The Ethics of Suffrage
May 1893 — World’s Congress of Representative Women, Chicago World’s Fair, Chicago IL
The basic idea of the republic is the right of self-government; the right of every citizen to choose his own representatives and to make the laws under which he lives; and as this right can be secured only by the exercise of the right of suffrage, the ballot in the hands of every qualified person indicates his true political status as a citizen in a republic.
The right of suffrage is simply the right to govern one’s self. Every human being is born into the world with this right, and the desire to exercise it comes naturally with the responsibilities of life. “The highest earthly desire of a ripened mind,” says Thomas Arnold, “is the desire to take an active share in the great work of government.” Those only who are capable of appreciating this dignity can measure the extent to which women are defrauded as citizens of this great republic; neither can others measure the loss to the councils of the nation of the wisdom of representative women.
When men say that women do not desire the right of suffrage, but prefer masculine domination to self-government, they falsify every page of history, every fact of human nature. The chronic condition of rebellion, even of children against the control of nurses, elder brothers, sisters, parents, and teachers, is a protest in favor of the right of self-government. Boys in schools and colleges find their happiness in disobeying rules, in circumventing and defying teachers and professors; and their youthful pranks are so many protests against a government in which they have no voice, and afford one of the most pleasing topics of conversation in after life.
The general unrest of the subjects of kings, emperors, and czars, expressed in secret plottings or open defiance against self-constituted authorities, shows the settled hatred of all people for governments to which they have not consented. But it is said that on this point women are peculiar, that they differ from all other classes, that being dependent they naturally prefer being governed by others. The facts of history contradict the assertion. These show that women have always been, as far as they dared, in a state of half-concealed resistance to fathers, husbands, and all self-constituted authorities; as far as good policy permitted them to manifest their real feelings they have done so. It has taken the whole power of the civil and canon law to hold woman in the subordinate position which it is said she willingly accepts. If woman had no will, no self-assertion, no opinions of her own to start with, what mean the terrible persecutions of the sex in the past?
So persistent and merciless has been the effort to dominate the feminine element in humanity, that we may well wonder at the steady resistance maintained by woman through the centuries. She has shown all along her love of individual freedom, her desire for self-government; while her achievements in practical affairs and her courage in the great emergencies of life have vindicated her capacity to exercise this right.
These, one and all, are so many protests against absolute authority and so many testimonials in favor of self-government; and yet this is the only form of government that has never been fairly tried.
The few experiments that have been made here and there in some exceptional homes, schools, and territories have been only partially successful, because the surrounding influences have been adverse. When we awake to the fact that our schools are places for training citizens of a republic, the rights and duties involved in self-government will fill a larger place in the curriculum of our universities.
Woman suffrage means a complete revolution in our government, religion, and social life; a revision of our Constitution, an expurgated edition of our statute laws and codes, civil and criminal. It means equal representation in the halls of legislation and in the courts of justice; that woman may be tried by her own peers, by judges and advocates of her own choosing. It means light and sunshine, mercy and peace in our dungeons, jails, and prisons; the barbarous idea of punishment superseded by the divine idea of reformation. It means police matrons in all our station-houses, that young girls when arrested during the night, intoxicated and otherwise helpless, may be under the watchful eye of judicious women, and not left wholly to the mercy of a male police.
In religion it means the worship of humanity rather than of an unknown God; a church in which the feminine element in Christianity will be recognized, in which the mother of the race shall be more sacred than symbols, sacraments, and altars; more worthy of reverence than bishops and priests.
A government and a religion that do not recognize the complete equality of woman are unworthy our intelligent support. And what does woman suffrage mean in social life? Health and happiness for women and children; one code of morals for men and women; love and liberty, peace and purity in the home; cleanliness and order in the streets and alleys; good sanitary arrangements in the homes of the poor; good morals and manners taught in the schools; the crippling influence of fear of an angry God, a cunning devil, censorious teachers, severe parents, all lifted from the minds of children, so long oppressed with apprehensions of danger on every side. We can not estimate the loss to the world in this repression of individual freedom and development through childhood and youth.
Woman suffrage means a new and nobler type of men and women, with mutual love and respect for each other; it means equal authority in the home; equal place in the trades and professions; equal honor and credit in the world of work.
Our civilization to-day is simply masculine. Everything is carried by force, and violence, and war, and will be until the feminine element is fully recognized and has equal power in the regulation of human affairs. Then we shall substitute coöperation for competition, persuasion for coercion; then we shall have everywhere
Two heads in council, two beside the hearth,
Two in the tangled business of the world,
Two in the liberal offices of life,
Two plummets dropped for one to sound the abyss
Of science and the secrets of the mind.
If woman suffrage means all this, surely it is the greatest question ever before any nation for consideration, and imperatively demands the prompt attention of the leading minds of our day; and women themselves must make this the primal question in their own estimation.
The enfranchisement of women in England and America would give new dignity, self-respect, and hope to the women of every nation in the uttermost isles of the sea.
It is a singular fact that we have never been able to enlist any large number of women to labor with enthusiasm for their own emancipation. They will work with the utmost self-sacrifice for temperance, political parties, churches, foreign missions, charity fairs, monuments, anything and everything but their own emancipation. I heard a young clergyman say that the ladies of his congregation had given him in one year thirteen pairs of embroidered slippers and twenty dressing-gowns, and probably not one of them would give a dollar a year for a woman suffrage paper; and yet this is the most momentous reform that has yet been launched on the world — the first organized protest against the injustice which has brooded over the character and destiny of one-half the human race.
A tariff for revenue, a silver currency, the annexation of Hawaii, our fisheries in Bering Straits, the comparative merits of the Republican and Democratic parties, or even the success of the World’s Fair — important as these all are — sink into utter insignificance when compared with the emancipation of one-half the human race, involving as it does the higher development of the whole race.
The protracted struggle through which we have passed, and our labors not yet crowned with victory, seems to me sometimes like a painful dream, in which one strives to run and yet stands still, incapable alike of escaping or meeting the impending danger.
But I would not pain your ears with a rehearsal of the hopes ofttimes deferred and shadowed with fear; of the brightest anticipations again and again dimmed with dis-appointment.
I will leave it to your imagination to picture to yourselves how you would feel if any one of you had had a case in court, or a bill before some legislative body, or a political aspiration, for nearly half a century, with a continued succession of adverse decisions; and yet the future is so full of bright promises for us that we still hope and labor while we wait.
Woman suffrage means a free use of all the opportunities for higher education, and that physical training necessary for abstruse thinking. Schools are already being established in many countries for the physical training of girls by every variety of gymnastics, by fencing, boxing, swimming, military drill, and by all sorts of outdoor amusements, hunting, shooting, riding on horseback, on bicycles and tricycles, playing foot-ball, base-ball, and tennis.
All that remains to secure our complete emancipation is to arouse women themselves from their apathy and indifference. Some one has suggested that women are too generous and unselfish to work for themselves. John Stuart Mill says that “woman’s pet virtue is self-sacrifice.” If this be so, I would suggest that in this reform there is still abundant opportunity for self-sacrifice, as perchance none of the blessings of our present labors may be enjoyed by ourselves. We have lived to see the principle woman suffrage conceded in many civilized countries, but the full fruition of the experiment is still in the future. Our work is preëminently unselfish; we still have persecution, ostracism, ridicule, but the blessings may be for other generations. We have the satisfaction, however, to know that we have done our duty in a holy cause, and laid the foundation for the highest civilization the world has ever witnessed, though we may not live to enjoy its full benefits.
Enough for us to see the day dawning, the coming glory on every side, enough for us to know that our daughters to the third and fourth generation will enjoy the fruits of our labors, reap the harvests we have sown, and sing the glad songs of victory in every latitude and longitude, from pole to pole, when we have passed to other spheres of action.
Source: The World’s Congress of Representative Women, Vol. II, ed. May Wright Sewall, (Chicago: Rand, McNally & Company), 1894, pp. 482-488.