Carrie Chapman Catt

Address to the Women of Europe – June 6, 1920

Carrie Chapman Catt
June 06, 1920— Geneva, Switzerland
Print friendly

Catt, president of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, delivered this address at the organization's congress in 1920.

It was seven years since last we met. In memory we live again those happy days of friendly camaraderie in Budapest. All the faces were smiling. On every side one heard joyous laughter among the delegates and visitors. An infectious good feeling permeated the gathering, while wit and humor continually scintillated through private conversations and public utterances: for everyone was happy. Every heart was filled with buoyant hope and every soul was armored with dauntless courage. We had seen our numbers grow greater and our movement strong in many lands and here and there the final triumph had already come.

Will you pardon a quotation from the president's address in 1913? She said:

"Since our last Congress not one sign has appeared the entire world around to indicate reaction. Not a backward step has been taken. On the contrary, a thousand revelations give certain, unchallenged promise that victory for our great cause lies just ahead. To the uninitiated these signs may sound prosaic, but they thrill those who understand with the joy of coming victory. It is reported of every land that there are more meetings, larger audiences, more speakers, more writers, more money, more influential advocates, more space in the press, more favorable editorials, more earnest supporters in Parliaments, more members, more and better organization, and, best of all, more consecration—all unfailing signs of the growing power of a great movement."

These facts were familiar to us all, and in further proof of the then pending world-wide victory, thirty-eight of the delegates to our Congress in 1913, representing five nations, came with full enfranchisement won, and sixty-four others, representing four additional nations, were endowed with a responsible partial suffrage. Two nations and some American state had sent official representatives, another certain sign of the growing political importance of our movement. Newspaper correspondents from many nations in larger numbers than ever before gathered about the press tables, and in consequence amazement was expressed in many languages through the world's press that so many women, of many races and nationalities, and of such diversity of character, should be striving toward the common goal of their political liberation. Amazement was soon transformed into serious discussion, and discussion led to definite results, and the forward movement continued long after our Congress.

Budapest in 1913

So, under the smiling skies of fair Hungary, in June, amid the warm-hearted hospitality of her people, and inspired by the growing solidarity of women in support of our great cause, we met in happy conference. Justice, logic and inevitable progress were on our side and the great world was about to drop its prejudices and yield to the reasonableness of our demand. Why should we not have been happy? We congratulated one group that their struggle was so nearly over, and we encouraged those whose battle had scarcely begun to march forward with confidence. But while we congratulated and advised, we also planned. We planned vigorously for hard, systematic, constructive work all around the world—work which in most cases was never done. We parted to meet again, as we believed, in Berlin in 1915 and in Paris in 1917, there to report expected victories and to take fresh counsel of each other. Yet some premonition seemed to throw a hint of sadness into our parting, for many were the delegates who said: "We shall meet again but never in such a happy Congress as this of Budapest."

Alas, those smiling, shining days seem now to have been an experience in some other incarnation; for the years which lie between are war-scarred and war-tortured, and in 1920 there is no human being in the world to whom life is quite the same as in 1913. It is doubtful if there is one to whom the world seems a happier place.

Not only was the world war the greatest of all wars when measured by the number of nations involved, the size of armies, the cost of maintenance and the inhumanity of methods employed, but because of its very immensity it proved to be the most disorganizing to world institutions. Great writers found their vocabularies wholly insufficient to describe the phenomenon. Nothing in human experience has been like it. Nothing seems worthy of comparison with it except the earth's cataclysm when the world was made and mountains and continents were tossed up out of a meaningless, seething, tumbling mass. Order came out of that chaos and it came with God's directing hand upon it.

God's order will come again to the world's stricken, unhappy, much suffering people. It will come because the divine law of evolution never ceases to operate and the destiny of the race leads eternally on without pause. So much sacrifice and sorrow as the war has cost the world cannot have been endured in vain. Surely there must be a consequent quickening of the onward forces and in the midst of present day disorder, might powers must be at work bringing slowly but definitely the better order to be. Yet believe it as we will, none of us may know clearly the nature of that coming order.

Geneva in 1920

So, we do not come smiling to Geneva in 1920 as to Budapest in 1913. Our hearts are too heavy with the world's pain to sense the joy of triumph which unquestionably is ours. Revolution stalks through the world, governments are unstable or unsettled; little children are hungry; capital and labor are both over-reaching; war taxation bears heavily upon the shoulders of every nation, prices of food, clothing and shelter are so nearly prohibitive as to conduce to anxious restlessness the world around. Innumerable problems, big and complicated, rise upon every side to demand despairing attention. How shall the children of the world be fed, clothed, educated and trained for their duties as citizens of the next generation? How shall crime, rampant throughout the world, be suppressed? When and how can the normal living of all people be assured once more? So many theories, plans and organized endeavors to meet these problems have come forward that they end in conflict with each other, and none seems destined to accomplish its aim. Each nation is like a hopelessly tangled ball of yarn, and the world like a basket full of them.

In the midst of all this confusion, the future does not look so clear to us as it did in 1913. Facing these gigantic political tasks, the newly won vote seems pitifully poor and small, and men and women are experiencing a sense of helpless ness they never knew before.

Woman Suffrage a By-Product of the War

For the suffragists of the world a few facts stand forth with great clarity. The first and greatest is that the political liberation of women was tossed up out of the war chaos like an isolated mountain when the world was in the making. War, the undoubted original cause of the humiliating, age-old subjection of women the world around, war, the combined enemy of their emancipation, war has tendered to the women of many lands their political freedom! Strange, bewildering fact!

The Latin and Oriental countries still hold out, but that will not be for long. Rumania, the first Latin country to extend the vote to women, has already led the way; the others will follow. We welcome new auxiliaries to our Alliance from many Latin countries, Spain, Argentina, Uruguay and Cuba, and from Greece, and there is now, I believe, no country in Europe except Turkey without a woman suffrage association. To these auxiliaries we not only extend a hearty welcome but we assure them that their struggle, by comparison with those which have gone before, will be neither long nor difficult, for women will soon vote wherever men do.

The staggering, overwhelming factor in the present status of woman suffrage is that it has come to many lands where the women have made little effort to secure it, and to some (for example, the Duchy of Luxembourg) where no suffrage organization every existed. It has come as a "by-product" of revolution and a recognition of women as a war power. In these lands there has been comparatively little education on behalf of self-government, and in some of them such propaganda in 1914 would have been declared treason and made punishable with exile or even death. Yet while all these old barriers are swept aside in many lands and men and women enfranchised, the task is not yet completed in the countries where women have labored hardest and where the principle of democracy has longest been unchallenged.

The United State Left Behind

There must be millions of women in Europe who never hoped for political liberty and who are now dazed by its sudden coming. Even the working suffragists of Germany, Austria, Hungary, Roumania, Serbia, Bohemia, Poland, Luxembourg and Ukrania must feel a sense of surprise at the unexpectedness of their enfranchisement. We congratulate Great Britain, Sweden and Holland upon their suffrage victories won after years of hard, sacrificing, nerve-racking work. The women of Australia, New Zealand and some American states have been voting for a generation or more. The women of Norway, Denmark and Iceland have long been enfranchised, but Germany has outstripped all other nations in the recognition of the principle of equality, with 137 women serving on City Councils and 37 as members of the National Parliament. The President of the German National Suffrage Association comes to this Congress as a member of the City Council of Dresden.

It is not for me to interpret the sentiments of the women of other lands, but with authority I may say that there are millions of suffragists in the United States who have been fairly stupefied with astonishment at these almost unaccountable events. As all the world knows, the United States of America has been dedicated from the first to the principle of self-government. No other nation has made the same pronouncements.

Its national independence was won on a platform of two fundamental truisms: "Taxation without representation is tyranny," but for a century women were taxed, yet not represented; "Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed," and for a century women were governed without their consent. Later, Abraham Lincoln combined these two in a simple phrase: "This is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people—." Women are people, yet no part of the government has been conducted by them.

No other country has repudiated its Constitution, principles and history in its denial of votes to its women, and that is why the extension of suffrage to the women of all Europe has so astounded and humiliated the women of the United States. Women of the United States are not less glad that women of other lands have won the vote, but they feel that they have been betrayed by their own nation.

It was in the United States that the first woman suffrage convention was held and the first organized woman suffrage movement in the world begun. That was seventy-two years ago. Had men been reasonable or logical, they would at once have responded to the appeal of 1848 with the consistent answer, "Since we are a government of the people, and women are people, they must be included in all governmental functions." But men are neither reasonable nor logical; men are exceedingly emotional and sentimental. The race is too near its cave days to be otherwise.

So it came about that for seventy years women in the United States have conducted an educational campaign to compel the nation to see its own inconsistency. Many millions of dollars have been raised and expended and thousands of women whose names are scarcely known outside their own localities have given every possibility of their lives to this cause and have died without its accomplishment.

The names of others are known in every land. Who does not know the name of Susan B. Anthony? For fifty years she gave an unremitting service to this cause, high-minded, intelligent and conscientious. Every private aim became subservient to the public demand, and every hour was pledged to the woman's cause. Her soul never knew defeat and her courage was never daunted. A great, intrepid, heroic woman, she led and inspired for half a century.

You know, too, the name of Anna Howard Shaw, for this is the first Congress the Alliance has held without her. It is not too much to claim her as the greatest women orator of the world. I know nothing of orators in other lands. In my own country there may be more gifted men orators, but if so I do not know their names. Yet the wonder of her was not in her matchless platform power, but in her untiring willingness to use it every week, every day and every hour for our cause. No hamlet was too small to be deemed worthy a visit, and no audience too insignificant to call for her best. For forty years she labored. Millions of men and women listened to her, laughed at her sallies of wit, wept at her pathos and surrendered to her invulnerable appeal for justice. She died for her cause and saw it unaccomplished.

These marvelous women, endowed with rare intellectual gifts and equipped with still rarer force of character, did not offer their lives to the cause of women's enfranchisement in an autocracy nor a monarchy. They did not labor in a land where men were still petitioners for a voice in their own government. They lived in a republic dedicated before the entire world to the principle of self government. They pleaded in a land where every boy born within the country, be he white, black or yellow, may vote without restriction at twenty-one. They gave that all in a land whose gates for a century have been opened wide to immigrants from any and all nations. To any and all male immigrants a five years' residence has brought citizenship, and citizenship has brought the vote.

More, so liberal has the United States been in the matter of man suffrage that fifteen of the forty-eight states once allowed men to vote who were not yet citizens and several still do; and seem to see nothing inconsistent in permitting an illiterate non-tax-paying alien to vote while denying that privilege to American-born, intelligent, tax-paying women. Although states make their own qualifications for voters and resulting restrictions exist in some of them, there is no debarred class which may not vote and does not vote somewhere in the United States. Aliens, illiterates, drunkards, paupers, criminals and feeble-minded may all vote somewhere in the United States.

Nor are women a timid, ignorant, purdah class in this strange land. Three-fourths of all teachers in the United States are women and all that millions of men know about their government, women taught them. Nor is woman suffrage an unheard of project, for in one state, Wyoming, women have voted on equal terms with men for fifty years, and all testimony has been warmly favorable during that time.

It has been a familiar sight on election days when a question of women suffrage has been pending to see refined ladies, college graduates and women of importance, standing 100 feet from the polling place making their appeal to voters, while men unable to speak English, the language of the ballot, unable to read in any language, uncouth and untrained, marched past them to cast votes against their enfranchisement.

And this is the land in which Susan B. Anthony with her statesman's mind, and Anna Howard Shaw with her matchless oratory labored in vain each for half a century to secure a voice in their own government.

Incredible, you say. It is; astounding and unbelievable. It staggers and dumbfounds one. Should you ask, why is it? I answer, there are "excuses but no defense." The great, bar, bald fact is there. For seventy years, in a land wherein no man ever made a sacrifice for a vote, women have given their all to gain it, and their country has not yet proclaimed their task completed.

You women of other lands have had to labor to break down inherited and traditional ideas of government; but the women of the United States of America have never had this task. Theirs was the seemingly simple one of persuading men to think logically and consistently and to act accordingly. The more amazing is that you won first.

It is not pleasant to record such damning facts concerning one's own nation. I do it in order that you who come from the many new European republics may know that reaction may seize republics, too, and that resistance to the inevitable onmarch of human progress may be surprisingly stubborn. Not only is the United States of America a curious example of tardy action, but the two European Republics, France and Switzerland, are conspicuous in the midst of an enfranchised Europe for their disregard of this question. Where men have universal suffrage, sentiment for woman suffrage is difficult to stir. Where both men and women have been disfranchised they are swept into political liberty together. This is a curious comment on man suffrage, but history justifies the conclusion.

Guard Your Vote

In truth there is no short cut to the millennium. Reaction is composed of ignorance, selfishness and greed. While the people are pursuing their own ways these elements gain control of parties and through parties of governments. "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty" in any and all nations. The new republics of Europe will find their most serious enemies, as the older ones have done, within their own borders. Indifference to the public good and inability to grasp the need of combined action are the dangers most to be dreaded.

As one has said, "The end of government by the people is to fit the people to control their own affairs." The people of any nation have a long way to travel before they reach that degree of fitness. Government is at best a struggle to move onward and upward.

Guard your vote, dear women of Europe, as a soldier guards his weapon. It is your shield and armour, your sword and buckler. With it, you may rebuild Europe, emancipate your sex, and make the world a fit place for an advancing people to live in. Without it, you are lost in the political chaos. Use it, and beware the pitfalls of reaction. Whatever you do, do not imagine that the logic of men will prevent them from doing injustice nor that the sentiments of women will always guide them to the right. They will be blind partisans, unthinking followers, a mere item in the great political mass, as are men; but the stir of it all educates, uplifts and makes men and women and nations grow, expand and give promise.

We come together once more, most of us ballot in hand, and to quote America's greatest statesman, we come "with malice toward none, with charity for all." We come this time to ask: "The ballot won, what shall we now do?"

We believe with an even intenser fervor in the righteousness of our cause; we trust with an even greater faith in the potential power of women's vote to make a better and a happier world.

The Future of the Alliance

That the Alliance has been a real and far reaching influence, with its eighteen years of effort, upon the present day situation we claim in all modesty. Is its works completed? Is there a common platform upon which the enfranchised women of the world can meet to advantage? Is there an international task to which voting women of many lands may lend themselves? As I view world politics, the only possible hope for the happiness, prosperity and permanent peace of the world lies in the thorough democratization of all governments. There can be no democratization which excludes women and no safe or sound democracy which is not based upon an educated, intelligent electorate. Nor is it enough to establish democracy in individual nations—democracy must be extended to world politics. The old militarism must go and with it the old diplomacy with its secret treaties, distrust and intrigues. No League of Nations can abolish war unless every government in the world is based on democracy.

I take it for granted that all our delegates will agree to these statements of principles, but you will also agree that highly intelligent electorates do not yet exist anywhere; that the masses of men still find it easier to obey than to resist; easier to accept ideas offered by those who have something to gain; than to formulate their own, and that the man or woman capable of independent thought or action is still the exception.

Yet a thoroughly democratized democracy in every nation and in world politics, democracies intelligent and tolerant, easily and quickly yielding to definite changes of popular opinion, these must be the aim and ideal of all believers in self government.

To vote, each in our own country, may help in a slow and indirect way to forward the democratization of the world and enfranchisement of women, but that end will be realized far earlier if all women of all nations unite to form a working center through which to aim at the achievement of ideal democracy.

It is my firm conviction that had an alliance done for man suffrage stood in 1914, and had that alliance done for man suffrage what this Alliance has done for woman suffrage, the democratization of Europe would have been completed a generation ago and, as one result, there would have been no World War. I believe, too, that had the vote been granted to women some twenty-five years ago when justice and logic and popular opinion demanded, the leaven of woman's national influence would have so leavened the whole loaf of world politics that there would have been no World War.

So firmly do I believe this that I dare to say that upon the wisdom or unwisdom of our answer to the questions we must ask ourselves here in Geneva, may depend the happiness or woe of another generation.

I want to express myself here and now as sincerely and heartily in favor of the reorganization and perpetuation of the Alliance. Many proposals of work to which the Alliance might devote itself advantageously have been made, but there is one which in my judgment transcends all others in importance and that is the continuation of the object which brought the Alliance into existence.

Is there any other international organization in the world which stands for the safe, sane, conservative, constructive establishment of government by voting citizens? I know of none. Is it not clear that the world needs us and is it not equally clear that the time has passed for women to work for the enfranchisement of women alone? Why should not the International Woman Suffrage Alliance give way to an International Suffrage Alliance, sending forth its propaganda for the enfranchisement of men as well as women? And why should not men and women of democratic vision unite in this common aim? Most countries have had men's leagues to aid woman suffrage; why not united men's and women's leagues to aid the enfranchisement of both men and women, or either?

In our home countries we should urge support of every movement for the extension of popular education, foster every agency which helps men and women to think for themselves, promote every endeavor to maintain honest elections, judicially conducted campaigns and high ideals in parties and parliaments, since democracy succeeds when and where independence and intelligence are greatest.

What may we hope to accomplish through such an international program?

(1) To stimulate the spread of democracy and through it to avoid another world war.

(2) To discourage revolution through demonstration that change may be brought about through peaceful political methods.

(3) To encourage education and enlightenment throughout the world.

(4) To keep the faith in self-government alive when it fails to meet expectations and through temporary disappointment spreads indifference.

How may these ends be accomplished?

(1) By the maintenance of a publicity exchange which shall provide means to tell the world the truth about man and woman suffrage in operation.

(2) By the continuance of Jus Suffragii, or some other organ, which will tell the workers of all lands the news concerning applied democracy.

(3) By the maintenance of around-the-world lectureships to tell the nations of the blessings and hopes of self-government; to warn concerning the menace of ignorance and indifference, and to correct the misrepresentations which will surely be set afloat.

(4) By the encouragement given to all national organizations struggling to establish man or woman suffrage or both.

What obstacles will stand in the way of this bold program?

(1) Men and women spirited enough to engage in this work will be much in demand in the home political campaigns and as it is easier to see the need of work in one's own door yard than across the world, they will be apt to be impressed into local service.

(2) In these days when relief for many stricken nations is the constant call, money for adequate support will be difficult to get.

(3) The ingrowing, restricting influences which surround each and all of us will tend to dull the vision of a world made safe for liberal thought and contented living through democracy.

(4) The older suffragists who have borne the brunt of battle and who sense most keenly the need of world wide democratic education, can no longer lead nor even support strongly the new movement. Their work is done and the younger workers may not recognize the opportunity nor the duty of a world call to the support of democracy.

We must balance these assets and liabilities. Is the work worth while and if it is can workers and money be found to support it? These are the two simple questions to which we must find answers.

PDF version