Mary Jane Coggeshall

Speech before the Equality Club of Eagle Grove - c. 1893

Mary Jane Coggeshall
January 01, 1893— Eagle Grove, Iowa
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As we read history, we are compelled to seek its gloomiest pages for the record of women. In the long journey of the race from savagery to civilization, woman has moved forward with man carrying a crushing weight of disabilities. We will not now enquire why these things are so, whether they arose from man's love of power, or from his chivalry and desire to protect. Whatever the causes, we here deal only with the fact that woman has been the world's great burden bearer, its great unpaid laborer. Through the ages, this principle has been taught that the subordination of woman was by divine authority.

The creeds of all nations make this the corner stone of her religious character. The most grievous wound ever inflicted upon woman has been this teaching that she was not created equal with man. The world has held that submission to authority and the bearing of children were the two reasons for her being created, and that the woman who failed in either had no excuse for being.

Our missionaries to the heathen find that the degradation of woman is the great obstacle in the way of improvement, for she clings with a zealot's hold to the superstitions of her life, and thus her very religion increases her bondage. For instance among the polygamists of Africa, a native preacher had put away all his wives but one, and this one wife was so unhappy about it that she left him, because, she said, "He looks so mean and poor with but one woman." The same plea of divine authority that created the castes of India and forbids a woman to enter a mosque is the same plea - modified that today forbids women a voice in church councils or state legislatures.

You who have been following the course of study which this Club has recently closed, have observed how through all the events of time and change the idea of individual freedom has been the underlying motive.

The Reformation in the 16th century loosened the grasp of the church upon woman. The American Revolution, its cause based upon the inherent rights of the individual, made a noble background for the final setting forth of the claim for exact freedom for all.

We all know how difficult it is for a new idea to get lodgment in the human brain. Say what we will, there is nothing so costly as an idea.

How long did it take the people of this country to learn what it meant when in the Declaration of Independence it was said that "all men are created equal."

Did it not take one hundred years of travail, the waste of countless treasure, and the slaughter of the first born of every household! As McCauley says, "The highest intellects like the tops of mountains, are the first to catch and reflect the dawn, they are bright while the level below is still in the darkness." So, early in the political history of our country did a few women catch the inspiration of the dawn, and the Declaration of Independence shows the influence of the master minds of those women who bore their part in the Revolution.

Intimately connected with the foremost men of the time were Hannah Lee Corbin and Abigail Smith Adams. Mrs. Adams early protested against the formation of a new government in which women should be unrecognized and was the first American woman who threatened rebellion unless the rights of her sex were regarded. She was the first to counsel separation from the mother country and pressed these views upon John Adams before the opening of the first Congress, when even Washington had no thought of the independence of the Colonies. Our revolutionary mothers certainly did urge the recognition of equal rights when the government was in process of formation.

It is almost impossible to speak of these things without seeming to speak against men. Far be it from me to wish to cast reproach upon the brethren, and I honestly think that the women who believe in equal rights are the best friends that men have in all the world; but in speaking of a system we have to deal with facts the causes of which he perhaps as much in the weakness of women as in the selfishness of men.

Our protest is not against men. Our protest is against the system which men are born into. I could wish no better environment for my sons than that they might go out into the world where every one of God's children has an equal chance. Let us put away from us the idea that this demand of the modern woman for full political freedom is the outburst of a few unbalanced minds. It began out of the political and religious revolution in Germany, France, Italy and America simultaneously by women unknown to each other, this demand for a wider sphere of action in every civilized country.

In this country among the immediate causes was the discussion in several of the state legislatures of the property rights of women, and the able lectures of Frances Wright and Ernestine L. Rose; but more than all was it due to the anti­slavery struggle. The discussion of the great principles of human rights in these conventions taught the advanced men and women of the country how little of the lesson of human rights was yet learned.

Ardent abolitionists of this country and Great Britain, devout clergymen of New England advocated the freedom of the southern black man but could not tolerate the idea of a free woman beside their own hearthstones.

Forty five years ago, the Anti-Slavery Society of Massachusetts placed a woman upon its business committee; later in the same year of 1840, women delegates were elected with men to the World's Anti-Slavery Convention in London. You recall the debate in that Convention of an entire day upon the awful proposition of permitting these half dozen women of America to sit as delegates in this Convention, and that it resulted in their exclusion. But as Lucretia Mott the charming Quaker preacher, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whom we honor today, walked arm in arm away from that Convention to their London lodging; they decided to hold a Woman's Right's Convention on their return to America, and on of that Convention's later children is the promising Club of Eagle Grove, which I have the honor to meet this afternoon. From this small beginning has arisen the vast number of state associations, county societies and local Clubs which spread like a network from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from the Lakes to the Gulf. The women of the churches have found that the spirit of freedom has grown marvelously in the last fifty years.

Judge Tourgee tells of a case in his law practice where an old lady bequeathed m her will her colored man John and his wife Jane to the trustees of a church to be used as far as possible to the "Glory of God." The trustees after deliberation and prayer sold the man and woman at an auction and with the proceeds sent a missionary to China. The church has outgrown this plan of glorifying God.

Our literature has outgrown the thought of Coleridge, that the "perfection of character in woman is to be characterless." With the banishment of this idea, is it any wonder that from the works of the immortal Shakespeare there was much to be expunged before they were fit for the family circle.

What has purified our art? When the art of Greece was in the hands of men only its productions were set in the streets where Greek decorum forbade women to appear, for these works of art were never meant to be judged by women; while later artists like Canova, Flaxman and others never carved marble that may not stand in our parlors for they carved with the ever present thought that mothers, wives and sisters will judge of their work.

Look at our great co-educational institutions today and think of what once was the only means of a higher education for boys, while for girls there were barely the rudiments offered.

In early times in the founding of certain colleges even in this country, provision was made through the funds of the institution, and a room provided where the student young men could indulge their passions, the grave and revered trustees of the institution seeming to regard this as a necessary part of the experience of future husbands and statesmen. Lady Henry Somerset says that "It is characteristic of this age that evil is no longer considered a necessity." Today, 40,000 college girls stand side by side with their brothers on grounds one deemed sacred to men only.

It has been well said that if woman is not to be free it is a fatal mistake to have taught her the alphabet. She has no longer the bliss of ignorance. As women move through history, they discover that almost every custom extant is the gilded remnant of the subordination of our foremothers. The beautiful wedding ring upon the finger of the bride of today is said to be the symbol that the bridegroom's love has no end, but is in fact the remnant of the iron band that bound the wrist of the wife of earlier days.

In feudal times the poor serf man did not own his wife completely. Immediately after marriage for from one to three days the feudal lord had the first right to the new wife, and if during this time the husband ventured too near the castle he was jeered, mocked, and sometimes tortured by his friends. The modern custom of a wedding journey is a reminiscence of that period when the groom and bride would escape the jeers that in earlier ages accompanied the marriage service.

We have grown weary of hearing it asserted that mothers are almost wholly responsible for the morals of their boys; even the good Dr. Parkhurst says "If the mothers of Tammany had been more faithful to their trust, the Tammany of today might not have been." Could anything be more absurd than to demand that mothers shall make the best environment for their children and then shut them out from the privilege of helping to shape that environment? What are our property laws today compared with what they once were?

It is a singular fact of history that the rights of property have everywhere been recognized over the rights of persons. To deny to any individual the right to the proceeds of his own labor is the foremost element of slavery, and when Common Law forbade woman's inheritance and ownership of property, she virtually became the slave of her husband. Her use of any portion of the property without his consent was regarded as theft.

The condition of the unmarried woman was even worse. In 1893, in less than one fifth of the states of this Union has the mother the same control over the children as the father. He can bind them out, will them, or give them away without her consent or even knowledge. We are thankful that our courts are often more merciful than our laws. It is less than 60 years since a change in this respect has taken place in any part of the civilized world, and it is significant that not until women began to ask for the ballot were there any changes in the law favorable to women. It is only when wrongs find a tongue that they become righted. Much has already been accomplished, yet the 20th century opens with the remnants still hanging over us, were it not so, this company would not be gathered here this afternoon.

If .it was an outrage for King George to tax the colonists without their consent, It Is an outrage for the men of Iowa to tax women without their consent. No man can take the property of another without his consent, neither can a body of men, and every dollar of taxes extracted from the women of this state is so much legalized robbery. We do not object to paying our proportion of taxes, but we do object to the system under which this money is extracted from us.

Just here let us recall an incident of certain modern legislation. A few years ago there was introduced into the Iowa Senate a bill asking that one half of the joint earnings after marriage should belong to the wife. This bill was referred to the Judiciary Committee composed of fifteen members among them the most pronounced advocates of woman suffrage in the Senate. The friends of the bill were very courteously given a hearing before this committee, but when it made its report to the Senate, every man voted against it.

If we accept the story in Genesis that women started the world in the clothing business furnishing the fig leaves for herself and husband, it is pathetic that the evolution of six thousand years does not permit the wife to own her clothes. You probably saw the account in the papers the other day of the man in Connecticut who was so displeased with the fancy gowns which his wife persisted in wearing, that he destroyed them. He was arrested for this destruction of property, but nothing could be done with him, because, as he showed, he had a right to do what he pleased with his own clothes.

We who are suffragists arc sometimes taunted by those women who say they have all the rights they want, with the assertion that we are women who want to wear our husband's clothes, while they and the rest of us have always been wearing men's clothes; it is the suffragists who are trying to get women to be allowed to wear their own.

In only a few states of this Union do women yet own the clothes they wear. It took the women of Massachusetts eleven years of hard work before the1r State Legislature to secure to the wife the legal right to be buried in the family lot of the husband. That our statute books have not yet been cleared of the spirit of the past is evident by the very general demand now being made before the State Legislature for a more definite safeguard for women and girls.

Did not the heart of each one of us leap for joy when the State Federation of Women's Clubs recently in session at Cedar Rapids resolved to ask the next General Assembly for the better protections of our young girls?

We think the country is a great loser by having so long prohibited the financial ability of women from exercise in government affairs. Women's native capacity to make a little money go a great way, and her quick apprehension of details is sadly needed in our municipal affairs especially which are said to be the worst in the world.

By the way, have we not all marveled why in the last few years, there has been such a scarcity of women tramps. Gov. Larrabee once said in a speech, "Did you ever hear of a woman tramp?" Women work from early dawn 'till late at night with no claims for less hours of labor, at one third less wages on an average than men." We admit, that the economic conditions of today are fearfully bad, bit while thousands upon thousands of men have been fed by charity, their complement of women has not been asking alms.

A few mornings, since I heard a light rattling of irons and looking up saw upon the street the Des Moines chain-gang marching to its day's walk cleaning the streets.

The questions naturally arose where are the women offenders to match these fourteen stalwart men who are piloted each day by a policeman with his club, to and from city jail?

The same disparity of sex holds good in our two state prisons.

Now the difference in population between men and women in this state, or in Polk County is not enough to account for this difference in number between the sexes. The thought may arise here with some of you why, if women are more industrious and law-abiding, now, under their restrictions, why not keep them there, and reduce a large class of men to the same plane, if it works so well.

This is one feature of the great social and economic questions of the day, and we suggest that they be made the subject for discussion at some meeting of your Equality Club.

We who are asking for the ballot for women are trying to revolutionize by reform, not to reform by revolutionizing. The ballot is the most peaceable and orderly method yet devised for the expression of opinion. It does not govern as the cannon governs. Army and navy, all the brute force of a nation yields before the expression of opinion.

But we need not tread the well worn highway of assertion, we have the proof of a quarter of a century of its actual workings in Wyoming.

From Nebraska to the Pacific in proportions to the number of people, Wyoming has scarcely more than half as many law-breakers as these other states and territories.

These statistics are from the official reports of 1890; then Nevada had one fourth less populations than Wyoming and two and three fourths as many criminals; Montana; nearly three times as many criminals. Arizona with the same population as Wyoming, had three and one fourth times as many offenders. When these figures were compiled, women in Wyoming had had full political freedom for twenty one years, yet during all this time not one woman had been imprisoned for any offence whatever; and now the latest report after a quarter of a century of women in politics, that state has not a woman criminal.

I believe I saw in the daily paper the other day that there was a woman in jail there, but I presume she just came across from another state where women can't vote.

It is also shown that people stay married there better than in any other state, and one of the first acts of its Legislature after women were given the ballot was to make the pay of its women school teachers the same as for men.

Henry Ward Beecher once said in a speech, "The day in which the intelligent cultivated women of America say, 'We have a right to the ballot' will be the day in which they will have it. The reason you have not voted is because you have not wanted to; because you have not felt it was your duty to vote." But why should we expect the average woman to say that she wants to vote? Ninety nine pulpits out of every hundred have taught that women should not meddle in politics. Almost as large a proportion of the newspapers have done the same; and by the hearthstone, the lesson has been repeated to the little girl, and when she is growing, if she does not throw away the teaching of a lifetime, we blame her for being unprogressive.

Today I think there is no argument used so extensively or is harder to meet than this; the great mass of women do not want the ballot.

There is not positive proof that this is true, but if it were true, there is abundant reason for it, and some excuse. We do not believe the God of justice has left himself without a witness in any age; yet legend and history have been saturated with the principle of woman's subordination. Even our juvenile readers have carried this lesson unmistakably. There is not a bright girl of ten years in all the land but has learned that the world is not all open to her; even in the common things of every day. I have a young daughter, the younger of a family of boys; healthy, active and strong as any lad of her age, and my heart has asked for over and over, as the hard lesson of a girl's limitations have come to her.

Some years ago the boys had a turning pole set up in the back yard where much fun was had in the art of making muscle. My little girl came to me one day begging, while the tears were close behind the words, "Mamma, I can turn on that pole as good as the boys, and why can't I?" The time has come thanks to the gymnasium and the gymnasium costume when she can spin 'round a pole equal to the best of them.

A wise and learned man has said, "He who has deprived me of my right to vote has done me a great wrong, but he who has deprived me of my wish to vote has done me a greater wrong." But we think that much that is made of the fact of women's indifference to the ballot is pure bravado. We are always a little susp1c10us when a gentleman makes haste to assure us that he believes in this thing but that his wife is very much opposed to it.

The Iowa Woman Suffrage Association, of which this Club is a component part owns a lovely cottage upon the State Fair Grounds at Des Moines. This cottage has windows upon every side, and here each year do the suffrage women keep open house with petitions to the Legislature for women suffrage, for the signatures of the passers by. Some characteristics of the moving masses at State Fairs during the years have impressed us. When a party of gentlemen and ladies came up if the men sign the petition with a hearty good will and word of cheer success with the whole party is generally assured; but if the man turns away with a shrug or word of contempt for the measure, it is almost useless to speak to the woman at his side.

Young women with their lovers as well as wives of sixty or seventy shrink from an act that will bring upon them displeasure from ones they love or upon whom the .are dependent. We overheard a middle aged woman who had signed the petition say to her grown-up daughter as they turned away, "Katie, don't let father know that I signed this paper."

This timidity is not true of all women, but a long course of observation in this state leads us to believe that there is a vast deal more of woman suffrage sentiment than Iowa men know anything about.

Near twelve years ago our beloved Mrs. Margaret W. Campbell, whose long service for women is known to some of you, made a lecturing tour in the interest of this cause through the northern counties of Iowa. She told me on her return, that sometimes after making an address, some woman in the audience would come to her and with tears in her eyes would say, "Mrs. Campbell, I have had these same thoughts myself but I did not know that anyone else had." We do not know whether a majority of women in this country want the ballot but we do know that a very large and increasing number do. When the ballot was given to the colored man, it was not because he asked for it. The government cared not a fig whether one black man in a thousand wanted it. The objection to woman suffrage lies deeper than the fact that a majority of women have not asked for it.

My sisters: let us stand together and demand that the foundation principles of the government shall be applied to us, one half the people. Organization is the Archimedes screw that moves the world. Self culture is well, but the highest culture comes with the doing the best work of the hour. Let us never cease to be grateful that our lives have been cast in the pleasant places of this nineteenth century era; and the best return we can make for our privileges is to make the most of them. It is said that a learned man is a statue, but a learned man with a task is a living soul. Let us see to it that in these passing days the precious spikenard (?) of life is not spilled in the presence of our glorious opportunities.

Transcription from Ferris, J. N. (2017). Mary Jane Whiteley Coggeshall, Hicksite Quaker, Iowa/National Suffragette and Her Speeches. Milton, IN: Kids at Heart Publishing LLC.