To Exercise the Same Privileges
March 3, 1869 — Judiciary Committee, House of Representatives of Source Carolina, Columbia SC
Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen of the Judiciary Committee:
Allow me to return my sincere thanks to the House of Representatives, through you, for the sense of gratitude they have enabled me to experience by entertaining a resolution looking to the enfranchisement of the women of South Carolina — a resolution which marks indelibly the liberal and progressive character of the Legislative Department of the State; to thank you, also, for the invitation to be present on this occasion, and give reasons why my own sex should no longer be prohibited from exercising those natural and inalienable rights of voting and holding office.
As I am entirely unprepared to entertain you with grand displays of eloquence, or any exhibition of profound logic, and can scarcely attempt more than a gesture of politeness and sympathy, I am obliged to treat what I have to say without much form or order. I will therefore begin by saying that, as a victim of gross, semi-barbarous legal inequalities, I am grateful for being permitted to offer my protest against class legislation. I protest against it, because it is not only wrong, but the parent of many wrongs; and, the most aggravated of all wrongs, it deprives woman of her right, as a citizen, to vote and hold office. It is very justly supposed that when we name the infliction of a wrong, we imply the existence of a right. Well, this is soon done. Inasmuch as the poor are represented by their own class in the halls of legislation, as well as the rich — as the blacks claim in this country, and enjoy, in this and other States, equal civil and political rights with the whites — so should women be permitted to exercise the same privileges, and represent their own sex at the ballot box and in the various departments of State; for, until woman has the right of representation, her rights are held by an insecure tenure. I do not come to you in a spirit of reproach or denunciation, neither do I please for woman any rights you do not claim for yourselves; for we have no separate rights which do not belong to humanity in general. All we do ask is, that you who are charged with the duty of reconstructing the government of our State will do so upon the only true basis — the consent of the governed. You hold, as the doctrine of our country, “that all governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, and taxation without representation is tyranny.”
This was the fundamental doctrine of the fathers of the republic; for this they fought the bloody battles of the revolution, and, guided by the heroism it inspired, achieved the victory of independence. This principle so imbued and took possession of the whole people of this country, that, at the close of that long struggle again[s]t the mother country, a popular government, emanating directly from the people, was the only form our institutions could possibly assume. To the citizens of the whole country were restored the natural right and prerogative of controlling all the affairs of State. This was the doctrine so early taught and fondly cherished by the people, but only partially realized in practice. Long ago, in the early history of the nation, it was affirmed, by the sage leaders in public affairs, “That the right of suffrage is fundamental to republics.” Yet, as I have just remarked, although this was the doctrine of the general Government, and has been the general rule of the States, still, in nearly all the States, and up to the present time, there have been imposed unjust and oppressive restrictions of the franchise upon certain classes of citizens. This was an aristocratic tendency, an anti-republican practice, an infringement of the rights and immunities of the citizen, and has long been calling for redress. At last, Congress, at the close of the late war, to remedy this evil and prevent the further toleration of this gross inconsistency in our free institutions, submitted an amendment to the Constitution to the several States, which, having been ratified, has become an integral part of the grand magna charta of our liberties. The first clause of this fourteenth amendment is as follows:
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof are citizens of the United States and of the States wherein they may reside.”
Mark the language! This clause is defining who are citizens.
It says all persons; not all male persons, but “all persons born or naturalize din the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof are citizens of the United States and of the States wherein they may reside.” That settles the question of citizenship[,] then follows the inhibition upon the States. “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the rights of immunities of citizens of the United States.” We claim this settles our right under the Constitution to the ballot. The ablest men in our country, both in Congress and out of it, have recently been proving, and that most conclusively, that this provision has special reference to the franchise of the citizen. But if their arguments are conclusive as to the right of male citizens, (and I judge them to be so,) then they are conclusive as to all citizens. We are citizens. No one, we believe, will question that. Then we claim in South Carolina the right of the franchise. We claim it under the time-honored doctrine “that the right of suffrage is fundamental to republics;” we claim it under the national Constitution, by which it is guaranteed and secured; and we further claim that this State has no reason or authority to withhold from us this fundamental and constitutional right. South Carolina is peremptorily forbidden to interfere with or abridge this vested and natural right; for the inhibition is, that “no State shall make or enforce any laws which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” If South Carolina does it, she does it without warrant or authority — in direct violation of the Constitution of the United States and by the exercise of arbitrary and tyrannical powers.
To this I expect to hear the repetition of the same childish and absurd objections which have been advanced a thousand times, as if they were substantial, namely: that the majority of women are not dissatisfied with the relations in which, as a class, and as individuals, they stand to law and in society.
Woman’s inability to perform military duty is another plea, and some will even photograph the vice and degradation that women would have to encounter at the polls. Now, these excuses are so groundless and unreasonable, and so open to ridicule, that there is a strong temptation to treat them with the scorn they are suited to inspire. Has the ballot-box become so impure that a man would hesitate to accompany his mother, wife or sister to the polls? If so, to him I would suggest, the necessity of reconstruction the whole system of the elective franchise, by depriving the corrupt and vicious of its sacred privileges, (and the sooner the better for the cause of virtue, justice and temperance,) and this can only be done by bringing in the counteracting influence of woman. Well and truly does Lucy Stone exclaim: “There is no name given under heaven whereby this nation can be saved, politically, except the name of woman.”
Gentlemen, on reflection, I am sure you will become convinced that the disfranchisement of woman is unjust. It is a stigma on the feminine half of humanity, for, at the close of war, civilization stood aghast at rebel atrocities, and, from high places of power, disfranchisement was declared the only punishment mete for such crimes. It is but natural, then, that women would desire to escape form the ranks of the disfranchised, if they classed, politically, with those who are too worthless or too wicked to govern themselves.
With peace came the inevitable question of reconstruction. The alternative was, loyalty and ignorance or prejudice and treason. The former was preferred, as the only means of saving the dusky defenders of the Union from unutterable outrage and cruelty. Then followed the enfranchisement of the black men of the South, which was demanded as an imperative political necessity. (But what has been done or demanded for the women, whose necks bowed to the yoke of injustice, who are not recognized as the gentler sex, and even now are almost invariable treated as a leprous class on account of their complexion — insulted and despised by the wealthy and powerful, as well as by the vulgar and fiendish.) And yet, how nobly did the loyal women of the South bear their share of the toil, hardship and privation during that long and sanguinary struggle for the Union and the liberty of the bondmen. How many prisoners of the Union army were by them shielded form death, and aided back to liberty and the bosom of their families? How constantly and unwaveringly were their sympathies and efforts on the side of loyalty and justice? Be it said to the eternal honor of the women of my own race, they never faltered nor fainted in their deeds of kindness towards the defenders of the republic. Who comprehended more quickly than they the meaning of the fierce contest between the South and the North, and whose prayers were more constantly rising to the Throne of our Common Father in behalf of those who were on the side of the Union, of justice, and the right? And shall such women be denied their natural and inalienable right to the ballot? If the franchise has been given the black man, not only as a political necessity, but as a reward for his loyalty and services in our now victorious cause, what excuse can be devised for withholding it from the equally loyal and serviceable women of the South? For these noble and heroic women I claim the right of citizenship and the privilege of the franchise.
Is it too much to ask of this nation for loyal women, when the halls of Congress are thronged with men demanding to be restored to citizenship — men who have, by their own acts, proven themselves unfit for self-government. Recognize the legal rights of the loyal women, and there will be no more bloody revolution or rebellion in this country.
Therefore, I most earnestly entreat you, gentlemen of the Judiciary Committee, to recommend that the Constitution of our State be so amended that, by its plainly expressed terms, women may vote and be eligible to office, and thus prove yourselves the consistent friend of freedom and justice. Let it be placed on record that reconstructed South Carolina led in this glorious march of the world’s progress by not only vindicating the black man from the false charges of unfitness for self-government, (made against him by those who would still hold his race in slavery,) but was the first State in the Union to establish a truly republican form of government. Gentlemen, I thank you for your courteous attention.
Source: “Speech of Miss Charlotte Rollin, Delivered Before the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives of South Carolina, on Wednesday, March 3, 1869,” Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library, University of Toronto.
Also: Female Genius: Eliza Harriot and George Washington at the Dawn of the Constitution, by Mary Sarah Bilder (Charlotte: University of Virginia Press), 2022, p. 254.