Alice Stone Blackwell

The Indifference of Women - Feb. 15, 1898

Alice Stone Blackwell
February 15, 1898— Washington, D.C.
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Blackwell gave this speech at a hearing before the Committee on the Judiciary of the U.S. House of Representatives.

It is often said that the chief obstacle to equal suffrage is the indifference and opposition of women, and that whenever the majority of women ask for the ballot they will get it. But it is a simple historical fact that every improvement thus far made in the condition of women has been secured, not by a general demand from the majority of women, but by the arguments, entreaties, and “continual coming” of a persistent few. In each case the advocates of progress have had to contend not merely with the conservatism of men, but with the indifference of women, and often with active opposition from some of them.

When a man in Saco, Me., first employed a saleswoman the men boycotted his store, and the women remonstrated with him on the sin of which he was guilty in placing a young woman in a position of such publicity. When Lucy Stone tried to secure for married women the right to their own property, women asked with scorn, “Do you think I would give myself where I would not give my property?” When Elizabeth Blackwell began to study medicine, the women at her boarding house refused to speak to her, and women passing her on the streets would hold their skirts aside so as not to touch her. It is a matter of history with what ridicule and opposition Mary Lyon's first efforts for the education of women were received, not only by the mass of men, but by the mass of women as well. In England when the Oxford examinations were thrown open to women, the Dean of Chichester preached a sermon against it, in which he said:

By the sex at large, certainly, the new curriculum is not asked for. I have ascertained, by the extended inquiry among gentlewomen, that, with true feminine instinct they neither entirely distrust, or else look with downright disfavor on so wild an innovation and interference with the best traditions of their sex.

In Eastern countries, where women are shut up in zenanas and forbidden to walk the street unveiled, the women themselves are among the strongest upholders of these traditional restrictions, which they have been taught to think add to their dignity. The Chinese lady is as proud of her small feet as any American remonstrant is of her political disabilities. Pundita Ramabia tells us that the idea of education for girls is so unpopular with the majority of Hindoo women that 20 when a progressive Hindoo proposes to educate his little daughter it is not uncommon for the women of his family to threaten to drown themselves.

All this merely shows that human nature is conservative, and that it is fully as conservative in women as in men. The persons who take a strong interest in any reform are always comparatively few, whether among men or women, and they are habitually regarded with disfavor, even by those whom the proposed reform is to benefit. Thomas Hughes says, in School Days at Rugby:

So it is, and must be always, my dear boys. If the Angel Gabriel were to come down from heaven and head a successful rise against the most abominable and unrighteous vested interest which this poor old world groans under, he would most certainly lose his character for many years, probably for centuries, not only with the upholders of the said vested interest, but with the respectable mass of the people whom he had delivered.

Many changes for the better have been made during the last half century in the laws, written and unwritten, relating to women. Everybody approves of these changes now, because they have become accomplished facts. But not one of them would have been made to this day if it had been necessary to wait until the majority of women asked for it. The change now under discussion is to be judged on its merits. In the light of history, the indifference of most women and the opposition of a few must be taken as a matter of course. It has no more rational significance now than it has had in regard to each previous step of women's progress.

United States Congress. House. Committee On The Judiciary, Shaw, A. H., United States Congress ). House, National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection & Susan B. Anthony Collection. (1898) Hearing on House Joint Resolution 68: providing as follows, "Section I. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex." "Section 2. The Congress shall have power, by appropriate legislation, to enforce the provisions of this article.". [Washington, Government Printing Office] [Pdf] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,