Carrie Chapman Catt

The Will of the People - March 1911

Carrie Chapman Catt
January 01, 1911
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VOL. VI. MARCH 1911. NO. 6

The Will of the People


The civilized world, sooner or later, must accept, and must establish woman suffrage for one unanswerably logical reason: the “will of the people” is surely destined to be the future sovereign of the world, and women are people.

The evolution of society, leading unmistakably to governments “of the people, by the people and for the people,” has made a steady march forward since the days of the English Magna Charta, and in eight centuries which lie between that date this, it has known no pause.

The American Declaration of Independence caught the tendency toward the Rights of the individual Man, which had been elusively evolving through the centuries, crystalized it into immortal words, and thus was inaugurated the modern movement in behalf of self-government. The world had long been making ready for the change. De Tocqueville [Alexis de Tocqueville, Nineteenth Century French diplomat, political scientist, and historian], in writing of the American Republic, declared that “for seven centuries aristocracies and class privileges had been steadily dissolving,” and John Stuart Mill [Nineteenth Century British philosopher], the great apostle of Democracy, added in comment, “The noble has been gradually going down the social ladder and the commoner has been gradually going up. Every century has brought them nearer to each other.” During the centuries in which the enslaving customs of Feudalism were slowly receding into the past, while education was surely substituting enlightened understanding for unquestioning subservience, an independent intelligence was steadily growing up in the minds of men, which sooner or later would ask why some men were born to rule and others to obey. The question chanced to be formulated in clear cut fashion by the American Colonists. Had the pronunciamento not come to America, it would have come elsewhere.

The rumbling sounds and premonitions of the coming change had long been heard beneath the surface of things the whole world round, and the eruption came at the point of least resistance, which happened to be on this side of the Atlantic. From America the idea spread with ever accelerating speed, and within a century it has claimed all civilization as its own. Those Americans who initiated the modern movement, would scarcely have ventured to predict that within a century, “Taxation without representation is tyranny” would have been written into the fundamental law of all the monarchies of Europe, except Russia and Turkey, and that even there self-government for men would obtain in the municipalities. Their wildest imaginings would not have prophesied that before another century should close, Mongolian Japan, then tightly barring her gates against the commerce of the world, and jealously guarding every ancient custom, would have welcomed western civilization, and established a nearly universal suffrage for her men. They would not have dreamed that every inch of the great continent of South America, then chiefly an unexplored region over which savages and wild animals roamed at will, would be covered by written constitutions guaranteeing self-government to men, based upon Declarations of Independence similar to their own; that Mexico, Central America and many islands of the sea would develop into republics, and least of all that the unknown wildernesses of Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand would be possessed in the name of democracy by brave men who would out-Americanize America in the just and unhesitating application of American principles, and in consequence establish equal suffrage for men and women.

Yet all these amazing changes have come about within three generations. The twentieth century bids fair to record no less rapid strides onward. Evolution never stands still. Switzerland, France and Norway are the only European countries where universal suffrage for men exists, and in all others, insistent movements demanding further extensions of suffrage to men, are pushing boldly onward. Young Turkey, young Egypt, young Persia, new China, and a reborn India are in the initial stages which in time will lead to constitutional governments. The most intolerant skeptic of democracy will hardly fail to perceive that universal suffrage of men, and the substitution of the “will of the people” for edicts of hereditary kings, or lords, or privileged classes, is unquestionably the goal toward which political evolution, with irresistible force is hastening on.

Pressing forward in the wake of the man suffrage movement, swept onward by its momentum, yet maintaining its own individuality, comes the woman suffrage movement. In twenty-three nations a well organized consecrated woman suffrage association is energetically educating the public mind. The movement is a part of the world’s evolution of democracy. Its reason for existence is the same as that of each preceding struggle for man suffrage. Its appeal presents no new arguments; it merely repeats the old. Women are people; and as such consideration is invited to the same claims which have won the vote for other classes of people.

When the ownership of property was deemed a necessary qualification for the vote, as it still is in most lands, “Taxation without representation is tyranny” was the only plea offered for the extension of the suffrage to new classes of men. The colonial battle cry did not mean the ballot; it means the collective right of the American settlements to representation. Very soon, however, when the new constitutions were being formulated, it was interpreted to apply to individual men. Upon that basis, and for that reason, the vote was extended to men in the United States, and by that claim they held it until a broader principle eliminated the tax qualification. That argument still holds good; and women are taxes. In the one state of New York, women hold property in total valuation considerably higher than that held by all the colonists at the time of the revolution. It is manifestly a tyrannical discrimination to take from citizens that which is theirs for the purpose of creating a common fund to be expended for the common good, when some citizens are permitted to vote upon that expenditure and others are not. Opponents triumphantly exclaim in justification of this difference, that minors and foreigners are taxes. True, but boys vote at twenty-one years, and foreigners may do so after a five years’ residence, while the distinction in the case of women is perpetual.

Evidently the colonists were not equal at the beginning to the enforcement of the second and holder principle of the Declaration of Independence; “Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Later, under the teachings of Thomas Jefferson, it was interpreted as a workable proposition. Its advocates said in its defense that every man had a stake in the government, and therefore he must have a corresponding ballot’s share in the law making and law enforcing power of the nation, in order to defend his stake; that every man must be equally interested with every other to develop the common welfare to the highest degree possible, and therefore he must have his opinion counted.

These arguments won, and for this reason all white men not yet enfranchised received the vote.

A century ago, government by the “will of the people” in this country meant the rule of rich white males over poor white and black males. Later it meant the rule of white males over black and colored males. Now, it means the rule of white, negro, and Indian males, born or naturalized in the United States, over all women. But women are people; they are taxed, they are governed, and they have an interest in the common good to be defended. Every reason ever urged for the enfranchisement of men speaks as logically for the enfranchisement of women. Manifestly, if the powers of government are only just when founded upon the “consent of the governed,” and this plea gave the vote to men, the powers of the United States are not just, since they have been derived from the consent of half the governed. Therefore, women are asking the old question with the modern application: How does it happen that men are born to govern, and we to obey? Are men divinely ordained to be perpetual hereditary sovereigns, and women to be hereditary subjects? If this is the order, where is the proof? When, where and to whom did God or Nature reveal the fact? The only answer ever made to this question is: The revelation is found in the instincts of men and women who shrink in natural righteous horror from a change so fundamental. Alas, since the world began, the ignorant, frightened, “natural instincts” of the masses have held back every step of evolution, and have inaugurated many a bloody “reign of terror.” “Natural instincts” have been overturned so often by the progress of civilization, that little respect for such authority remains. In fact the source of opposition to woman suffrage lies in the universal distaste for new things and not in instinct at all. It is merely the time-honored fear, which “makes us rather hear these ills we have, than fly to those we know not of.”

The fears of the Czar of Russia, the Sultan of Turkey, the Shah of Persia tell them as certainly that men have no claim to the suffrage, as those of the American legislator tell him that women have no political rights. The fears of China forbid a woman to walk on natural feet and the fears of the Turk put his womankind in the harem. The fears of Mrs. Humphrey Ward [British novelist and founding president of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League] tell her it is consistent with the natural and divine order of things that women should vote in municipal elections, but contrary to God and Nature for them to vote for members of Parliament. An anti-suffragist not long since made a public plea that the Board of Education should be elective, and that women as well as men should elect its members; yet her fears told her that the highest order of society would be overturned should the same women vote for mayor. The American would not hesitate to pronounce the fears of China and Turkey which deny personal liberty to woman as expressions of brutal barbarism. The Australian who has yielded to the inevitable, enfranchised women, and recovered from the shock, would declare with as firm conviction that the American who grants the sovereignty of a vote to the immigrants from all quarters of the globe, to negroes and Indians, and yet denies it to women, is a mere democratic masquerade. Such divergences do not arise from intuition, but from differences in enlightenment.

Under the influence of steady agitation the issue grows simpler every year. Woman suffrage is already an established fact on one fifteenth of the earth’s territory; and from Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand, Norway, Finland, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Denmark, Iceland, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Idaho comes the same overwhelming testimony. With opportunity to do so, women vote as general as do men. They vote as independently and as intelligently. They do not neglect their husbands, or children, or homes for politics. They do not become unsexed and poor imitations of men. There is no increase of divorces, no falling off in the number of marriages, or the number of births. No harm in any way has come to women, to men, to children, or to the state, while on the contrary, much positive good has been accomplished.

These objections answered completely by the results of woman suffrage in operation in many lands, were once the chief defenses of those “natural instincts” upon which the opposition is alleged to rest, but are now practically eliminated from the discussion. The controversy has in consequence been reduced to three main points:

  1. Women do not want to vote, why thrust the suffrage upon them? The incontrovertible fact is that no class of unenfranchised men in any land ever wanted the ballot in such large proportion to the total number as do women of the United States; nor is there a single instance of a man suffrage movement, so persistent, uncompromising and self-sacrificing as the woman suffrage movement. Sooner or later, just men will answer this excuse for postponing legislative action in the matter by the counter question, why demand of women a test never made of men? Since it is proved that women will vote when they may, is that not sufficient? The suffrage is permissive, not mandatory; those who want to vote, will do so, while those who do not want to vote, will refrain from so doing. It must be remembered, too, that the same type of women who now protest against the extension of the suffrage, have opposed with equal vigor every step of progress in the woman movement. They pronounced the effort to secure to married women the control of their own property an insult to men. They united their anathemas to those of the press and pulpit and in bitter condemnation of the early women college graduates, women physicians and platform speakers. They have never sought any extension in privileges with one exception. Twice New York anti-suffragists have memorialized the governor of the state to request that women should be appointed to positions upon all public boards possible, as a suitable method of utilizing the wasting talents of women on the one hand, and to assuage the “growing unrest among women” on the other. As these women have availed themselves of all privileges as soon as established, and are now asking for public office, which is commonly regarded as an adjunct of political power, it is safe to assume that they will exercise the suffrage when once it is obtained.
  2. The benefits arising from woman suffrage in practice are meager, why not let well enough alone? It is true suffrage has not brought the Millenium. Women vote; they do so, not like oracles of infallible wisdom, but like human beings moved by very human motives. The vote in their hands has not made ignorant men intelligent, bad men good, nor eliminated political evils which had developed under men suffrage, as opponents seem to think it should do to justify their enfranchisement. The actual good accomplished by women voters amply warrants the experiment, in the estimate of suffragists, but for the moment, we may grant the claim to the opposition.

Imagine the Shah of Persia making official application to Mr. Taft for proof of the advantages to be gained by the enfranchisement of men. What sort of report would our government present? Naturally, it would politely avoid any statement to the effect that man suffrage had enabled this country to get on comfortably without shahs or autocrats, hereditary or otherwise, however delicately it might be stated. What else remains to be said? Such report, if honest, would freely confess that of many men enfranchised surprisingly large numbers do not exercise the privilege of the vote. It must admit that political machines not infrequently override the “will of the people;” that many men sell their votes, and other men buy them; that the suspicion of bribery rests over the suppression of much legislation and the enactment of other law; that men sometimes buy their way into office, with the exception that the “steals” will refund to them the price paid; that venality has been known to besmirch the ermine of the judiciary; that graft and corruption all represent something real in American politics. Such report, too, should admit the fact, that many pronounce men suffrage a failure, and government “by the people” a doubtful experiment. On the other hand, the report must show that despite all these flaws in the system, a great nation, respected by all the races of the earth, has been builded and its destinies in the main wisely directed by “the people;” that every period of corruption is followed by protests and a purifying process; that the great indifferent non-voting reserve, largely records its opinion in time of great feeling to the wholesome consternation of the machine; that despite the critical attitude of many toward universal suffrage for men, there is no American who would exchange it for the rule of a shah, however intelligent, or benevolent he might be. The crowning argument of the report would certainly be an array of evidence to demonstrate the unmeasured educational vale the vote has been to the voter. Undoubtedly, it would amplify the declaration of David Star Jordan: ‘It is not the mission of democracy to make governments good, but to make men strong… The purpose of self-government is to intensify individual responsibility, to promote attempts at wisdom through which true wisdom may come at last.” When such report would be completed, woman suffragists could write a similar one. They could not claim to have built a nation based upon women’s votes, but they could safely invite comparison between those states, in this and other lands, which are based upon the votes of men along, and could rest content in the result. While they could truthfully demonstrate that every practical advantage accruing from man suffrage has been exemplified with equal force in woman suffrage, they could easily prove that women have had no part in the origin or maintenance of the political ills which alone compel the conservatives of other lands to question the wisdom of universal suffrage. They could bring convincing testimony to show that the ballot has been as great an educator for women as men and the fitting climax of both reports would be the statement that the man or woman, a nobler citizen and a more intelligent father or mother than he or she who does not. If the shah proved to be an impartial judge, he would certainly admit that men and women had presented an equal claim to the ballot.

  1. Women cannot fight, and therefore must not vote; the ballot is based on the bullet and in the end government is force. This objection is much effected by clergymen and editors whose occupation exempts them from military service, and by writers and scholars whose physical incompetence would excuse them from the draft. It is curious that this objection should be urged against woman suffrage in peaceful America, since willingness and ability to bear arms has never been made a voting qualification for men. In no land is military service a qualification for the vote, while in some lands soldiers and officers are disfranchised while on duty. Finland has but one disfranchised class and that is its army!

The two fundamental laws of nature, self-preservation, and preservation of the species, are as applicable to nations as to individuals or races. To defend the nation against threatening foes is “self-preservation,” but such service would be of small avail if the parallel of the perpetuity of the nation was not rendered. Every woman who hears or rears a child; every woman who takes the man’s place on the farm, in the factory or shop, is as much a war power, as the man who actually pulls the trigger. There must be production of food and clothes and equipment to maintain the army, and soldiers must be reared to take the place of the fallen, and that service is as imperative to the safety and perpetuity of the nation as is that of the actual fighters.

No contest is permanently settled by the armitrament of arms, unless “the heavy battalions” happen to be on the side of the right. Opponents are fond of putting the question: Suppose all women should vote on one side and all men on the other, and the women should cast the larger vote; would not men compel the women to surrender their views to their greater physical force, and thus defeat the election? If so absurdly impossible a case should rise, this might be the result. So, too, any majority might be forced to yield to the more skillful fighting strength of the minority, even though all were men. Does this prove that the physically weak majority should be disfranchised? A majority group of university men voters might be made to surrender their convictions to a minority group of prize fighters. Does this prove that prize fighters have a clearer right to the vote? The real question involved in this hypothetical case is not one of physical difference, but one of right. Did all women vote for the right side of a question, and the men for the wrong side, the women would triumph in the end, no matter whether the extraneous influence of physical force was introduced into the contest, or not. Those who argue upon the supposition that physical force is the real arbiter in a democracy, have lost sight of the finest development of civilization, and that is, that reason invariably forms the final jury before which all cases are tried. They forget, too, that in a republic every righteous influence is bent toward fostering respect for the “will of the majority,” as the real sovereign. A defeated minority does not declare war; it bides its time, educates and agitates, and if it is really right it wins ultimately in a battle of ballots.

The woman suffrage movement meets one powerful obstacle, sex-prejudice. It is difficult to interpret the principle, “God created man free and equal.” to mean men and women, but let not Americans forget that women are people, and that in a government alleged to derive its just powers from the consent of the governed (people), the ballot may not consistently be withheld from them. The Forum.

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