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Equal Rights for Women

December 14, 1937 — Conference of the National Women’s Party, Washington DC


Within my comparatively short life I have seen two great changes in the position of women. The first, which reached its height  during and after the war, was the result of slow growth and long, patient achievement lasting for nearly a century and a half from the time of the French Revolution. Since 1933 I have seen a second revolution, but this time a reactionary one, by which in some countries during the course of 4 years the work of pioneers has been violently destroyed and women have returned to the old position of subjection from which they have so recently emerged. Woman is in transition because the future direction of her development will remain decided until we know which of these conflicting principles will prevail. The conflict was well summarized by the International Labor Year Book of 1934-35:

“A stern struggle is being waged between two conflicting tendencies with regard to women’s work. On one side it is held that women’s work is a perfectly normal phenomenon and that everything should be one to open up ne avenues of employment for women as their qualifications extend and improve, while the opposing tendency considers that women’s activity should be limited to the household or at least that men should be given priority in the overcrowded labor market. The continued prevalence of unemployment has naturally strengthened the second tendency, and many measures have been introduced to restrict the scope of women’s work.

In England we have always regarded our political women’s movement as beginning in 1867, the year in which John Stuart Mill introduced the first woman-suffrage amendment in the House of Commons. After this pioneer effort, a long period of deadlock followed, owing to the hostility of Mr. Gladstone, to the demand for equality. Although in many ways a liberal and progressive statesman, Mr. Gladstone was a complete Tory with regard to women, whom he considered too holy for the political arena.

Feminists in America and England have, alas still to content with this method of excluding women from opportunity by putting them upon a pedestal, which lifts them right out of sight of the activities they desire.

It was not until the early years of this century that the woman-suffrage movement, led by the famous Pankhurst family, split off from the slower and more respectable constitutional suffragists and obtained much-needed publicity for the women’s demands by direct action. Many people still question the wisdom of their methods. Bu the window-smashing and church-burning expedients that they adopted were never, of course, regarded as ideal methods of advertising the movement. They were simply a last resort when the ordinary legislative channels were blocked by antifeminist statesmen. They achieved their object, and from 1905 to the outbreak of the war in 1914 no politician was able to remain in doubt about what the women of England were really asking for.

It is almost a truism to remind readers and listeners today that the Great War involved a violent throwing down of barriers for a generation of women struggling against the traditions that bound them. Women on active service escaped from family supervision and parental control, while the lack of trained labor due to male recruitment gave women a chance to pour into industries and positions and there prove their worth.

I hold no brief for war, and I believe that these charges would have come more naturally and less violently without this catastrophe, as they did in countries such as Norway and Sweden, which were not involve din the actual fighting. The war mere caused changes which were already coming to happen with unnatural speech, and it is still a matter of argument in England whether it was the violence of the war or the necessarily violent methods of the suffragettes which, immediately the war was over, brought about a general granting of women’s demands in many countries, among which, of course, England and the United States were included.

It is worth emphasizing, however, that while you over here were prepared to trust women with the vote as soon as they became adult, we in England did not grant complete equal rights until 1928. In our country we have a habit of “broadening down from precedent to precedent”’ so in 1918 our statesmen decided first to experiment in giving the vote to women over 30, although many who, like myself, were considerably below that age had served their country in many forms of activity through 4 years of war.

The vote, of course, was always only a symbol. Its advocates demanded not merely that women should have political rights, but that these rights should prove the gateway to other forms of opportunity. To some extent this actually happened, although not as completely as the feminist leaders had hoped. In England we had an act passed in 1919 called the sex Disqualification (removal) Act which, for the first time in English history, made the word “person” apply to women as well as to men. It stated that no person should be disqualified by sex or marriage from holding any public office or entering any profession, but in the application of this act there were so many limitations that it was commonly said at home that the world “removal” had never escaped from the brackets in which it was enclosed. The results of this act were, in some respects, amusing. Oxford gave degrees to women immediately, but even today Cambridge has not accepted them on the same terms as men. Into many professions, such as medicine, women entered in increasing numbers, but in some of the more conservative occupations such as the law — which with it is hoary with tradition — it is still difficult for a woman to make a living at all.

One of the best things that happened was that an excellent period of progressive social legislation followed even the first installment of the vote. The newly enfranchised women used their influence to obtain the reform of marriage relations, of of the criminal law; to improve the status of maternity nurses which so closely affected the problem of maternity mortality, which you share with us. They improved the position of the widow without means, and tackled the problem of the unmarried mother and her child. It was stated by one of our feminist leaders that between 1900 and 1918 the British House of Commons passed only four acts affecting the welfare of women and their children, whereas as least 20 were passed between 1918 and 1926 Although we have never had more than a handful of women members of Parliament, the majority of those elected nobly worked for social reform The influence of Lady Astor during the long period that she was the only woman member of Parliament, was definitely helpful to the women’s cause, even though she has never been completely in sympathy with the more advanced feminist position.

This advance continued until about 1931, when the influence of the depression caused a reaction against women’s employment to begin in a large number of countries. With Hitler’s advent to power in Germany, the reactionary influence of fascism was added to that of the world economic crisis. Fascism, of course, had been dominant in Italy since 1922. Owing to the influence of the Code Napoleon, the women of the Latin countries had never acquired the same measure of independence as Anglo-Saxon women, and therefore the idea of feminine subjection, which is part of Mussolini’s philosophy, did not greatly alter the entire low status of the women of Italy. The outlook of Italian women was represented by the remarks of an Italian professional woman to an English visitor recently over there. “We Latin women,” she said, “feel indeed that we are weaker than men; we swish for his protection and guidance; we do not wish to push ourselves forward.” In this instance she was expressing much of the same idea as that contained in the famous statement of Mussolini: “Woman is reserved to the family and must be a good wife, a good housewife, and a good mother. When she has fully satisfied this unavoidable duty, she has fulfilled her duty to the state, and not otherwise.” However, we must not overlook the fact that Mussolini’s so-called cradle cult and his propaganda for a big population emphasizes a woman’s functions at the expense of her citizenship. Respect for maternity does not compensate women for lack of respect for their humanity. It defeats its own ends by making them less capable of successful motherhood, which is something quite other than mere physical reproduction.

The fact remains that the situation in Germany, where, under the Weimar Constitution, women had acquired equal rights in 1918, appears to many of us more tragic than that of Italy. Hitler came into power on a promise to restore German prosperity and solve unemployment. His method of doing this was to label certain groups “unemployable” — that is to say, Jews, pacifists, Socialists, and women. The last of these was by far the largest group.

Hitler’s idea of woman’s place made him quite ready to sacrifice them. He defined woman’s position in the Nazi state at the party congress of September 1934, where he said to a mass meeting of German women:

“The world of man is the state and his self-dedication to the community, and thus we may say that the world of women is a smaller one. For her the world is her husband, her family, her children, and her house. We do not believe it to be right for women to penetrate into the world of men.”

From that time onward the woman’s movement in Germany was virtually swept away in the so-called spring cleaning of the Nazi rulers. The woman’s vote was not abolished because it was a useful support for fascism, but German women today have little chance f election to the Reichstag, and their professional associations have been rendered ineffective and brought under control. Through the industry and the professionals male workers have been substituted for women. In the teaching profession, for example women high-school teachers have been transferred to the elementary schools and their posts given to men. The management of girls’ high schools throughout Germany is now purely a masculine function. So many women have been excluded from the medical profession that a number of districts are without specialists in midwifery or children’s diseases.

Perhaps worse of al, intensive propaganda has taught German women to accept willingly the idea of their own subjection. The woman leader of the auxiliary Nazi organizations was appointed by Hitler himself, and in a speech just after her appointment she thus expressed her aim:

“May we German women consciously stand before history and say, ‘Here we stand.’ We cannot do anything different, and we do not want to. God help us all.”

Fascism thus leads women to betray their own sex, its freedom, independence, and complete humanity.

The future position of woman depends today upon the conflict between the reactionary ideas of fascism and the democratic thorites in accordance with which so large a measure of emancipation has already been achieved. It hardly seems possible that the great western democracies, such as your country and mine, will endorse any policy involving complete retrogression. It is our job today, as never before, to be on the lookout for reactionary tendencies and to support any step which seems likely not only to stem the menacing tide of fascism, but o carry still further forward the victories already achieved. For this reason England has been watching with great interest the stand made by the National Woman’s Party on behalf of an equal-rights amendment to the Constitution of the United States. We feel that particularly on this question of the freedom of half of humanity, England and America should work in cooperation.

The woman’s movement found success in the past through two methods — the freeing of women from the old restrictions and the liberation of thought and speech from the old repressions. Are we to move forward to a higher order of human relationships in which ware is no more, the exploitation of man by man unknown, and the subjection of women a cruelty of the past? Or are we to solve our problem actively, by the method of death as the problems of ancient Rome were solved? Are we to descend into a second “dark age,” in which all that civilization has achieved by centuries of struggle and pain will be lost? That is the problem that confronts the men and women of the western democracies today.

Surely, the solution lies not in war against those with whom we disagree, but in the preservation, strengthening, and development of those principles and institutions which make for freedom and progress.



Source: Congressional Record Appendix of the Third Session of the Seventy-Fifth Congress of the United States of America, Volume 83—Part 9, January 3, 1983, to March 28, 1938 (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office) 1938, pp. 166-167. Entered by the Hon. Edward R. Burke of Nebraska.