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The Political Rights of Women

c.1870s — US Committee on Laws and Judiciary, Washington DC

 

Gentlemen of the Committee: We come before you to-day, not with any studied eloquence, far-fetched erudition, or new theories for the metamorphosis of our government, or the overthrow of our social economy and relations, but we come, asking for our whole commonwealth, for the fathers who begat us, and the brothers at our side; for the mothers who bore us, and the sisters who go hand in hand with us; for the orphan and the widow unprotected; for the wretched inebriate and the outcast Magdalene; for the beggars who throng our streets, and the inmates of our jails and asylums: for these we ask you that we too may have a hand and a voice, a share in this matter which so nearly concerns not only our temporal but even our eternal salvation. We ask you that we may have an interest that shall awaken from its apathy fully one-half of the moral and intellectual resources of the country, fully one-half of its productive interest — an interest which contains in the germ the physical power and vital force of the whole nation. Weakness cannot beget power, ignorance cannot beget wisdom, disease cannot produce health. Look at our women of to-day, with their enfeebled bodies, dwarfed intellects, laxness of moral force; without enough of healthy stimulus to incite them to action; and compare them with our grandmothers of the Revolution and the Martha Washington school. Here you find a woman who dared to control her own affairs; who superintended a farm of six hundred acres; giving personal instructions to the workmen, writing her own bills and receipts, and setting an example of industry and frugality to the neighboring women who called to see her.

I need not, gentlemen, enumerate to you to prove what I wish to prove to-day, the countless numbers of women who have participated creditably in government from the days of our Saviour until the present time. You know that Victoria rules in England; and the adoration of the English heart to-day for its Queen found expression but a few weeks since in one of our popular lecture halls, when the audience, composed partly of Englishmen, were asked to sing “God Save the Queen.” The wisdom of the reign of Elizabeth, “good Queen Bess,” as she has been called, gave to England her prestige — the proud pre-eminence which she holds to-day among the nations of the earth. Isabella I of Spain, the patron saint of America, without whose generosity our country to-day might have been a wilderness, was never nobler than when, after Ferdinand’s refusal, after the refusal of the crowned authority of England, the disapproval of the wise men of her own kingdom, she rose in her queenly majesty, and said, “I undertake it for my own crown of Castile, and will pledge my jewels to raise the necessary funds.” Maria Theresa, of Austria, who assumed the reins of government with her kingdom divided and disturbed, found herself equal to the emergency, brought order out of chaos, and prosperity to her kingdom. Christine, of Sweden, brought that kingdom to the zenith of its power. Eugenie, Empress of the French, in the late disastrous revolution, assumed the regency of the Empire in defiance of her ministry, and when forced to flee, covered her flight with a shrewdness that would have done credit to Napoleon himself. Florence Nightingale brought order and efficiency into the hospitals of the Crimea; and Clara Barton, with her clear head and generous heart, has lifted up the starving women of Strasburg, and made it possible for them to be self-sustaining. I need not cite to you Catharine of Russia, Cleopatra, or the Queen of Sheba, who came to admire the wisdom of Solomon; or the Roman matrons, Zenobia, Lucretia, Tullia; or revert to the earliest forms of government when the family and the church were lawgivers; remind you of Lydia, the seller of purple and fine linen, who ruled her own household, called to the church; of Aquilla and Priscilla, whom Paul took with him and left to control the church at Ephesus, after they had been banished from Rome by the decree of Claudius; or of Phoebe, the deaconess. It is a well-known fact that women have been sent as ministers and ambassadors, the latter a power fuller than our country grants, to treat on important State matters between the crowned heads of Europe. In many cases they have represented the person of the monarch or emperor himself. France, since the beginning of the reign of Louis XIV, through the period of the ascendency of Napoleon I down to the reign of Napoleon III, has employed women in diplomacy. Instances may be found recorded in a work entitled “Napoleon and His Court,” by Madame Junot, and also in our own consular works. The late Empress of France has been said to be especially gifted in this respect. It has been the custom of Russia for the past century, and still continues to be, to send women on diplomatic errands. In this empire, also, where the voting is done by households, a woman is often sent to represent the family.

Women are now writing a large proportion of the books and newspapers of the country, are editing newspapers and commanding ships. They are admitted to law schools, medical schools, and the higher order of colleges, and are knocking at Amherst and Yale. Yea, more, they are admitted to the practice of law, as in Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Wyoming and Utah; admitted to the practice of medicine everywhere, and more recently to consultation. One hundred women preachers are already ordained and are preaching throughout the land. Women are elected as engrossing and enrolling clerks in Legislatures, as in Wisconsin, Missouri and Indiana; appointed as justices of the peace, as in Maine, Wyoming and Connecticut: as bankers and brokers, as in New York and St. Louis. They are filling as school teachers three-fourths of the schools of the land.

This is more than true of our own city. Shall we not then have women school trustees and superintendents? Already they are appointed in the East and in the West, and women are permitted to vote at the school elections. Who has a deeper interest in the schools than the mothers?

Look at the hundreds of women clerks in the government departments. They are all eligible, since the passage of the Arnell bill, to the highest clerkships. Look at the postmistresses throughout the land. Each one a bonded officer of the government, appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, the highest executive power in the land. “The power of the President to appoint, and of the Senate to confirm, has never been questioned by our highest Courts. Being bonded officers, they must necessarily qualify before a judicial officer.”

And now, gentlemen of the Committee on Laws and Judiciary, whatever may be your report on these bills for justice and equality to women, committed to your trust, I hope you will bear in mind that you have mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, who will be affected by your decision. They may be amply provided for to-day, and be beggared to-morrow. Remember that “life is short and time is fleeting,” but principles never die. You hold in your hands a power and an opportunity to-day to render yourselves immortal — an opportunity that comes but once in a life- time. Shakespeare says: “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” Gentlemen, the flood-tide is with you! Shall this appeal be in vain? I hold in my hands the names of hundreds of men and women of our city pledged to this work, and they will not relax their efforts until it is accomplished.

“Truth crushed to earth will rise again;
The eternal years of God are hers;
But Error, wounded, writhes in pain
And dies, amid her worshipers.”

 

 

Source: “Belva Lockwood Calls Forth History,” in Women at the Podium: Memorable Speeches in History. ed. S. Michele Nix. (New York: Harper Resource), pp. 171-176.