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Constitutional Equality

February 16, 1871 — Lincoln Hall, Washington DC


It was an honest zeal which first influenced me to appear before the public as a champion of a cause which receives alike the jeers of the common multitude and the railery of the select few. It is an honest zeal in the same that inspires me with confidence to continue before it as its advocate, when but too conscious that I am of that portion of the people who are denied the privileges of freedom; who are not permitted the rights of citizens; and who are without voice, in the pursuit of justice, as one of that sovereignty to whom this Government owes its existence, and to whom it will be held accountable, as it holds all accountable who set themselves against Human Rights. I have no doubt it seems strange to many of you that a woman should appear before the people in this public manner for political purposes, and it is due both to you and myself that I should give my reasons for so doing.

On the 19th of December, 1870, I memorialized Congress, setting forth what I believed to be the truth and right regarding Equal Suffrage for all citizens. This memorial was referred to the Judiciary Committee of Congress. On the 12th of January I appeared before the House Judiciary Committee and submitted to them the Constitutional and Legal points upon which I predicated such equality. January 20th, Mr.  Bingham, on behalf of the majority of said Committee, submitted his report to the House, in which, while he admitted all my basic propositions, Congress was recommended to take no action. February 1st, Messrs. Loughridge and Butler of said Committee submitted a report in their own behalf, which fully sustained the positions I assumed, and recommended that Congress should pass a Declaratory Act, for ever settling the mooted question of suffrage.

Thus it is seen that equally able men differ upon a simple point of Constitutional Law, and it is fair to presume that Congress will also differ when these Reports come up for action. That a proposition involving such momentous results as this should receive a one-third vote upon first coming before Congress has raised it to an importance which spreads alarm on all sides among the opposition. So long as it was not made to appear that women were denied Constitutional rights, no opposition was aroused; but now that new light is shed, by which it is seen that such is the case, all the Conservative weapons of bitterness, hatred and malice are marshalled in the hope to extinguish it, before it can enlighten the masses of the people, who are always true to freedom and justice.

Public opinion is against Equality, but it is simply from prejudice, which but requires to be informed to pass away. No greater prejudice exists against equality than there did against the proposition that the world was a globe. This passed away under the influence of better information, so also will present prejudice pass, when better informed upon the question of equality.

I trust you will pardon me the expression when I say that I do not comprehend how there can exist an honest and perfect appreciation of the fundamental propositions upon which the superstructure of our Government is based, and, at the same time, an honest hostility to the legitimate deductions of them, therefore I appear before you to expound, as best I may, the law involved by these propositions, and to point out the inconsistences of those who evince hostility to such deductions.

I come before you to declare that my sex are entitled to the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The first two I cannot be deprived of, except for cause, and by due process of law; but upon the last, a right is usurped to place restrictions so general as to include the whole of my sex, and for which no reasons of public good can be assigned. I ask the right to pursue happiness by having a voice in that Government to which I am accountable. I have not forfeited that right, still I am denied. Was assumed arbitrary authority ever more arbitrarily exercised? In practice, then, our laws are false to the principles which we profess. I have the right to life, to liberty, unless I forfeit it by an infringement upon others’ rights, in which case the State becomes the arbiter and deprives me of them for the public good. I also have the right to pursue happiness, unless I forfeit it in the same way, and am denied it accordingly. It cannot be said, with any justice, that my pursuit of happiness in voting for any man for office would be an infringement of one of his rights as a citizen or as an individual. I hold, then, that in denying me this right without my having forfeited it, that departure is made from the principles of the Constitution, and also from the true principles of government, for I am denied a right born with me, and which is inalienable. Nor can it be objected that women had no part in organizing this government.

They were not denied. Today we seek a voice in government and are denied. There are thousands of male citizens in the country who seldom or never vote. They are not denied: they pursue happiness by not voting. Could it be assumed, because this body of citizens do not choose to exercise the right to vote, that they could be permanentlydenied the exercise thereof?

If not, neither should it be assumed to deny women who wish to vote, the right to do so.

And were it true that a majority of women do not wish to vote, it would be no reason why those who do should be denied.

If a right exist, and only one in a million desires to exercise it, no Government should deny its enjoyment to that one. If the thousands of men who do not choose to vote should send their petitions to Congress asking them to prevent others who do vote from so doing, would they listen to them? I went before Congress to ask for myself and others of my sex who wish to pursue our happiness by participating in Government protection in such pursuit, and I was told that Congress had not the necessary power.

If there are women who do not desire to have a voice in the laws to which they are accountable, and which they must contribute to support, let them speak for themselves; but they should not assume to speak for me, or for those whom I represent.

So much for the fundamental propositions upon which government is organized. Women did not join in the act of constructing the Constitution. So far as I know, none expressed a desire so to do, and consequently were not denied. But what is government, and what a Republican form of government?

Government is national existence organized. Government of some form exists everywhere, but none would assume to say that the government of China is similar to that of England, or that of Germany to that of the United States. When government is fashioned for the people it is not a republican form, but when fashioned by the people it is a republican government.

Our form of government is supposed to emanate from the people, and whatever control it possesses over the people is supposed to be exercised by and with their consent; and even more than this, by their direct will and wish. If, at any time, there are powers exercised by a Government which emanates from, and is dependent upon, the will of the people, which the majority of the people do not desire to be continued, they have it in their power, and it is their duty, to compel their suspension. If, at any time, the majority of the people from whom has emanated, and who support, a republican form of government, desire that it should assume new functions, exercise more extended control, or provide for new circumstances, not existant at its primary organization, they have the power and it is their duty to compel their Government to take such action as is necessary to secure the form that shall be acceptable.

The people are virtually the government, and it is simply the concentration and expression of their will and wisdom through which they assume form as a body politic or as a nation. The government is an embodiment of the people, and as they change so also must it change. In this significant fact lie all the true beauty and wisdom of our form of polity. It can be changed without actual revolution, and consequently possesses the inherent qualities of permanency. It is capable of adaptation to all contingencies and circumstances, and provides how changes shall be made. It nowhere positively declares that its citizens, or the people, if you please, shall not have the right to vote under its provisions; and, mark you, it nowhere provides that any portion of the people shall vote.

Before government was organized there were no citizens, but there were people, and these people had the human right to organize a government under which they could become citizens. In the absence of organized government, individual government alone exists, every individual having the human right to control himself and herself.

Now, if a people-an aggregate of individuals — not having a government, undertake to construct one, wherein but one-half should engage, the other half taking no part therein, and its functions should be exercised over the whole, it is plain that, so far as the non-engaged part would be concerned, it would be an usurped authority that dispossessed them of the inherent right which all people have in organized government. But so long as the unconsulted part quietly acquiesce in such a government, there can be none to question its right to control. At the moment, however, when the unconsulted portion should demur from such government, they would begin to assert the right to self-government possessed equally by all. The fact that such right had not been made known by expression could in no wise invalidate it. It would remain an inherent possession, and whenever expressed it could be maintained and enjoyed. The condition of the people of this country to-day is this: — I and others of my sex find ourselves controlled by a form of government in the inauguration of which we had no voice, and in whose administration we are denied the right to participate, though we are a large part of the people of this country.

Was George III.’s rule, which he endeavoured to exercise over our fathers, less clearly an assumed rule than is this to which we are subjected? He exercised it over them without their consent and against their wish and will, and naturally they rebelled. Do men of the United States assume and exercise any less arbitrary rule over us than that was? No, not one whit the less. To be sure, his cabinet were few, while they are many; but the principle is the same; in both cases the inherent elemental right to self-government is equally over-ridden by the assumption of power. But the authority King George’s Parliament exercised was even more consistent than this is which they assume and exercise: his Government made no pretension to emanation from the people.

When our fathers launched “Taxation without representation is tyranny” against King George, were they consistent? Certainly. Were they justified? Yes; for out of it came our national independence. Revolutionary war, which gave our country independence, grew from this tyranny. Was that war justifiable? Most assuredly it was. We find that the same declarations of tyranny were raised by Congress in the lengthy discussions upon enfranchising the negro. Such sentiments as the following were often repeated, and with great effect: “A considerable part of the people of the United States embraced under the preamble to the Constitution, “We, the people,” are left without representation in the Government; but, nevertheless, held within the grasp of taxation of all kinds, direct and indirect, tariff and excise, State and national. This is tyranny, or else our fathers were wrong when they protested against a kindred injustice. This principle is fundamental. It cannot be violated without again dishonouring the fathers,” whose rights were so ably and eloquently asserted and defended by James Otis, who, in his “Rights of the Colonies,” says — “The very act of taxing exercised over those who are not represented appears to me to be depriving them of their most essential rights as freemen, and if continued, seems to be, in effect, an entire disfranchisement of civil right. For what one civil right is worth a rush, after a man’s property is subject to be taken from him at pleasure without his consent? If a man is not his own assessor, in person or by deputy, his liberty is gone, or he is entirely at the mercy of others.” Could stronger words than these be found or used in favour of universal suffrage?

They applied with sufficient force then to rouse a few men, whose souls were fired with its injustice, to resist a powerful oppressor. It was one of the most forcible arguments by which the cause of the negro was advocated. Is it any less forcible in its application to women? Is the tyranny now exercised over women, under, as some say, the authority of the Government — but we say, without any authority — any less tyrannous than that over our fathers? or than that of the negro, for whom many plead so earnestly? Or is nothing tyranny for women?

If a civil right is “not worth a rush” to a man when he is taxed and not represented, how much is it worth to a woman?

If a “man’s liberty is gone,” and he is “at the mercy of others” when thus taxed, what becomes of woman’s under the same tyranny? If “every man of sound mind should vote,” by what principle can every woman of sound mind be deprived from voting? Or are all women of unsound mind? Not exactly; they are found to be very proper persons as the assigns of men in many instances.

In the records of the early days of the Republic there are found numerous authorities bearing directly upon this point, such as, “That by the law of nature no man has a right to impose laws more than to levy taxes upon another; that the freeman pays no taxes, as the freeman submits to no law but such as emanate from the body in which he is represented.”

If the freeman pays no taxes without representation, how is it that the free woman is compelled to do so? Not long since I was notified by a United States officer that if I did not pay a certain tax the Government had imposed upon me, my property would be levied upon and sold for that purpose. Is this tyranny, or can men find some other word to take the place of that used by our fathers so freely, and by Congress, not so long ago as to be forgotten, with such powerful effect? Has oppression become less odious, that in these days twenty of the forty millions of people who compose the sovereign people of this country must quietly submit to what has been, in all ages of representative government, denounced as tyranny?

But let us hear more of the principles which actuated our fathers: “All men having sufficient evidence of permanent common interest with, and attachment to, the community, have he right of suffrage, and cannot be taxed or deprived of their property for public uses without their own consent or that of their representatives so elected, nor bound by any law to which they have not in like manner assented for the public good.” — Virginia Bill of Rights, January 12th, 1776.

So it appears that our fathers declared that no one should be bound by any law in the making of which he had no voice.

How would this principle operate to-day should I refuse to pay the taxes levied against me without my consent and in direct opposition to my wishes ? Would I be justified in declaring that I  would not pay? I might be justified, but I do not think I should escape the tyranny.

Franklin said, “That every man of the community, except infants, insane people and criminals, is of common right, and by the laws of God, a freeman, and entitled to the free enjoyment of liberty. That freedom or liberty consists in having an actual share in the appointment of those who frame the laws, and who are to be the guardians of every man, for the all of one man is as dear to him as the all of another man; and the poor man has an equal right, but more need, to have representatives the election of representatives do not enjoy liberty, but are absolutely enslaved; for to be enslaved is to have governors whom others have set over us.”

If freedom consists in having an actual share in appointing those who frame the laws, are not the women of this country in absolute bondage, and can government, in the face of the XVth Amendment, assume to deny them the right to vote, being in this “condition of servitude?” According to Franklin we are absolutely enslaved, for there are “governors set over us by other men,” and we are “subject to the laws” they make. Is not Franklin good authority in matters of freedom? Again, rehearsing the arguments that have emanated from Congress and applying them to the present case, we learn that “It is idle to show that, in certain instances, the fathers failed to apply the sublime principles which they declared. Their failure can be no apology for those on whom the duty is now cast.” Shall it be an apology now ! Shall the omission of others to do justice keep the government from measuring it to those who now cry out for it? I went before Congress like Richelieu to his king asking for justice. Will they deny it as he did until the exigencies of the case compel them?

I am subject to tyranny! I am taxed in every conceivable way. For publishing a paper I must pay; for engaging in the banking and brokerage business I must pay; of what it is my fortune to acquire each year I must turn over a certain per cent.; I must pay high prices for tea, coffee, and sugar. To all these must I submit, that men’s government may be maintained, a government in the administration of which I am denied a voice, and from its edicts there is no appeal. I must submit to a heavy advance upon the first cost of nearly everything I wear in order that industries in which I have no interest may exist at my expense. I am compelled to pay extravagant rates of fare wherever I travel, because the franchises, extended to gigantic corporations, enable them to sap the vitality of the country, to make their managers money kings, by means of which they boast of being able to control not only legislators but even a State judiciary.

To be compelled to submit to these extortions that such ends may be gained, upon any pretext or under any circumstances, is bad enough; but to be compelled to submit to them, and also denied the right to cast my vote against them, is a tyranny more odious than that which, being rebelled against, gave this country independence.

But usurpations do not stop here. The Constitution, as it stood on the day of its original adoption, under the interpretation of that day, guided by the principle of self-government, admits perfect equality among the people. There are no limitations contained in it by which any part of the people from whom it emanated could be placed unequally with any other part. Permit me to quote from a speech delivered by Mr. Sumner, in the Senate of the United States, March 7th, 1866, upon the following proposition: —

“Representatives shall be appointed among the several States which may be included in this Union, according to their respective number of persons included in each State, excluding Indians not taxed: Provided, That whenever the elective franchise shall be denied or abridged by any State on account of race or colour, all persons therein of such race or colour shall be excluded from the basis of representation.” “Adopt this,” said Mr. Sumner, “and you will stimulate anew the war of race upon race. Slavery itself was a war of race upon race and this is only a new form of this terrible war.

Adopt it, and you will put millions of fellow-citizens under the ban of excommunication. You will declare that they have no political right which white men’ are bound to respect. Adopt it, and you will cover the country with dishonour.

Adopt it, and you will fix the stigma upon the very name of Republic.” In express terms there is an admission of the idea of inequality of rights founded on race and colour.

That this unrepublican idea should be allowed to find a place in the text of the Constitution will excite especial wonder, when it is considered how conscientiously our fathers excluded from that text the kindred idea of property in man. Mr. Madison “thought it wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea of property in man.” “But,” says Mr. Sumner, “is it less wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea of inequality of rights founded on race and colour?” Is it not, I ask, a graver wrong to insist that one-half of the people of all races and colours have not equal right, because they are women; and this, too, when there are no provisions contained in the Constitution which can by any possibility be construed to give the other half disfranchising power? Fathers, husbands, brothers, sons, does not your blood tingle with shame in your veins at this ignoble distinction? How can you look in your sisters’ faces and declare they shall not enjoy the citizen’s rights, granted to the lowest orders and classes in the human race?

Therefore it is, that instead of growing in republican liberty, we are departing from it. From an unassuming, acquiescent part of society, woman has gradually passed to an individualized human being, and as she has advanced one after another evident right of the common people has been accorded to her. She has now become so much individualized as to demand the full and unrestrained exercise of all the rights which can be predicated of a people constructing a government based on individual sovereignty. She asks it, and shall Congress deny her?

The formal abolition of slavery created several millions of male negro citizens, who, a portion of the acknowledged citizens assumed to say were not entitled to equal rights with themselves. To get over this difficulty, Congress in its wisdom saw fit to propose a XIVth Amendment to the Constitution, which passed into a law by ratification by the States. Section I. of the Amendment declares: “All persons, born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States. Nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, and property without due process of law, nor deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law.”

But there is an objection raised to our broad interpretation of this amendment, and that is obtained from the wording of the second section thereof: —“But whenever the right to vote,” &c., “is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States,” &c., &c., “the basis of representation then shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age.” Consistency is said to be a bright jewel when possessed, but I doubt its possession by those who have the boldness to advance this as an argument in opposition to this point. We surely have a right to use the logic of objectors in interpreting their own propositions, and we therefore reply, ita lex scripta est. If the Constitution means nothing but what is expressed, how can it be presumed to infer anything from the use of the word male in this second section, except what it expresses? The right of women to vote, or the denial of that right to them, is not involved by this section under the furthest-fetched application.

I am perfectly well aware of the attempt which was made in the Congress of 1866 to add a special, but indirectly, restrictory clause to the Constitution, providing that the basis of representation should be the then recognized legal voters. It was perceived that the arguments advanced for political equality for the negro were equally potent for women. The inconsistency of women forming a part of the basis of representation, and being denied participation in it, was too apparent to escape sagacious minds. The attempt, however, did not succeed. Its promoters did not dare openly to avow their intentions, but it is known that they felt the time would come when women would claim equal political rights, which could not consistently be denied them, unless, when it should be necessary so to do, that proper restrictory legislation should be contained in the Constitution.

The only point which I can see the report of the majority of the Judiciary Committee attempts to make against my demand I propose to meet by quoting authority, which I am positive no one will think of questioning.

Chief Justice Taney, in Howard, Rep. 404, thus defines the words people and citizen. The words “people of the United States” and citizens are synonymous terms, and mean the same thing. They both describe the political body, who, according to our republican institutions, form the sovereignty, and who hold the power and conduct the Government through their representatives. They are what we familiarly call the sovereign people, and every citizen is one of this people and a constituent member of this sovereignty. Ibid., p. 476: “There is not, it is believed, to be found in the theories of writers on government, or in any actual experiment heretofore tried, any exposition of the term citizen, which has not been considered as conferring the actual possession and enjoyment of the perfect right of acquisition and enjoyment of an entire equality of privileges, civil and political.”

Such authority as this, couched in such strong words, leaves no doubt about the Constitutional meaning of these terms. I do not think it possible that the Congress or the people of the United States, when they give this matter due consideration, will refuse to accept such authority upon the rights of citizens, the decisions of the report referred to, to the contrary notwithstanding. The XIVth Amendment has compelled said Committee to admit just enough too much to make their entire position untenable. Being citizens, women are of the “sovereign people,” and entitled to the enjoyment of an “entire equality of privileges, civil and political.”

After the adoption of the XIVth Amendment it was found that still more legislation was required to secure the exercise of the right to vote to all who by it were declared to be citizens, and the following comprehensive amendment was passed by Congress, and ratified by the States: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, colour, or previous condition of servitude.” Nothing could be more explicit than this language, and nothing more comprehensive.

“But,” says the objector, ever on the alert, “it may be denied on account of sex.” It must be remembered “ that is law which is written,” and all inferences drawn must be in accord with the general intent of the instrument involved by the inference. If the right to vote cannot be denied on account of race, how can it be denied on account of a constituent part of race, unless the power of denial is specially expressed. The larger always includes the smaller, which, if reserved, the reservation must be expressed. No inference can be allowed to determine that any part of the citizens covered by the term race can be denied the right to vote, unless the denial is expressed. It seems to me that no logic can be plainer than this. Had this amendment recited that the right to vote should not be denied on account of race, except to females, it would have left the right of denial to the States, but even then, under the XIVth Amendment, the denial would have to be made, with woman participating therein, and although there are those who assert that the majority of women do not desire to vote, I think none of you can imagine that, possessing the right, they would remain at home and permit it to be taken away.

This amendment is just as much a part of the Constitution as though it had been one of its original provisions. The effect of the Constitution, as it now stands, upon the present citizens must be the same that it would have been upon the citizens at the time of its original adoption, had it contained all its present provisions. Previous to its adoption there were no citizens of the United States. Immediately it was adopted persons became citizens, but had not voted as citizens of the United States under it. Under these circumstances, with these provisions in the Constitution, which declare that Representatives shall be elected by the people, that all people are citizens, and that the right to vote shall not be denied on account of race, colour, or previous condition of servitude, I ask Congress, and I ask them upon their solemn oaths, to give vitality to the provisions of the Constitution, and to guarantee a republican form of Government to every State, who among the people, persons, citizens, who resided in the States, could have been denied the right to vote for Representatives. We must regard this amendment as though there had been no negroes requiring enfranchisement.

We must divorce our minds from the negro and look at the Constitution as it is. We must not be biased by surrounding circumstances. It must apply to these conditions and interpret them. It is the basis of equality constructed by all and for all, and from which all partake of equal rights, privileges, and immunities.

Because this amendment was framed to apply to the African race, and to black people, and to those who had been slaves, it must not be concluded that it has no broader application. Whoever it may include, under logical construction, to them the right to vote shall not be denied. Take the African race and the black colour and the previous slaves out of the way, and what application would this amendment then have? This is the way to test these things, the way to arrive at what they mean. Who will pretend to say this amendment would mean nothing were there no negroes, and there had been no Southern slaves? Who will pretend to say that the amendment would mean nothing in the coming election, provided that there never before had been an election under the Constitution? If you provide a Constitutional amendment, having one race specially in view, it must not be forgotten that there are other races besides. Thirty-seven States constitute the United States. If you speak of the United States you speak of all the States, for they are all included. If you speak of a part of the United States, you must designate what part, in order that it may be known what you mean. A race is composed of two sexes. If you speak of a race you include both sexes. If you speak of a part of a race, you must designate which part in order to make yourselves intelligible.

The same line of reasoning applies to the word colour, although some assume to say that colour in this amendment means black, as white is no colour. But how should any know what specific colour is referred to in this amendment? One might say it was intended to mean a copper colour; another a mulatto colour, and still another that of a Spaniard or an Italian. How can any one determine absolutely that the word race or colour in this amendment referred to the African race and to black colour? Hence you must see the complete absurdity of interpreting this to mean any special race or colour, or any number of races and colours less than the whole number.

I have learned that high judicial authority has been invoked upon this question of law, and that this authority has declared that neither the XIVth nor XVth Amendment gave anybody the right to vote. I think I give the exact words. I have not claimed that the XVth Amendment gave any one the right to vote. There is no language in either the XIVth or XVth Amendment which confers rights not possessed; but I will state what these amendments do say, and if it is not equal to the declaration of the right of all to vote I confess that my perceptions are at fault, for I cannot perceive the difference. They declare positively — not negatively — that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States are citizens of the United States,” and, mark you, of the State wherein they reside. I am a person, one of the sovereign people, a citizen of the United States and of the State of New York.

Does the State of New York enforce any law which abridges my privileges or immunities as a citizen? Is it nothing to be denied the right to vote? What privileges and immunities have I differing from those of the subjects of the most absolute monarch? They are subject to such laws as he sees fit to impose. Am I subject to any laws other than are imposed upon me? It does not appear possible to me that men are conscious of the tyranny they exercise over women. It may be mildly exercised, but it is, nevertheless, absolute tyranny. I can have what they will give. Could the veriest slave have less?

Therefore, Government permits the State of New York, in the face of the XIVth Amendment, to enforce laws which abridge my privilege and immunities, as well as those of every other woman who resides therein, who is responsible, taxed, and who contributes to the maintenance of an organized Government.

“But,” says the authority, “neither does the XVth Amendment give anybody the right to vote.” What does it do? Or was it an utter abortion of Congressional wisdom? “The right to vote shall not be denied on account of race, colour, or previous condition of servitude.” The right to vote, then, is possessed. It may be, as some say, a negative admission of the existence of the right; nevertheless, it is an admission, and one under which I claim to be a voter.

I now come to the previous condition of servitude, and there is much more in this than is at first apparent. We had become so accustomed to regard African slavery as servitude that we forgot there were other conditions of servitude besides. Slavery, or a condition of servitude, is, plainly speaking, subjection to the will of others. The negroes were subject to the will of their masters, were in a condition of servitude, and had no power or authority as citizens over themselves. I make the plain and broad assertion, that the women of this country are as much subject to men as the slaves were to their masters. The extent of the subjection may be less and its severity milder, but it is a complete subjection nevertheless.

What can women do that men deny them? What could not the slave have done if not denied?

It is not the women who are happily situated, whose husbands hold positions of honour and trust, who are blessed by the bestowal of wealth, comforts and ease that I plead for.

These do not feel their condition of servitude any more than the happy, well-treated slave felt her condition. Had slavery been of this kind it is at least questionable if it would not still have been in existence; but it was not all of this kind. Its barbarities, horrors, and inhumanities roused the blood of some who were free, and by their efforts the male portion of a race were elevated by Congress to the exercise of the rights of citizenship. Thus would I have Congress regard woman, and shape their action, not from the condition of those who are so well cared for as not to wish a change to enlarge their sphere of action, but for the toiling female millions, who have human rights which should be respected.

It may be affirmed that the exercise of suffrage will not ameliorate their conditions. I affirm that it will, and for authority will refer to the improved condition of our fathers, and also to the improved condition of the negroes since they acquired the rights of citizenship; since they were enfranchised: and how enfranchised? The XVth Amendment does not grant them the right to vote. Neither does it to me; but it forbids that a right already possessed shall be denied. If the male negroes, as citizens, possessed the right to vote, shall it be assumed that women citizens do not possess the same right?

It is said the amendment does not give any one the right to vote. Suppose we admit that for a moment. I think men will desire to disown it. If the XIVth and XVth Amendments give none the right to vote, let me ask them where they obtain their right to vote? Do they get it from the Constitution?

Nowhere does it say “the right to vote,” except in this XVth Amendment. Do they vote by right, or is this another usurpation which they exercise? Where do they get their right to vote? I will tell them where they get their right to vote. They inherit it from their God, and every one of the sovereign people inherits it from the same infinite source, Who knows no such ignoble limitation as that of sex. The right to vote is higher than State laws, higher than countries’ Constitutions. It can neither be given nor taken by laws or by Constitutions. These are but means for its exercise, and when our laws and Constitutions shall have been reduced to this standard we shall have a republican form of Government, and not till then.

One more point and I shall dismiss this amendment. It has been insisted, again and again, that the denial may be made on account of sex, and that it was not intended by those who framed this amendment to make such a broad application and such a sweeping enfranchisement as my interpretation embraces. This is not the first time, even in legislation, that people, having a single point in view which they were determined to gain, have overreached themselves; happily, however, this time it was in the cause of liberty, humanity, and equal rights.

All law may not be the deductions of logic, but where law does not apply fact and logic must. Here, however, law and fact do apply, while the deductions are very clear.

This amendment declares that the right to vote shall not be denied on account of race. The class of opposers who still wish to deny women the right to vote, declare this means the African race. Let us see how this would read. The right to vote shall not be denied on account of the African race. To whom shall it not be denied on account of the African race? This certainly does not inform us, for it simply declares that it shall not be denied on account of the African race. Therefore, if this amendment were even modified by saying the African race, it would still fail to leave any room for denial. But it does not say African race, and cannot, therefore, be interpreted to mean the African race, when there are so many other races represented in this country. Who would pretend that though the right to vote could not be denied to the African race, it might be denied to the Teuton, the Celt, or the Scandinavian? Under any other interpretation of this amendment than the broad one I make, the right to vote may be denied to any race or all other races except the African.

Does Congress desire that an interpretation shall stand upon the Constitution, that, should the time come when the Anglo-Saxons would not be predominant, would permit other races to unite and deny the right to vote to the Anglo-Saxon race? See the dilemma in which this matter is placed by persisting in denying women the right to vote?

There is but one construction the language of this amendment is susceptible of, and this becomes apparent if the section is properly rendered. It simply means that the right to vote shall not be denied on account of race to ANYBODY. By the interpolation of this word the sense of this amendment is complete and unmistakable. From the simple negative it changes it to an all-powerful command, by which the sovereign people declare that the right to vote shall not be denied by the United States nor by any State to any person of any race.

We are now prepared to dispose of the sex argument. If the right to vote shall not be denied to any person of any race, how shall it be denied to the female part of all races? Even if it could be denied on account of sex, I ask, what warrant men have to presume that it is the female sex to whom such denial can be made instead of the male sex? Men, you are wrong, and you stand convicted before the world of denying me, a woman, the right to vote, not by any right of law, but simply because you have usurped the power so to do, just as all other tyrants in all ages have, to rule their subjects. The extent of the tyranny in either case being limited only by the power to enforce it.

And this brings us to the “qualification” argument; which before entering upon I must premise by saying, I consider it the most stupid of them all. If there is little of sound logic in the other objections, in this there is none at all. It is the purest attempt at quackery that was ever palmed off upon a nation.

The only reason that can be offered for which women can be denied the right to vote is that they do not “possess the requisite qualifications for electors of the most numerous branch of the State Legislature.” Article I., Section 2, of the Federal Constitution.

Again: “The times, places, and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time, by law, make or alter such regulations.” Federal Constitution, Article I., Section 4, paragraph 1.

Upon these two words, “qualifications” and “regulations,” must be based the whole authority for denying to women the right to vote. It has been said that the right to vote exists, but has been denied. A person being denied the right to vote is disfranchised. Are the terms qualification, regulation, and disfranchisement synonymous? Qualifications are what citizens can acquire, and after having acquired can use them or not.

Disfranchisement cannot be overcome. Anything that is made a qualification, which cannot be attained, which is an impossibility, is not a qualification, either within the meaning of the Constitution or of dictionaries. Sex cannot be made a disqualification. To be denied the right to vote on account of sex is the pure essence of disfranchisement; for how can a person, a citizen, being a woman, obtain the qualification of being a man? I regret that I am compelled to impugn your good sense by the argument, but I have had “sex” sounded in my ears until I can scarcely think of it with patience or speak of it with courtesy. Sex is a quality obtained by nature, and with what degree of regard for common honesty shall men continue to call this a disqualification which women must overcome? Was ever a more intolerable thing; It is like saying to the starving, “You may eat; here is a stone.” The kingdom of human rights cannot be invaded to furnish qualifications for voters; these qualifications must be of a character equally attainable by all citizens. No more can be required of woman than of man.

If men become qualified by residence, property, education, character, age, &c., so, too, must women be able to qualify by the same means.

I do not care what qualifications the States require for electors. What I ask is, that they shall apply equally to all citizens of the United States, whether they are men or women. For men to say to women, “You shall not vote because you are women” is intolerable; is unbearable, and it will not do for Congress to quietly allow this disfranchisement to continue. Congress has the power to make and alter the regulations of a State, and I respectfully ask Congress to make and alter the regulations of the State of New York, so that I shall not be disfranchised under the misnomer of the qualification of sex.

Nor is authority wanting upon this point, and that, too, from our fathers who framed the State Constitutions, of which we hear so much, and who thought so differently from what is now predicated of them.

Mr. Madison, as a member of the Virginia Convention, said: Some States might regulate the elections on the principle of equality, and others might regulate them otherwise. Should the people of any State, by any means, be deprived of the right of suffrage IT WAS DEEMED PROPER THAT IT SHOULD BE REMEDIED BY THE GENERAL GOVERNMENT.” One-half of all citizens of the United States are disfranchised because they are not men a something to which they can never attain. Nature has made a distinction which it is impossible to get over. How do the arguments which were used in Congress not many months ago pale before the awful magnitude of this National dishonour?

They were then entreated to not continue the disfranchisement of a few millions of negroes, but they unblushingly continue the disfranchisement of many millions of women.

If there are good and consistent reasons why some should not be electors let them be applied without regard to sex or any other general condition. Let men as well as women be subject to them. If they include me I will not complain; I will but ask that every man shall be prevented for the same reasons that I am, and for none other. If men were unreasonably prevented from suffrage I would as earnestly plead their cause. No person felt more for the emancipated negro race than myself; but with their enfranchisement I could not forget that the whole female sex was labouring under the same disabilities from which they were raised. Negroes could not qualify to become voters, Congress assisted them and they are voters; hence I come to Congress to plead for women. The negro found many advocates — men whose souls were large enough to take in all God’s family. But with this great effort they closed. Woman must be her own advocate. Few of the male sex-few of those who battled so manfully for the negro — now come forward and lift their voices against this thrice greater, this terrible wrong.

Slavery will ever be regarded by all our descendants as a foul blotch upon the escutcheon of this country’s honour, which ages alone can wash away. Congress know this, but they do not yet know how much more foul will this greater wrong be regarded by future ages. It should be the task of the next Congress to remove this damning thing. That Congress which recognized negroes as citizens is already reverenced for its mighty work. So, too, will that Congress which shall recognize women as citizens of equal rights with the negro be regarded with reverence in proportion to the magnitude of the result of its labours.

I assume then —

Ist. That the rights, privileges, and immunities of all citizens are equal.

2nd. That no citizens, as a class, can be denied the right to vote, except they first forfeit it as a class.

3rd. That the qualifications which a State may require of electors must be such as can be acquired by all persons by the same means.

4th. That the State may make regulations but cannot enforce prohibitions.

5th. That anything that may be required which is impossible of one-half of the people or any considerable class, possessing all the other qualifications required for electors, is not a qualification, but disfranchisement.

6th. That a State which disfranchises any part of its citizens on account of any natural quality is not possessed of a Republican form of government.

7th. That if a State has not a Republican form of government it is the solemn duty of Congress, under its Constitutional obligations, to guarantee it to its citizens resident therein.

Thus have I endeavoured, as briefly as possible, to place before you my reasons for claiming the right to vote for myself and others of my sex who desire it. Neither upon general principles nor by special provision of the Constitution can I perceive that men have any right to deny it to us. So long as we did not claim it, it was not denied, but I do now claim that I am, equally with men, possessed of the right to vote, and if no others of my sex claim it, I will stand alone, and reiterate my claim, and if the right is possessed, men have no power other than an usurped one to deny me.

The first official duty of every Congressman is to take a solemn oath to support and give vitality to the Constitution of the United States, not as they would, or might wish it to be, but as it is. That Constitution declares that women are citizens, and that citizens shall not be denied the right to vote. In the face of these facts, how can they, with that oath recorded, deliberately set at naught these plain declarations?

I went before Congress to demand a right, and memorialized them, setting forth my grievances, and frankly and fully to the extent of my ability I endeavoured to make my claim clear. This is a vital matter, fraught with more momentous events than have ever yet dawned upon the world. Through it civilization will make a giant stride from barbarism toward perfection — a stride which will land the human race near the haven where every person living will become a law unto himself, where there shall be no need of Constitutions, Houses of Congress and Executives, such as are necessary now.

Regarding it as I do, it becomes to me the most sacred duty of my life to attain to my rights under the Constitution.

I think I have examined this subject quite thoroughly; to me it appears very plain, but to others it may not. I have no doubt about the common rights of citizens under the original text of the Constitution. There is no room for doubt since the addition of the XIVth and XVth Amendments. Whatever doubts there may yet be in the minds of opponents, I now propose to show you that whether equality is Constitutional or not, Congress has already given its verdict in favour of my position, whether intentionally or unwittingly I know nor care not; it is sufficient that it is given, and that, too, in the form of positive law.

Permit me to return for a moment to Mr. Bingham, who has played so prominent a part, who has wrought so much better than he knew. In his report adverse to my memorial, which asked for an Act to place the right of all citizens to vote above question, he says in the outset: “Since the adoption of the XIVth Amendment of the Constitution there is no longer any reason to doubt that all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”

And in closing: “We are of opinion, therefore, that it is not competent for Congress to establish by law the right to vote, without regard to sex, in the several States of this Union, without the consent of the people of such States, and against their constitutions and laws; and that such legislation would be, in our judgment, a violation of the Constitution of the United States, and of the rights reserved to the States. We therefore recommend that the prayer of the petitioner be not granted. This report was made to the House of Representatives, January 30, 1871. It is almost impossible to conceive that the author of this report was the same person who drew the XIVth Amendment, and AN ACT to enforce the rights of citizens of the United States to vote in the several States of the Union, and for other purposes, approved May 31, 1870. If Mr. Bingham, can harmonize these three instruments and maintain himself before the people of the United States as the great legal authority of the Congress of the United States, he will accomplish something no other person living would be able to do. But let us refer to this Act of less than a year ago, which I have taken the precaution to produce, Section 2 of which is as follows: —

“And be it further enacted, That if, by or under the authority of the constitution or laws of any State, or the laws of any Territory, any act is or shall be required to be done as a prerequisite or qualification for voting, and by such constitution or laws persons or officers are or shall be charged with the performance of duties in furnishing to citizens an opportunity to perform such prerequisite, or to become qualified to vote, it shall be the duty of every such person or officer to give to all citizens of the United States the same and equal opportunity to perform such prerequisite, and to become qualified to vote without distinction of race, colour, or previous condition of servitude; and if any such person or officer shall refuse or knowingly omit to give full effect to this section, he shall, for every such offence, forfeit and pay the sum of five hundred dollars to the person aggrieved thereby, to be recovered by an action on the case, with full costs and such allowance for counsel fees as the Court shall deem just, and shall also, for every such offence, be deemed guilty of a misdemeanour, and shall, on conviction thereof, be fined not less than five hundred dollars, or be imprisoned not less than one month and not more than one year, or both, at the discretion of the Court.

“Sec. 3. And be it further enacted, That whenever, by or under the authority of the constitution or laws of any State, or the laws of any Territory, any act is or shall be required to [be] done by any citizen as a prerequisite to qualify or entitle him to vote, the offer of any such citizen to perform the act required to be done as aforesaid shall, if it fail to be carried into execution by reason of the wrongful act or omission aforesaid of the person or officer charged with the duty of receiving or permitting such performance or offer to perform or acting thereon, be deemed and held as a performance in law of such act; and the person so offering and failing as aforesaid, and being otherwise qualified, shall be entitled to vote in the same manner and to the same extent as if he had in fact performed such act; and any judge, inspector or other officer of election whose duty it is or shall be to receive, count, certify, register, report or give effect to the vote of such citizen upon the presentation by him of his affidavit stating such offer and the time and place thereof, and the name of the officer or person whose duty it was to act thereon, and that he was wrongfully prevented by such person or officer from performing such act, shall for every such offence forfeit and pay the sum of five hundred dollars to the person aggrieved thereby, to be recovered by an action on the case, with full costs and such allowance for counsel fees as the Court shall deem just, and shall also for every such offence be guilty of a misdemeanour, and shall, on conviction thereof, be fined not less than five hundred dollars, or be imprisoned not less than one month and not more than one year, or both, at the discretion of the Court.

“Sec. 16. And be it further enacted, That all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall have the same right in every State and Territory in the United States to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, give evidence, and to the full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property as is enjoyed by white citizens, and shall be subject to like punishment, pains, penalties, taxes, licenses and exactions of every kind, and none other, any law, statute, ordinance, regulation or custom to the contrary notwithstanding. No tax or charge shall be imposed or enforced by any State upon any person immigrating thereto from a foreign country which is not equally imposed and enforced upon every person immigrating to such State from any other foreign country; and any law of any State in conflict with this provision is hereby declared null and void.”

Thus we find Mr. Bingham, in the XIVth Amendment, declaring that all persons are citizens; in an Act approved May 31, 1870, making it a penal offence for any officer of election in any State to refuse to permit all citizens the same and equal opportunities to perform the prerequisites to become qualified to vote; less than a year afterward informing us that women are not citizens, and on January 30, 1871 — less than two months thereafter — very decidedly expressing a contrary opinion, and adding that Congress has no power to enforce their rights as citizens in the States, which is a complete stultification of the Act of last May. At present Mr. Bingham does not think women are entitled to vote. What he may think to-morrow or next month it would be quite impossible to predict. Whether we are to account for his inconsistencies by presuming that he has not attained to the knowledge that the States, through their respective legislatures, by the act of adopting and ratifying the XIVth and XVth Amendments, did remove all obstructions to the right of women citizens to vote or by some other disability of mind it is impossible to determine.

What did Congress ask the States to do? To ratify the Amendments. They did ratify them, and thereby enfranchised women as citizens. Mr. Bingham does not yet seem to comprehend what the States were asked to do, nor that they did what was requested of them.

It is clear from the report of the majority of the Judiciary Committee that they take the view that there is something” in the Constitutions or Laws of the State which is contrary to the language, spirit, intent and purpose of these Amendments, and that this inconsistent something must be removed by the States. I contend that by the adoption of these Amendments the States did legislate upon the subject, and remove all inconsistencies and all obstructions to the right to vote, leaving them as parts and parcels of the “Supreme Law,” before which all existing legislation contrary to and inconsistent therewith did fall, and was rendered null and void.

The Constitution can be amended as follows: — “Congress, whenever two-thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to the Constitution, which shall be valid to all intents and purposes as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several States.” (Article V. Again it says: — “This Constitution and the Laws of the United States which shall be made under authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land.” (Article VI.)

These amendments were thus proposed by two-thirds of both Houses, were thus ratified by the Legislatures of three-fourths of the several States, and were thus formally legislated upon by all the several State Legislatures and adopted by them in the due and solemn manner in which they pass all laws. From the moment the official declaration was made that they were so adopted by State legislation they became a part of the“ supreme law of the land,” which they never could have become without such legislation.

Are not these amendments in question, as a part of the supreme law, the very creatures of the State Legislatures, and as such do they not supersede all legislative Acts in all the States not in harmony therewith? Nor can the States recede from these Acts without similar formal legislation in which three-fourths of all the States must concur. And what do they establish? The status of every native born or naturalized person in the country as a citizen of the United States and of the State, and the right to vote as vested in every such person. And to go further: The State of New York has declared Article I. of the Constitution of New York — and every other State holds that:

“No member of this State shall be disfranchised or deprived of any of the rights or privileges secured to any citizen thereof, unless by the law of the land or the judgment of his peers.”

As the State cannot pass any law which deprives any citizen of his or her citizenship and the declared right to vote, it follows that the Legislatures have acted directly upon this question by the adoption of these amendments, and for ever precluded themselves from receding, except by a similar proceeding, viz.: by another amendment to the Constitution which would annul and repeal the XIVth and XVth Amendments.

These amendments are therefore not only the law of the United States, but the Constitutional law of New York and every other State in the Union.

Therefore, I would have Congress, in the pursuit of its duty, to enforce the Constitution by appropriate legislation, pass a Declaratory Act plainly setting forth the right of all citizens to vote, and thus render unnecessary the thousands of suits for damages which will otherwise arise. What legislation could be more appropriate than defining the rights of one-half the citizens of the country, when they are in question? This matter has passed beyond the States. They have delegated this power to Congress by these amendments. Could the legislatures of the States think of legislating upon the question of who are citizens? How can they then upon the rights of these same citizens, which are no less clearly a part of the Constitution that the fact of citizenship.

If Congress refuse to legislate appropriately in this matter, every woman who desires to vote should take all the steps required as prerequisite to become qualified, and, if prevented from voting, should prosecute those who prevent them, under the plainly worded Act of May 30, 1870, and so continue to do until the Government of the United States and of the several States shall be made to enforce the supreme law of the land, and thus secure to every citizen equal right and exact justice under a Republican form of Government.


Source: The Human Body the Temple of God, Or, The Philosophy of Sociology, by Victoria Claflin Woodhull (Mrs. John Biddulph Martin) and Tennessee C. Claflin (Lady Cook) Together with Other Essays. &c., &c. Also Press Notices of Extemporaneous Lectures Delivered Throughout America and England from 1869 to 1882, (London) 1890, pp. 145-175.


Also: We Shall Be Heard: Women Speakers in America, eds. Patricia Scileppi Kennedy and Gloria Hartmann O’Shields (Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt), 1983, pp. 108-129.