Woman’s Rights Convention, 1853
September 7, 1853 — Woman’s Rights Convention, Broadway Tabernacle, New York City
To establish women’s right to vote, should not, it might naturally be supposed, be a matter of so much difficulty, when we consider the extent to which, in matters of weighty importance, that right has been already conceded to her. In our country we have many private corporations, bank, stock companies, railroad companies, manufacturing companies, in which women are shareholders, and thus have the right, which none dispute, to vote upon questions affecting the interests of those companies. The same is the case in the Bank of England, that great money institution, which could, with a breath, shake every European throne. There, women, as share holders, have an equal right to vote with men. In the East India company, which holds in its hands the destinies of the millions of Hindostan, woman’s pecuniary interest gives her a like control with man over these countless human beings. Inasmuch, then, as woman, where her pecuniary interests are concerned, has found a way that is admitted to be womanly enough of expressing her feelings, I also take it for granted that she will find a right womanly way of expressing her feelings on those great questions which involve her moral, intellectual, and social, as well as her commercial interests.
Now I will state my reason for desiring to vote — my reason for maintaining that women should have the right to vote; and it is this, that she may have a due control over her own moral, intellectual, and social interests. I want to have this power, because, in not having it, I am deprived of the power of protecting myself and my children, because I do not possess the power which ought to belong to me as a mother.
It is an undisputed fact that, if women were allowed to vote, the best measures for the good of the community would be carried. As it is, when a petition goes up to a legislature, the signatures are reckoned, and it is said, “so many are voters, and so many are women.” No one denies that, if women had votes on temperance laws, and such moral reforms, the majority of women would be in favor of them. Friends, I want the right to vote, so that my name, when it appears on a petition, may be reckoned as that of a voter, whether or not I exercise the franchise.
Through the affections of the mother men have controlled the actions of woman. Woman stands before you, with all the wants of man, and also with all the capability of man to provide for these wants; but the present laws have disowned the capacity of woman from her necessities. From woman all the sphere for the development of her capacities has been taken away; by law and custom she is regarded as dead, she has been legally executed. It is said woman should not go to the polls — she would meet rowdies, the purity of her nature would be sullied by the base contact into which the exercise of political rights would bring her. I maintain, on the contrary, that her going there would have a good effect, and instead of her purity being soiled by the place, the place would receive a purification from her presence. How is it in all the walks where woman now meets man? Whether is she lowered, or he raised by the contact? In the railroad car, the steamboat, are not the rudenesses of man’s nature laid aside when woman enters? Do not courtesy and refinement enter with her, and sanctify the place while she remains? No; the argument is a fallacy, and what it urges as an objection, would really be a strong recommendation. I think I have shown it is not good for men and women to be alone.
[Cheers, apparently ironical, and meant to create a disturbance, here interrupted the speaker.]
As I have only twenty minutes to speak, may I beg that you will be good enough to spare your plaudits. I will better occupy my time in explaining my views, than in receiving your demonstrations of applause.
Woman’s property is given by the laws to her husband; her children belong to, and can be claimed by, their father, however brutal and degraded that father may have become. Man takes from her her right in property — her right over her own earnings, and offspring and services, and then, to compensate her for the robbery, enacts that she shall be held under no obligation to support her children. Women are not permitted to be, are not, by the law, regarded as fit to be, the guardians of their children, after the death of their husbands; if there be any person to offer opposition to their being so, the guardianship is taken from them. But when a wife dies, the husband becomes, as a matter of course, the legal guardian of the children. If a women marries a second time, she has no power to support her children by a former marriage. Let her bring to her second husband a dower ever so princely, and she cannot claim support for her offspring by her former marriage; nay, the second husband can, if he choose, demand a compensation for supporting them.
As widows, too, the law bears heavily on women. If her children have property, she is adjudged unworthy of their guardianship; and although the decree of God has made her the true and natural guardian of her children, she is obliged to pay from her scanty means to be constituted so by the law.
I have conversed with judges and legislators, and tried to learn a reason for these things, but failed to find it. A noblemen once gave me what he probably thought was a good one. ‘Women,’ he said to me ‘cannot earn as much as men!’ We say they should be allowed to earn as much. They have the ability, and the means should not be shut out from them. I have heard of another man who held woman’s industrial ability at a low rate. ‘His wife, he said, ‘had never been able to do anything but attend to her children.’ ‘How many have you?’ he was asked; and the answer was — ‘Nine.’ Nine children to attend to! — nine children cared for! — and she could do nothing more, the wife of this most reasonable man. Now, which is of more importance to the community, the property which that reasonable husband made, or the nine children whom that mother brought, with affectionate and tender toil, through the perils of infancy and youth, until they were men and women? Which was of more importance to this land — the property which the father of George Washington amassed, or the George Washington whom a noble mother gave to his country? The name of Washington, his glorious deeds, and the enduring benefits he secured for us, still remain, and will, long after the estates of Washington have passed from his name for ever!
In the State of Vermont, a wife sought a divorce from her husband on the ground of his intemperance. They were persons moving among our highest circles — wealthy people; and the wife knew that she could, through the aid of her friends and relations, with the influence and sympathy of the community, obtain a divorce, and a support for her children. That father carried away into Canada one child, a little girl, and paid three hundred dollars to a low, vile Frenchman, that he might keep her from her mother and friends. Three times her almost heart-broken mother went in search of her; twice in vain, but, the third time, she was found. So badly had the poor child been treated in the vile hands in which her father had placed her, that, when recovered, she was almost insensible; and when, by her mother’s nursing care, her intelligence was at length restored, her joy at seeing her mother was so violent, that it was feared its excess might prove fatal. The cause came into Court, and the judge decided that the two daughters should be given to their mother, but that the custody of the son should be given to the father. She was acquitted of the least impropriety or indiscretion: yet, though the obscenity and profanity of her husband in his own family was shocking; and it was in the last degree painful to that high-minded woman to see her son brought up under the charge of such a man, the law decided that the unworthy father was the more proper guardian for the boy!
In the Green Mountain State a great many sermons have lately been preached on the text, ‘Wives submit yourselves to your husbands.’ The remaining words, ‘in the Lord,’ are generally omitted; so that the text is made to appear like an injunction that the wives should submit to their husbands, whether they were in the Lord or in the devil. And the best of all is, that we are told that, although we should be submissive, we could change our husbands from devils into angels.
Source: Proceedings of the Woman’s Rights Convention, held at the Broadway Tabernacle, in the City of New York, on Tuesday and Wednesday, Sept. 6th and 7th, 1853 (NY: Fowler and Wells, Publishers) 1853. pp. 57-60.