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The Civil and Political Status of Women

May 1893 — World’s Congress of Representative Women, Chicago IL


It may be that the best way in which I can illustrate what women can do in politics is to give you a brief chapter from the history of my own State of New York. It has been said that all things come to him who waits, but I think that sentence can be improved upon by saying that all things come to her who strives. It is better to strive than to wait. In 1878 a bill passed through the Legislature which gave the women of New York the right to serve as members of the school board and as school board officers. 

Then Governor Robinson vetoed the bill; he said the God of nature didn’t intend women for public offices. Mr. Robinson asked a re-election for Governor; we decided that the God of nature did not intend Mr. Robinson for Governor of New York. We opposed his election in every way. 

We organized, in every city, political meetings. In many of the cities there are strong political organizations. You have heard how it has worked in Kansas, how they have retired the Hon. John J. Ingalls to private life. In New York we organized against Mr. Robinson. Here and there we held our conventions, and Mr. Robinson was retired to private life. Within a few days Mr. Cornell took the seat of Governor, and the Woman’s Suffrage Bill was passed through both branches of the Legislature and received the Governor’s signature. That bill provided that any moral woman might serve as a school officer, and might vote at all school elections. Step by step we have built up the bill. 

We have passed a bill decreeing that saleswomen generally shall have seats while they are not occupied in waiting on customers. We have passed a bill providing for women on the boards of public institutions, such as the lunatic asylum, prisons, etc. We have passed a bill that no insane woman shall pass through the State unless she be accompanied by a woman, and we have passed a number of bills of minor importance. We have passed the Police Matron’s Bill. 

When we first took hold of this matter, all women who were arrested were entirely in the hands of men. If a young woman was arrested for a first offense, it was men who examined her, talked with her, took care of her. If a lady in any of our streets in New York was knocked down, she was taken to the police station, where she was put into the hands of men. If a woman were accused of theft, she was searched by men, notwithstanding the manifest disgracefulness of it. Since we passed the Police Matron’s Bill, we have had a matron in charge of certain police stations, of every station to which women are taken. These are some of the victories we have achieved. 

The latest triumph we have gained in the State of New York, and the most important that has ever been gained, is the passage last winter of the bill which provides that women are eligible to seats in the Constitutional Convention of 1894. That is a great concession, as great as has ever been made to women. 

Mrs. Fenwick Miller told you of the wrong that existed in England in the fact that men alone are guardians of the children. Do you know in almost every State of the Union that infamous law prevails? Under the former law in New York the father of the child, although only a minor, might take the child from its mother’s arms as soon as it was born. 

That law stood on our statute books for years. It was one of the things we fought against most strongly. I will give you one instance of the working of this law. A couple were married in the State of New York, and they were very unhappy together. After a child had been born the mother went to live in New Jersey, where, under the laws, the woman had an equal right with the man to the child. 

The wife went away to take care of a neighbor one night, and toward daylight, as she was coming home, she saw her husband starting from the house with the baby in his arms. She followed him as fast as she could. It was where Staten Island and the Jersey shore are right opposite each other. 

Perhaps some of you recollect there is a long trestle there that branches over that arm of the sea; the man started across that slippery way, the woman following him step by step, he bearing the child in his arms. It was dark, and everything was wet, and as he went on the mother followed, not knowing what moment she might slip to her death, but determined to follow her child. Half-way across the man turned and said if she didn’t stop he would cast the child into the sea. That did not deter her, as she probably knew what kind of a man he was. Step by step she followed until they had crossed the long, weary way, until the opposite side was reached; then the man made a dash for the ferry, and the woman ran after him as fast as she could, but not so quickly. A boat was waiting, and as the man sprang on the boat he turned and said, “Stop that woman! she is crazy; the child is mine.” So it was by the laws of the State of New York then, but we went up to the Legislature and we had that law changed, and now in my commonwealth of New York I can proudly say that the mother and father are equal guardians of their children.

They say to us that when we go up to the Legislature we are lobbyists. We are not lobbyists  we are there representing the unrepresented half. We have paid our proportion, from the very foundation to the frescoed dome of that capitol. We have paid half of every man’s salary there. Now, friends, this incident which I have related took place on the Jersey shore, just in sight of the Statue of Liberty. The Statue of Liberty is represented how? As a man? Oh, no! it has a woman’s form. As I pass the New York Statue of Liberty it seems as if there comes a message from those mute bronze lips saying, “The day will yet come when I shall light a republic whose sons and daughters will be equal sharers in the birthright I represent.” 



Source: The World’s Congress of Representative Women, Vol 2., Ed. May Eliza Wright Sewall, (Chicago: Rand and McNally), 1894, pp.1-90.