Carrie Chapman Catt

The Inheritance of the Woman's Movement - April 14, 1938

Carrie Chapman Catt
April 14, 1938— Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York
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Many centuries ago Cicero said: "The men who does not know what happened before he was born, has the mind of a child." Since Cicero's day there has been no more important event than the Women's Movement, why it came and what it did. It was a movement alive in the days of the old Testament when, in Asia, it was a great a sin to kill a woman as to till a cow, but no greater, and, in Calcutta, to sell an unlicensed herb was a crime of precisely the same status as to kill a woman. Greet, the leader of European civilization, declared that no woman could know enough to testify in a court of law. The Feudal ages followed and the code of the Feudal system held that no woman could tell a truth from a lie. Yet, there were women scattered through the ages in Asia, Africa, and Europe, who know enough to point out errors in the woman's code and were brave enough to speak. The woman movement probably never began, but was always present, very slowly and very timidly creeping forward.

The time came when the world was ready for a movement with more speed and plan. It awaited a leader and she came. She was English and poor, and she was not well educated. Her father was a drunkard and life was extremely difficult. Yet, she had an exceptionally logical mind and a clear comprehension of the difference between truth and error. Her name was Mary Wollstonecraft. She published a book called "The Vindication of the Rights of Woman" in 1792. In the dedication of her book to a Bishop who did not agree with her on a single point, she said: "I wish to see woman placed in a station in which she would advance instead of retard progress" and this was the basis of her plea and the demand of the movement that followed. While she lived, there were few to praise and many to condemn.

Horace Walpole led the scoffing and called her a "Hyena in petticoats." Yet her portrait, that of an intelligent and rather handsome young woman, hangs in the National Portrait Gallery of her country and Mrs. Millicent Fawcett, the leader of the British Woman Suffrage movement, in 1885 said in an introduction to a new edition of Mary Wollstonecraft's book: "She made the first systematic and concentrated attack upon the old code and the Woman's Rights movement in England and America owes as much to her as modern Political Economy owes to her contemporary, Adam Smith."

When Mary Wollstonecraft's book was published, married women were not permitted to control their property in any country. Practically, they did not own it. The Common Law, in operation in England and the United States, held that husband and wife were one and that one was the husband. All possessions of the wife passed into the hands of the husband at marriage and any inheritance the wife might receive thereafter also became his. Real Estate was recorded in her name, but she had no control over it nor any claim upon income arising from it. She could not make a will, sue or be sued. Even the wedding presents from her parents, her clothing and hairpins, became the possession of her husband. In the original states, women were arrested for scolding and dipped in the river on a sort of spring-board arrangement. In 1889, a woman was brought before the Court in New Jersey by her husband on the charge of scolding. It was found that old law was still intact and could be enforced, but the board had been lost and the woman escaped. The wife owed obedience to her husband and he possessed a legal right to punish her if she offended him. England had modified the law, limiting the stick with which a husband could whip his wife to a size not larger than his thumb. Several American states copied this law, but, in others, horsewhips could be legally used and were.

Not only could the husband will away, as he chose, all property of the wife, but as he possessed sole guardianship over the children, he could and did will away unborn children.

When I began to go around the Eastern States, I took much pleasure in picking up true stories concerning the effect of those laws. In Pennsylvania, a rich girl married a poor man and the comment was: "When they walked up the aisle, the bride was a millionaire and the groom a pauper; when they walked back, the groom was a millionaire and the bride a pauper.

In New England, a girl taught a country school at $1.00 a week and boarded round. At the end of three months, she was to be married and put the $12 she had earned into twelve silver teaspoons at $1 a piece. In a few months, her husband had an accident and died. The law stepped in and took charge of the property, much of which had come from her father, and told the young widow that she would get one-third of it and could select at full price any particular thing she wanted to keep. She chose her teaspoons and they cost her $12. Soon a man came along and she married again. He died and again the law stepped in and again she bought the silver spoons at $12. Again she went out sewing and again a widower came along and proposed. "No" said she, "I shall never marry again. I've paid $36 for my silver spoons already and I cannot afford to buy them again."

No college in the world admitted women and only the rudiments of education were permitted girls in such schools as were open to them. Geography was usually excluded as unnecessary to women. By way of illustration, from 1789 to 1822, girls had only been permitted to attend the public schools of Boston in the summer months when there were not enough boys to occupy the seats. At times, they were admitted to the schools for two hours only in the afternoon. In 1826, amid a storm of opposition, Boston opened a high school for girls. The school was full and not a girl quitted it in spite of harsh criticism in the eighteen months of its existence. It was then closed. I believe that no other high school was open to girls anywhere in the world at that date. Boston opened a permanent high school in 1852 and by that date there were many of them in the United States.

ln 1821, Troy Female Seminary was opened by Mrs. Emma Willard, the pioneer of the Higher Education for Women. It is now, I believe, called the Russell Sage College. Mrs. Sage was, herself, a student there and at one time she told me many amazing episodes of its early days. Physiology, for example, was taught girls there for the first time but a tremendous hubbub of shocked opinion greeted the fact that the school book used had in it pictures of the human frame on which bones and muscles were displayed. Soon these indelicate illustrations were neatly covered by thick brown paper and no girl for some time was permitted, again, to see so immodest a thing as a human skeleton.

In 1833, Oberlin College was established and coeducation admitted boys, girls, and Negroes on the same terms. It was the first college in the modern world to admit girls and the first in this country, I believe, to admit Negroes. Several women were sold at auction in England during this period and, within my memory an auction for the sale of a wife by her husband in New York was only prevented from completion by the Police.

In the early churches in the United States, women were usually seated on one side and men on the other. It was explained that men could better commend themselves to God when there were no women near. Women were forbidden to pray, speak, or sing in many of the churches and, in the business management of the church, women members did not speak or vote. There were exceptions, the noblest being the Society of Friends. In 1830, Abby Kelley and the two Grimke sisters began speaking in public and because the pioneers who made it possible for the women who followed to practice the right of free public speech. Lucy Stone was born in 1818. She said to me, seventy-five years later, that in her early years, she was often pelted with eggs, but, said she, "I never had any bad eggs thrown at me as had Abbie Kelley." So the evolution of public speaking for women travelled from bad eggs to good eggs, and on to no eggs.

In 1840, something happened which made news which rang round the world. The first World Anti-Slavery Convention was called and held in London. Every anti-slavery society in this country was invited to send delegates and many did. Several women, usually the wives of men delegates, were chosen and went. The most distinguished was Lucretia Mott, a well known and eloquent Quaker preacher. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was not a delegate, but she went with her delegate husband, - a bride on her wedding trip. The first question before the convention was: what shall be done with the women delegates? The debate was long, vindictive, and bitter. Wendell Phillips, whose wife was one of the delegates, led the struggle for their admission. When the vote was taken, the women were excluded by an overwhelming vote. William Lloyd Garrison, Editor of The Anti-Slavery Liberator, and the best known anti-slavery leader in the world, and Nathaniel P. Rogers, Editor of Freedom's Herald, arrived after the exclusion of the women and therefore refused to join the convention. They sat in the gallery with the women. Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton went one day, together with the delegation, to see the British Museum. They seated themselves on a bench near the door and told their friends that they would soon follow. When, after three hours, the delegation returned, the two women were still there. Meanwhile, they had resolved to call a convention of women in the United State to bring about a change in the status of women's rights. In 1848, the resolution was carried out. Mrs. Mott visited a sister in Seneca Falls, a charming village in Northern New York. Mrs. Stanton lived there and again the two heads plotted and planned. The convention was called. The next problem was" What shall we put before it? Elizabeth Cady Stanton had an idea. The Convention should issue a declaration. I think she would have liked to call it a Declaration of Women's Independence. It was called a Declaration of Sentiments. Mrs. McClintock, Mrs. Stanton, and Mrs. Mott sat around a center table (now in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington), and Mrs. Stanton had another idea. They would see whether the women did not have as many grievances against the laws and customs of this country as the men had had against King George. They found eighteen counts in the original Declaration and, happily, found as many complaints to put in the Declaration of Sentiments. The convention adopted the Declaration. Thus, in July 1848, at Seneca Falls, appeared the definite program of the organized movement. From that day, there was no pause, no backward step in the urge to put behind it.

After 1848, conventions sprung up here, there, and everywhere, and there was no stop until the Civil War brought it. Nine years before the War and two years after the Seneca Falls Convention, Wendell Phillips made the closing speech at one of these conventions. His last words were: "We throw down the guantlett. We have counted the cost; we know know the yoke and burden we assume. We know the sneer, the lying frauds of misstatement and misrepresentation that await us. We have counted all: but it is only the dust in the balance and the small dust in the measure compared with the inestimable blessing of doing justice to one half of the human species. Truly it is the great question of the age. It locks all others out of countenance. We know we are right. We only ask an opportunity to argue the question, to set it full before the people and then leave it to the intellects and the hearts of our country."

It was a prediction. Argument for argument, speech for speech, the campaign continued year after year, decade after decade, and generation after generation. Each year brought more workers, more money, more friends, and always clearer understanding.

Two national associations – the American and the National – directed the work. In many states no Legislatures met after the Civil War which did not have a hearing on some point of the Women's Program – Property, Educational, Civil or Political Rights. With eighteen grievances, there was much to talk about. There were many State suffrage amendment campaigns. We lost as many as we won. The Political Parties gave order to defeat them. Nevertheless, we stumbled forward and never closed a door to a possible opportunity.

[Missing pages 28 and 29]

Rhoda Palmer attended the 1848 convention. At the age of one hundred, she voted for President in 1920 at her home near Seneca Falls. She had seen the entire campaign covering seventy-two years.

The State of New York was the storm center of the movement from 1848 onward. Fairly early it revised its women's code. It granted school suffrage and then stubbornly fought the effort to secure a referendum constitutional amendment.

New York was pronounced an impossible State with its great foreign population and vote. Others said: to break the opposition of the largest State will be the quickest route to the end. In 1909, the State was re-organized on the plan followed by political parties. Leaders were elected for each Assembly District and captains for each Election District. These districts were surveyed and educated. There were meetings every day and evening. The Legislature, after years of opposition, submitted the Amendment to be voted on in 1915. It was the largest, liveliest, and most thorough campaign Woman Suffrage had ever had in this or any other country. No man suffrage campaign could compare with it. The Amendment was lost, nevertheless, but the "yes" vote was the largest ever passed for woman suffrage. Three nights later, an overwhelming meeting was held in Cooper Union where $100,000 was pledged for the new campaign. Women pledged to make it a bigger and better campaign.

A very few of the great things done were the distribution at meetings of ten millions of leaflets. The voters were circularized in addition. Many schools were conducted for training poll workers and on Election Day of 1917, ten thousand women served. Hundreds of newspapers were supplied with daily news, including twenty-four foreign language papers. Windows were filled with posters, huge billboards lined the railroads and a great variety of electrical signs made the suffrage appeal.

A petition to men to vote for the amendment was signed by 1,030,000 women. A year was consumed in the process of securing the signatures. Women canvassed from door to door, climbing stairs and descending into cellars. A parade of the petitions, covering half a mile marched through the streets, district by district. There were torchlight processions every night with street corner speaking and marathon speeches which did not pause for twenty-four hours.

The 1917 Election Day brought a triumph with 102,000 majority. It was not only the decisive victory of the American campaign, but it broke the opposition of the world and became the climax of the mandate to Congress which had been steadily building for fifty years. It was the twelfth State to grant the vote, thus enfranchising the women of one-fourth of the United States. The women lawyers of Illinois had found a unique way of securing presidential and municipal suffrage by Legislative enactment and a great election in Chicago gave the effect of a thirteenth state. The following year, three additional states were destined to win. The suffrage membership of the nation had reached two millions of women.

Twenty-four State Legislatures sent resolutions to Congress asking submission of the Federal Amendment. Five State Legislatures asked Senators to change their votes and so many States gave presidential suffrage, that here was a total of thirty states where women could now vote for President even without the Federal Amendment.

Two votes were now lacking. The suffragists said that when a Senator cannot change his mind, the Senator, himself, must be changed. After difficult campaigns, a Republican was replaced by a Democrat in one State and a Democrat by a Republican in another.

The New York delegation in Congress changed its opposition to Support and the Federal Amendment was submitted. For fifty years, the suffrage hearing in Washington had been an annual event.

[This sentence fragment was crossed out in the manuscript] The final victory meeting was held in the same city August 26, 1920, when the pen which signed the Proclamation, enfranchising all the women in the nation was

To carry forward this campaign of seventy-two years, then there was a tremendous speeding-up during the last year. The National Headquarters occupied two floors in a business building in New York where forty paid employees and as many unpaid women worked. In a very large house in Washington, the work connected with the Federal Amendment was housed with its own special staff, while in New York and other states, additional headquarters were occupied by State and City workers.

So far as I know, no National or State President, or other officer, with a single exception, ever received a salary during the seventy-two years. There was, occasionally, private financial assistance given to the maintenance of an officer, but it was privately done. The movement began with eighteen grievances and the aim to remove them. When on August 26, 1920, the Secretary of State handed us the pen with which he had signed the proclamation, announcing the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, these grievances had either been entirely removed or the remainder of loose ends had been undertaken by other groups. Each grievance had to be removed in forty-eight states and there were times when as many as ten different laws were required to right one wrong. The total number of acts of Legislative and Congress to dispose of these grievances must have had as many as four thousand enactments.

There are now thirty-seven countries which have enfranchised women. The vote has been withdrawn from none of them, but, alas, many states are now ruled by dictators and the vote is not the voice of a free citizen.

With educational privileges vastly expanded throughout the world and the universities nearly everywhere admitting girls, with the doors of all professions open to women, and a long list of new posts created by the development of science, inviting women to occupy them, I find this a totally different world from the one into which I was born. The struggle of the seventy-two years campaign was won by the devoted capacity of many women to perform drudgery

When Miss Anthony was old and I was still young, I took a trip with her in a campaign state. Once, when many things had gone wrong, I stepped to her door and said: "I think I have made the worst speech of my life to-night and I never want to make another. Did you ever feel that way?" "Oh yes!" said she, "I always feel that way, but when I come to my senses, I know that bad speeches help a cause more than no speeches at all. So from first to last, we stumbled on for three generations and were able to bring you some privileges and liberties we never had.

Ask yourselves what the new woman of this new world will make of the next seventy-two years.

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