This address was delivered at the "Dixie Night" session of the National American Woman Suffrage Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1916.
The awakening of Southern women to this great world question has been slow, because in order to grip the Southern heart a cause must have its glamour. That, you see, is our trouble—too much heart. The only business a Southern girl is ever taught or is born with a knowledge of is the business of hearts—the way to win them, the way to hold them, sometimes the way to destroy them, but more often the way to cherish them through life. So what had woman's suffrage to do with us? Our laws were bad, particularly those affecting women and children, but then our men were so much better than our laws, so why worry? The much-vaunted Southern chivalry was so real that it was almost impossible to convict a woman in court, and the Southern men so imbued with the idea of protecting women that the lawmakers would not permit a married woman to make a contract in her own name until two years ago.
Now, it seems to me that with us much of the opposition to woman suffrage is founded on the supposition that men and women are ideal creatures—that men are always going to protect women, and no woman is ever going to need protection against men.
We are a race of dreamers in the South, by choice and because of climactic conditions. Doing things makes no appeal to us as long as we can sit and think about them. That is why we are still doing the rough work of the world instead of turning out the finished product; sending our lumber to Eastern markets to receive the mark of the master craftsman; sending our cotton everywhere to be turned into the finest fabrics, and that is why we haven't already got woman suffrage throughout the South to-day.
A Change Came
As long as it was a question of woman's rights; as long as the fight had any appearance of being against man; as long as there seemed to be a vestige of sex antagonism, the Southern woman stood with her back turned squarely toward the cause. She wouldn't even turn around to look at it. She would have none of it at all. But when she awoke slowly to a social consciousness, when eyes and brain were at last free after a terrible reconstruction period, to look out upon the world as a whole; when she found particularly among the more fortunate classes that her leisure had come to mean laziness, when she realized that through the changed conditions of modern life so much of her work had been taken out of the home, leaving her to choose between following it into the world or remaining idle; when with a clearer vision she saw that man needed her help in governmental affairs, particularly where they touched her own interests, she said, "Oh, that is so different!"
Right about face, she turned, and she said to the Southern man. " I don't wish to usurp your place in government, but it is time I had my own. I don't complain of the way you have conducted your part of the business of government, but my part has been either badly managed, or not managed at all. In the past you have not shown yourself averse to accepting my help in very serious matters; my courage and fortitude and wisdom you have continually praised. Now that there is a closer connection between the government and the home than ever before in the history of the world, will you not let me help you?
And he in turn has said—various things. Sometimes: "Oh, you want to help me, do you? Not to get in the way? Well, on the whole I see no objection to that." Sometimes when surpassingly truthful, he has said: "But you know, you'll try to reform us, and we don't want to be reformed. Why you'd take all the fun out of politics. What would we do if we couldn't drink and fight at a convention?" To which she might make reply, that there are plenty of other places, possibly more appropriate, for these delectable forms of amusement.
Some Southern Men
Then there is—yes, there is, even in the South—the gentle-mannered, sweet-tempered soul, who says: "Shucks, I don't take no stock in sich foolishness. My old 'oman, she raises children, chickens and hell, and that's enough for her." And there is, even in the South, the chivalrous gentleman who, when you have asked him to vote for your amendment, in order that we may all be free, with that glorious freedom which includes responsibility, will look at you and say: "I bet you left some dirty dishes on the table at home!" But, when you have, with truly heavenly patience, carefully explained to him that no good suffragist will permit dirt of any kind around her, not even dirty politicians, if he doesn't belong to the last-named class he may relent, and admit that perhaps women are needed in public housekeeping.
And we have, even in the South, the superior psychologist, the man who understands women so well, who knows perfectly why you are a suffragist, why you will deny yourself pretty frocks and put your jewels in the melting pot, or maybe give up a hard-earned vacation for the sake of the cause. It is because "you want to get your picture in the paper." And we have even in the South the man who considers that he has given you an irrefutable answer to all you may say about the desirability of a real democracy, about the injustice of class legislation and the inferior position given women in the eyes of the law, when he tells you a pathetic story of a child clutching tearfully at its mother's skirts, begging a story, or a cookie, and being pushed aside by a stern parent on the way to a suffrage meeting. Of course this same man, with characteristic logic, would feel that an impatient mother, bending over a washtub, and delivering a resounding smack to an annoying infant, was all that was sweet and womanly.
Other Southern Men
But, thank heaven, we have also in the South the man who has pointed the way to us, who has not been afraid to lead us, who has said to us, "The world needs its women; you must go where duty calls you. There is corruption to contend with, yes, but on you must rest the blame as well as on me. Who was it that taught me when my mind was soft and plastic? A woman. Who will teach the future citizen his duty to his country—not what he may take from it but what he may give to it? A woman. And what do you know of citizenship? You must first learn before you can teach; and there is no education without participation. You must first act if you would know. Remember every nation stands where its women stand; and if we, as a nation, are to realize our ideals; if we are to go onward and upward, it must be together."
And so you see not only the Southern woman, but the Southern man is now awake, and present conditions strongly indicate that before another year has passed we will have some form of suffrage for the women of our state. I think our hope lies in the knowledge that Southern women have never sidestepped the fact that no matter how different the interests of men and women may seem, in the end, they are identical. I need not point you to stupid, lying statistics, to prove to you that we have fewer divorces in the South than in any other section of the country. We are not the temperament to sell our birthright for a "mess of facts"; but the feeling of oneness of aim is there, and if you think that is a poor foundation for our future achievements, you must remember that we are essentially an imaginative, romantic people and we have seen a vision—the vision of a time when a woman's home will be the whole wide world, and her children, all those whose feet are bare, and her sisters, all those who need a helping hand. A vision of a new knighthood, a new chivalry, when men will not only fight for women, but for the rights of women. You know the cynical French phrase, wherever there is trouble, "cherzez la femme." We do not accept it. We believe that wherever a man has reached the heights, there you may, indeed, look for the woman. There is in every woman's heart, for every man who has her affection, whether it is her father, her husband, or her son, the feeling Kipling understood so well, when he wrote "Mother Mine." So there is little to fear in the way of rivalry, and we look forward to the time when there will be a better, more complete understanding between men and women, when men will have more of tenderness and women more of courage; when each will lead and follow in turn; and the honor of both be increased thereby.
And you will not blame us if we keep steadily in mind the greater woman of the future, of whom Walt Whitman said: "I see her where she stands, less protected than ever, and yet more protected than ever." More protected because there will be less need of shielding her in a world that has been humanized by woman's untrammeled influence.
As printed in Wheeler, M. S. (Ed.) (1995). Votes for women! The woman suffrage movement in Tennessee, the South, and the nation. University of Tennessee Press: Knoxville, Tenn.