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Organization Among Women

July 1889 — International Congress for Women, Paris, France


The organization which I have had the honor to represent in this distinguished congress has a most significant title. It is called The National Council of Women of the United States. The origin of this organization is as significant as its name.

The National council of Women of the United States is one of the immediate products of International Council of women, convened at Washington, the capital of our country, in March 1888.

The international council held in Washington was convened under the auspices of the National Woman Suffrage Association of the U.S., but it included representatives of all degrees of conservatism as well as all degrees of radicalism; that was incomparably the most truly representatives gathering of women ever convened in our country. The subjects which we considered were naturally as numerous and as various as were the organizations represented in it. Delegates rom fifty-eight national organizations of women in our own country and form various organizations of women in England, Scotland, France, Norway, Denmark, Finland, India and Canada, discussed under numerous sub-titles the general subjects of philanthropy, charities, temperance, moral reform and political rights, or such aspect of those subjects of particular interest and affect women.

That council illustrated on a great scale, what had before a thousand times had been proved in a small way, — viz., that it is good for people independently holding different views and working along entirely different directions, to meet now and then on the broad lines of general agreement and human sympathy.

The conviction that such occasional meetings would benefit all who should participate in them grew from day to day through the fifteens sessions of the council in the minds of its participants, as it had grown in the mind of the chairman of its Organizing committee during the months of preparation. Out of that conviction arose the permanent National Council of women of the United States, and also the initiatory steps toward forming a permanent International council.

The constitution of the National council, adopted at Washington, and the circular letter issued subsequently by its general officers . . . show that the object of the council is to bring all national organizations of women into a federation, and to provide for regular triennial meetings of such federation. In these meetings every cause or object represented by the National organizations which have joined the federation will be discussed by its advocates, and its progress will be officially reported. It will be seen that the National council itself, as such, does not espouse any one cause, advocate any one reform, or, indeed, give preference to any one above the others. All of the organizations confederated in it meet in it as equals, with equal representation on its official staff and on its executive board, whatever their respective numerical strength may be. Whether the significance of this will be understood by those unfamiliar with the condition of American life I am uncertain, and, therefore, I shall undertake to explain one aspect of American social life which has so often excited the curiosity of travelers in our country.

De Tocqueville speaks with astonishment at the ease with which public meetings are convened in the United States, and of the tendency of American men to organize into bodies for the accomplishment of any desired purpose — for instance, as the building of a church, opening a school, mending a road, draining a swamp, approving or condemning an official.

The same “tendency to hold meetings and to organize,” which De Tocqueville notices as characteristic of American men, has also developed in American women. This tendency in our men and in our women has probably the same origin. In a new country and in a society whose fundamental principle is equality, the individual man is inadequate to any great task. Individual weakness finds its sole remedy in combination. This is quite as true of women as of men. The earliest combinations of women in our country were formed in the name of religion. If men held meetings and organized associations to build new churches, women, on a smaller scale and by quieter methods did precisely the same thing to furnish the churches, when built, or to raise funds for educating young men to become pastors of such churches; following these combinations of women in the name of religion came others organized in the name of charity; most of the charities were connected with the churches, and to religion and charity the organized work of women was limited until some noble, self-sacrificing women formed an organization in the name of freedom, a name naturally dear to American women. It must be confessed that it was not their own freedom or the freedom or their sex for which these women combined, but they organized a society whose object was to deliver the African race in the United States from slavery. Not until 1848 did women in the Untied States begin to combine for the amelioration of their own condition. . . .

Since 1948, the work of organization among women has gone steadily forward. It received a great impetus during the war of the Rebellion, from 1861 to 1865, and from the latter date the tendency among American women to organize for the accomplishment of purposes too large to be attained b individual effort has grown to be a characteristic feature of American society. These organizations, in the large majority of instances, are in their beginning purely local, limited to a city or perhaps to a district of a city, to a village or perhaps to a country neighborhood. The local organizations of the same kind, i.e., for the same object, spread and multiply, and then aggregate themselves into county organizations; as similar organizations grow up in different counties the county societies aggregate themselves into state associations and finally state associations existing for the same purpose aggregate themselves into a national body. It is true that in some instances . . . an organization has been affected by persons of one mind and a common motive, living in different parts of our great country, and has at once assumed the dignity of national association. This is, however, the rare exception; as a rule national organizations of women result from the union of state associations of a similar character, as the state organizations have first resulted from the union of similar county or local associations. In such local organizations of diverse names and purposes many millions of American women are now enrolled. In their hands are the missionary and charitable enterprises of the churches and the great philanthropies which are independent of the churches. By them the artistic taste and the literary culture of rural communities are nurtured, and by them the social life of cities is rescued from mere vulgar luxury, and is made to serve as an ally of the higher culture.

By them, great reforms which are destined to effect, and which to effect an amelioration of the human lot, regardless of sex, are carried forward. Conspicuous among these are some which have already arrived at international importance — such as the great temperance reform movement, with Frances E. Willard at its head — Society of the Red Cross, whose president Clara Barton, is hardly less dear to foreign than to American hearts — and the Universal Peace Society, whose hope is to bring all nations to settle their differences by peaceful arbitration instead of war, and with whose work the names of Lucretia Mott and Julia Ward Howe are intimately associated.

The good that is already accomplished by the organized effort of women in the United States is incalculable, and yet its beneficent results are checked and diminished by the fact that members of one organization are ignorant concerning the work of another organization; that organizations and misconceive one another’s objects and misunderstand one another’s methods.

It has not infrequently happened that ignorance of each other’s aims and methods has led to indifference, even to hostility between organizations that were really, thought unconsciously, allies.

Thus, there was a time in the history of the temperance reform when its advocates deprecated any association with the advocates of woman’s political enfranchisement, thinking the latter movement prejudicial to their own success.

Thus, the advocates of certain moral reforms and the leaders of certain charities have held aloof from the advocates of the collegiate education of women, under the erroneous impression that the higher education would harden the hearts of women and put a barrier between them and other women. Just as the advocates of temperance have learned that the advocates of woman’s right, under a republic, to the ballot, were obtaining for them the only instrument by which they themselves could attain their specific ends, so the leaders of charities find that one of the firs uses which women make of higher education when they have attained it is to lend it to philanthropy that she may more intelligently apply herself to relieving the condition of the poor and suffering witness the report of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae on the sanitary construction and care of houses, and also the home established by them in one of the most destitute neighborhoods of New York City, and the number of them who have become trained nurses or physicians.

What I have said will make more intelligible what I desire to say about the National council, which I have the honor to represent. It is intended that its triennial meetings (all of which will, by the terms of its constitution, be held in Washington) shall accomplish several important results.

First: They will make an opportunity for women whose work is along different lines, to become personally acquainted with one another; and also to become acquainted with the purposes and the management of organizations, in which they have no part and from which they have hitherto held aloof.

Second: It is anticipated that out of acquaintance will spring reciprocal sympathy. Women will learn that the different lines along which they work are, however different, after all convergent, and destined to meet in that improved state of human society which all desire. It is neither expected nor desire that, as a result o his discovery, women will leave the work in which they are now engaged and attach themselves to other organizations. Temperament, taste, talents, opportunity, surroundings and circumstances will continue to control women in their selection of the line of work which they will undertake for the common good.

Third: We see that this National council will prove, or rather, that it will illustrate, the correlation of the spiritual forces of society. Is one, for instance, intent on feeding the hungry, nursing the sick and comforting the sorrowing?

Industrial education and the opening of new industries to women will largely diminish the number of the hungry and thus leave more food for the inevitable pensioners of society.

Let all opportunities for higher education be opened to women and their enlarge intelligence applied to domestic life will so improve the architecture and the sanitation of homes that the number of the sick will be decreased, and the invalids who remain can have the care of skilled nurses and trained physicians of their own sex. Let women have access to the learned professions as well as to all forms of industry and to all means of education — and though sorrow will not cases, it too will diminish; for the most grievous sorrows result from sin, and the most common and degrading sins result from ignorance, poverty and helplessness.

Fourth: This illustration of the correlation of the spiritual forces of society cannot fail to exert a great and ultimately commanding influence upon public opinion in our country. The triennial meetings of the National council will be the feminine complement of the congress of the United States. Such meetings will focus public attention, reports of them which the press will convey to all parts of the country will instruct the public mind and they cannot fail to accelerate the progress of every movement which they represent.

Fifth: In these meetings will convene not the mere representatives of states of geographical territory, but in them will meet the representatives of great humanitarian enterprises, of spiritual aspirations, of political and social reforms, of moral and religious movements. As these meetings will not bring together the mere representatives of states and sections, but of causes and movements which have the same significance and the same beneficent effect in all states and in all sections, they cannot but result in cultivating in women and, therefore, in the whole people, that spirit of patriotism and nationality, by which alone the unity of our great republic can be secured . . . .



Source: in “But I Do Clamor”: May Wright Sewall, A Life, 1844-1920, by Ray. E. Boomhower (Zionsville, Indiana: Guild Press of Indiana) 2001, Appendix 3, pp. 180-184.