Carrie Chapman Catt

Address before Congressional Hearing - April 20, 1917

Carrie Chapman Catt
April 20, 1917
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Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen of the Committee on Woman Suffrage:

The Senate Committee on woman suffrage was established in 1883. Thirty-four years have passed; seventeen Congresses have come and gone since then. In each Congress the National American Woman Suffrage Association through its representatives has appeared before this Committee and has appealed to it to urge the submission of a constitutional amendment to the legislatures of the several states.

The stubborness of the prejudice against the application of the principle of self-government to women has been beyond understanding. Had there been evidence to show that suffrage had in any respect been a failure where tried, the fact might have furnished an explanation. On the contrary the testimony of Governors, Judges, Congressmen, Senators and Legislatures has been unanimous that woman suffrage is good for women, good for men, and good for the state. An occasional disappointed victim of the woman’s vote rises to condemn it, but no general opposing sentiment in any state or locality has remained long after the actual grant of the vote to women. Nor has any state, province or country, which has once tried woman suffrage, attempted to repeal it. Despite these facts one chairman of the Senate suffrage committee said to a fellow member: “There is no man in Senate or House who can answer the argument of these women, but I’d rather see my wife dead in her coffin than going to the polls to vote.” Said another member of the committee: “Woman Suffrage is bound to come; the argument is irrefutable, but it shall not come in my day if any power of mine can prevent it.” Said another Senator, world renowned for his wisdom, “Woman Suffrage is coming, I perceive that it is inevitable, but I pray that I may never live to see it.” Pages of similar comment could be furnished from our records in support of the fact that great men have not only allowed their emotions to control their reason, but have frankly admitted it when woman suffrage was the issue. More, they have planned and plotted to evade action on the question, to postpone, to block its progress, while acknowledging that the fundamental principles of our government makes its establishment inevitable. Democracy is a liberty which men esteem for themselves, but some there are who hold it to be theirs alone by Divine Right and are as nettled by the thought of its extension to others as any Czar or Kaiser.

We have been made fully aware that it is an inhospitable democracy into which we plead to be invited. Hundreds of American women have given up all the possibilities of their lives to secure the vote for their sex. They have literally laid “lives and fortunes” upon the altar of this movement for human freedom, and thousands upon thousands of other women have given and sacrificed much. Nowhere in all the records of history has a class worked so long, so persistently and with so much genuine sacrifice to gain a single concession of political liberty.

It might be said that these are but the usual signs which have marked every evolution of the race and that the price of liberty has always been sacrifice. We might believe so, and be content with the progress made and the assurance everywhere obvious of final victory, were it not that our Nation has added undeniable “insult to injury.” It is this fact which rankles deep in the souls of millions of American women. It has saddened their lives, it has dimmed their vision of American ideals, and has unmistakably lowered their respect for our government. The tremendous capacity of women for constructive work, for loyal upbuilding of the best in civilization and for enthusiastic patriotism has been crushed. In consequence their greatest force for good has been minimizes and the entire nation is the loser.

Today we stand upon the verge of what may prove the greatest test of endurance, yet put upon our Republic. Women, the greatest force our nation possesses for the creation of public sentiment, are asked to mobilize their forces in aid of a government which has wronged them. They will grant their loyal support, as women have always done, but their patriotism will be far less exalted, their service less spontaneous, their devotion less fervid than would be the case could they feel that our nation had been just to them. Our nation is engaged in the defense of democracy. The President tells us that we are to enter “a partnership of democratic nations,” that we are to “fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts, for democracy, for the rights of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments.” The hearts of women would beat more happily could they feel that our own government had been true to the standard it now proposes to unfurl upon an international battle-field. They would pay the increased taxes, they would assume the increased burdens, they would welcome whatever sacrifice may come with a calmer resignation, did they not carry a grievance in their hearts.

The grievance which every thinking, self-respecting American woman feels is the discrimination which invited to our land the men of all the nations of earth, naturalizes them after a five year’s residence, automatically enfranchises them under all state constitutions, and then commands American women to seek the ballot at their hands. Wherever we go, we are told that the masses of women do not want to vote, that they will not use the ballot. These men have not been asked whether they want the vote or whether they will use it when they get it. No adequate demonstration of their fitness to vote is required; they are subjected to the strain and expense of no long campaign; they find the privilege, a free grant, awaiting them upon their arrival here. Liberty has been thrust upon them. With the notions of woman’s sphere in mind which were formed in countries where the status of men is low and that of women lower, they are given the task of deciding whether American college presidents, teachers in the public schools, and the Christian mistresses of our homes are worthy to be trusted with the vote.

The vote in this country is a liberty extended, a permission granted. It does not obligate the voter to exercise the privilege conferred; it merely gives him freedom to voice his political opinions, when and if the desire to do so arises. On the other hand, the denial of a vote is an oppression, an exercise of autocracy, the opposite of democracy, for it compels to silence the voice which would speak. Political freedom for alien men at the price of a five year’s residence, and political tyranny for American women born under our flag, educated in our schools, trained by our institutions – this is the democracy fostered and upheld by the American Republic, the democracy we take into the partnership of democratic nations.

The National Government has said to the women of our land for thirty-four years, “If you are dissatisfied, go to the States – upon them lies the responsibility.” It should be remembered that nineteen states have voted on woman suffrage referenda during the past five years, of which six only were won. In several of the remaining thirteen, the defeat was definitely traceable to the foreign vote, organized under the direction of unscrupulous native born. Women workers at the polls in these states report strange things. We have seen plenty of evidence to lead us to believe that money has been used, but there is a cheaper and commoner way to arouse opposition. Reports are systematically planted among ignorant people which we would think unbelievable were not so generally believed. Negroes, for example, are told that giving a vote to women means taking it away from them in the North. Another favorite is spread among foreigners, that woman suffrage means taking the vote away from men and giving it to women. These women, thousands of them, have reported that illiterate men signing their names with a mark, ignorant men without understanding foreign men who could not speak English, drunken men with minds blurred, half-witted men, degenerate men and every other type which makes up the political underworld, were marshalled to the polls and directed to vote against women suffrage by men notorious for political dishonesty. These reports have come from precinct after precinct, from county after county, and from every state. Let me assure you in all frankness that none of the women who have witnessed such scenes will again give homage to their government without a reservation. From that moment they seek the vote, not as a right denied them, but as a duty to aid the reclamation of democracy from the degradation to which in too many localities it has been allowed to sink.

Congress by persistent refusal to submit a Federal constitutional amendment, is the chief source of the humiliation visited upon women. The hardship grows yearly more burdensome and more exasperatingly insulting. When the Senate Committee was established the population of our country was only about half what it is now. The presidential vote in 1884 was 10,044,985; in 1916, 18,520,093, eight and one half millions more of voters to be educated and convinced now than then. Not all of the increase has been foreign born, but for several years the naturalization has run close to 100,000 per year.

New York voted on woman suffrage in 1915 and will do so again in 1917. Meantime 40,000 men have been naturalized in her courts and will be permitted to declare their will upon the question.

The wrong to American women does not end there. When the nature of the opposition is examined, it is found that many of those who have hesitated to give the ballot to women, have done so upon the ground that the constant influx of naturalized men into the electorate is weakening the government because it is an ignorant, untrained, and unAmericanized element and they claim women’s votes would add to it. Indeed I have not for years talked with any opponent who has emerged far enough from the fog of sentiment to regard this question with reason, who did not urge this plea. It is untenable, because the number of male immigrants exceeds female immigrants, and because the ratio of intelligent to ignorant is certainly as great among women as men.

Nevertheless the question of woman suffrage is caught between the Scylla of that part of the foreign vote which is ignorant, and the Charybdis of that part of the American vote which is afraid of the foreign vote. You may say this is only our misfortune; that we must be patient. We have been patient, ineffably patient. We are growing rebellious just now because the wrong done to the women of the United States is rendered more conspicuously by contrast with progress made in other lands. In no other country thus far has a referendum on woman suffrage to a general electorate been demanded; in no other country could it happen that women would be forced to plead with men of other races and nationalities for their vote.

Great Britain was once our Mother Country. She was accused by her young colony of oppression and a revolution brought about a separation. Since that day our Republic has worked out her experiment in democracy and Great Britain has evolved another type. Though she still maintains a King, no one can deny that a vigorous spirit of democracy pervades the British Empire and despite the continuance of many features of the old autocracy and of many stubbornly upheld ancient customs, she is a democratic country. Strange phenomenon! She has recognized the political rights of woman as this country has never done. In her great colonies of Australia and New Zealand, women have equal political rights with men and they were granted by act of their Parliaments. In India, Burmah, and British Honduras, women have municipal suffrage on equal terms with men, and these were granted by the British Parliament. Men have no other form of suffrage. In England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, all suffrage rights have been extended to women on equal terms with men except the vote for Parliament. This one vote Premier Lloyd-George has promised on behalf of the Government, ex-Premier Asquith, world renowned as the implacable enemy of woman suffrage, has supported the pledge, and the House of Commons has accepted the vote of 341 to 62. All past political privileges were extended to British women by Parliament, and the fulfillment of the government pledge will be made by Parliament.

Our Northern neighbor Canada has extended full suffrage to women in five provinces within a year, and the territory covered stretches from the Pacific Ocean to a point due north of Central New York. The sixth province, Nova Scotia, has broken through eastern conservatism and joined the great movement of justice to women. All these extensions of political rights to women came through acts of Parliament, except that of British Columbia which was ratified by the electors. That these remarkable facts may be visualized before your eyes, I present the flags of the British Colonies where women have more suffrage than in the United States, except in the great West – Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, India, Burmah, and Honduras.

Four of the five Scandinavian countries have given women universal suffrage, namely, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and the fifth, Sweden, has granted every right except the vote for Parliament, (the King has twice recommended that the vote be extended) and all these privileges represent acts of Parliament.

Our southern neighbor, Mexico, has a Province, Yucatan, which has just lighted fresh fires of democracy upon her hills and so notifies the world that Mexico is not altogether as black and lawless as she has seemed. She has not only given women the vote but has sent a woman, Hermila Galinda, to the Mexican Congress.

Republican France has pledged to extend to women municipal suffrage, in the immediate future, and the act will come from Parliament. One wonders whether the partial suffrage promised these martyred women of France instead of the full generous whole promised by Great Britain to her women is due to the fact that France is a Republic. Are Republics less generous to women than monarchies? Ridiculous in theory is such a thought, but seemingly demonstrated in reality.

Said Premier Lloyd-George the other day in that great speech before the American Luncheon Club: “Many strange things have happened in this war – aye, and stranger things will come and they are coming rapidly. There are times in history when this world spins so leisurely along its destined course that it seems for centuries to be at a standstill. Then there are awful times when it rushes along at a giddy pace covering the track of centuries in a year. These are the times we are living in now. Six weeks ago Russia was an autocracy. She is now a democracy!!” Lloyd-George is right, it is a time of strange things, and none more strange than that women in Russia will vote for the constituent assembly and that the two parties which are leading the revolutionary forces are pledged to woman suffrage as a permanent institution. Women of Russia have made equal sacrifices for freedom, women by thousands have made the long march into Siberia; they have given up their lives at hard labor in the mines, they have languished and died in damp cold prisons, they have been shot at sunrise, they have perished on the scaffold – and all for the freedom of the people. They have enlisted in the present war and at home have kept the farms and the shops going. They have set up hospitals and gone to the front to nurse the wounded and to pick them off the battle-field. In grateful acknowledgment the new leaders will want to give them the vote. They will want to listen to the plea of the “little grandmother,” Mme. Breshkovskia, who has spent 44 of her 70 years on prisons or exile, and who contends that “liberty knows no sex.” They will want to heed the slogan of the Russian suffragists: “If my sex does not disqualify me from mounting the scaffold why should it disqualify me from entering Parliament?” But when the time comes for final action will these leaders pointing to the “Mother of Republics,” which has not seen fit to enfranchise her women, grow cautious and suspect that after all women may possess some hidden weakness which was not manifest in revolution, but which may render them untrustworthy for civil life? Can it be that Russian women having given their full quota of lives and suffering that men may enjoy a free government, will be compelled to give still other lives and suffer another martyrdom to gain their own freedom? – and that too because our national government repudiated its own principles and hauled down its own standard of self-government whenever the political freedom of women has been the question? It makes the blood run chill and heart stop in its beat when we contemplate that the injustice done to women of this Republic may now retard the extension of political liberty to those of other lands; even as the notorious bribery, stuffed balloting and false counts at American elections have long delayed the grant of votes to men in Europe. God forbid?

Little did American suffragists think that any woman of darkest Russia and darkest Mexico would be promoted to political freedom before those of the United States of America. Little did they think that women to the North and women to the South would be liberated from political thralldom before the women of the Great Republic. Little did we think that the columns of our press would be called upon to announce on the same day, as was done on April 18, that Russia had confirmed the right of women to vote for the coming constituent assembly and that the Legislature of a State wherein women have no scrap of suffrage had refused to even submit the question to the voters. That state was Pennsylvania.

Why, oh, why have the men of our Nation been so unmoved by the plea that if the principle of self-government is right, it must be consistently applied? Why are they so beset by misgivings? Or, is there some great powerful, sinister influence behind it all, which controls the minds and acts of men? No woman understands. We are told upon the one hand that the hour of autocracy has stuck, that democracy, the rule of the people, is coming to its own. Even the Kaiser talks of democracy and possible reforms. Maximillian Harden says, “Our fate depends upon the acquisition of higher spiritual values. Light up the German house also! Then what the enemy demands too loudly but what we in secret feel to be a necessity will come to pass – the will of the German people will be free. And America rejoices for the German people. Yet on the other hand we are warned that this is no time to speak of democracy for that half of our own people who do not possess its advantages.

We have been pronounced “pestiferous annoyances” by a great newspaper and told to keep still until the war is over. We accept the title and decline the advice. We speak not so much for ourselves as in patriotic defense of our Republic in the hope that it will make amends and resume its rightful historic place as leader of the world’s democracy.

Lord Northcliffe, called by some the most influential man in Great Britain, declared in one of his chain newspapers, “The old argument against giving women the franchise was that they were useless in war. But we could not carry on the war without them. We were wrong. Women have borne their full share in all the departments of life. Let the right to vote be given to them.”

Said ex-Premier Asquith, “I no longer regard this question from the standpoint we occupied before the war. Women have worked out their own salvation. I am ready to give them the vote.” These two bitterly unrelenting enemies of woman suffrage have surrendered in tardy acknowledgment of the worth of women, and many others have followed their example, and so it happens that the monarchy of George the 3rd, beaten in a revolution over the truth or falsity of a proposition that “taxation without representation is tyranny” learns its lesson well. As Lloyd-George says, “strange things are happening.” Should the shade of Washington walk this earth he must find it monstrous strange that the slogan under which he led the American Colonies has become a British tenet, established and defended in nearly every land over which the British flag flies, - while the Republic still distrusts its women and with deliberation taxes them while denying them a voice in the government whose bills they pay.

I present three American flags. These two, Hawaii and Porto Rico, represent our efforts at so-called imperialism. The suffragists of Hawaii have informed us that that Hawaiian legislature passed a bill granting suffrage to the women of these Islands. It was sent to Washington to receive the ratification of Congress. What became of it? in what pigeon-hole is it buried? why did it not reach the public press? why was it never read in Congress? these are the questions which we are about to press for answer.

The Congress of the United States took woman suffrage out of the Porto Rican bill last winter. It seems that it has been submitted to popular vote – to an electorate which will not understand. These are our Colonies – those the British. Ah, gentlemen, do not make us wish that we might live under the British flag!

We ask this Committee not only to report our amendment favorably to the Senate, but we ask each individual member to urge its immediate passage. We ask you to fight for it, in order that the democracy we take into the field of democratic nations may carry with it no taint of inconsistency.

The difference is that suffrage by Federal Amendment represents the average of a higher type of intelligence and judgment, than suffrage by referendum. We have tested the possibilities this winter by a campaign to get what is possible by statutory enactment. Some constitutions permit little, others none. From the legislature the victories of the year are presidential suffrage in North Dakota, Ohio, Rhode Island, Michigan, and Nebraska, and a very extended suffrage in Indiana including presidential suffrage in Vermont, a grudging New England concession, and constitutional referenda in Maine, Iowa, South Dakota, and Oklahoma. These bits of privilege the legislatures of the United States have granted, while the Canadian provinces boldly and generously grant complete political emancipation to their women.

The most appealing argument in favor of the Federal Amendment is that every opponent of suffrage of high or low degree is frantically opposed to that method. They are opposed also to referenda, but if they must choose, they take the referenda, for there are blocks of irresponsible votes which can be utilized in elections to defeat them. We as a nation are opposed to the denial of the freedom of the seas by prowling U-boats, and we suffragists are equally opposed to the denial of the vote to half our people by piratical, submarine election practices. It is the duty of Congress to rescue this question from further treatment of this kind. It is the only method which compares in dignity with that which every other country has permitted. We are outstripped in the march of progress which was inaugurated by our country. Our land has been the hare in the race, which, satisfied with its capacity for speed, paused to nap; it has long been passed by the tortoise of monarchy. If it is to recover its place, there must be a “wake up America” and that at once.

In the light of these facts, the “mumbo jumbo” of sectionalism, states rights, political party balance, and other forms of mental anesthesia, used to quiet the conscience of otherwise progressive men, are becoming mere junk to be cast upon the scrap-heap of outworn opinions. These are not principles, they are excuses. Posterity will not respect them as suitable causes for delay; posterity will take not of the date when the American Republic did its duty by its women – a duty that had always been inevitable.

We ask you, gentlemen, to wait no longer; let women feel that the flag to which they pledge their loyalty waves over a land which gives them as much political freedom as any under the sun.

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