Suffrage in Porto Rico
April 25, 1928 — U.S. Senate Committee on Territories and Insular Possessions, Washington DC
[Robert spoke in support of Senate Bill 753, to extend the franchise to Puerto Rican women.]
We American citizens, natives of Porto Rico and members of the Liga Social Sufragista of Porto Rico, request from you gentlemen of the American Congress a favorable recommendation on the bill, S. 753, introduced by Senator [Hiram] Bingham, in order to amend the organic act of Porto Rico by giving Porto Rican women the right to vote in their own country.
Porto Rico, as a possession of the United States, is ruled under a special organic act that was enacted by this same Congress in 1917. There is a paragraph or an article in this organic act, the Jones Act, as it is called, which says:
Voters shall be citizens of the United States, 21 years of age or over, and have such educational qualification as may be prescribed by the legislature of Porto Rico, provided that no property qualification shall ever be imposed upon or required of anyone.
This article does not say anything about women and men; but, of course, by this same article of this organic law the legislature of Porto Rico was given the right to make any discriminations they wanted, except those relating to property. So, when they made their law, they limited the voting privilege in Porto Rico to the men. They did not include women.
We feel very sure that if this law had been enacted after the amendment to the Constitution of the United States it would have been unconstitutional.
The women of Porto Rico, long before the amendment to the Constitution was introduced, were struggling and working hard to get their political rights. In 1919 we were successful in getting the first bill for woman suffrage introduced in our legislature, but, of course, it was just introduced, and we did not progress at all. In 1923 we had another bill; and in 1925 we had still another, but they were all introduced in different legislatures, and none of them progressed at all.
So, in 1925, when we came to Washington and got acquainted with some prominent members of the National Woman’s Party, they advised us to get some action from Congress. So, we went back with that idea in our mind, and it was very favorable for us that in the last session of Congress Senator Bingham introduced the first bill for woman suffrage in the American Senate.
In those days Mr. [Edgar] Kiess, a Representative from Pennsylvania, was in Porto Rico visiting visiting the island, so we talked things over with him and he showed very great interest in women’s rights in Porto Rico. But he advised us to wait for another chance with the legislature for action on woman suffrage.
We waited, but we wasted time. During those days we were waiting for our legislature to act in favor of us, Senator Bingham introduced the same bill again, in December, 1927. Mr. Kiess introduced the same bill, so we really thought that we were getting more attention in the American Congress than we were getting in our own legislature. We waited to see if our legislature was going to act. This time Mr. Barcelo, the president of the senate, introduced a bill. The governor, in his message to the legislature, recommended appropriate legislation for woman suffrage. So, you see, the governor was in favor of woman suffrage. That was something for Porto Rican women.
The president of the senate was for it, because he had introduced a bill for woman suffrage. Of course, the bill that Mr. Barcelo introduced was based on literacy, and it was a very conservative one indeed, but we thought it was just a step in our progress. We accepted it. Of course, we would like to have equal rights, but we could not go against the bill. We had to accept it because it was a part of what we were asking for. The Porto Rican senate approved the bill this time, but the house of representatives did not even want to introduce it. So we decided to come and ask you ourselves; having the hope that you gentlemen of the American Congress would take a little more interest in seeing justice done to Porto Rican women.
Taking into consideration our biological and physiological nature, our Porto Rican men can not argue that we are not fitted to act in political affairs and have our political rights. You know, there are more than 30 countries now that have admitted woman suffrage, and we Porto Rican women are the same as all the rest of the women in the world, from the standpoint of biology.
There is a feeling among our men that if we obtained our political franchise our maternal duties and our domestic duties would be the first to suffer. But I do not think so, because there are a lot of women in Porto Rico who have been working for a long time. They go every day and spend long hours working outside. They leave their children and they leave their homes, and yet their children and their homes are well taken care of. So, if we go to work and leave our children and our homes, why can we not go for a little while every four years and vote for the sake of our country? There is not any logical argument against it.
We Porto Rican women think that we are already prepared for it. Since the time of the Spanish dominion, we have been educated and taught and cultured. Before the Americans went to Porto Rico, of course, we were not allowed in profession affairs, but we had great women in literature and art, and after the Americans came there we were admitted to all the professions. We have doctors, dentists, lawyers, pharmacists, and a lot of women in industries. There are a great many women in commerce and in public offices. We have women everywhere. They have shown their efficiency. We really think that men need us in our country in all lines of activity. They need us because we have a higher understanding of the necessities of life. We bring up children. We educate them. We know what they need. If we know what our children need, if we know what our homes need, I think that we can find out better than men what our country needs.
They say that if we get the right to vote we will be influenced by our husbands or by our brothers or by any male relatives in our political feelings. Suppose we are influenced by them. I think there ought to be an intellectual balance. If the influence is a good one, well and good; and if it is not, we ought to be in a position where we can do something about it.
In democracies sovereignty is made by the feelings of all human persons. We feel more than justified in coming to you, because you gave us our American citizenship by an organic law. Why should we not ask you to give us complete citizenship in our country? By our organic act, and by the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution Constitution, we are allowed to come here to the United States, in any part of the United States, and after six months’ residence we have the right to vote, as any of our sisters in the United States. But the only thing that prohibits us from going to Porto Rico and voting and exercising our electoral right is just a little injustice from our men when they make the electoral law in Porto Rico.
They say it is not a very prudent thing to give woman suffrage to all women; that they ought to give it, but under a literacy test. We might accept that, but if you make this organic law in favor of women in Porto Rico, they have a perfect right to set up any qualifications whatsoever, and provide a standard of literacy, but they have to do it for both men and women. I do not think they could do it just for women. They would have to do it for men and women.
They want us to let them act on the right of Porto Rican women to vote, but they got their citizenship from an organic act of Congress, and they obtained their political rights from an organic act of Congress. This organic act covers all persons — men and women. The women should obtain the same right as all our citizens.
I am pretty sure that whatever arguments they bring forward against suffrage for women in Porto Rico are going to be very, very poor. They have no argument. They may say that we have come from a Latin people and that we ought not to have that change so suddenly. We have had the same education for the last 30 years as they have had. We come here to American colleges. We go back with an American education, and we exercise all our American rights in Porto Rico. Why should we not have the right to vote? It is not going to have any bad effect whatsoever on the Porto Rican government, but it will improve it.
So, gentlemen, you whose duty it is to see that Porto Rico progresses, as all the States of the United States progress, should give us the same rights as the American women of the United States, because we are a part of the United States. You should give us the same right to exercise this privilege in our country as we have to exercise it in any part of the United States.
That is all I have to say.
Source: Hearing before the Committee on Territories and Insular Possessions, United States Senate, Seventieth Congress, First Session, on S. 753 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office) 1928, pp. 2-4.