Florence Kelley

The Working Woman's Need of the Ballot - Feb. 15, 1898

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

No one needs all the powers of the fullest citizenship more urgently than the wage-earning woman, and from two different points of view—that of actual money wages and that of her wider needs as a human being and a member of the community.

The wages paid any body of working people are determined by many influences, chief among which stands the position of the particular body of workers in question. Thus the printers, by their intelligence, their powerful organization, their solidarity and united action, keep up their wages in spite of the invasion of their domain by new and improved machinery. On the other hand, the garment-workers, the sweaters, victims, poor, unorganized, unintelligent, despised, remain forever on the verge of pauperism, irrespective of their endless toil. If, now, by some untoward fate the printers should suddenly find themselves disfranchised, placed in a position in which their members were politically inferior to the members of other trades, no effort of their own short of complete enfranchisement could restore to them that prestige, that good standing in the esteem of their fellow craftsmen and the public at large which they now enjoy, and which contributes materially in support of their demand for high wages.

In the garment trades, on the other hand, the presence of a body of the disfranchised, of the weak and young, undoubtedly contributes to the economic weakness of these trades. Custom, habit, tradition, the regard of the public, both employing and employed, for the people who 15 do certain kinds of work, contribute to determine the price of that work, and no disfranchised class of workers can permanently hold its own in competition with enfranchised rivals. But this works both ways. It is fatal for any body of workers to have forever hanging from the fringes of its skirts other bodies of workers on a level just below its own; for that means continual pressure downward, continual additional difficulty to be overcome in the struggle to maintain reasonable rates of wages. Hence, within the space of two generations there has been a complete revolution in the attitude of the trades-unions toward the women working in their trades, whereas forty years ago women might have knocked in vain at the doors of the most enlightened trade-union of those days. To-day the Federation of Labor keeps in the field paid organizers whose duty it is to enlist in the unions as many women as possible. The workingmen have perceived that women are in the field of industry to stay; and they see, too, that there can not be two standards of work and wages for any trade without constant menace to the higher standard. Hence their effort to place the women upon the same industrial level with themselves in order that all may pull together in the effort to maintain reasonable conditions of life. But this same menace holds with regard to the vote.

The lack of the vote places the wage-earning woman, as such, upon a level of irresponsibility compared with her enfranchised fellow-workman. By impairing her standing in the community, however unintentionally, the general rating of her value as a human being and consequently as a worker, is lowered. In order to be rated as good as a good man, in the field of her earnings, she must show herself better than he. She must be more steady, or more trustworthy, or more skilled, or more cheap, perhaps, in order to stand the same chance of employment. Thus, while women are accused of lowering wages, might they not justly reply that it is only by conceding something from the pay which they would gladly claim, that they can hold their own in the market so long as they labor under the disadvantage of their disfranchisement?

From the point of view of the broader human need, no one can be more directly affected by the administration of public affairs than the woman who earns her living. The case has been well put for the woman who holds property; the injustice of taking her property in taxes and giving her no voice in the disposition made of it, is now widely recognized. But is the property owners' property half so precious to her as the working woman's so to his mother? The whole future of thousands of boys depends upon the integrity of the police, the honesty and mercy of the police courts, the enforcement of the compulsory education law, the administration of the local school boards. The health of the working woman's children depends upon the board of health keeping the air pure, the water office keeping the supplies pure, the council placing fenders on the trolleys, to keep her lads from being run over while she is away from home earning their bread. Many things, which for the property holder are matters of incidental interest, are questions of life and death to the mother who is also the breadwinner. Both for herself, for the effect which her disfranchisement has upon her actual income, and for the sake of the government as it comes into beneficent contact or into ruinous collision with those who are dearer to her than life itself, does the wage earning woman need the ballot.

Finally, the very fact that women now form about one-fifth of the employees in manufacture and commerce in this country has opened a vast field of industrial legislation directly affecting women as wage-earners. 16 The courts in some of the States, notably in Illinois, are taking the position that women can not be treated as a class apart and legislated for by themselves, as has been done in the factory laws in England and on the Continent of Europe, but must abide by that universal freedom of contract which characterizes labor in America. This renders the situation of the working women absolutely anomalous. On the one hand, she is cut off from the protection awarded to her sisters abroad; on the other, she has no such power to defend her interests at the polls, as is the heritage of her brothers at home. This position is untenable, and there can be no pause in the agitation for full political power and responsibility until these are granted to all the women of the nation.

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/.