Ida Husted Harper

Testimony at a Hearing before the Committee on Rules of the U.S. House of Representatives - Dec. 3, 1913

Ida Husted Harper
December 03, 1913— Washington, D.C.
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Gentlemen, this is not the time or place to enter into an argument on the merits or demerits of woman suffrage, and we shall use the valuable hours you have so graciously accorded us simply to ask that you will give us a committee of our very own, before which we may feel that we have a right to discuss this question. In making this request we ask you to decide, first, whether the issue of woman suffrage is sufficiently national in its character to justify a special committee for consideration; second, whether it has been so fairly treated by the committee which has had it in charge for 44 years that another is not necessary; and third, whether justice requires that it should come under the jurisdiction of Congress.

In nine States and one Territory women now possess the franchise on exactly the same terms as men; in one State, Illinois, they have the presidential, the municipal, a considerable county and township suffrage, and a vote on all questions submitted to the electors; in five States they vote on special taxation, issuing of bonds, etc.; in one half the States they have school suffrage. There are now in the United States 1,500,000 women who are completely enfranchised and about 4,000,000 who may vote for presidential electors. This number is likely to be increased, as four States—Nevada, Montana, North and South Dakota—will vote in 1914 on woman suffrage amendments to their constitutions. The legislatures of eight other States this year gave a majority vote in favor of submitting such as amendment. Eighteen Members of the United States Senate and nearly forty in the House of Representatives have women constituents. Organizations representing several million and not less than a million women have officially indorsed the enfranchisement of women. In every State except South Carolina women are organized in a greater or less degree to obtain the franchise. These facts are submitted to prove that woman suffrage is a national question and entitled to consideration by a special committee in the National House of Representatives.

Second. Has the treatment of this question by the committee to which it has always been referred been such as to warrant a continuance of this custom? The National Woman Suffrage Association was formed in 1869 for the express purpose of obtaining an amendment the Federal Constitution. Its representatives went before the congressional committees that year and have continued to do so at each new Congress since that time, never having been refused a hearing. At the beginning of 1882 both Senate and House created special woman suffrage committees. The Senate has continuously maintained this committee, but in 1884 the House declined to renew it by a vote of 124 nays, 85 yeas, 112 not voting. The debate was long and heated and almost wholly on the question of woman suffrage itself. Thenceforth the women appeared before the House Judiciary Committee which, although busy and overworked, had always a good representation present and was respectful and often cordial.

The ablest women this country has produced have appeared before this committee, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, Mary B. Clay of Kentucky; Julia Ward Howe, Elizabeth B. Meriwether of Tennessee, Isabella Beecher Hooker, Caroline E Merrick of New Orleans, Frances E. Willard, Virginia L. Minor of Missouri—the list is far too long to quote, and nearly all of those named have passed away with their dream for women unfulfilled, and leaving to this generation a legacy of work and faith. Repeatedly the eminent members of this Judiciary Committee have said that no hearings before them were conducted with such dignity and ability as those of the advocates of woman suffrage. And what is the result? Six reports in forty-four years and five of these unfavorable!

Does the record end here? No; there has been no report of any kind since 1894. For the last 20 years the women of this Nation have made an annual pilgrimage to Washington to plead their cause before a committee which has forgotten their existence as soon as they were out of sight. Within the past five years there is scarcely a parliament of a civilized country in the whole world that has not had before it the question of woman's enfranchisement, and yet never once in the entire history of the United States has this question been considered by its lower House of Congress, supposedly the direct representatives of the whole people. Gentleman of the Committee on Rules, will you not give to women a committee of their own that will not ignore them for half a century?

Third. It seems appropriate at this time to consider for a moment whether woman suffrage should come under the jurisdiction of Congress or be vested entirely in the States. The Federal Constitution expressly provides for the election of the Members of the House of Representatives and gives Congress the power to alter this provision. This body will soon act on a bill which determines who shall vote for United States Senators. Thus far there is undoubtedly national control of the suffrage. The convention which framed the Federal Constitution necessarily had to make it one of compromise on many points, but they were absolutely unable to agree on the qualifications for exercising the suffrage.

So heated was the debate that, according to history, Benjamin Franklin had to call for prayer. The only possible end was to leave the Constitution silent on the subject, except to provide for the election of the National Congress, and the matter therefore was left with the individual States. The entire status of woman has changed since then, and ethical and social questions have entered into politics which could not have been foreseen. It is inevitable that this Constitution must occasionally be amended to meet new conditions, while leaving its fundamental and vital provisions undisturbed. The advocates of woman suffrage believe that it should now be changed so as to give a voice in governmental matters to a half of the people which has become an important factor in the public life of the Nation. By the only means now available the half which possesses the ballot has the absolute authority over further extension, and no ruling class likes to divide its power. State rights are desirable to a very large extent when all the people of the State have a voice, but it is not in harmony with the spirit of our Republic that one half of the citizens of a State should have complete power over the political liberty of the other half.

Without entering into any argument, two or three concrete examples will illustrate how this power may be used. In 1887 the Legislature of New Jersey gave school suffrage to women in villages and country districts, but after they had exercised it seven years the Supreme Court decided that the legislature had exceeded its rights and the constitution of the State must be amended. To preserve this scrap of a vote the women organized and began a campaign, and, since this was necessary, they asked that the new bill might include also school suffrage for women in the cities, but this was refused. By a technicality they had to get the bill through three legislatures, but finally by much hard work, the expenditure of a great deal of money, and a petition of 7,000 they succeeded in having the question submitted. There was not the slightest criticism of the way women had used their school franchise for seven years; there was an organized opposition from those interests which usually defeat the full suffrage, and yet on this simple proposition to restore to women in the villages and country districts the right to vote for school trustees over 75,000 men voted "no," and it was defeated by more than 10,000 majority.

To show that this was not due to any so-called "eastern conservatism," consider a case in South Dakota. While it was a Territory women were permitted to vote for all school officers, and it was supposed that this privilege was continued in its State constitution. It was soon found, however, that by its provisions they could no longer vote for State and county superintendents, and therefore an amendment for this purpose had to be submitted to the electors. This was done in 1893, but, although the women had already been voting many years for those officers with no criticism, about 22,700 men voted "no" and the amendment was defeated by a majority of 5,672.

Permit another instance, which occurred in Massachusetts last month. So carefully are women excluded from office in this State that it is necessary to amend the constitution in order that they may be notaries public. They have for many years asked the legislature to submit an amendment, and this year it was done, but it was overwhelmingly defeated by about 30,000—181,343 men voting against it—although every other amendment voted on at that election was carried.

To show the difficulties of a referendum of any extension of political rights to women in any section of the country, take the case of Louisiana, where a year or two ago a constitutional amendment to permit women to serve on school and other public boards was submitted. It was said to have been defeated by a large majority, but so determined were the election commissioners that this "entering wedge" should not be allowed that it led to their being indicted for fraud by the grand jury. It was found that the law did not require an official count of constitutional amendments, and the true result probably never will be known.

Women have been defeated over twenty times in the strongest campaigns they were able to make for full-suffrage amendments to State constitutions. From 1896 to 1910 they were not once successful. Sometimes they were sold out by the party "machines" at the last moment; sometimes they were counted out after they had really secured a majority; but whatever the reason, they lost. The victories of the last three years may be cited as evidence that henceforth they will succeed. Those victories were largely due to political conditions which do not exist in many other States, and against them must be set the crushing defeats in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan, where the woman suffrage amendment was fought by every vicious interest which menaces the body politic. These same interests have been the cause of defeat in every State where amendments have lost.

Gentlemen of the committee, you have not forgotten the woman suffrage parade in Washington last spring, when troops from Fort Myer had to be summoned to protect the women from the mob that closed in upon them. If you could have been in that procession and looked into the faces of that jeering, insulting, half-drunken line of men you would have realized what the mothers, wives and daughters of this country are subjected to when they are compelled to plead with the individual voters to grant them the suffrage. Create for us our own committee, who will not be too busy or too indifferent to give our case the attention to which it is entitled—a committee whose appointment will hold out to us the hope that ultimately our question will be considered by the National Congress, which is elected to represent all the people, women as well as men.

United States Congress. (1914). Hearing before the Committee on Rules, House of Representatives, Sixty-third Congress, second session, on Resolution establishing a Committee on woman suffrage; December 3, 4, & 5, 1913. Retrieved from