Ida Husted Harper

Statement before the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Woman Suffrage – March 3, 1908

Ida Husted Harper
March 03, 1908
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Gentlemen and members of the committee: Since the representatives of the National Woman Suffrage Association last appeared before this committee, two years ago, two nations of Europe have conferred the complete franchise on their women and one has practically granted municipal suffrage. Finland in 1906 enfranchised all women on exactly the same terms as men and made them eligible to all offices including the parliamentary. This measure was the result of great deliberation and careful procedure, decided upon by a carefully selected commission, passed by all the four chambers of the Diet with but one dissenting voice, and signed by the Czar. About 300,000 women were thus enfranchised. At the next election all parties put women on their tickets and one year ago this month 19 were elected to Parliament and are now sitting in that body. At this election fully as large a proportion of women as of men voted, and in some districts it was larger.

The women of Norway, since 1901, have possessed the complete municipal franchise and eligibility to the city councils. Several hundred have been elected as aldermen, 6 in Christiana at the recent election. A very large number use the franchise; in some places 90 per cent. In 1907 the full parliamentary suffrage was conferred with a tax-paying qualification so small that even domestic servants can meet it, and the wife may vote on the husband’s income. About 350,000 women thus became electors.

At last accounts the Parliament of Denmark had given the third reading to a bill for the municipal franchise for women, and it is doubtless now a law. In Sweden the movement for woman suffrage is so far advanced as to insure its success within the next year or two. In the Netherlands, the full franchise for women has been placed in the proposed new constitution, and only the overthrow of the present Government will prevent its adoption. Women of Great Britain have had municipal suffrage for nearly forty years, and within a few months the Parliament has made them eligible as mayors, as town and county councilors, and as presidents of the councils. This bill passed the conservative House of Lords by a vote of 73 to 46, while there were only 15 votes against it in the House of Commons. At the first election thereafter 7 cities elected women to their councils. Last Friday a bill to give women the complete parliamentary franchise passed its second reading in the House of Commons by a vote of 271 to 92—three in favor to one opposed, and 420 members are pledged to vote for some kind of suffrage bill.

These statements illustrate the actual political progress of women in European countries within the past two years, and many steps forward in others might be cited if time permitted.

During this period what have been the concrete gains for women in the United States, the nation alleged to give them more rights than any on the face of the earth? The answer can be given in a very few words: "There has not been one." How many political privileges have been secured within the past ten years? Not one. There is the shameful record in all its nakedness, and let those who boast of this glorious Republic make the best of it. While the legislative bodies of most of the progressive nations throughout the world are moving forward toward the political recognition of women, those of the United States are standing stock-still, just where they were at the beginning of their existence , and resisting every effort to move them from their medieval position.

When we women go abroad to our great international meetings we meet there the delegates from New Zealand, who have been fully enfranchised since 1893; from Australia, who have had the complete suffrage and the right to sit in Parliament for the past six years, ever since their States were federated into a commonwealth; from Finland and Norway, with their full political rights; from Great Britain, with the municipal vote and rights to office; from Denmark, and from our neighbor, Canada, with the municipal franchise; yes, and even the women of Russia, who tell us that representatives in the douma of every political party are in favor of giving votes to women. What are we to answer to the amazed inquiries when we of the United States have no voice in a Government whose greatest pride is that of being founded on individual representation ? Shall we say it is because our men are not as just and generous as those of other nations? Or shall we take the other horn of the dilemma and say it is because our women are not so capable of being trusted with it!? No one can truthfully say it is because our women do not want it, for they have worked far longer and harder for it than have those of all these other countries combined.

This year the suffragists of the United States will observe the sixtieth anniversary of the first woman's rights convention ever held in all history, that one which met in Seneca Falls, N. Y., the home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in 1848. First among the rights which it demanded women was that of suffrage. After three-score years' continuous agitation, education, and organization what are the meager results we face to-day? In one State, Kansas, women have a limited municipal franchise; in Iowa, Louisiana, Montana and the villages of New York a shred of tax-payers’ suffrage; in about one-half of the Stales a partial school vote. Not in one have women the same voice in school affairs that men have, and in order to exercise what they do possess they must comply with all the formalities required of men to vole for every official up to President of the United States. ln 4 out of 46 States—Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, and Utah—women are fully enfranchised on exactly the same terms as men. All of these 4 States took this action within six years, from 1890 to 1896, and it looked as if the time had come when woman suffrage would sweep the western part of the country. No sooner had women begun to use their new privilege, however, than the word was passed to surrounding States not to make the fatal mistake of putting this power into the hands of women. Who passed this word? It is not necessary to speak definitely on this point to politicians.

And so, after two generations have passed, we, the descendants of those pioneers. find ourselves also at the feet of our rulers begging for what must be the acknowledged prerogative of citizenship in a republic and a democracy if these are anything but empty words. Our mothers and their mothers saw their claims ignored, while a million negro men, but yesterday plantation slaves. were endowed with this sacred privilege. We, their daughters, behold our prayers treated with contempt, while, not once but every year, a million men from the slums or the Old World walk out of the steerage of the ships to become enfranchised citizens and ultimately to vote against giving the suffrage to American-born women. And while we have stood aside and listened to the grave discussion as to whether women would really uplift and purify the ballot, we have seen the Government rounding up the blanketed Indians from the reservations, forcing this zealously guarded ballot upon them and spending thousands of dollars to teach them how to use it. ls it strange if sometimes the unreasoning, illogical female mind wonders whether women would have had to wait all these years if their ballots could have been classed as purchasable commodities? But even with the welcome of the Indian in to the political fold, feathers, war whoop, and tomahawk, our humiliation was not complete, but the Government must reach out and confer the carefully treasured franchise upon the Porto Rican and Filipino men, the great mass of whom had not the slightest conception of its meaning. And on the consecrated floor of Congress, where no woman's foot shall tread, there sits a Representative of Filipino men who can not speak the English language, with the promise that a Porto Rican brother shall soon have a place by his side.

It is not surprised that the forefathers excluded women from the electorate, for they also excluded them from everything else, but the reasons that obtained then no longer exist. All the old objections have been swept into oblivion. Women are not now regarded by the law as chattels or held as minors after they are of legal age. Once prevented by statute from holding property, they now pay annual taxes of billions of dollars. From being looked upon merely as consumers and occupied wholly in unremunerated labor, they have become an army of producers, and 5,000,000 of them are engaged in occupations outside the home. For many years it was argued that women should not vote because they could not take part in war, serve as police, or help put out fires. Nowadays the taxpayers provide a fire department, and the waiting list of men anxious to get on the police force does not seem likely very soon to need reinforcement of women. There appears to be a great sufficiency of men for both the fire and police departments, willing and glad to serve their country in this capacity, and their number would not be any less if women could vote. There must be other factors in war besides those who stand up and shoot each other; there must be the large corps of nurses on the scone of action, and of those who stay behind to prepare and forward the supplies; and especially a vast army who remain at home and look after the households and the business. Women do their full share in all these capacities, and, what is beyond everything else, they bear and rear the soldiers, and what kind of war would it be if there were not any soldiers? Besides, there is no provision in any election law that the voter must be able to join the army. If there were, the most of those who will not let women vote because they can not fight would have to enter the ranks of the disfranchised.

There used to be a stereotyped objection that women were not mentally competent to vote. The logical and reasoning male mind never seemed to see any incongruity between this argument and the enfranchisement of the negroes, the immigrants, and Indians; but let that pass, for it also is now obsolete. High schools throughout the country are graduating nearly three times as many girls as boys. There are at present, about 40,000 women in the United States holding college degrees. Fully that number are now studying in the colleges, and they are ranking so high in scholarship and taking so many honors that some of the institutions are segregating them into classes by themselves, so that the feelings of the male students shall not be hurt. Although there are nearly 2,000,000 more men than women in the United States, women already form considerably more than one-third of the entire student body, and their percentage of increase is steadily gaining over that of men. In a few decades one-half of all the college graduates in the country will be women. There are about 3,500 women ministers, over 1,000 lawyers, nearly 7,500 physicians.

It is perhaps not necessary to go further into statistics to prove that women have minds. This is now very generally conceded. In olden times men just as wise in their generation as the men of to-day are in theirs gravely argued that women had no souls. We have never been able to disprove that statement, but perhaps there is not a very close connection between souls and suffrage. The only point we wish to make is that everything in the shape of an argument against woman suffrage has been relegated to limbo, where it belongs, and that no class of citizens ever was enfranchised who were so well equipped with the qualities desirable for an electorate as are the women of to-day . But the opponents have now made a last stand with their backs against the wall. When we ask for it now they fire off a whole volley of blank cartridges in a single sentence, “Women don't want it.” “But we do, or we wouldn't be working ourselves to death for it," we answer. "We maintain a large organization and raise many thousands of dollars every year in order to obtain it, and our leaders are among the ablest women the age has produced." "0, yes; that may be true, but the majority of women do not want it. Go and convert your own sex ."

Here then is an idea: It is the policy of the Government not to confer the franchise on any class of citizens until the majority of them demand it. So we study the history of the various extensions of the suffrage; first during the colonial period; again in the early days of the Federal Government when the workingmen were enfranchised; after the civil was when the great mass of negro men was brought into the electorate; down to the latest examples where the Indians were compelled to give up their tribal relations and become voting citizens, and the Porto Ricans and Filipinos were received with open arms. But in this study the undeniable fact is developed that in not one single instance did a majority of even a considerable minority ask to come into the voting body. Indeed with the exception of the workingmen there was no demand at all, but each class was enfranchised because the leaders of one party or the other saw a political advantage to be gained by it. Thus this last excuse for not enfranchising women falls to the ground as utterly discredited as all that preceded it.

But no matter how fallacious the opposition, we have to meet it; and so short a time ago when a commission was appointed to prepare a new charter for Chicago, the women of that wretchedly governed city determined to be included in the suffrage clause of the charter. Knowing that they would have to encounter this hackneyed objection that the women do not want it, the Suffrage Association called others to its assistance and at the hearing granted by the charter commission it was addressed by the official representatives of a great number of organizations comprising 86,000 women, the Federation of Clubs, W. C. T. U., Lutheran Women's League, Catholic Women’s Society, Jewish Council of Women, mothers clubs, women’s trade unions, Chicago University women's societies, associations for every good purpose, and they presented a petition 225 feet long. The meeting was thoroughly representative of Chicago women and of their desire for a vote on municipal questions, and yet the commission refused to incorporate woman suffrage in the charter. When this finally was submitted, 320,000 out of the 500,000 qualified voters failed to go to the polls. Think of it! Nearly 100,000 of Chicago's best citizens pleading for a vote and refused, and almost three-fourths of those entitled to vote declining to do so. And almost at the very moment when a Chicago commission perpetrates this outrage on women, the Parliament of Great Britain, where they have exercised the municipal suffrage for forty years, by an overwhelming majority, makes them eligible for mayors and aldermen.

A convention is now in session in Michigan to frame a new constitution. The women of that State have been making herculean efforts to secure a clause for woman suffrage, and last month a hearing was granted. As many and as varied associations sent their representatives as at Chicago; the organized womanhood of the State asked for this measure. The committee said it was the most dignified, logical, and able hearing that had been held. Doctor Shaw, president of the national association, was among the speakers. The governor of the State was present and almost the entire constitutional convention, filling the assembly room of the legislature. At the close of her address they crowded around her and said, "If the vote could be taken now, the measure would be carried unanimously." Two weeks later it was defeated by almost a two-thirds majority of the convention. Why this change of heart? Not because the delegates had heard from the women of Michigan that they did not want the suffrage; but because they had heard from the men who did not want them to have it.

You often read in newspaper editorials of a "large and influential association of women" to oppose the granting of suffrage. After all these years this "large and influential body" is organized in just two States. It has a society in Boston, one in Brooklyn, and one in Buffalo. They have never held a convention and never a meeting that could not be accommodated in the parlor of a member. If the entire list of names were presented here you would not recognize more than two or three of them, perhaps not so many. They are women known only in their own social circle. In the Woman Suffrage Association you will find the names of all the women of the country most prominent in education , philanthropy, civics, and the reform and progressive movements of the day. Of the women who have expressed themselves at all on the subject the immense majority have declared in favor of the suffrage.

No one has a right to interpret for those who have not spoken. Reforms are never carried forward by the masses, but by the leaders. This we do know, that in every State and every county where the women have the franchise they use it in as large a proportion as the men, and this is the strongest proof which can be offered that they do want it whether they are aware of this fact or not before they get it. But if men are not satisfied with this proof then what will they have? Do they desire that our women shall leave their homes en masse and demonstrate their wishes after the manner that is now being employed in Great Britain? We are already seeing indications of these methods in New York City. The movement for woman suffrage will not always remain in the wise and conservative control of those who now have it in charge. When the fearless and aggressive women of the present day look back over sixty years of dignified womanly effort and see that is has been rewarded with an almost continuous series of failures, is it not reasonable that they should change the tactics? Those who oppose the English method should come forward with some new suggestions.

Examine for a moment the present situation. Legislatures will no longer submit this question to the voters. It has been nearly ten years since the women have been able to secure from a legislature the submission of a woman-suffrage amendment. The reason for this was frankly stated a short time ago, when those of California appealed to a member to know why he voted against the submission in that State: "Because it is easier to defeat you here than it would be at an election!" Here then is the status of those who are trying to secure the suffrage for women: The legislatures themselves can not grant it and they will not, submit the question to the electorate, the only power that can bestow it. Was it ever a body of citizens in as helpless a position? It is this anomalous and outrageous situation which brings us to you, the sole tribunal to whom we can look for relief. There are but two ways in which the women of the United States can ever be enfranchised—through a majority vote of the electors of each State or through an amendment to the National Constitution. The legislatures will not submit it to the electors. All the talk about their being willing to do so when enough women ask for it is mere rubbish. There will always be a sufficient influence behind them which is already enfranchised to compel them not do to it.

But if they should submit it, then think of the electorate we must face. Would you be willing to trust the question of your own political liberty to their mercies? You would find yourselves disfranchised at the first election. The whites would take away the suffrages of the blacks if they could, and vice versa. The rich would disfranchise the poor and the latter would joyfully do the same for the rich. We have seen in France what the unbelievers would do for the church, and doubtless there are church people and fanatics in this country who would rejoice to take away the voting privileges of those who disapprove their policies; while in each of the above classes there is an element opposed to giving political rights to women. It is a very great defect in our Constitution which invests one body of citizens with the power to hold another body in a state of perpetual disfranchisement. There is no such provision in the constitution of any other country in the world. The only reparation that can be made for this mistake is to amend our Constitution. If Congress shall continue to refuse to women this only just and sensible method of redress for the great wrong which has been done them, then indeed our case is hopeless; but that august assemblage may rest assured that the great body of educated, tax-paying, wage-earning women now coming upon the scene will not bear this indignity as patiently as have those of the present and past generations.

How does Congress stand upon this question? During the year just past there was scarcely a parliament in Europe that did not discuss woman suffrage in some of its phases. It has been eighteen years since it was discussed in the Congress of the United States, and then it was upon the admission of Wyoming, in which politics played so large a part that the merits of the suffrage question were greatly obscured.

Eighteen years since this matter which so vitally concerns one-half the people has even been considered in the national legislative body. In Great Britain the women know precisely how every member stands upon it. In this country we might as well try to solve the riddle of the Sphinx. There the platforms at woman-suffrage meetings are crowded with members of Parliament. Here we can scarcely persuade one solitary Member of Congress to shed the light of his countenance.

During these eighteen years the leaders of the movement have addressed committees of Senate and House nine times It is sixteen years since we have had a favorable report from the Senate committee. lt is twelve years since we have had one of any kind, and the last was merely a copy of an adverse report that had first begun to do duty in 1882. The last report from the House Judiciary Committee was made in 1894, and refused the petition of the women. The last time I myself addressed the Senate committee we had with us our dear leader, who had been coming here to the Capitol for almost forty years to beg for women that citizen's right which is so freely given to the lowest of men without the asking, and one member of the committee said, "Miss Anthony, I promise you this, you shall have a report." That was four years ago, but we waited in vain for the pleasure, or pain, of reading that report. "What is needed more than anything else," Miss Anthony used to say, "is a watching committee, to see that we get a report." When the militant suffragists, who are now on the way, take this work out of the hands of those who have been coming here in vain for so many year, they will probably organize a "lobby" with all that the name implies, and perhaps it will know how to get some expression from these committees.

But before that day arrives we can not but wish that we ourselves were able to present this question in such a way that you would consider it of enough importance for you to make a report of some nature upon it. You are the chosen representatives of one-half of this great nation, selected because of your wisdom, judgement, and commanding ability. If you can not grate our request to recommend action by Congress, we long to have you tell us at least where we have made mistakes, what is the matter with us that the men of our country will not place the confidence in us that the men of other countries place in their women, and what we can do to make ourselves worthy of the great gift we ask. But if you are ready to say to the Congress that we have proved the right of women to the suffrage and their fitness for it, and to recommend that we may carry our case to the legislatures of the States, then indeed we shall go forth with fresh courage and strong hope to win what we believe will help women to redeem the world.

U.S. Senate Hearing before Committee on Woman Suffrage on Joint Resolution proposing suffrage amendment to U. S. Constitution. (1908, March). [Online Text] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,