Nature and Revelation
and Woman’s Right to Vote
November 25, 1856 — National Woman’s Rights Convention, Broadway Tabernacle, New York City
If we were living in New Zealand where there is no revelation and nobody has ever heard of one, there would yet be an everlasting truth or falsehood on this question of woman’s rights, and the inhabitants of that island would settle it in some way, without revelation. The true test of every question is its own merits. What is true will remain. What is false will perish like the leaves of autumn when they have served their turn.
But in regard to this question of Nature and Revelation, we found our claim on both. By Revelation I suppose the gentleman means Scripture. I find it there, “He who spake as never man spake” held up before us all radiant with God’s own sunlight the great truth, “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them”; and that revelation I take as the foundation of our claim, and tell the gentleman who takes issue with us, that if he would not take the position of woman, denied right of access to our colleges, deprived of the right of property, compelled to pay taxes, to obey laws that he never had a voice in making, and be defrauded of the children of his love, then, according to the revelation which he believes in, he must not be thus unjust to me.
The gentleman says he believes in Paul. So do I. When Paul declares that there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free, male nor female in Christ, I believe he meant what he said. The gentleman says he believes in Paul more than in the Anglo-Saxon blood. I believe in both. But when Paul tells us to “submit ourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake,” and to “fear God and honor the king,” the heavy tread of the Anglo-Saxon blood walks over the head of Paul and sweeps away from this republic the possibility of a king. And the gentleman himself, I presume, would not assent to the sway of a crowned monarch, Paul to the contrary, notwithstanding. Just as the people have outgrown the injunction of Paul in regard to a king, so have the wives his direction to submit themselves to their husbands. The gentleman intimates that wives have no right to vote against their husbands, because the Scriptures command submission, and he fears that it would cause trouble at home if they were to do so. Let me give him the reply of an old lady, gray with the years which bring experience and wisdom. She said that when men wanted to get their fellow-men to vote in the way they desire, they take especial pains to please them, they smile upon them, ask if their wives and children are well, and are exceedingly kind. They do not expect to win their vote by quarreling with them — that would be absurd. In the same way, if a man wanted his wife to vote for his candidate he will be sure to employ conciliatory means.
The golden rule settles this whole question. We claim it as ours, and whatever is found in the Bible contradictory to it, never came from God. If men quote other texts in conflict with this, it is their business, not mine, to make them harmonize. I did not quite understand the gentleman’s definition of what is natural. But this I do know, that when God made the human soul and gave it certain capacities, He meant these capacities should be exercised. The wing of the bird indicates its right to fly; and the fin of the fish the right to swim. So in human beings, the existence of a power, presupposes the right to its use, subject to the law of benevolence. The gentleman says the voice of woman can not be heard. I am not aware that the audience finds any difficulty in hearing us from this platform. All Europe and America have listened to the voice of Madam Rachel and Jenny Lind. The capacity to speak indicates the right to do so, and the noblest, highest, and best thing that any one can accomplish, is what that person ought to do, and what God holds him or her accountable for doing, nor should we be deterred by the senseless cry, “It is not our proper sphere.”
As regards woman’s voting, I read a letter from a lady traveling in the British provinces, who says that by a provincial law of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, women were actually voters for members of Parliament; and still the seasons come and go, children are born, and fish flock to that shore. The voting there is viva voce. In Canada it is well known that women vote on the question of schools. A friend told me when the law was first passed giving women who owned a certain amount of property, or who paid a given rental, a right to vote, he went trembling to the polls to see the result. The first woman who came was a large property holder in Toronto; with marked respect the crowd gave way as she advanced. She spoke her vote and walked quietly away, sheltered by her womanhood. It was all the protection she needed. In face of all the arguments in favor of the incapacity of woman to be associated in government, stood the fact that women had sat on thrones and governed as successfully as men. England owes more to Queen Elizabeth than to any other sovereign except Alfred the Great. We must not always be looking for precedents. New ideas are born and old ones die. Ideas that have prevailed a thousand years have been at last exploded. Every new truth has its birth-place in a manger, lives thirty years, is crucified, and then deified. Columbus argued through long years that there must be a western world. All Europe laughed at him. Five crowned heads rejected him, and it was a woman at last who sold her jewels and fitted out his ships. So, too, the first idea of applying steam to machinery was met with the world’s derision. But its triumphs are recognized now. What we need is to open our minds wide and give hospitality to every new thought, and prove its truth.
I want to say a word upon the resolutions. The present time, just after a presidential election, is most appropriate to consider woman’s demand for suffrage. The Republican party claims especially to represent the principles of freedom, and during the last campaign has been calling upon women for help. One of the leaders of that party went to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and said he wanted her help in this campaign; and before she told me what answer she made, she asked me how I would have felt if the same had been asked of me. I told her I should have felt as Samson did when the Philistines put out his eyes, and then asked that he should make merriment for them. The Republican party are a part of those who compel us to obey laws we never had a voice in making — to pay taxes without our consent; and when we ask for our political and legal rights, it laughs in our face, and only says: “Help us to places of power and emolument, and we will rule over you.” I know there are men in the Republican party who, like our friend Mr. Higginson, take a higher stand, and are ready to recognize woman as a co-sovereign; but they are the exceptions. There is but one party — that of Gerrit Smith — that makes the same claim for woman that it does for man. But while the Republican and Democratic parties deny our political existence, they must not expect that we shall respond to their calls for aid.
Madame de Staël said to Bonaparte, when asked why she meddled with politics: “Sire, when women have their heads cut off, it is but just they should know the reason.” Whatever political influence springs into being, woman is affected by it. We have the same rights to guard that men have; we shall therefore insist upon our claims. We shall go to your meetings, and by and by we shall meet with the same success that the Roman women did, who claimed the repeal of the Appian law. War had emptied the treasury, and it was still necessary to carry it on; women were required to give up their jewels, their carriages, etc. But by and by, when the war was over, they wished to resume their old privileges. They got up a petition for the repeal of the law; and when the senators went to their places, they found every avenue to the forum thronged by women, who said to them as they passed, “Do us justice.” And notwithstanding Cato, the Censor, was against them, affirming that men must have failed in their duty or women would not be clamorous for their rights, yet the obnoxious law was repealed.
In that story of Mr. Higginson’s, of the heroic woman in Kansas whose left arm was cut off, there is a lesson for us to learn. I tell you, ladies, though we have our left hand cut off by unjust laws and customs, we have yet the right hand left; and when we once demand the ballot with as much firmness as that Kansas daughter did her horse, believe me, it will not be in the power of men to withhold it — even the border ruffians among them will hasten to restore it. After all, the fault is our own. We have sat to
“Suckle fools, and chronicle small beer;”
and, in inglorious ease, have forgotten that we are integral parts in the fabric of human society — that all that interests the race, interests us. We have never once, as a body, claimed the practical application of the principles of our government. It is our own fault. Let it be so no longer. Let us say to men: “Government is just only when it obtains the consent of the governed”: we are governed, surrender to us our ballot. If they deride, still answer: Surrender our ballot! and they will give it up. “It is not in our stars that we are underlings, but in ourselves.” Woman has sat, like Mordecai at the king’s gate, hoping that her silent presence would bring justice; but justice has not come. The world has talked of universal suffrage; but it has made it universal only to man. It is time we spoke and acted. It is time we gave man faith in woman — and, still more, woman faith in herself. It is time both men and women knew that whatever has been achieved by woman in the realm of mind or matter, has been achieved by right womanly women. Let us then work, and continue to work, until the world shall assent to our right to do whatever the capacities God has given us enable us to do.
Source: The History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 1 (Rochester, NY) 1881, pp. 650-653.