Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Significance and History of the Ballot - Feb. 15, 1898

Elizabeth Cady Stanton
February 15, 1898— Washington, D.C.
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Cady Stanton gave this address in a hearing before the Committee on Woman Suffrage in the U.S. Senate.

Since our demand for the right of suffrage under the Fourteenth amendment, which was denied by Congress and the courts, the only discussions in Congress have been our appeals for a sixteenth amendment until the recent bills on immigration, by Senator Lodge of Massachusetts, and Senator Kyle of South Dakota, indirectly involving this question, and affecting the interests of woman. Their proposition to demand a reading and writing qualification on landing, strikes me as arbitrary and equally detrimental to our mutual interests. The danger is not in their landing and living in this country, but in their speedy appearance at the ballot box; there becoming an impoverished and ignorant balance of power in the hands of wily politicians.

While we should not allow our country to be a dumping ground for the refuse population of the Old World, still we should welcome all hardy, common-sense laborers here, as we have plenty of room and work for them. Here they can improve their own condition and our surroundings, developing our immense resources and the commerce of the country. The one demand I would make for this class is that they should not become a part of our ruling power until they can read and write the English language intelligently, and understand the principles of republican government. To make a nation homogeneous, its people should all speak one tongue. The dominion of Francis Joseph in Austria, where fifteen different languages are spoken, illustrates its perils. The officers of the army can be understood by only a small per cent of the soldiers. One can readily imagine the confusion and consequent dangers this would cause in time of war.

To prevent the thousands of immigrants daily landing on our shores marching from the steerage to the polls, the National Government should prohibit the States from allowing them to vote in less than five years, and not then unless the applicant could read and write the English language. This is the only restrictive legislation we need to protect ourselves against foreign domination. To this end, Congress should pass a bill for “educated suffrage” for our native-born as well as foreign rulers, alike ignorant of our institutions.

With free schools and compulsory education, no one has an excuse for not understanding the language of the country. As women are governed by a “male aristocracy,” we are doubly interested in having our rulers able at least to read and write. See with what care in the Old World the prospective heirs to the throne are educated. There was a time when the members of the British Parliament could neither read nor write, but those accomplishments are now required of the Lords and Commons, and even of the king and queen, while we have rulers, native and foreign, voting for laws, who do not understand the letters of the alphabet; and this in a Republic supposed to be based on the virtue and intelligence of the people!

Much as we need these measures for the stability of our Government we need them still more for the best interests of women. This ignorant vote is solid against woman's emancipation. In States where amendments to their constitutions are proposed for the enfranchisement of women, this vote has been in every case against the measure. We should ask for national protection against this hostile force playing football with the most sacred rights of one-half of the people. I have long felt that an educational qualification for the exercise of the right of 22 suffrage is a question of such vital consequence that it should be exhaustively discussed by the leaders of thought among our people.

The great political parties fear to propose this measure lest it should insure their defeat. No aspiring politician as an individual would dare express such an opinion, lest it should blast his chance for official position. Hence, only those guided by principle rather than policy are in a position to discuss the merits of this question. Such an amendment to our national Constitution should go into effect at the dawn of the next century.

As all who prize this right sufficiently to labor to attain it can easily do so, an educational qualification in no way conflicts with our cherished idea of universal suffrage. According to our theory of government, all our citizens are born voters, but they must be of age before they can exercise the right. To say they must also read and write the English language is equally logical and fair. We do not propose to withhold this right from any citizen exercising it, but to apply the restriction to all new claimants. Some say that the ignorant classes need the ballot for their protection more than the rich. Well, they have had it and exercised it, and what have they done to protect their own interests? Absolutely nothing, because they did not know in what direction their interests lay, or by what system of legislation they could be lifted out of poverty, vice, and ignorance to enjoy liberty, justice, and equality.

A gun is a good weapon for a man's protection against his enemy, but, if he does not know how to use it, it may prove a danger rather than a defense. There is something lacking in our science of industrial economics when multitudes in this land of plenty are suffering abject poverty. Yet by their ignorant votes they have helped to establish the very conditions from which they suffer. The ballot is of value only in the hands that know how to use it. In establishing free schools, our forefathers said to us in plain words: “The stability of a republic depends on the virtue and intelligence of the people.”

“Universal suffrage” with us is a mere pretense, a party cry, as thus far we have had “male suffrage” and nothing more. In most of the States qualifications of property, education, and color have been abolished, but in only four States have our rulers had the courage and conscience to abolish that of sex. A republic based on the theory of universal suffrage, in which a large class of educated women, representing the virtue, intelligence, and wealth of the nation, are disfranchised, is an anomaly in government, especially when all men, foreign and native, black and white ignorant and educated, vicious and virtuous, by their votes decide the rights and duties of this superior class.

In all national conflicts it is ever deemed the most grievous accident of war for the conquered people to find themselves under a foreign yoke, yet this is the position of the educated women of this Republic to-day. Foreigners are our judges and jurors, our legislators and municipal officials, and decide all questions of interest to us, as to the discipline in our schools, charitable institutions, jails, and prisons. Woman has no voice as to the education of her children or the environments of the unhappy wards of the State. The love and sympathy of the mother soul have but an evanescent influence in all departments of human interest until coined into law by the hand that holds the ballot. Then only do they become a direct and effective power in the Government.

As women have no voice in the laws and lawmakers under which they live, they surely have the right to demand that their rulers, foreign 23 and native, shall be able to read and write the English language. As it would take the ordinary immigrant at least five years to learn our language, we should be sure he had been here the prescribed time before exercising his right to vote. An educational qualification would also stimulate our native population to avail themselves of all the opportunities for learning. In basing suffrage on sex we have defeated the intentions of our ancestors and made their principles of government mere glittering generalities.

The popular objection to woman suffrage is that it would “double the ignorant vote.” The patent answer to this is, “Abolish the ignorant vote.” Our legislators have this power in their own hands. There have been serious restrictions in the past for men. We are willing to abide by the same for women, provided the insurmountable qualifications of sex be forever removed. In the discussion of this question educated women must now lead the way. Some reformers do not see the wisdom of the measure, so the few who do must take the initiative in arousing public thought and creating a widespread agitation of this important step in woman's emancipation.

During the past month the supreme court of Wyoming has handed down an important and far- reaching decision. The court decided that foreign-born citizens of the State of Wyoming must be able to read the constitution of the State in the English language in order to vote, and that the ability to read the constitution in a foreign language is not a compliance with the requirements of the constitution.

Some of the opponents talk as if educated suffrage would be invidious to the best interests of the laboring masses, whereas it would be most beneficial in its ultimate influence. You who can read and write, and enjoy hours in a library, gleaning there the history of the past as well as advancing civilization; you who can visit the galleries of art, and with your knowledge of the classics, poetry, and mythology, appreciate what the pictures say, little realize the starved condition of the uncultured mind. Blot this knowledge from your mind, and you may then understand the solitude of ignorance.

Who can measure its misery? Surely, when we compel all classes to learn to read and write, and thus open to themselves the door to knowledge, not by force, but by the promise of a privilege all intelligent citizens enjoy, we are benefactors and not tyrants. To stimulate them to climb the first rounds of the ladder that they may reach the divine heights where they shall be as Gods, knowing good and evil, by withholding the citizen's right to vote for a few years, is a blessing to them as well as to the State.

The condition of the laboring masses to-day, without adequate shelter, food, and clothes, is the result of their own ignorance of the manner in which the broad distinctions in society have been created. I am fully aware that simply reading and writing will not secure the key to the whole situation, but it is the first necessary step, without which the laboring man can never make and control his own environments.

We must inspire our people with a new sense of their sacred duties as citizens of a republic, and place new guards around our ballot box.

Walking in Paris one day I was deeply impressed with an emblematic statue in the square Chateau d'Eau, placed there in 1883 in honor of the Republic. On one side is a magnificent bronze lion with his forepaw on the electoral urn, which answers to our ballot box, as if to guard it from all unholy uses. Having overturned all pretensions to royalty, nobility, and all artificial distinctions in class, and declared the right of the people to a voice in the making of their laws and the selection 24 of their rulers, they exalted the idea of republican government and universal suffrage with this magnificent monument—the royal lion guarding the sacred treasures within the electoral urn.

As I turned away I thought of the American Republic and our ballot box with no guardian or sacred reverence for its contents among the people. Ignorance, poverty, and vice crowd its precincts, thousands from every incoming steamer march from the steerage to the polls, while educated women, representing the virtue and intelligence of the nation, are driven away.

I would like to see a monument to “educated suffrage” in front of our National Capitol, guarded by the goddess Minerva, her right hand resting on the ballot box, her left hand on the spelling book, the Declaration of Rights, and the National Constitution.

It would be well for us to ponder the Frenchman's idea, but instead of the royal lion, representing force, let us substitute wisdom and virtue in the form of Woman.

United States Congress. Senate. Committee On Woman Suffrage, Shaw, A. H., United States Congress ). Senate, National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection & Susan B. Anthony Collection. (1898) Report of hearing before the Committee on Woman Suffrage. Washington: Government Printing Office. [Pdf] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/07039905/.