Carrie Chapman Catt

Presidential Address at the IWSA Congress in Amsterdam - June 15, 1908

Carrie Chapman Catt
June 15, 1908— Amsterdam, the Netherlands
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Catt's address as president of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance at the Congress in Amsterdam, June 15, 1908.

It is a suggestive coincidence that the opening day of this Congress commemorates the anniversary of the signing of the Immortal Magna Charta. That event stands out distinctly against the background of seven centuries, as one of the most important in the history of man. The historian Green says of it: "The Great Charter marks the transition from the age of traditional rights to the age of written legislation, of Parliaments and statutes." It pointed as certainly, we may add, to the coming of popular government behind the Parliaments, and to the "will of the majority" behind the statutes. It pointed as unmistakably to the coming of votes for men and women. Given the Magna Charta, man suffrage was bound to follow; and given man suffrage, woman suffrage became inevitable.

The New Era.

The blessing of the new era, inaugurated by this remarkable document, were not enjoyed by England alone, but have been shared, as a common possession, by all the nations of the world. The Magna Charta, therefore, properly becomes the inheritance of all mankind, and June 15, appropriately, an international Memorial Day.

Not Yet Complete.

So sweeping have been the changes which have taken place since the signing of the Charter that the age of the English Barons bears little resemblance to our own; yet the political evolution presaged in 1215 is not yet complete. What celebration of the day could be more fitting than the opening of a Congress which declares for the final step in that evolution?

A Time of Rejoicing.

We may make it also a day of rejoicing, for at no time since the movement for the enfranchisement of women began have its advocates had so much cause for self-congratulation as now. The International Woman Suffrage Alliance met in Copenhagen twenty-two months ago, and, in the brief time which has elapsed since then, the progress of our cause has been so rapid, the gains so substantial, the assurance of coming victory so certain, that we may imagine the noble and brave pioneers of woman suffrage, the men and women who were the torch-bearers of our movement, gathering today in some far-off celestial sphere, and singing together a glad paean of exultation.

Norway's Victory.

In 1907 Norway granted full suffrage rights and eligibility to women upon exceedingly generous terms. To one who has observed the attitude of nations toward our cause, this act of the Norwegian Parliament meant far more than an isolated victory. Long before, four of the United States of America, and New Zealand and Australia, had conferred full suffrage upon women; but everywhere opponents persistently refused to admit that these gains were important. They declared these States and nations had had no history and gave no assurance of a stable future; they said they were too new, their population too small, their people too impulsive and irresponsible for their acts to be taken seriously.

Equal Suffrage Territory Vast.

It was in vain we pointed to the fact that, if the territories of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, of Denmark, Belgium, Holland, Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, the German Empire, the Austrian Empire, and all of European Russia should be added together, it would not equal the territory of the woman-suffrage countries. We assured out opponents that time would bring them history and prove their governments to be permanent, while fertile lands, unworked mines and undeveloped resources would not fail to attract populations as large as those now to be found in older civilizations. We called attention to the fact that, however mighty these governments should become, however vast their populations, political rights, equal to those of men, had been guaranteed for all time to all women within their borders. Still our opponents continued to claim that our movement had not progressed beyond the academic stage, and that no practical gains had been made.

Finland's Victory.

When Finland startled the world by its bold demand for equal suffrage for men and women, the opponents, with quick and ready wit, found excuses to belittle the act and minify its influence. "It is true," they said, "Finland is old enough, and has a creditable history, but its people are in a state of revolution. What the Czar has given he may take away. We shall wait."

A Weighty Precedent.

It was at this point in the world's controversy over woman suffrage that the Norwegian victory came. Norway was a country with an honorable history, a stable and independent government. It was evident that the enfranchisement of women had been accomplished after calm deliberation, by a people acknowledged to be intelligent, honest and conscientious. For the first time, the opponents were compelled to admit that a genuine victory for woman suffrage had been scored. More, the Norwegian Act lent a new dignity and significance to all the victories which had preceded it. The sum total of the gains for woman suffrage was at last acknowledged to have weight. It was conceded that the movement had made progress, and, almost immediately, public sentiment assumed a new attitude toward it. The friends became more active and hopeful, the opponents more bitter and vindictive. The press was more willing to discuss the merits of the question; the public became interested. The Norwegians "wrought better than they knew," and I venture the prediction that, when the final chapter of the history of woman suffrage shall be written, it will record that the enfranchisement of the Norwegian women marked a decided turning point in the struggle.

Question Up in 51 Legislatures.

The effect of the changed sentiment is evident in many directions, but in no way is it so accurately measured as in increased parliamentary activity. Within the past two years woman suffrage appeals have been presented to the Parliaments of eighteen European governments, the United States Congress and the Legislatures of twenty-nine States, the Parliament of Canada and Victoria, and the Legislature of the Philippines, making fifty-one independent legislative bodies. In some cases the campaign closed with the reception of petitions or memorials by the Parliament, or by learnings granted by the ministry to deputations of suffragists; but in most cases bills proposing to grant woman suffrage were introduced into the Parliament, and in many instances were not only debated with spirit, but were brought to a vote. The appeals to Parliament were made for the first time, I believe, in twelve of the European countries. In Spain and the Philippines, bills were introduced by friends of the cause quite unknown to us.

Gains in Seven Countries.

This activity has not been barren of results, and the delegates of seven countries come to this Congress vested with larger political rights than they possessed at the time of the Copenhagen meeting two years ago, namely, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, England and Germany. Each of the five Scandinavian lands has won something. Norwegian women come with full suffrage rights. Finnish delegates come as representatives of the only nation which has elected women to seats in its Parliament. Sweden and Iceland have gained a step in eligibility, and our Icelandic delegate of two years ago is now a member of the City Council of Reykjavik, the capital.

Denmark's Victory.

The women of Denmark, next to those of Norway, have made the largest gain, and municipal suffrage with liberal qualifications has been bestowed upon them. English women have secured eligibility to become mayors, and members of town and county councils. This concession is worthy of congratulation; but far more momentous gains are within sight.

Progress in Germany.

Germany has revised its law controlling political organization and meetings, and women are now free to join political associations, to organize suffrage societies and to conduct woman suffrage campaigns. The German association affiliated with the Alliance has been reorganized in accordance with the new law, and is now a federation of national or State associations. Each national body is free to work with its own Parliament, and appeals to grant woman suffrage have already been made to the legislative authorities of three German nations and the National Reichstag. The movement in Germany has gained greatly in strength, dignity and influence through the removal of this restrictive law, and we express the hope that the freedom to work for a vote may be speedily followed by the freedom to cast a vote.

Danish Women Congratulated.

The experiences of Denmark and Sweden give food for reflection. The Danish suffragists have kept up a lively agitation of public sentiment during the past two years, and have developed a new suffrage organization, which now numbers 8,000 members. The affiliated organization also has increased in membership and activity. Yet no parliamentary campaign was planned by either. Instead, quite contrary to precedent, the bill was introduced by the government, without especial solicitation on the part of the women, and was carried by the vote of the conservative parties. When the measure had become law, the second unprecedented event took place. The woman suffragists and the king exchanged compliments, the women thanking him for his kind offices in their behalf, and the king felicitating the women upon their new rights and avowing his sympathy with the step which had been taken. The women of Denmark are to be congratulated upon the liberality of their king and the foresight of their government.

Swedish Women Active.

Quite different has been the Swedish experience. All that the Danish women have done, they have done, and more. In two years the membership of the organization has doubled, and the 63 local organizations reported at Copenhagen have become 127. A petition of 142,128 names has been presented to Parliament; deputations have waited upon the government and have been granted hearings. But the Swedish government has said to the woman suffragists, just as the leading men of the United States said to American suffragists in 1868, "Wait until all men are enfranchised; it will be time enough then to consider your claim." Yet private bills were introduced into the Swedish Parliament, and not only were earnestly supported, but were brought to a vote. Woman suffrage was endorsed by two political parties, and has become a much discussed and an admittedly important question.

With the exception of England, the suffragists of Sweden have, without doubt, worked more indefatigably during the past year than those of any other country. Their work has been characterized by intelligence, patience, courage, dignity, and unyielding determination. The campaign has been a grand one, and we offer our assurance to these Swedish workers that a continuation of such efforts cannot fail to bring the result they seek. Meanwhile, the women of Sweden are learning politics; they are being strengthened and educated by the struggle, and, when enfranchised, they will appreciate fully the privilege and the responsibility.

Scandinavians in the Lead.

In Denmark partial suffrage came because the government was willing; in Sweden full suffrage has been delayed because the government is unwilling. It is not improbable that the women of Sweden may gain the full suffrage before those of Denmark, and, as the political suffrage carries with it more influence, authority and opportunity, woman suffrage may show greater results in Sweden in the next decade than in Denmark. Both countries are intelligent and progressive. The manner in which the problems involved in the woman suffrage situation shall be solved in these two countries will teach important lessons to workers for this cause throughout the world. Meanwhile, we freely concede that in actual gains the Scandinavians are in the lead. All honor to that noble race! Once it was the pioneer explorer upon the great unknown waters of the world; now it is the leader upon the high seas of human progress.

A World-Wide Movement.

Signs of active agitation have not been confined to the countries represented by our thirteen affiliated organizations, but are evident in all parts of the globe. In Bulgaria a new woman suffrage association has been formed, and this has been welcomed into our Alliance today. Through its delegate, we pledge to it our fraternal help and sympathy.

Switzerland is making rapid progress towards a National Suffrage Association, which we shall also welcome into affiliation. In far-away South Africa, Cape Colony and Natal have each effected an organization, and are seeking the suffrage from their respective Parliaments. They have united in sending delegates to this Congress. France will hold a Woman Suffrage Congress within a few days, and we hope that it may result in the formation of a National Suffrage Association and the adoption of a policy of active agitation, education and organization.

Austria does not yet legally permit a woman suffrage organization; but it has a woman suffrage committee. Bohemia, too, finds opportunity to work for women suffrage, despite the law prohibiting women from taking part in political organizations. The National Parliament at Vienna and the Diet at Prague of each received petitions asking that suffrage by granted to women.

Caricatures in Italy.

Italy held its first great Congress of Women last April, and one session was devoted to a warm debate on woman suffrage. A very large audience, ranging from members of the most conservative nobility to well-known advocates of broad democracy, filled the hall. Several women and two members of Parliament addressed the meeting in favor of suffrage for women. The newspapers printed long reports, but these were interspersed with caricatures of the women leaders. Caricatures represent an early, but inevitable, step in woman suffrage evolution. Curiously, the caricaturists of all lands model suffrage leaders after one common pattern. Just why they have always pictured them as carrying umbrellas, I do not know. In early days, it is possible they imagined the umbrella to be the weapon with which women were expected to attack governments; but in these days Italian caricaturists should know that woman suffragists possess far more effective weapons. Mr. Asquith could teach them better. We congratulate Italian women upon the progress they are making. It is only a short step from caricatures to serious consideration, and better times are in store for the Italian suffragists. The movement in every country has passed through this stage.

Like straws which show the direction of the wind, events here and there indicate the general awakening of women. Greet and Servia have formed National Councils of Women. Icelandic women in America have organized a woman suffrage association, and now publish a woman suffrage paper in their own language, which circulates among the Icelanders in the United States and Canada. From Washington come the tidings that the Japanese Minster declares the women of his country to be making such strides towards emancipation that they may yet outstrip the women of the western nations. In the land of the Sultan it is reported that the women are growing restive, and there, as elsewhere, the authorities are learning that, if women are to be kept in submission, it is a mistake to permit them to learn to read.

England the Storm Centre.

Although from Occident to Orient, from Lapland to sunny Italy, and from Canada to South Africa the agitation for woman suffrage has known no pause, yet, after all, the storm-centre of the movement has been located in England. In other lands there have been steps in evolution; in England there has been a revolution. There have been no guns, nor power, nor bloodshed, but there have been all other evidences of war. There have been brave generals, well-trained armies, and many a well-fought battle; there have been tactics and strategies, sorties, sieges, and even prisoners of war. There are those who have criticized the methods employed; but until we know the whole truth concerning what the women of England have actually done and how they did it, we have no right to criticize. It must be admitted that the English campaign stands out clearly by comparison not only as the most remarkable ever conducted for woman suffrage, but as the hardest fought campaign ever waged for any reform. There have been several organizations, and these have differed widely as to methods, yet no time has been wasted in disputes over them, and the main object has never been lost sight of for a moment. The so-called suffragists have displayed an amazing amount of energy, of persistency and executive force. Yet the older and more conservative body of workers has been no less remarkable. Human nature is so constituted that most leaders would have "sulked in their tents," or joined the general stone-throwing at the new comers, whose methods were declared to be "setting the cause backward hundreds of years." These English leaders did nothing of the kind. Instead, with forbearance we may do well to imitate, they quadrupled their own activities. Every class, including ladies of the nobility, working girls, housewives and professional women, has engaged in the campaign, and not a man, woman or child in England has been permitted to plead ignorance concerning the meaning of woman suffrage. Together, suffragists and suffragettes have carried their appeal into the byways and most hidden corners of the kingdom. They have employed more original methods, enlisted a larger number of women workers, and grasped the situation in a bolder fashion than has been done elsewhere. In other countries persuasion has been the chief, if not the only, weapon relied upon; in England it has been persuasion plus political methods.

"By their fruits shall ye know them." Already these English women have made woman suffrage a political issue. No one can understand the meaning of this achievement so well as those who have borne the brunt of hard fought suffrage battles. It has been the dream of many a suffrage campaign, but no other women have made it a realization. When the deputation of 60 members of Parliament paid a visit to the Prime Minister a few days ago to ask his support for woman suffrage, the zenith of the world's half-century of woman suffrage campaigning was reached.

Triumph in Sight.

English women have effected another result, which is likewise an unfailing sign of coming triumph. A new movement is invariably attacked by ridicule. If the movement is a poor one, it is laughed out of existence, if it is a good one, it waxes strong under attack. In time the laugh is turned upon its early opponents, and when ridicule sets in that direction, it is a sign that the strife is nearly finished.

Turning the Laugh.

The laugh has now been turned upon the English government. What may have been its effect upon England, only those who know that country from the inside can tell; but there has been a change of sentiment toward the English suffrage campaign on the outside, and of this we may speak.

Watching the Game.

First, the world joined in loudly expressed disgust at the alleged unfeminine conduct of English suffragists. Editorial writers in many lands scourged the suffrage workers of their respective countries over the shoulders of these lively English militants. Time passed; comment ceased; and the world, which had ridiculed, watched the contest in silence, but with never an eye closed. It assumed the attitude of the referee who realizes he is watching a cleverly played game, with the chances hanging in the balance. Then came the laugh. The dispatches flashed the news to the remotest corners of the globe that English Cabinet Ministers were "protected" in the street by bodyguards; the houses of Cabinet Ministers were "protected" by relays of police, and even the great Houses of Parliament were "protected" by a powerful cordon of police. Protected! And from what? The embarrassing attack of unarmed women! In other lands police have protected emperors, czars, kings and presidents from the assaults of hidden foes, whose aim has been to kill. That there has been such need is tragic; and when, in contrast, the vision was presented of the Premier of England hiding behind locked doors, skulking along side streets, and guarded everywhere by officers, lest an encounter with a feminine interrogation point should put him to rout, it proved too much for the ordinary sense of humor.

Parliament Needing Protection.

Again, the dispatches presented another view. Behold, they said, the magnificent and world-renowned Houses of Parliament surrounded by police, and every woman approaching that sacred precinct, halted, examined, and perhaps arrested! Behold all this elaborate precaution to save members of Parliament from inopportune tidings that women should have votes; yet, despite it all, the forbidden message is delivered, for over the Houses floats conspicuously and defiantly a huge "Votes for Women" kite. Perhaps England did not know the big world laughed then; but it did, and more, from that moment it conceded the victory to the suffragists. The only question remaining unanswered, is: How will the government surrender, and at the same time preserve its dignity and consistency?

A Battle Nobly Fought.

I have no wish to defend, or condemn, the tactics which have been employed in England; but let me ask a question. Had there been newspapers and cables in 1215, do you not think the staid and dignified nobility of other lands would have been scandalized at the unruly behaviour of the English Barons? They certainly would. Yet we have forgotten the names of those barons, and we have forgotten the methods by which they wrested the Magna Charta from King John; we only remember that they did it, and that all mankind has enjoyed larger liberties and opportunities ever since. History repeats itself, and I venture the second prediction: For the English suffragists, final triumph is near at hand. When it comes, the world will forget the details of the campaign it has criticised, and will remember only that woman suffrage is an established fact in one of the greatest governments of the world. Nay, more, as the English Barons fought a battle for the rights of all mankind in the thirteenth century, so do I conscientiously believe that these English women of the twentieth century, suffragists and suffragettes, are striking a tremendously effective blow in behalf of the political liberty of the women of all the nations. Let those who will, criticise. English women are making history today, and coming generations will pronounce it nobly made. When they have won their cause, all women should understand that their proper relation to these plucky, self-sacrificing English women is not that of critic, but of debtor.

The Situation in America.

I cannot close this review of the present-day situation without some comment upon the conditions in my own country. For some decades in the nineteenth century it was the chief example of democracy, and the advocates of popular government in other lands looked to the United States of America for proof of its advantage. For the past 30 years, however, reports have been largely current declaring universal male suffrage to be a signal failure there. The picture, as painted by these reports and embellished by many a startling detail, is dark and forbidding, and, without doubt, had had a powerful restraining influence upon the growth of the movement for government by the people. Indeed, I believe it may be truthfully said that the great European movement of 1848, which resulted in constitutions and extended suffrage in many countries, was largely the effort of beneficial experience in the United States; just as during the latter part of the last century, the report of corruption, bribery and the control of legislation by political machines in the United States has been the chief hindrance to further progress. Antagonists found in these reports abundant cause to continue their opposition; the indifferent found nothing to persuade them to a change of view, and even the advocates themselves were forced into a position of explanation and apology.

Popular Government a Success.

These reports concerning man suffrage in the United States have had some foundation of truth; yet, among the many signs which today point to the final triumph of popular government, to votes for men and women, there is none more significant than the fact that, although the United States has gathered a population which represents every known race; although its people are the followers of every religion, and the subjects of every form of government; although there has been the dead weight of a large ignorant vote; yet the little settlement which, 150 years ago, rested upon the western shore of the Atlantic, a mere colonial possession, has steadily climbed upward, until today it occupies a proud position of equality among the greatest governments of the world. After all, what stronger proof could be offered that popular government is a success?

The existence of our body politic of nearly a million illiterate Negroes, and another million of illiterate men of foreign birth or parentage, the increase of our population through immigration at the average rate of 1,000,000 persons each year, and the problems of poverty, insanity and criminality arising out of these conditions, have made our State government conservative. The additional fact that woman suffrage must come through a referendum to the votes of all men, has postponed its establishment. Nevertheless, man suffrage in the United States is as firmly fixed as the Rock of Gibraltar, and woman suffrage is as sure to follow as are the starts to move on in their appointed courses.

The Mississippi Dam.

A few years ago, the Mississippi River was dammed by a huge mass of ice. For day, the mighty waters struggled to break through the obstruction, and then, since rivers obey at an unchanging law which compels them to flow on to the sea, the force of the water dug a new channel around the ice, and the present course of the Great River lies a mile away from the old one. In some such fashion, the onmarching movement for man and woman suffrage made its greatest progress in the United States when that country offered the path of least resistance. Then an obstruction appeared. A mixed, ignorant and untrained electorate became the ready victim of unscrupulous politicians, and offered a temptation which the cupidity of selfish men could not withstand. It was an obstacle which in the nature of things will not be repeated elsewhere. For a time the movement for popular government attempted to overcome this obstacle. Then, happily, since the evolution of human society obeys the same immutable law which controls the action of rivers, this movement passed around the United States and appeared, with none of it momentum lost, in Australia, New Zealand, and later in the Old World.

Not National. But International.

Naturally, it would have flattered the pride and patriotism of American women, could their country have continued to lead the movement which there had its organized beginning. But their deep regret that this cannot be does not modify the genuine sincerity of their joy over the progress in other lands. There are irresistible forces which make for human liberty, and against which kings and armies struggle in vain. Man suffrage and woman suffrage are such forces. In the long run it cannot matter where the victory came earliest, since our cause is not national but international. The gains will always follow the path of least resistance, and a fortunate combination of political conditions may disclose it at the most unexpected times and in the most undreamed of places. The workers of every country must be watchful and prepared to seize the opportunity when it offers. Every victory gained adds momentum to the whole movement. Every association which labors unitedly and unselfishly to sure the suffrage, aids the work in other lands.

Enemy Not Men, But Conservatism.

In this common cause, women have clasped hands over the mountains and over the seas, and have become in truth a world army. The legal and political position of women at the beginning has been practically the same in all lands. As they march on to self-respect, liberty and opportunity, along the self-same road, they will encounter there the same obstacles, the same experiences. We hear much of the solidarity of the human race. We represent the solidarity of a sex. We oppose a common enemy, whose name is not man, but conservatism. Its weapons are the same in all lands—tradition, prejudice and selfishness. We too have a common weapon—an appeal to justice and fair play. Arguments pro and con are pronounced in Japanese and Dutch, Icelandic and Italian, but, when translated into a common tongue, they are duplicates. A Chinese Mandarin and an American Congressman, a Sulu Sultan and an English Prime Minister, will give precisely the same reasons why a woman should not vote. Therefore, we must remain a united army which, in the words of Susan B. Anthony, "knows only woman, and her disfranchised."

Delegates from all Countries.

Today delegates are present from every Suffrage Association in the world and never before have so many nationalities been represented in a convention assembled to discuss woman suffrage. Our Alliance, in four years, has grown from a federation of eight to one of sixteen National Associations. Already woman suffrage obtains on one fifteenth of the world's surface. Heretofore the battle has been fought in countries of large territory and small population; the battle of the future will be in countries of small territory and large population. This means harder, more tactful, more persistent work. We must grow closer to each other; we must learn to help each other, to give courage to the faint hearted, and cheer to the disappointed of all lands. Within our Alliance, we must try to develop so lofty a spirit of internationalism, a spirit so clarified from all personalities, and ambitions, and even national antagonisms, that its purity and grandeur will furnish new inspiration to all workers in our cause. We must send forth from this meeting a note so full of sisterly sympathy, of faith in womanhood of exultant hope, a note so impelling that it will be heard by the women of all lands, and will call them forth to join our world's army. Verily, my sisters, these are good times in which we live, and, unless the signs augur amiss, the time is not far distant when the women of the world shall enter into their own kingdom of individual freedom, in home and church and State.

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