The National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs commemorates a century today: 1839 - 1939. The most important thing that happened within that century was the organized Woman Movement and what it did. It utterly changed the foundation of human society. At the beginning of that century, the legal and social status of women was almost unbelievably restricted.
For many previous centuries the theory had been accepted with practical universality that men were divively appointed to rule and women to obey and this was enforced by both Catholic and Protestant Churches. As these churches largely controlled European governments and governments made and enforced laws, this theory was the basis of all codes of law which concerned women. Women rebels were numerous through the centuries, but the barriers which bound them were impassable. To America the controversy came. On every ship both sides were represented. There were women rebels, and sharp watchers to see that the limits of women's sphere were not moved outward by a hair's breadth. The colonists had scarcely erected their log cabins and planted their gardens before they took their places on opposing sides for the first battle - "Schools for Shes"
By 1839 there were schools for shes and many victories had been won, but the shadow of the age old traditions still hung heavily over women the world around. At about that date, Harriet Martineau, the first woman economist, visited this country and reported that only seven occupations were open to women.
The wages they might earn were pitifully small, yet the law forbade the married woman to collect and use these wages, provided her husband claimed them.
Girls might inherit property, but at the altar all property, even including wedding presents from her own parents, hairpins, and shoelaces, passed to the control of the husband. He could dispose of all her property as he chose and the emoluments belonged absolutely to him. Not only could the husband will away as he pleased all property of the wife, but he could also will away unborn children since he possessed sole guardianship over them.
A book full of additional restrictions, fixed only by public opinion, now by law, also existed. For example, men and women in most churches sat on opposite sides of the church and it was explained that this custom existed in order that men might commend themselves to God without diversion. Again, Margaret Fuller shocked all Boston into a buzz of condemnation because she sat in the corner of a public library and read a book.
No girl, the entire world around, had ever been graduated from a college. Oberlin, the first College admitting girls, was opened in 1833, but no girls graduated before 1841. Few high schools, if any, were open to girls in 1839. Boston, the leader in education, opened her first permanent high school for girls in 1852. Thus the century you celebrate began.
At Seneca Falls, New York, in the first woman's convention, a full program of Woman's Rights was adopted, containing eighteen grievances to be removed. Women rebels gathered around that program and an organized campaign began at that time and place.
Without pause, hesitation, or backward step, it moved onward for seventy-two years.
In 1868, Woman Suffrage by Federal Amendment was added to the program and, in time, overtopped all other demands.
When, on August 26, 1920, the Secretary of State handed us the pen with which he had singed the proclamation announcing the ratification of the 19th Amendment, the eighteen grievances on the original program had either been entirely removed or the remainder of loose ends had been undertaken by other groups.
Should any one think this seventy-two year long campaign was a gentle and smooth running movement, let me say that to remove these grievances some 147 laws were passed by legislatures and no one of them was passed through "polite spontaneity." Behind every law was a separate campaign and behind some there were as many as twenty in successive years. When a law passed, the women workers merely sang: "Praise God from whom all blessings flow" and introduced a new bill to remove another grievance, and a new campaign began. For the suffrage alone, it has been estimated that 948 distinct campaigns were conducted. Forty-eight of these were on the ratification of the Federal Amendment.
That amendment was finally submitted after a continuous campaign of 49 years. It was submitted by the combined influences of the educational campaigns conducted, and the victories achieved. Fifteen states had given full suffrage to women, mostly by referendum, and Illinois nearly full suffrage by Legislative enactment. Fourteen states had granted presidential or primary suffrage. Thus it happened that the women of 29 states could vote for president in 1920 whether the amendment was adopted or not. The Legislatures now showered Congress with resolutions urging the submission. Yet there lacked two votes of the two-thirds majority necessary. It was the most desperately serious obstruction in the seventy-two years. There was no hope of any minority Senator changing his mind. We then said: if two senators cannot change their minds, we must change the senators. It was the most significant achievement in the long campaign, but it was done.
Now, in 1939, no woman is uneducated for the want of schools. Every woman may make a will, control her property, and collect her wages. Every woman may have a bank account and carry her pocketbook. No wage earning position is legally closed to women. Any woman's chances to enter a new employment depend only on her own qualification and the approval of public opinion. Public opinion and not law controls this situation.
The basis of the Woman Movement was a demand for equality of opportunity between the sexes. That means when and if a woman is as well qualified as a man to fill a position, she shall have an equal and unprejudiced chance to secure it.
The suffrage campaign has been only an incident in the long struggle always aiming at opportunity. The campaign destroyed legal barriers to the political freedom of women, but it did not convince the minority who also carry one. Now and then some one from this minority writes an article, makes a speech, or publishes an editorial filled with fury and resentment at something women voters have or have not done. Such pronouncements may ruffle the mental composure of uninformed readers, but experienced suffragists receive them in much the spirit with which the astronomer greets a comet whose coming he has predicted. They are only the irritation of belated surrender.
What further is to be done? Where there is no opportunity, seek it; where there are barriers, break them; where there is opposition, besiege it. But jump at no conclusions; set up no half considered projects; make no mistakes in your aim. Keep the banner of women's rights flying until every vestige of the old tradition ordering
subjection tutelages for women has been chased from the earth.
Married women have made enormous trouble for their sex. The eighteen grievances were mainly theirs. When we thought they had been made free, new obstructions arose. Some now say that both husband and wife shall not work for money. Defend the married woman. You may marry yourself some time.
Recently, Sweden enacted a law forbidding the dismissal of a woman from any work position on account of marriage or maternity. Said one member of Parliament: "These are normal functions of the human race. To penalize them is unnatural and unjust." Germany once confined women to "Kinder, Kirche, and Kuchen." Now it orders them out again to relieve the labor shortage, the men having been conscripted by the fighting forces. Further, employers are commanded to take into their vacancies older women. So the woman problem continues alive and unsettled. Sweden expands women's freedom and Germany restricts it and gives no choice of life for men or women. Let us catch up with Sweden, and cut short any trend leading to the German way. Every man and woman should have the right and opportunity to live the kind of life he or she wants to live, provided it does not restrict the rights of others.
Up and at it, women of today! We, of the past, drudged and labored that you might enjoy liberties we never had. Will you not bequeath to those who come after you the removal of irritations yet remaining? Your ideal lies far ahead. March toward it! I rejoice in the belief that you will. The Woman Movement is not yet at an end. Let the brave and strong march on.
Catt, C. C. (1939). Carrie Chapman Catt Papers: Speech and Article File, 1892-1946; Speeches; Untitled; 1928 to 1944. [Manuscript/Mixed Material] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/mss154040425.