Catt, as the newly-elected president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, delivered this speech on the closing day of NAWSA's 1900 convention.
A survey of the changes which have been wrought within the past hundred years in the status of women—educational, social, financial and political—fills the observing man or woman with a feeling akin to awe. No great war has been fought in behalf of their emancipation; no great political party has espoused their cause; no heroes have bled and died for their liberty; yet words fail utterly to measure the distance between the "sphere" of the woman of 1800 and that of the woman of 1900. How has the transformation come? What mysterious power has brought it?
On the whole, men and women of the present rejoice at every right gained and every privilege conceded. Not one jot or tittle would they abate the advantage won; yet when the plea is made that the free, self-respecting, self-reliant, independent, thinking women of this generation be given the suffrage, the answer almost invariably comes back, "When women as a whole demand it, men will consider it." This answer carries with it the apparent supposition that all the changes have come because the majority of women wanted them, and that further enlargement of liberty must cease because the majority do not want it. Alas, it is a sad comment upon the conservatism of the average human being that not one change of consequence has been desired by women as a whole, or even by a considerable part. It would be nearer the truth to say women as a whole have opposed every advance.
The progress has come because women of a larger mold, loftier ambitions and nobler self-respect than the average have been willing to face the opposition of the world for the sake of liberty. More than one such as these deserve the rank of martyr. The sacrifice of suffering, of doubt, of obloquy, which has been endured by the pioneers in the woman movement will never be fully known or understood....
With the bold demand for perfect equality of rights in every walk of life the public have compromised. Not willing to grant all, they have conceded something; and by repeated compromises and concessions to the main demand the progress of woman's rights has been accomplished.
There are two kinds of restrictions upon human liberty—the restraint of law and that of custom. No written law has ever been more binding than unwritten custom supported by popular opinion. At the beginning of our century both law and custom restricted the liberty of women.
It was the edict of custom which prohibited women from receiving an education, engaging in occupations, speaking in public, organizing societies, or in other ways conducting themselves like free, rational human beings. It was law which forbade married women to control their own property or to collect their own wages, and which forbade all women to vote. The changes have not come because women wished for them or men welcomed them. A liberal board of trustees, a faculty willing to grant a trial, an employer willing to experiment, a broad-minded church willing to hear a woman preach, a few liberal souls in a community willing to hear a woman speak—these have been the influences which have brought the changes.
There is no more elaborate argument or determined opposition to woman suffrage than there has been to each step of progress.... Had a vote been taken, co-education itself would have been overwhelmingly defeated. In 1840, before women had studied or practiced medicine, had it been necessary to obtain permission to do so by a vote of men or women, 8,000 graduated women physicians would not now be engaged in the healing art in our country. In 1850, when vindictive epithets were hurled from press, pulpit and public in united condemnation of the few women who were attempting to be heard on the platform as speakers, had it been necessary to secure the right of free public speech through Legislatures or popular approval, the voices of women would still be silent.... The rights of women have come in direct opposition to the popular consensus of opinion. Yet when they have once become established, they have been wanted by women and welcomed by men.
There are a few fanatics who, if they could, would force the women of this generation back into the spheres of their grandmothers. There are some pessimists who imagine they see all natural order coming to a speedy end because of the enlarged liberties and opportunities of women. There are sentimentalists who believe that the American home, that most sacred unit of society, is seriously imperiled by the tendencies of women to adopt new duties and interests. But this is not the thought of the average American. There are few intelligent men who would be willing to provide their daughters no more education than was deemed proper for their grandmothers, or who would care to restrict them to the old-time limited sphere of action. Thinking men and women realize that the American home was never more firmly established than at the present time, and that it has grown nobler and happier as women have grown more self-reliant. The average man and woman recognize that the changes which have come have been in the interest of better womanhood and better manhood, bringing greater happiness to women and greater blessings to men. They recognize that each step gained has rendered women fitter companions for men, wiser mothers and far abler units of society.
The public acknowledges the wisdom, the common sense, the practical judgment of the woman movement until it asks for the suffrage. In other words, it approves every right gained because it is here, and condemns the one right not yet gained because it is not here.
Had it been either custom or statutory law which forbade women to vote, the suffrage would have been won by the same processes which have gained every other privilege. A few women would have voted, a few men and women would have upheld them, and, little by little, year after year, the number of women electors would have increased until it became as general for women to vote as it is for men. Had this been possible the women would be voting to-day in every State in the Union; and undoubtedly their appearance at the polls would now be as generally accepted as a matter of fact as the college education. But, alas, when this step of advancement was proposed, women found themselves face to face with the stone wall of Constitutional Law, and they could not vote until a majority of men should first give their consent. Indeed the experiment was made to gain this sacred privilege by easier means. The history of the voting of Susan B. Anthony and others is familiar to all, but the Supreme Court decided that the National Constitution must first be amended. It therefore becomes a necessity to convert to this reform a majority of the men of the whole United States.
When we recall the vast amount of illiteracy, ignorance, selfishness and degradation which exists among certain classes of our people the task imposed upon us is appalling. There are whole precincts of voters in this country whose united intelligence does not equal that of one representative American woman. Yet to such classes as these we are asked to take our cause as the court of final resort. We are compelled to petition men who have never heard of the Declaration of Independence, and who have never read the Constitution, for the sacred right of self-government; we are forced to appeal for justice to men who do not know the meaning of the word; we are driven to argue our claim with men who never had two thoughts in logical sequence. We ask men to consider the rights of a citizen in a republic and we get the answer in reply, given in all seriousness, "Women have more rights now than they ought to have;" and that, too, without the faintest notion of the inanity of the remark or the emptiness of the brain behind it.
When we present our cause to men of higher standing and more liberal opinion, we find that the interest of party and the personal ambition for place are obstacles which prevent them from approving a question concerning whose popularity there is the slightest doubt.
The way before us is difficult at best, not because our demand is not based upon unquestioned justice, not because it is not destined to win in the end, but because of the nature of the processes through which it must be won. In fact the position of this question might well be used to demonstrate that observation of Aristotle that "a democracy has many striking points of resemblance with tyranny...."
It is for these reasons, gentlemen, that we appeal to your committee to aid in the submission of a Sixteenth Amendment. Such an amendment would go before the Legislatures of our country where the grade of intelligence is at least higher than we should find in the popular vote.
Though you yourselves may doubt the expediency of woman suffrage, though you may question the soundness of our claim, yet, in the name of democracy, which permits the people to make and amend their constitutions, and in the name of American womanhood, prepared by a century of unmeasured advance for political duties, we beg your aid in the speedy submission of this question. We ask this boon in the direct interest of the thousands of women who do want to vote, who suffer pangs of humiliation and degradation because of their political servitude. We ask it equally in the indirect interest of the thousands of women who do not want to vote, as we believe their indifference or opposition is the same natural conservatism which led other women to oppose the college education, the control of property, the freedom of public speech and the right of organization.
Years ago George William Curtis pleaded for fair play for women. It is the same plea we are repeating. We only petition for fair play, and this means the submission of our question to the most intelligent constituency which has power to act upon it. If we shall fail, we will abide by the decision. That is, we will wait till courage has grown stronger, reason more logical, justice purer, in the positive knowledge that our cause will eventually triumph. As the daughters of Zelophehad appealed to Moses and his great court for justice, so do the daughters of America appeal to you.