation for women, but in the education of women. In 1865 the first institution claiming to confer collegiate instruction was founded by Matthew Vassar at Poughkeepsie. Up to 1890, nine hundred graduates had left this one institution. In 1872, women were admitted to the great Cornell State University at Ithaca. In 1875, a New York millionaire made his initial gift of $250,000 for the residence of women students at Cornell. In 1889, Barnard College received its official sanction and grant of affiliation from the Trustees of Columbia College — one of the oldest universities in the United States, — and in 1893 a class of girls thence received their academic diplomas together with the Columbia students.
In 1849 the first wpman physician, Elizabeth Blackwell rreceived her diploma at Geneva. The first hospital in the world to be conducted by women physicians, the New York Infirmary, was founded by Elizabeth Blackwell in 1857, and its Medical College secured a legal charter from the State in 1867. The great medical societies of the county and State of New York were almost the first to officially recognize women physicians, and put an end to an arduous struggle for equal rights, which resembles point by point that which is now going on to secure equal political rights. Nor have the activities of educated women been confined to this one sphere of professional or public work. The Normal Schools of Albany, New York, and Oswego have trained several generations of teachers, to whose hands is now mainly- entrusted the primary and secondary education of the youth of both sexes throughout the State. Through the public press women share in increasing numbers and with increasing influence in moulding public opinion. During the civil war the women of this State were among the foremost in the’ patriotic work of aiding, encouraging, and practically caring for the soldiers of our armies. A New York woman and veteran philanthropist, Abby Hopper Gibbs, directed hospitals on the Potomac. The Sanitary Commission originated in a parlor conference called by a New York woman. Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, and during four years consumed the energies of hundreds of New York women under the lead of one whose name is historic — Louisa Lee Schuyler.
In 1873 a group of New York ladies, headed by Miss Schuyler, organized the State Charities Aid Association, and inaugurated reform in the administration of the hospitals, almshouses, prisons, and insane asylums throughout the State. In 1876, in partial recognition of the value of this work, Governor Tilden appointed one of the members of the Association — Josephine Shaw Lowell — as a member of the State Board of Charities, the first official appointment ever made to a woman in this State. In 1887 the Mayor of the City of New York appointed two women to serve on the School Board; and in 1892 a large number of women were sent as official delegates from New York to the Woman’s Board of the World’s Fair.
In perfectly natural sequence to all these manifestations of professional and social activity on the part of women, and as a possibly unconscious recognition of the value of this activity for the welfare of the State, the Legislature in 1888 threw open to women the profession of law. This is the profession whose exercise stands so closely related to political prerogative that, in both Italy and Belgium, women, though admitted to medicine, have been recently refused admission to the bar, on the ground that they must be disqualified for this profession so long as they remained deprived of political rights.
In the State of New York the necessity for the franchise as an indispensable preliminary to the exercise of public functions presumed to be suitable for women, has been judicially affirmed in another connection. The Supreme Court, late in the year 1893, decided that the law passed in 1880 permitting women to vote for School Commissioner was unconstitutional, and that women could not exercise an influence nor have a voice in the public schooling of their own children, until they should have been empowered to do so by means of a constitutional amendment.
This decision has become the incident to precipitate the whole discussion of woman suffrage within the range of immediate practical issues. We believe that future ages will class it with that famous levy of illegal ship-money, whose resistance by John Hampden laid the modern foundation for the liberties of England.
It was impossible, in face of the immense evolution of the status of women, personal, industrial, legal, educational, and social, not to suggest their practical participation in one affair which so immediately concerns women, namely, the schooling of children. In New York City alone are over three thousand female teachers. It seemed impossible to hold longer to the doctrine that where so many women had been deemed capable of the expert work involved in teaching, none should be qualified, none should have the right to a voice in the selection of the officers who were to superintend the teaching. Yet this contradiction, deemed impossible by the universal common-sense of the community, has been pronounced entrenched in all the authority of the law by the Supreme Court”. And it is very well that it should be so. The contradiction which pronounces unfit to vote, the women who have been solemnly ordained fit to teach, is hardly more flagrant than that now embodied in the laws of twelve States of the Union, which declares that women may elect officers to the school board, but may not exercise any other right of suffrage.
It is in the line of march which the thought of this State has pursued for the last fifty years to declare that all exercise of public function, — all expression of public choice — is an act of sovereignty, and can only be performed by those who have been empowered for such acts.
The issue is thus most distinctly, most authoritatively stated. At the very moment that the women of this State have reached a degree of development, have demonstrated a social capacity, absolutely unknown until the present half century; at the very moment when, coincidently, the enlargement of the franchise has brought into the electorate classes also hitherto unknown; that same moment is chosen in which to reduce women to a degree of political inferiority which is also absolutely unprecedented.
No political experiment is more recent, has had so far a shorter span of duration, than that of universal manhood suffrage. Only little by little have been abolished the restrictions of church membership, of education, and of modest property qualification, which formerly prevailed throughout the United States. The farthest limit, of possible extension of masculine franchise was reached when, at the close of the Civil War, the right of suffrage was bestowed on the newly emancipated slaves.
Until, practically, to-day the inequalities of political rights have been along lines of social class distinction. The well-born, the powerful, the educated, the rich, have ruled. The poor, the ignorant, the helpless have submitted. Macaulay declares that the upper and middle orders are the natural representatives of the human race. Whether advisably or not, it is they who have been the representatives. Thus it has happened that women, though unenfranchised, and submitted to the personal sovereignty of the men of their own families and own class, have enjoyed superiority to and even actual supremacy over thousands of men in lower classes. But to-day, for the first time, classes have been indistinguishably fused; all previous lines of cleavage have been consolidated into one great line of demarcation, which makes a political class out of a sex. For the first time, all political right, privilege, and power reposes undisguisedly on the one brutal fact of sex, unsupported, untempered, unalloyed by any attribute of education, any justification of intelligence, any glamour of wealth, any prestige of birth, any insignia of actual power. For the first time, all women, no matter how well born, how well educated, how intelligent, how rich, how serviceable to the State, have been rendered the political inferiors of men, no matter how base-born, how poverty-stricken, how ignorant, how vicious, how brutal. The pauper in the almshouse may vote, the lady who devotes herself to getting that almshouse made habitable may not. The tramp who begs cold victuals in the kitchen may vote; the heiress who feeds him, and endows a university may not. Communities are agitated and Legislatures convulsed to devise means to secure the right of suffrage to the illiterate voter. And the writers, journalists, physicians, teachers, the wives and daughters and the companions of the best educated men in the State, are left in silence; blotted out, swamped, obliterated behind this cloud of often besotted ignorance. To-day, the immigrants pouring in through the open gates of our seaport towns — the Indian when settled in severalty, — the negro hardly emancipated from the degradation of two hundred years of slavery, — may all share in the Sovereignty of the State. The white woman — the American woman, — the woman in whose veins runs the blood of those heroic colonists who founded our country, of those women who helped to sustain the courage of their husbands in the Revolutionary War; the woman who may have given the flower of her youth and health in the service of our Civil War — this woman is excluded. To-day women constitute the only class of sane people excluded from the franchise, the only class deprived of political representation, except the tribal Indians and the Chinese.
Sirs: We dare to assert that this is a monstrous anomaly; and further, though commonly supposed to continue an immemorable tradition, is really an immense innovation on all systems of hitherto existing order. It is an anomaly which of itself suffices to explain much of the dangerous vulgarization of political ideal which has lately been noticed among us, — much of the fashionable contempt which is beginning to be expressed for Popular Sovereignty. It is possible for a Sovereign to have defects, vices, and yet retain respect. But the suspicion of a base birth, or an illegitimate origin, suffices to cover him with ignominy. Until now, the exclusion of women from the Sovereignty has been justified by the fear that their immense inferiority would infuse a contemptible weakness into the body politic. But to-day, the one form of strength of which women are deprived, is the very form which has ceased to be essential for the purpose. Necessary for pugilistic contests, which are forbidden by law, it is irrelevant to the qualifications of those who either administer or vote for a government founded on opinion. Conversely, the form of strength which is so greatly needed in the counsels of the Republic, ” the reason firm, the temperate will, endurance, foresight, patience, skill,” are adjudged by the highest authority to be the natural dower of thousands of women. Where, then, does the legitimacy of the Sovereignty lie, — with the thousands who have the power without the necessary qualification, or with those other thousands who have the qualifications but are forcibly excluded from the power?
So lax in these facile days has become the conception of power, so loose and confused the Idea of Sovereignty, that we are often advised not to press our claim, because it really makes no difference who rules. Because, it is said, in a democracy, sovereignty is so minutely subdivided that the infinitesimal crumbs which fall to each man’s portion are not worth scrambling for. But we refuse to think of the Republic as a barnyard filled with insignificant fowl! If the right to rule has been removed from certain men on account of their inadequacy, it has been transferred to Man, and to such part of the human race as can by their strength of soul make good its claim to such lofty right. Of such humanity we are a part. And while among those to whom at present is exclusively entrusted the power are thousands, admitted on all sides to be unworthy of it, there are among us thousands of women intrinsically fitted for those functions of citizenship which can only by an eclipse of political faith be despised.
Capacity to bear arms, in fulfilment of military duty, is not, in the State of New York, reckoned among the necessary qualifications of voters. Nor indeed has such capacity ever sufficed to confer a share in the sovereignty. The feudal knights of the middle ages exercised some sort of suffrage, — but the men-at-arms who followed them to battle did not. The Duke of Cambridge, Commander-in-chief of the British Army, has — like his predecessors for six hundred years, been able to vote. But, until the other day, the men who make up the army and do the fighting had no vote, and many of them are still unenfranchised. Even in France and Germany, where for a few years universal manhood suffrage has existed, and universal military duty has been revived, the right of suffrage and the duty of bearing arms are not coterminous. There, as here, men. over forty-five, the only sons of widows, teachers, clergymen, physicians, men affected with slight bodily infirmities, are exempt from military duty in the field, but are not therefore deprived of the right of suffrage at home. In our State, even the universal training for arms is dispensed with; no conscription exists; and the only occasion on which men can be actually compelled to fight, is in the case of a war of such magnitude as necessitates a draft in excess of the contingents furnished by volunteers. In the entire course of our history, since the landing of the Pilgrims or the settlement of New York, such a war has arisen once!
We do not live in the midst of an armed camp like France and Germany; we, like our English kindred, reserve our war forces for the day when they shall be really needed. During the interval, we are an industrial community, with a government of the people, for the people, and by the people, a government professedly and actually founded on Public Opinion. The will of the majority rules, for the time being, not because, as has been crudely asserted, it possesses the power, by brute force, to compel the minority to obey its behests; but because, after ages of strife, it has been found more convenient, more equitable, more conducive to the welfare of the State, that the minority should submit, until, through argument and persuasion, they shall have been able to win over the majority.
Now that this stage in the evolution of modern societies has been reached, it has become possible for women to demand their share also in the expression of the Public Opinion which is to rule. They could not claim this while it was necessary to defend opinions by arms; but this is no longer either necessary or expected. They could not even claim a place among the authorized factors of Public Opinion, so long as, in the universal judgment of the world, women had no opinions, and could have none worth having. But this is no longer believed. The moment therefore has at last arrived when, in an Industrial Society, whose conflicts have become those of ideas, and whose arts the arts of peace, women may, with equal justice and decorum, come forward to claim a place among the other powers of the earth. Should war actually arise, the fact that the political action of women had been added to that of the non-combatant forces of society, could surely do nothing to weaken the strength of the forces which were actually enlisted to fight.
We do not admit that exemption from military duty is a concession of courtesy, for which women should be so grateful as to refrain from asking for anything else. The military functions performed by men, and so often perverted to most atrocious uses, have never been more than the equivalent for the function of child-bearing imposed by nature upon women. It is not a fanciful nor sentimental, it is an exact and just equivalence. The man who exposes his life in battle, can do no more than his mother did in the hour she bore him. And the functions of maternity persist, and will persist to the end of time, — while the calls to arms are becoming so faint and rare that, three times since the Revolutionary War, an entire generation of men has grown up without having heard them.
If children are desired in households to make the happiness of their parents, none the less are they needed in the State of which they are to become the citizens. Those therefore who bear and rear them do most certainly perform a social function, and one of transcendental importance. All social events, all political action, converge ultimately upon these households and affect these children. How then can it be fitting, that such political action, framed as we know it to be by the dictates of Public Opinion, should remain officially uninfluenced by the mothers of the State? How can it be just that those mothers themselves remain within the body politic as aliens, their will unrepresented, their personalities non-existent? To affirm that this is of no consequence, to pretend that these women are virtually represented because laws protect their property, and because they may be defended against personal violence, is simply to recur to the state of opinion which prevailed when the personality of the married women was, in truth, merged, absolutely submerged, before the law. Before 1848, the affirmation was logical and consistent. To-day. it is inconsistent, — a futile anachronism.
To-day is certainly favorable to the treatment of women with kindness, consideration, and even respect. The moment is, however, less propitious to the discussion of their rights, for all interest in the question of rights seems, for the moment, to have flagged. For the first time in a hundred and fifty years there is a lull in the mighty series of conflicts which have been waging so successfully to secure human rights. The lull in the interest is chiefly due to the success of the struggle. So many rights have been conquered that it seems to many as if all had been gained. Worse, — because some roseate hopes have been disappointed, — we are sometimes told that nothing has been gained. We are sometimes told that democracy is a failure; that universal suffrage is a curse; that the very conception of Rights, conception the most powerful, the most majestic, the most awful which has ever dominated the world, is a mere abstraction, as useless as bodiless; a schoolboy sophism, a schoolgirl metaphor concocted to conceal a vacuum of thought. A little further, and we shall be told that our Revolutionary War was sordid; that the French Revolution was the clamor of a drunken mob; that the Revolution of 1848 was a mere paradox of metaphysicians; and the emancipation of American slaves a gigantic mistake due to the blind recklessness of a victorious party!
When the thoughts of men have for the moment so generally declined to this dull level, it is well that they should have been suddenly uplifted again by the high errand of this Convention. The moment has again recurred when the people must preoccupy themselves with the fundamental doctrines on which repose the entire framework of their social structure. It is then seen, and will be seen again every quarter of a century, that there is nothing more fundamental in a given social order than its conception of Rights. What is the right thing to be done? whose rights may have been defrauded; how rights may in the future be better maintained; — these are the very questions which are to absorb the energies and preoccupy the gravest thought of this deliberative body throughout the summer.
Our Constitutional Conventions only meet once in twenty years; but the problem of Rights is of no such intermittent recurrence. It recurs all the time, — daily; it is involved in every transaction effected between human beings, at home or abroad, in business or in politics, in national issues, in municipal difficulties, in family dissensions. Rules for the solution of this problem are expounded every week in the churches, and laid down every day in the law courts. No personal or social ideal is possible without a conception of rights, and every lofty character manifests its superiority to the herd, by the clearness with which it recognizes the existence of rights, and by the unflinching tenacity with which it insists upon their maintenance.
Hence the danger, the vast and subtle danger, of so educating one half the population of a free State, that it has no vivid conception of Rights. Why should we wonder at the low tone which habitually prevails at present in relation to public affairs, when the women who stand as guardians at the fountain sources and household shrines of thought are trained to believe that there are no Rights, but only Privileges, Expediences, Immunities? Can those who cower before the public ridicule which greets the enunciation of the Rights of Women; who are habituated to stifle generous impulses for their own larger freedom at the authoritative dictation of the men they see in power, — can such women be relied upon to nerve the nation’s heart for generous deeds?
When the question of women’s right to a direct share in the popular sovereignty had not been raised; when political rights were restricted to certain social classes, proudly tenacious of their privileges, it was then possible for women also to share the pride, and, unconscious of their individual subordination, to lend the strength of their influence to inspiring their men. It was possible for Volumnia to calm the blind fury of Coriolanus; it was possible for Cornelia to train the patriotic fervor of the Gracchi. But this time has past. For good or for ill, the question of the Rights of Women has been raised, and will not down. It has taken its place among the claims of all disenfranchised classes, and will not be excluded. If any question of rights be fundamental, this also is fundamental. If confusion of ideas and apathy be ever-dangerous, here also it is disastrous.
It is easy to assert, it is impossible to prove that we sophistically pervert the principles of democratic government when we claim that these apply to our case also. It is easy to say in two breaths — for it has been reiterated in one — that women’s right to the suffrage is not implied in democracy, and that democracy, after fifty years of trial has proved such a failure, that its principles must now, in any case, be abjured. How can democracy prove other than a failure when the citizens of a free State cease to believe in it! How can the illiterate vote become other than a danger when the educated voter abstains from exercising over it his just and natural ascendancy? How can political affairs move among large issues, if the only ideas which are abroad, which are respected, are fatally small? What other alternative is there to Public Right, but Private Greed? If it be only a question of supposed expediences, — what can seem more expedient to every man than to fill his own pocket, accumulate his own illicit fortune, — and retreat to whence he had never emerged, — the underground cellar of his private life?
Thus it is that, although we believe our demand to be fully in accord with public utility, and to meet some of the most serious wants of the time, we should be false to our trust did we rest this claim primarily upon expediency. We hope to show that the concession of suffrage to woman will be practically useful in innumerable directions; but we should unworthily belittle our case did we seek to introduce it on the ground that it could be made subservient to anything else. We demand the suffrage as a Right — not in a metaphysical sense, — but because we do fulfil all the essential conditions which the State has proclaimed necessary to qualify for the electorate. We demand it, because to-day, and not a thousand years ago, — because in the State of New York, and not in France or Germany or Austria, — women are recognized by law and custom to be persons, and to possess intelligence entirely equal to the average intelligence of those who already exercise the suffrage. We demand it, on no new principle, but on the double principle which runs through all our institutions, namely: that all the intelligence in the State must be enlisted for its welfare, and that all the weakness in the community must be represented for its own defence. There are women among us of intelligence, of wealth, of leisure, of high character, who only demand the opportunity to serve the State nobly, as they have already shown their ability to promote the welfare of the community in public affairs. And there are other women among us — hard-working, patient, industrious, — who require the suffrage, and the opportunities of the suffrage, and the immense practical education of the suffrage, to enable them to better advance the interests of their own affairs. And there are poor and weak women among us, defenceless except so far as they may be touched by an occasional enthusiasm of philanthropy, who require the status of a definite representation — a medium through which they can make their wants known — which shall do for them, as the suffrage alone has been able to do for other masses of the poor and weak: give them means to defend themselves, enable them to take the initial step in rising out of otherwise easily-forgotten misery. In a community where the definition of a social unit is the person who casts one vote, every one who casts no vote is reckoned as less than a unit, — and hence suffers in the social estimate and in her own. Her power for work is lessened, and its recompense correlatively diminished.
It is to these same poor and working women that objection is most often made when we demand equal suffrage, and when we embrace in our demand all classes of women, — because the suffrage is now exercised by all classes of men. It is said that these women, adding an inherent weakness of sex to the weaknesses of ignorance and poverty, will be, even more than the men of their families, subject to corrupt influence, liable to be induced to sell their votes to the party, or even to the private agents, who will offer the highest price for them. It is even whispered that there is, in large cities, a class of women, whose names dare not be mentioned out loud, who would be solidly voted by the police, — and that therefore all the honest and virtuous women of the State must remain disfranchised! Was ever covert insult so distinctly offered to American womanhood!
It has been proposed, on other occasions, to accord special legal recognition to these unfortunate women: to subject them to a slavery even more stringent than that in which they are now bound: to record their names upon the municipal archives, not in order that their defencelessness might be represented, but so that the men who are their accomplices in degradation might be protected. Other women, from the shelter of happy and honored homes, have successfully resisted this iniquitous proposal, and no such archaic infamy as yet stains the legislature of this State. But do not these facts, does not the prompt reference to such conditions, the moment a demand arises for political freedom, and political representation for women, itself indicate the ultimate outcome, the last and darkest effect, of the general social inequality of women?
We fully believe that the great reason why the lot of masses of toiling women is so miserable, is because on the one hand women have never been accustomed to band together for self-development and self-protection; and on the other hand, because women enjoying personal protection have not been accustomed to think of the affairs of masses of women and children as their especial concern. The assumption still holds in theory, though daily contradicted by facts, — that all the concerns of women are adequately provided for by the solicitude of their own families. Yet it is perfectly well known, that society was obliged to enact laws to protect the women and children working in factories; not only against the greed of the employers of the so-called enlightened classes, but against the brutal insistence of the husbands and fathers who tried to work them to death.
In theory, women are always protected at home. In fact, laws are constantly being required for their special protection. Why is it desirable to leave such legal or social protection to be secured, if at all, by tedious and roundabout methods, — through petitions, and through the efforts of other people, whose warmest enthusiasm can hardly ever equal the energy of those who speak for themselves? Why should not the women have the right to speak for themselves, and by their own mouths to make their own wants known?
Herein lies the true solution of the problem of the illiterate vote. The influence of the women who are now busily engaged in civilizing the hordes of uncivilized people in our midst, will be utilized, not only to kindle the lagging interest of the men of their own class, but to so guide ignorant women voters, that they could be made to counterbalance, when necessary, the votes of ignorant and interested men. Here is a broad channel for the missionary enthusiasm of women, now too often allowed to run to waste in the sands of foreign heathendom. Success in such direction is rendered possible by the secrecy of the ballot, which the persistent efforts of public-spirited men have secured. Every effort to improve the purity of the ballot facilitates the participation of women in the suffrage. It is an omen of splendid augury that this very Committee before which our amendment is brought, is also charged with the grave duty of devising measures for the better protection of the ballot. We could ask no better introduction to the voters of this State for the cause of Equal Suffrage, than such intimate, such inseparable association ‘ with the cause of Purity of the Suffrage.
In bringing this cause of Equal Suffrage before this Convention, we are supported by the approval of thousands of men and women, who join us, because they believe either that the demand is just, or that it is timely, or that it is favorable to their own interests, or that it is ultimately conducive to the best interests of the State. Confessedly, however, the demand does not receive unanimous support. Did it do so, it would be irresistible, while we are aware that the success of our petition is trembling in the balance. But a unanimous demand for anything would also be unprecedented to the point of the miraculous.
Not all who fail to support us are to be counted among our really obstinate opponents. There are many who applaud the participation of women in public affairs, but who maintain that they have done such good work without the ballot, it is useless to confer this upon them. This view is too inconsistent to deserve commentary. More solid is the objection of those who distinctly dislike the participation of women in public affairs. There are thousands who still maintain the immemorable tradition, that the world is destined to remain forever divided into two great classes — the men to go out in the world, the women to stay at home within the house. These confound the historic origin of conditions with the permanent law of conditions. They are so pleased with women in their differentiation from men, that they dread any change which may seem to approximate them to men. To apply to the case of women, the same ideas of Rights, the same measure of liberties, the same rules for activities, which they accept for men, seems to such minds almost blasphemous, and revolting alike to the most elementary instinct, and to the most obvious common sense.
We certainly do claim, however, that women, however physically different, are, mentally and morally, not essentially different from men. That the differences in faculty which exist are in degree and quantity, and not in kind. That it is the overwhelming preoccupation with physical, to the exclusion of mental conditions, which has led to such a solid system of beliefs about women, as the last half century, through multiple practical experience, has shown, very simply, to be untrue. The distance to-day between the estimate of women in the minds of those who oppose and those who favor their enfranchisement is infinitesimal, as compared with the distance which has been traversed on the subject by the minds of all men since 1846.
There are some undesirable peculiarities about women, due to special conditions of circumstance, training, and environment, which would tend to disappear where changes in such environments were conducive to the greater development of strength. This, indeed, is the fundamental reason for desiring such changes; since no living creature or class of creatures can have a more fundamental desire than the just desire to grow, to become more effective in whatever is given them to do. There are other peculiarities about women which are, on the contrary, most desirable to conserve, and which nature cannot fail to conserve, and even intensify, with every increase in development and opportunity. All such qualities originate in and centre round the function of maternity — the special relations of women to their children, the special protection due to the mother from the father of their children, and which justifies a correlative degree of individual subordination. The laws of New York, as they stand to-day, establish with great clearness these complex relations of women. Women are accorded their individual rights and responsibilities as persons ; and the right and responsibility to guard the persons and the inheritance of their children; they are given a right to maintenance to the extent to which their own industrial capacity is lessened by the care of their children; and in view of this, they are constrained to follow the domicile of their husbands so long as he acquits himself of his own responsibility.
We do believe that this special relation of women to children, in which the heart of the world has always felt there was something sacred, serves to impress upon women certain tendencies, to endow them with certain virtues which not only contribute to the charm which their anxious friends fear might be destroyed, but which will render them of special value in public affairs. Their conservatism, their economy, their horror of waste, their interest in personal character, the very simplicity of their judgment, their preoccupation with direct and living issues, are all qualities generated by the special circumstances which have surrounded women, and must continue to surround them. These can not be broken down by the fact of sharing the suffrage, for they lie far deeper than any political condition; they exist in the very nature of things.
A single phrase, often, but none too often repeated, sums up this aspect of the case. To the extent to which women resemble men, they require the same liberties; to the extent to which they differ, they require their own representation, and the State requires their special influence. Under the new, the extremely new regime, of universal manhood suffrage, the State has become like a mining camp on the frontier. We claim that it should be re-constituted as a household, where, if man is at the head, for the protection and the defence, woman shall have her equal place as the mother, the daughter, the caretaker, the administrator, the conserver. We do not propose, after all, to change the existing sphere of women. Political status reflects and sanctions social change — it cannot create it. Political activities may become an occupation — but not political rights. How many women would engage in politics were they so empowered — how many would accept office, were they elected, it is impossible to foresee, and it is absolutely useless to discuss. We are not here to seek privileges for a few — but equal opportunity for all. We are not here to demand the maximum responsibilities in the gift of the State, but only the minimum rights. If women engage to-day in a hundred pursuits outside their households, it is not the suffrage which is the cause of this, for they do not possess the suffrage. The same causes, industrial and intellectual, which have led to a social expansion which is almost a revolution, will continue to operate; but the suffrage, while it will not weaken, can hardly intensify their influence. Women will not be sent into a new place by possession of the ballot. Like men, they will vote in the places where they already stand — in the mart, the factory, the place of business; but also in the schoolroom, the library, the hospital, and — far more often than all — in the household. If, in capacity, taste, and opportunity, women have in this half century, approximated towards the capacities of men, it is not in order to be men that they now desire to vote. It is because they are — and are fully satisfied to be — women.
Because they are women, and yielding, and ready to give way to others, the friends of this cause have been beset, not only by its opponents, but by many half-hearted friends. “Your demand is just,” these say, ” but it should not be made at this time. The times are too critical; there are too many things must be done first. Municipal politics must be purified; minority representation must be secured; democracy must grow from its first crude beginnings; illiteracy must cease to exist; venal votes must cease to be bought and sold; Catholics must cease to struggle for the schools; Protestants must cease to imitate the bigotry of sixteenth-century Catholics; political rings must be dissolved; the power of boss rule broken; the liquor question eliminated from politics; the Republican party be raised to the level of Alexander Hamilton, and the Democrats left at no lower eminence than that of Thomas Jefferson. When all these things shall come or shall have been accomplished — then, and not till then, may women, who really entertain a just and patriotic concern for the public weal, prefer their claim, and modestly demand the suffrage.”
Is not this to say that political rights may be demanded only when political life shall have ceased to exist?
This request to delay — this specious appeal to the disinterestedness of women — is the same dangerous compliment proffered in 1867 by Horace Greeley on behalf of the negro, and a few years ago by Mr. Gladstone to the women of England on behalf of Home Rule.
Who, entrenched in an accorded privilege, ever regarded the claims of those outside as other than unimportant, insignificant, visionary? We are told now that the common sense and love of justice of all civilized countries applaud all efforts to secure for women their individual public rights; to remove from these all previous restriction; but that legislators still obstinately and justly refuse the concession of political rights. But fifty years ago these legal and other public rights were everywhere refused with the same obstinacy, and with exactly the same arguments.
“No social sphere is more remote from political life than that of medicine; and none, it might be imagined, more appropriate to women. Yet, in all the European countries of two hemispheres, language was racked to find words, and science tortured to find arguments sufficiently abusive to condemn the proposal to allow women to minister to children and to the sick of their own sex. We are perfectly well aware that industrial and professional competition are entirely different matters from Popular Sovereignty. But when we find the same instincts aroused, the same opposition excited, the same arguments advanced, and the same determination manifested, by trades unions to exclude women from trades by learned societies to exclude them from professions; by universities to exclude them from learning; and by voters to exclude them from the polls, we cannot avoid asking whether the difference in the cases is not balanced by the identity in the mental attitude of the opponents.
The time to press the demand for a right is that when some one has been found to voice the demand. Since 1848 there have not been lacking women — women like Mrs. Stanton and Lucy Stone — who passed from abolition conventions to the Legislatures of their own States, there to urge the claims of equal suffrage. There have not been lacking women who have worked as persistently, — and, in comparison with the opportunities afforded, as greatly, — for the enfranchisement of their sex, as O’Connell worked for the liberties of Ireland, or Mazzini for those of Italy.
All the reforms in the legal position of women, and much of their educational advancement, have been due to the impulse given by the women who were working for the suffrage; and to them also is indirectly due much of the industrial emancipation.
Still, all women do not demand the suffrage. We are sometimes told that the thousands of women who do want the suffrage must wait until those who are now indifferent, or even hostile, can be converted from their position.
Gentlemen, we declare that theory is preposterous. It is true that the exercise of an independent sovereignty necessitates the demonstration of a very considerable amount of independence. A rebel state that cannot break its own blockade may not call upon a foreign power to move from its neutrality to do so. But the demand for equal suffrage is in nowise analogous to a claim for independent sovereignty. It is rather analogous to the claim to the protection of existing laws, which any group of people, or even a single person may make, who believes himself to have been wronged in sentiment, person, or property. Claims for the enforcement of existing laws, for the application to new cases of principles embodied in previous laws, for the amendment of existing institutions, are never preferred by the whole community, or an entire class, or the majority of a class, or even by a large minority. The bugbear that women in voting would always band together as a class, should be sufficiently dissipated by the fact that even now, when a most distinctly class issue is presented — since it affects the disabilities of all women, — women are not a unit in their opinion upon it. So great is the mental isolation engendered in a class politically non-existent, that many women profess even now never to have thought of the franchise. Others, educated in a lifetime of indifference to public affairs, remain absolutely indifferent. Others, accustomed to defer to masculine opinion, submit at the first breath of ridicule from masculine friends. Others, believing themselves independent thinkers, yet fall an easy prey to the first sophism spread for innocent and unwary feet. Others, sincerely alarmed at any innovation of existing order, content with their own lives and with things as they are, shrink from the suggestion of change, and dread the unknown. Others, with the instinct for public activities and intellectual interests already satisfied, do not imagine how political privilege could improve their own situation, and fail to inquire whether it could improve that of other women. Others are not ashamed to feel and express all the concentrated bitterness of aversion to equal rights, establishing common bonds between themselves and social inferiors, which privileged classes have always expressed when called upon to extend, to share the Sovereignty. Men have resisted the demand for the enfranchisement of other men; it is no miracle, therefore, that women resist a similar demand for women.
There have always been found individuals ready to uphold the claims of a social class to which they either belonged or wished to be thought to belong, and this even at the expense of their own permanent interests. Professional men were found in France to uphold Guizot in refusing a vote to the professions. The poor white laborers of the South sustained the planters in defending slavery, the institution which condemned labor to ignominy.
We believe that the suffrage is in the ultimate interests of all women, as it has been of all men; but we do not expect all women, just now, to see this. If they did so even now, after fifty years’ discussion, the benumbing mental effect of political non-existence would be less demonstrated than it is.
The opposition to initiative is neither unprecedented nor inexplicable, nor of any special significance. Such opposition necessarily disappears with the necessity for initiative. We have never doubted the natural conservatism of women; on the contrary, we have insisted upon it; and the marvel is, that in the teeth of this immense conservative instinct and training, so many thousands of women do now demand the apparent innovation of the ballot. But similarly the Church, which fifty years ago was a unit in denouncing the public work of women — even for the slave, — is now divided in its counsels. If, in this Capitol of the State, the Church frowns on our claim, in the metropolis, in New York, this claim has received the eloquent and outspoken support of the clergy of all denominations, and few have openly opposed us.
The unequal feeling among women and their spiritual advisers in regard to the franchise, would have this effect — that enfranchisement, though sudden in its enactment, would be gradual in its operation. Enfranchisement is not a conscription, a draft. Voting is not compulsory upon men, nor has any one at present proposed to make it so Evidently, therefore, it is absurd to imagine that the duty of the vote would be compulsory upon women.
The possession of the suffrage is needed to complete the education for the suffrage. The enfranchisement confers an opportunity. Those who are already prepared, would embrace this at once; those who were not would delay until, by slow degrees, their souls had warmed to
the temperature of the time.
But suppose, it is urged, that the votes of some women, ignorant, weak, and intrinsically indifferent unless influenced by hope of private gain, were bought up by the leaders of a party, who would thus secure an unfair advantage over the other party whose women declined to vote? The first remedy is simple, and would then be near at hand: call out the vote of such other women. Indifference would be converted into enthusiasm, so soon as a practical issue were to be met. And such issues, by our annual elections, are not raised oftener than once a year. The second remedy is also near at hand, or rather the necessity for it is, and is the urgent question of the hour, and before this very Convention, this very Committee. Render corrupt voting impossible: prevent, for the salvation of the Republic, the purchase of the venal ballot! Though it be secretly whispered, it dare not be openly affirmed and recorded in the legislation of the State, that a demand for franchise was refused because corruption at the polls had become a recognized, a permanently tolerated institution!
Gentlemen, we commend our great question to your most serious, earnest, and thoughtful deliberation. We refuse to believe, as it has been basely reported to us, that the members of this Convention of this committee have come to this deliberation with minds already prejudiced, or irreversibly set in one direction. The mental attitude which could be successfully challenged at the jury panel drawn to decide the pettiest wrong of the humblest citizen, cannot be that which is assumed, which is openly paraded by those to whom is committed the great rights of so many thousands, who are not the humblest. It is impossible that you should toss aside our claim, as the mere whim of a few irresponsible cranks, when already the petitions in its support number over 289,000 names. When were such petitions ever before presented in this Assembly Chamber? This is not a question like that of the Prohibition proposal, obviously unfit for place in a discussion on constitutional reform. Questions concerning the electorate belong here, and belong nowhere else, for they concern the fundamental organic law. Do not give to this question less thought than has been elsewhere bestowed upon proposals to extend the franchise. You are not obliged to thread the imbecile intricacies that clogged the English Reform Bills: in our more fortunate country, the problem may be worked out on broad and simple lines. And in seeking the suffrage for women, we do not propose to lower the franchise; we are asking for lateral, not vertical extension; we shall not even oppose such restrictions on the franchise as more extended experience may decide to be suitable; we only demand that such restriction be placed on some other basis than that of sex.
This is a question for American men to settle with American women, and on American principles. We pray you, therefore, do not allow the issue to be confused by any foreign sentimentalism, by any mediaeval and inherited prejudice, out of consonance with the well established social polity of this State.
We pray you, further, do not allow your decisions to be complicated by calculations of supposed party interest. This is not and cannot be a party question, for the women whom you may help to enfranchise, will belong to no separate party. Whatever the independence of their individual judgment on individual qestions, and which is to be desired, their party affiliations will necessarily be those of their fathers, brothers, and husbands. They do not wish to enter political life pledged by ties of inconvenient gratitude to any one party. Rather, free from entangling alliances, they aim to secure the open-hearted and generous support of the best, the most far-sighted, the most patriotic among every party now represented in the State.
Finally, gentlemen, we are aware that with you does not rest the final responsibility of this great question. It is, indeed, a question too momentous to be decided by a body of two hundred men, however wise, and learned, and patriotic; you do not assume to so decide it; your mandate is not entrusted to you for that purpose.
Qualifications for the franchise, for the dignity of full citizenship, for a right to share in the Sovereignty, can only be decided by the whole people who are already Sovereign. Bring this question, we entreat you, before them; let it be discussed for the next five months, not only in your councils, but throughout the length and breadth of the State — in its cities, its villages, its hamlets, its farms. Let it be discussed in families; let the husband inquire of the wife, and the son of the mother, and the brother of the sister, how they would prefer the vote to be cast, whether for or against this amendment. Then only can be fully known the deliberate opinions, at this time, of the voters of the State, and of the women also. To submit this question to the people, does not irrevocably engage the responsibility of the Convention. To refuse to submit it, is to assume the responsibility of deciding the whole question without the vote of the people. We are aware that in 1867 this question was buried by an adverse Convention; but we also remember that the people subsequently buried all the work of the entire Convention at the polls.
Should in November a popular vote be taken, then, whether the decision prove favorable, as in Wyoming and Colorado, or adverse, as in Rhode Island and South Dakota, we shall bow, as is inevitable, to the popular will; we shall withdraw, and bide our time for another twenty years, when once more we, or our survivors or our successors, will present themselves before a new Constitutional Convention, to prefer — and then successfully — our claim.
Source: “Common Sense” Applied to Woman Suffrage; A Statement of the Reasons which Justify the Demand to Extend the Suffrage to Women, with Consideration of the Arguments Against Such Enfranchisement, and With Special Reference to the Issues Presented to the New Your State Convention of 1894, by Mary Putnam-Jacobi, M.D. (New York: GP Putnam’s Sons), 1894, pp. 199-236.