Carrie Chapman Catt

Presidential Address at the 9th IWSA Congress - May 14, 1923

Carrie Chapman Catt
May 14, 1922
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The International Woman Suffrage Alliance is indeed grateful to the Government of Italy and to its citizens for the cordial welcome we have received. Our Congress represents the world's movement among women, which demands the repeal of antiquated so-called "woman laws" and customs, and the substitution therefore of a modern civilized recognition of the fact that a woman is a human being — a female human with the same brain and conscience, strength or weakness, aspiration or indifference, as a male human. Our movement is old. The oldest of us is too young to have been a part of its beginning. Then, we know the brave woman souls who led the way, were not greeted as are we today. For them were ridicule and abuse, mobs and fusillades of decayed vegetables and eggs. But because they were right, and dared to brave the scorn of a hostile world, kings, premiers, presidents, and mayors today do honour to our cause.

We do not come to Rome in this year of 1923 to hold our ninth Congress as timid suppliants for small favors. Our Congress represents women of forty nations, and there are only sixty nations in the world. In other words women of two-thirds of the nations of the world are represented in this gathering. Of these the delegates of twenty-five nations are voters on equal terms with men, and among them are Members of Parliaments and Councillors of great cities. The delegates from two countries are voters in their municipalities. The delegates in this Congress who are still pleading for the vote, represent fifteen nations only. The majority of us are enfranchised. We too, are a part of the collective rulers of nations.

Your Excellency, Signor Mussolini, you are the most talked-of man in all the world today. To millions of men you are a great hero, and all the world knows that you are afraid of nothing — not even public opinion when it is wrong. Men tell us that you stand for order, for unity, for patriotism, for a better and a higher civilization in the world. These are our ideals too. We stand for educated men and women, for schools for every child, for work and good wages for all, for better homes, for more tender and scientific care of children, that they may grow up to build a better order of things. We stand for the abolition of those old codes of law which, all the world around, kept women in perpetual tutelage and allowed them no independent individuality. These codes have made many men cruel masters and women timid and shrinking dependents. "Male and female created, He them" says Genesis, "and gave them dominion over the earth." Alas, the males took all the dominion to themselves, and we stand for getting back out half of it. We stand, too, for the principle of self-government and for votes for men and women on equal terms.

We make no political intrigues. We shall not disturb the peace of Italy. We have, however, asked all the civilized governments of the world to endorse our plea and our program. We ask this Government to do so, with a new and very special emphasis, for Italy, the proud equal of the great nations of the world, is now in the minority on the woman question, and we dare to hope that it will be your Government, most honored, most excellent Signor Mussolini, that will lead this land of ancient renown, into the modern majority.

Often and nations are not thinking the same thoughts about women as before the war. It is an entirely new and different world for women. The 32 nations engaging in the greatest of world wars, in addition to the obvious first cause, alleged many other reasons for their action. These were objects which they hoped to achieve through victory, and nations held them worthy the waste of wealth and men. In the list of these causes and aims no nation included the civil rights and political liberty of women. Not a general under any flag thought of the degraded status of women throughout the world when he led his men into the thick of slaughter. Not a man in any army preparing to offer his life for his country, dreamed that he might be making the supreme sacrifice to right the wrongs of women. Not a weeping father or mother, watching their loved son go forth to marching music and flying colors, perhaps never to return, had a vision that women's place in their own nation and the world bore relation to the patriotism that inspired their common service. Woman too was declared a "war power" and great men of great nations generously acknowledged her as a determining factor in that reserve behind the ranks which made possible the army at the front; yet these women at home, giving their all and counting no service too great, thought no word of rights of self or sex. Nevertheless, when time has stabilized governments and finance, when commerce, trade and business have resumed their old-time activity, when the restless, unhappy present has given way to peace and order, and great men ask each other the puzzling question: "What good did the world get out of the war?" the answer most obvious, will be: " The greatest thing that came out of the war was the emancipation of woman". No one aimed to secure it or expected it as a result of war, no one fought for it, yet it came. How did it happen? It happened because the years of struggle, sacrifice, agitation, education and organization had made this movement ripe for victory.

Very many years ago Victor Hugo declared the nineteenth century to be "the Century of woman". When, however, that century closed, the emancipation of women was so far from being achieved that the prediction seemed an error. Yet during the years of that century the leading nations of the world had conceded the righteousness of the woman's demand for education, the primary preparation for individual liberty. Indeed, one distinguished man declared that the vote for women became inevitable at the moment when it was conceded that they should be permitted to learn the alphabet. When the year 1900 closed the nineteenth century, primary and high schools were very generally established for girls, and the doors of colleges and universities were not only opened to them, but women composed a large part of the teaching force of the schools of many nations. Women had advanced from an illiterate to an intelligent sex within a century. The right of women to enter the professions was conceded, and after a period of struggle, often rendered bitterly difficult by the opposition of reaction, women in 1900 were practicing their profess ions with freedom and profit in many countries. Women also were everywhere writing for newspapers and magazines, speaking from platforms and leading movements for the betterment of human society. The law, too, which denied married women the right to their property, persons, wages, and children, had been repealed or modified in many lands, and public opinion controlling customs and conventions granted a liberty of action to women at the close of the century unknown and undreamt of at the beginning. Although the emancipation of woman was nowhere complete, we now know that the nineteenth century was, in truth, the "Century of Woman", for no factor of advancing civilization during that century showed such rapid evolution as the status of woman. So much of the woman's program had been conceded in that century that the remainder became inevitable. The momentum gathered in the nineteenth century drove the movement forward into the twentieth with continually accelerating numbers of advocates and diversity of method. The end was in clear sight when the war began.

The vote has been the climax of the struggle of every class for liberty, and naturally the grant of this privilege was longest delayed and most grudgingly given. When, however, the Alliance met in Geneva in 1920, in its first after-war Congress, it celebrated twenty-two new national suffrage victories. The constitutional barriers holding fast against the logical demands of women for political liberty had been swept away by the wave of liberal emotion which overspread the world during the first months after the war. Nations wherein the organized demand had been slight, and others where there had been none at all, yielded to that influence. The nations where the organized movement was oldest granted the vote to women as an act of delayed justice; the new republics of eastern Europe adopted it as a matter of course, and to others it came by revolution.

We who had labored long in the thick of the struggle, were also caught in the emotion of the moment, and when we celebrated the amazing list of woman suffrage victories at our Congress of 1920, we were no more able to comprehend the exact status of the entire movement than were the workers at the close of the nineteenth century. In 1900 the final victories seemed farther away than they were; and in 1920 the whole world campaign seemed more nearly complete than it was. Some could conceive no methods for useful further work, and others, thinking our task quite finished, proposed to dissolve the Alliance. Now that we have had three years in which to survey the movement as a whole, it becomes our duty to ask again, where does it stand?

There are six continents. In Australia all women vote. In Europe from points above the arctic circle down to a line bordering Jugo Slavia, Italy, Switzerland and France all women vote, and in my judgment, woman suffrage is securely and permanently established. In North America, from the northernmost tip of Alaska to the border of Mexico, all women vote. In Asia, the ancient Indian civilization with modern democratic aspirations has shamed more youthful nations in generous justice to its women, and has granted the vote in several provinces. Not only do we welcome delegates for the second time from that far-away mystical country, but we receive a new auxiliary from Burmah, where tax-paying women have voted on equal terms with men for forty years. Palestine, too, the storm center of age-long struggle, sends us a delegate. In Africa most British colonies have already extended the vote to women, while South Africa alone, among them all, hesitates. We are especially proud to welcome to this Congress delegates from that wonderland of Egypt. In ancient days there were Egyptian queens and women military leaders of great renown; why not heroines today, bearing aloft the standard of civil and political equality for modern Egyptian woman? Bravo, Women of Egypt!

Of all the continents South America is the only one where no woman votes, yet it is a continent of republics many of which have celebrated their centenary of independence. Here the Napoleonic code in strictest form operates from Panama to Cape Horn, with the exception of Uruguay. Here not only does the restraint imposed by the law upon the married woman concerning the control of her property, wages, person, and children, render her well-nigh helpless if her husband chooses to play the master, but a stern, public opinion far less liberal than that of Europe, restricts her ordinary freedom of action to an unbelievable degree. Your President, accompanied by Miss Manus of Holland, Miss Babcock and Mrs. van Lennep of New York, has spent four months in making a survey of conditions there. We were able, in the time at our disposal, to visit six only of the eleven republics, but these included the countries of largest population, most stable government, and those of acknowledged progressiveness. In every one we found the woman movement growing and spreading, a liberal sympathy expressed by Presidents of the Republics and by many members of the Congresses. Organization lags far behind the general sentiment, and education for women. which must everywhere be regarded as the primary qualification for improved status, offers neither the facilities nor the stimulus found in Europe.

In every country visited we found a suffrage movement, although usually small and timid, but an unmistakable beginning. These countries of South America look to Europe for leadership. The republics along the east coast, Brazil, Argentine and Uruguay, place great emphasis upon the example of France, and so long as France does not enfranchise its women, South America will make no haste to do so. An immigration so enormous has gone to Argentine from Italy that it has even modified the Spanish language and so long as Italy delays the enfranchisement of its women, her sons, the voters of another land, will see no need for urgent action. The women leaders of many movements there, are of French or Italian birth, and feel keenly the effect of the hesitancy of their home lands to catch step with the rest of the world. Spanish America and Southern Europe are bound together by many common ties. Their nationalities and their languages are closely related, their religion is the same, they love the same kind of poetry, literature, music and art, their educational system has followed the same models, and even politics; although it has taken its form from the North, draws its inspirations and methods chiefly from the South. They think and build ideals along the same lines.

The Woman Suffrage movement has won its victory in all the northern countries; not one now holds out against the logic of its demand. The Southern lands, France, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Bulgaria and Spanish and Portuguese America, compel the movement to pause. Over the ramparts of Southern conservatism the Alliance extends the hand of friendship. It must continue to cry to the women of all these nations: Awake, Arise, Take Courage. Already their women have so far heard and answered, that I believe I speak strictly within the truth when I say that every independent nation in the world with a stable government has now its Woman Suffrage Society. The movement has begun, even where it has not traveled far. Startling though it may seem, our suffrage movement has in truth girdled the earth and spread from arctic North to antarctic South. It now counts among its auxiliaries those whose members represent the five great races of the world, Caucasian, Mongolian, Malay, Polynesian and Indian. Its membership embraces the five great religions: Christian, Hebrew, Buddhist, Confucian and Mohammedan. No such organized movement among men has yet come into the world. It is something new: a phenomenon this arising, uniting and marching forward together of a sex. We are an army, but our only weapon is an appeal for justice. We go forward with confidence, for no government can long withstand our plea. Time, however, must pass before the movement comes to its final victory, and education, work and sacrifice must do their part. Meanwhile it needs the encouragement and inspiration of our common union, the morale aroused by the fact that the women of all nations, races and religions are united together in the demand for the abrogation of outworn bondage and the demand for individual freedom. We thank your Excellency, Signor Mussolini, and you the Royal Commissioner and Mayor of the most wonderful of the world's cities, Rome the Eternal, and you women of Italy, for your warm greetings. We shall be happy in your city and we shall make great plans. All over Italy are the ruined relics of ancient days. We shall ask you, fair Italy, to make another ruin, a destruction of all the "woman laws" which deny to women the half of the world's dominion God gave them.

The motto of our Alliance adopted twenty years ago, came from ancient Rome, and no wiser guidance for human action has any sage spoken through the centuries: "In essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things charity."

So, we differ in many things, in race, religion and politics; but we are a unit in our demand for a woman's share in all privileges, opportunities and responsibilities the world has to offer.

Rome old and hoary, with memories of by-gone greatness, we greet you with admiration and with reverence; Rome young and modern, we ask that we may march with you in a great world army of men and women whose aim is only to create a happier life for all nations and peoples of earth.


You will remember that in 1920 there were delegates of our first post war Congress who thought that the time had come to dissolve the Alliance. I was in doubt myself as many of you were concerning the wisdom of continuing the Alliance long. It seemed then that all that portion of the world which was self governing and where the woman movement was well founded had either enfranchised its women or would do so soon. Three years have passed during which we have all been able to make observations. Your president accompanied by Miss Manus spent seven months in making a survey of the conditions in Central Europe and South America.

The opinion had been published abroad that woman suffrage brought about in Central Europe by revolution might be swept away, should counter revolution ever result from unsettled conditions there. We interviewed the Presidents of Republics, leaders of political parties, women members of parliaments and leaders of the woman's movement. The conclusion was reached that woman suffrage is nowhere more firmly established than in Central Europe. The only exception is Hungary, and even there belief in Woman Suffrage is far more firmly rooted than before the war. I believe, that women are nowhere in the world performing more intelligent and helpful political service than in Central Europe and that no men are more sympathecially appreciative of the work of women than the men of those countries.

Indeed we were deeply impressed by the exalted position and respect given to women and, I venture to predict, that, come what will, woman suffrage is as unalterably established in that part of the world as is man suffrage.

South American Women are restless under the bondage imposed by law and custom, and they long for the spirit and the enjoyment of the freedom they find in other countries; yet the movement is vague in its aim and the women as a whole have no clear idea what wrongs are fundamental and which are superficial; they do not realise as yet that a single legal restriction often imposes a group of grievances. It will take time for the movement there to become stabilized with a constructive program. The movement has passed through this stage in every land and the women in South America have an advantage no other women have had. Women of other countries were forced to make precedents and prove them good to a doubting public. These precedents, the right to education, to organise, to speak in public, to lead movements, to control property, to do business and to vote, now as firmly established in many lands as Gibraltar itself serve the movement in South America as examples and give to the women of those Republics the privilege of putting an unanswerable query to state and society, namely:

"If women of half the world enjoy freedom of personal action, control property and wages, vote and sit in Parliaments, why are we denied these rights? Are we inferior to the women of other lands or are our men less generous?" Since in the long run nations are logical, we may expect; that the inability of men to answer these questions will bring unexpected rapidity of progress. A group of women in every country visited are agitating the woman suffrage question. The leaders in their isolation often reminded me of snowcapped peaks rising to grand heights above the common mass. I predict they will not long stand alone. We welcome Brazil as a new auxiliary in the Congress, and I am sure we shall have many more from South America and Central America when the next Congress meets. Next week in Mexico City the first Mexican Congress of women will meet. Organizations are forming in other Central American countries. These women need the moral support of the Alliance.

When we ask, as we must, the duty of this day and hour, I venture an opinion. To my mind the experience of the last three years should remove all thought of dissolution of the Alliance. I believe it was never needed so much as now. The opportunities for useful service to the woman's cause which lie ahead are likely to prove quite as important as those already passed and the Alliance instead of dissolving should grow more assertive, larger, stronger.

In 1920 we thought mainly of the needs of Southern Europe, but it is clear, that organizations and campaigns are certain to arise in the 20 Republics of South and Central America in the near future. The new organizations in India, Japan, China, Egypt and Palestine need the inspiration of the comradeship we have given each other. The Alliance must surely heed these world wide calls to duty and provide the center through which sympathy and encouragement may be given such movements.

To my mind the development of our movement during the past three years clearly points to four distinct but closely related questions which should receive the chief consideration of this Congress.

1. How may enfranchised and unenfranchised women unite to secure the repeal of the last vestige of those outworn codes of law that for many centuries placed women in the same status as that of children, feebleminded and insane? Here and there these laws have been repealed but parts remain in some lands which treat the married woman as a child in civil matters, while granting her the status of an adult in political matters. An effort to remove these inconsistences should call forth no opposition; but the task demands intelligent and earnest attention. In the so called Latin countries it is time, that a vigorous onslaught was made against the degrading, insulting, abominable code which denies to women the dignity of an adult human being. There should be no serious objection anywhere to such a campaign. The old barriers of prejudice and custom are breaking fast. Women are sitting in the City and County Councils of all the Northern European nations, from Iceland to the Italian border. They are serving in considerable numbers in the Parliaments of Europe and in the Legislatures and Congress of the United States. Within the past two years evidence of the acknowledgment of the new status of women come from all parts of the world. Japan has given women the right to attend political meetings and they have improved the opportunity afforded by organising a national suffrage association. Denmark records a law granting equal pay for equal work in government service. Australia where women have long voted has extended elegibility to sit in some of the state Parliaments, a right hitherto illogically denied. Within that period Germany, Belgium, Austria, Spain, Portugal, Argentine, Peru and India have admitted women to the practice of law and Germany has appointed women to judgeships. The Governments of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Roumania, France, Great Britain, Uruguay, Australia and Siam have appointed women representatives to the Assembly, the Commissions of Conferences of the League of Nations. The United States and Bulgaria have appointed women to the diplomatic service and lastly the United States have granted married women the right to their own nationality. In the light of these facts, it is clear, that the correction of these old time injustices should be readily made in all countries if the demand for the action is sufficiently strong "Those who would be free must strike the blow". Let us then in this Congress of 1923 plan a world wide campaign for the emancipation of women from the bondage of the international but intolerable civil codes.

We should earnestly invite the women of Mohamedan, Buddhist and Confucian countries to join in this campaign. Why should they languish in the bondage of tradition when Christian, and Jewish women are striking for freedom?

Let us organise the campaign well, and carry it to the remotest quarters of the globe; carry it with such energy and spirit that there will be no pause until the women of the entire civilised world have been raised to the dignity of adult, sane, intelligent citizens.

Arise, women of the world: Revolt, and together demand the abolition of the contemptible degradations of past centuries. I recommend, that this campaign shall be the first charge upon the new Board.

2. How may the enfranchised women within the Alliance most effectually aid the unenfranchised women of self governing countries to get their vote? This is but a continuation of the original object which brought the Alliance into existance 20 years ago; but the present stat us of the movement offers new obstacles to be overcome and calls for new plans. The problem has now been reduced to the single question: how may women of the North lands aid the women of the South lands. This Congress will have failed of its primary object if it adjourns with this problem still unsolved. I recommend, that a special Campaign Committee be established to undertake this work and that a Congress be held in 1924 of delegates from the unenfranchised countries of Europe to consider methods of further work.

3. How may the Alliance aid women voters to a full realization of the dignity and duty which belong to their new status? Very many of them, trained by the environment of their entire lives still think and move in the earlier status. They are enfranchised but not emancipated. They are timid, self distrusting and hover on the outer fringe of politics like timorous butterflies. Once they were bound by stern and unjust law, now they are restrained by their own tradition warped minds. AII students of human nature expected this temporary stage of development. It is no disappointment. It is well to remember that every land has enfranchised men who wander through politics in the same dazed and uncomprehending condition of mind. By degrees men and women will respond to the new liberty and eventually will accept their full duty. How that process may be accelerated is the problem we must consider. I recommend, that this Congress shall urge our auxiliaries in the enfranchised countries to conduct experimental propaganda with this end in view such as schools for citizens, lecture courses and press appeals to women voters and that each shall report at our next Congress concerning the character of work attempted and its results.

4. How may women voters most effectually serve the common good of their nation and the world? To be sure men voters have never conferred upon that subject. When voters really seriously comprehend that they are the rulers of nations this will be a vastly different and infinitely better world. It is not too early to begin.

I recommend, that those auxiliaries whose countries have not given to women a generous share of parliamentary seats shall be urged to consider means of placing more women in parliament in order that they may serve the needs of women voters and that collectively women voters be urged to interest themselves in this matter, further recommend that a Committee be appointed to consider how more women members may be secured and that it shall include representatives of Great Britain, U. S. A., the Scandinavian countries and any other countries where constitutional or political obstacles present difficulties.

If the Alliance in its wisdom finds a strong and constructive policy to be applied simultaneously throughout the world to each of these four problems the youngest delegate among you may live to celebrate the final emancipation of a sex. Any one of these problems is worthy of our best, and collectively they call for better organization and for greater consecration then women have yet given to public causes.

In closing this address I beg the privilege of a personal word. For 21 years I have served this organization as an officer, from 1902 until 1904 as organising secretary of a tentative Association and from 1904 to 1923 as President of the Alliance. I want to take this public opportunity to thank the British officers Mrs. Fawcett, Mrs. Coit and Miss Macmillan for having assumed much of my official duty while I was held fast by the American campaign. I gratefully acknowledge my obligation to them and my deep appreciation of their willingness to do additional work in order that I might be relieved for service elsewhere. I want also to thank our many workers of the past twenty years, most of whom are not here, for their cooperation and generous helpfulness. Together we have worked, watched and waited. Together we have seen more than our dreams realised, and have been blessed beyond the lot of ordinary humans in the fulfilment of so much of our hope.

To the auxiliaries of France and Italy, let me express my especial sympathy. Your two countries compose an undoubted link between the North and the South. To the North they are bound by political connections; to the South by tradition. They are the lands that should next enfranchise their women. When they do, all the North lands will rejoice that they have taken stand with them, and the South lands will acknowledge that a new precedent has been set which they cannot ignore. Stand fast, take courage and do not be too modest in your demand. Macaulay said (I quote from memory only), "When men are turbulent it is held that they do not deserve liberty, and when they are quiet they do not want it". A happy medium should be your policy.

It is my privilege after so long an official term to retire from the Board at this Congress. A field of service for the Alliance lies ahead as useful to the world as that through which we have passed, and I therefore entreat you one and all to give to the officers elected here your continued and loyal cooperation. I urge, that there shall be no break in our work together, for "In Union there is strength". It is my most earnest prayer, that the Alliance will march on with no pause and not a faltering step until the cause which brought it into existence twenty years ago has been won in every civilised land. I do not say farewell, for I am not leaving the Alliance, I am merely being released from the obligation of office to become a soldier in the rank. I am proud to have been permitted to serve, ever so humbly, a cause so great and so righteous, and I am prouder still to have had the privilege of serving as President an Alliance of such noble, fearless, far seeing women as compose our membership.

No cause in all the world is nobler than ours, our movement still calls for confidence and courage, for vision and faith to follow it. It is my prayer that the Alliance will never fail in any of these qualities. May we continue marching together to the end.

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