On Women’s Rights and Wartime Service
January 10, 1918 — US House of Representatives, Washington DC
Mr. Speaker, we are facing to-day a question of political evolution. International circumstances have forced this question to an issue. Our country is in a state of war. The Nation has had a terrible shock. The result has been a sudden change in our national consciousness. The things we have for years been taking for granted are suddenly assuming a new significance for us.
We as a Nation were born in a land of unparalleled resources, of vast acreage of fertile soil, of minerals, of coal, oil, gas, of timber, and water power. The combinations in which these resources were found, together with our great natural highways, gave us opportunities for development which no other nation could boast. And we had people, people in whose veins ran the blood of all nations, people imbued with the buoyancy of youth, fearless, and with the will and energy to make their dreams of freedom come true.
Without restraint we drew upon the stored treasure of the past. We spent recklessly, and we wasted our natural resources and our human energy with youthful abandon.
And then came the world war, and with its coming our carefree attitude was suddenly replaced by a new seriousness. To-day we are mobilizing all our resources for the ideals of democracy. We are taking stock of our available energy. And we are finding that with all our past wastefulness we still have limitless resources upon which we can count. We have men — men for the Army, for the Navy, for the air; men for the industries, the mines, the fields; men for the Government. And the national leaders are now reaching out and drawing men of talent, picking those with the best minds, with expert knowledge, and with broad perspective, to aid in war work.
But something is still lacking in the completeness of our national effort. With all our abundance of coal, with our great stretches of idle, fertile land, babies are dying from cold and hunger; soldiers have died for lack of a woolen shirt.
Might it not be that the men who have spent their lives thinking in terms of commercial profit find it hard to adjust themselves to thinking in terms of human needs? Might it not be that a great force that has always been thinking in terms of human needs, and that always will think in terms of human needs, has not been mobilized? Is it not possible that the women of the country have something of value to give the Nation at this time?
It would be strange indeed if the women of this country through all these years had not developed an intelligence, a feeling, a spiritual force peculiar to themselves, which they hold in readiness to give to the world. It would be strange if the influence of women through direct participation in the political struggles, through which all social and industrial development proceeds, would not lend a certain virility, a certain influx of new strength and understanding and sympathy and ability to the exhausting effort we are now making to meet the problem before us.
For 70 years, the women leaders of this country have been asking the Government to recognize this possibility. Every great woman who stands out in our history — Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Clara Barton, Mary Livermore, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frances Willard, Lucy Stone, Jane Addams, Ella Flagg Young, Alice Stone Blackwell, Anna Howard Shaw, Mrs. Catt — all have asked the Government to permit women to serve more effectively the national welfare. All have felt that the energy, the thought, and the suffering that was spent in trying to obtain permission to serve directly should as quickly as possible be turned to the actual service. And in the meantime they did all they could indirectly. They learned to read and to know each other. They became interested in each others’ problems, for they found them to be their own problems. As they were the stabilizing influence in the home and kept the family unity, so they have become a great possible stabilizing influence in society, asking now to help keep the unity of the Nation to its highest standard of service.
They have stood back of the men. They have pioneered with them, rejoiced with them over their successes, and when they failed, encouraged them and helped them to begin again. The women have done all that they were allowed to do, all that the men planned for them to do. But through all their work they have pleaded for the political machinery which would enable them to do more.
To-day as never before the Nation needs its women — needs the work of their hands and their hearts and their minds. Their energy must be utilized in the most effective service they can give. Are we now going to refuse these women the opportunity to serve in the face of their plea — in the face of the Nation’s great need? Are you gentlemen representing the South, you who have struggled with your negro problem for half a century, going to retaliate after 50 years for the injustice you believe was done you so long ago? Have you not learned in your struggle for adjustment in the South to be broad and fair and open-minded in dealing with another franchise problem that concerns the whole Nation?
The women of the South have stood by you through every trial. They have backed you in every struggle, and they gave themselves and all they held most dear for the cause for which their men laid down their lives. Now they are asking to help you again in a big, broad, national way. Are you going to deny them the equipment with which to help you effectively simply because the enfranchisement of a child-race 50 years ago brought you a problem you were powerless to handle?
There are more white women of voting age in the South to-day than there are negro men and women together. Are you going to say to these thoughtful women: “After 50 years we have been unable to accomplish more than a temporary adjustment of our problem; and now we refuse to let you disturb us, even to help us?” Dare you say that in the face of our tremendous national crisis — in the face of problems too great to rest upon the old doctrines of our youth, but demanding the action of a Nation united in spirit and using all its power?
These are heroic times, and they call for the strength and the courage and the dignity to think and act in national terms. We thought in national terms when we restricted activities by the prohibition amendment a few weeks ago. Why can we not think now in national terms and extend opportunities?
Our President emphasized the great nationalizing process our country is undergoing when he took over the railroads of the country to meet this crisis. The food and fuel problems must soon be solved by nationalization. We are working and thinking to-day not as separate States but as a Nation. We must discuss public affairs not as Montanans or New Yorkers or Floridians but as Americans, taking always a national perspective and looking toward the welfare of the entire country.
We have made the protection of our child workers a national question. We declared war not State by State but by Federal action. We mobilized and equipped our Army not State by State but by Federal action. We mobilized and equipped our Army not State by State but through Congress. Shall our women, our home defense, be our only fighters in the struggle for democracy who shall be denied Federal action? It is time for our old political doctrines to give way to the new visions, the new aspects of national and international relations, which have come to us already since the war began.
For we have had new visions; we have been aroused to a new way of looking at things. Our President, with his wisdom and astuteness, has helped us to penetrate new problems, to analyze situations, to make fine distinctions. He startled us by urging us to distinguish between the German Government and the German people. We who have been steeped in democratic ideals since the days when our forefathers signed the Declaration of Independence find it difficult to think of government as something separate from the people.
Yet, as we learn to make this distinction for Germany, will not our minds revert to our own situation and be puzzled? How can people in other countries who are trying to grasp our plan of democracy avoid stumbling over our logic when we deny the first steps in democracy to our women? May they not see a distinction between the Government of the United States and the women of the United States?
Deep down in the hearts of the American people is a living faith in democracy. Sometimes it is not expressed in the most effective way. Sometimes it seems almost forgotten. But when the test comes we find it still there, groping and aspiring, and helping men and women to understand each other and their common need. It is our national religion, and it prompts in us the desire for that measure of justice which is based on equal opportunity, equal protection, equal freedom for all. In our hearts we know that this desire can be realized only when “those who submit to authority have a voice in their own government,” whether that government be political, industrial, or social.
To-day there are men and women in every field of endeavor who are bending all their energies toward a realization of this dream of universal justice. They believe that we are waging a war for democracy. The farmer who knows the elements of democracy becomes something of an idealist when he contemplates the possibility of feeding the world during this crisis. The woman who knits all day to keep from thinking of the sacrifice she is making wonders what this democracy is which she is denied and for which she is asked to give. The miner is dreaming his dreams of industrial democracy as he goes about 2,000 feet underground, bringing forth from the rock precious metals to help in the prosecution of this war.
The girl who works in the Treasury no longer works until she is married. She knows now that she will work on and on and on. The war has taken from her opportunities for the joys that young girls look forward to. Cheerfully and willingly she makes her sacrifice. And she will pay to the very end in order that the future need not find women paying again for the same cause.
The boys at the front know something of the democracy for which they are fighting. These courageous lads who are paying with their lives testified to the sincerity of their fight when they sent home their ballots in the New York election, and and voted two to one in favor of woman suffrage and democracy at home.
These are the people of the Nation. These are the fiber and sinew of war — the mother, the farmer, the miner, the industrial worker, the soldier. These are the people who are resting their faith in the Congress of the United States because they believe that Congress knows what democracy means. These people will not fight in vain.
Can we afford to allow these men and women to doubt for a single instant the sincerity of our protestations of democracy? How shall we answer their challenge, gentlemen; how shall we explain to them the meaning of democracy if the same Congress that voted for war to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?
Source: Congressional Record, 65th Congress, 2nd Session; Volume LVI, Part 1, (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office), 1918, pp. 771-772.