Helen Hamilton Gardener

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

Helen Hamilton Gardener
December 03, 1913— Washington, D.C.
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Mr. Chairman and gentlemen of the Rules Committee, as I understand it, this hearing is not to be a forum for the discussion of the general question of woman suffrage but is to be confined to the one point for which this committee has appointed this time for discussion, namely, whether or not the Rules Committee shall recommend to Congress the appointment of a committee on woman suffrage for the House of Representatives, whose duty it shall be to give such of its time and attention to this question as it shall find desirable or necessary.

This is not much for the women of America to ask of you. You may think of the expense. That is a mere trifle as compared with the millions of dollars which women pay and have paid to sustain this and other governmental committees, departments, and institution.

We are called upon to help pay for all of the others, why should we not have one of our own?

We do not hesitate to pay, or object to, the tax upon us for many and varied committees. Are men less generous and considerate of the needs and special interests of women ?

You may remind me in this connection that for so many years—none of you gentlemen can recall when it was not so—we have been sent before the Judiciary Committee once a year for a constitutional amendment looking toward that end. You may say that the Judiciary Committee is a fine and able committee. In that, gentlemen, we agree with you and are not here to find fault with or to criticize the Judiciary Committee—a fine, able committee, of course. But our special needs and problems are not its object of existence. We are purely and solely a side issue to it. We appear before it, year after year, on one day for two hours, and that is the end of it. That committee is a very busy one. The President has notified it that it is to be still busier this session. He has even gone the length of giving its chairman notice that the heavy weight of this session is to fall upon the Judiciary Committee, even as the heavy weight of the special session just closed fell upon the Ways and Means Committee, and we all know that the work that committee last session was entirely too heavy for it to have borne another straw. Those of us who live here and have known Congress from our childhood know that an outside issue would have less chance to get any real consideration by such a committee under such conditions than has the proverbial rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Now, Mr Chairman, as never before, the Judiciary Committee is warned by the President that it is to be more heavily burdened during this Congress than is any other part of Congress. As never before, the question of woman suffrage, of the legal and political status of one-half of the population, is pressing for solution. There is and will be much beside and beyond the mere perfunctory yearly hearing henceforth until the end.

We need, as we never before needed, a special standing committee to look into many conditions, to familiarize itself with many points which the simple annual hearing does not involve.

Why, gentlemen, more than one fifth of the Senate and more than one seventh of the House to-day are elected by women's votes—yet we have not one little committee among the entire group of many.

More than one-sixth of the electoral vote comes from woman-suffrage States. At least one of the members of this Rules Committee was elected by the votes of women, and three other members come from States where campaigns are now on, and at least in one of these the chances are all on the side of our success.

Under these circumstances, and with the various questions involved, the rapidly developing and changing conditions, do you not realize that the committee for which we ask is overdue?

You will remember that there is a Committee on Indian Affairs. Now, why? Are the Indians so far more important than are all of the women of America? Are their affairs more vital?

They did not always have a special committee. They used to be a mere incident, as we now are. They used to be under the War Department, and so long as this was the case nobody ever doubted for an instant that the "only good Indian was a dead Indian"—just as under the incidental administration of the Judiciary Committee it is not doubted by some that the only good woman is a voteless woman. When the Indians got a committee of their own they began get schools, lands in severalty, and the general status of human beings and not merely that of targets.

Now, I am not saying this in derogation of the War Department nor of the judiciary. It is a perfectly natural and a perfectly inevitable result of the situation.

It was the same general situation with labor before it achieved the dignity and status of having its own committee and now its department as well.

In the case of the Indians it was the business of the War Department to keep order. It was its business, when the Indians committed outrages or wandered from some special tract of land that had been designated by the Government or by the white settlers thereabouts as their "reservation," to chase them back, punish them for leaving it, and also for any depredations which they had committed. And, by the way, there is always an army of reactionaries to try to chase woman back to her "reservation" or "sphere" which somebody else has fixed for her in some passage and without her consent.

But when a special committee on Indian affairs was created it became the duty of that committee to begin back of the depredations and to inquire into what had caused the trouble, as well as the mere leaving of the reservation. In short, it became the duty of the committee to investigate the real condition, the needs, the grievances, and the best methods of promoting the interests of the Indians, as well as of keeping them in order from the side of mere force.

That was the beginning of the end of Indian wars. That was the first hope of a possibility—previously sneered at—of making real and useful citizens of this race of men and women from whom we now have Representatives in Congress side by side with you gentlemen.

It was precisely the same with our island possessions. Only in this case we had profited by our experience with our Indian and labor problems, and it did not take us so long to realize that a committee whose duty it should be to go "behind the returns," so to speak, in the matter of the best way to utilize, develop, and conserve the best interests of these new charges of our Government, and to develop them toward citizenship as rapidly as possible, was the safe and sane method of procedure. And, surprising as this may sound, there has now developed three separate and distinct standing committees in the Senate and one, at least, in the House, whose duty it is to look after some phase of the Indian question.

The situation is the same regarding our island possessions. There are now two insular committees in the Senate and one in the House, yet insular interests have been yours but a few years, the Indians but a few hundred years, and the special, unconsidered interest of women ever since the founding our Government.

These insular and Indian committees are all standing committees. It is their duty to spend days and weeks and months to travel, if need be, to the islands or reservations, to investigate, to understand, and to conserve the interests of their special charges, and to try to bring these interests into harmony with our governmental affairs. It is their duty to really know the facts and to prevent, as far possible, ex parte statements and representations from doing the harm that all such statements and half knowledge does.

We want such a committee on woman suffrage in the House. We do not ask you to appoint a partisan committee. We ask only for an open-minded, honest committee which will really investigate and understand the question of woman suffrage, its workings where it is in effect—a committee which will not accept wild statements as fact, which will hear and weigh that which comes from the side of progress and change as well as that which is static and reactionary.

If we are willing to put our case into such hands, what possible objection can be raised?

There is a so-called argument that only a limited percentage of women ask for this—although we represent over 4,000 000 women— but that is no argument at all, even were it true.

All of the Indians did not ask for nor want Indian committees. A very large majority of them did not.

Not a very large number of them were wise enough to desire it.

It is the same with the islanders, the Porto Ricans, Hawaiians, and the Filipinos. It is the same with women. It is only those who have vision beyond that which is, to that which might and should be, who always have led and who always will lead the race. It was so in your father's time and struggle for self-government. It was so in the struggle of the wives and daughters to-day toward the dignity and justice of personal liberty and self-government.

The few must lead the many to the light. Obstructionists always did and always will follow the footsteps of progress. The sophistry and timidity of those who cling to the past as the only stronghold of wisdom and virtue will always obstruct the path of those who are pushing forward.

The recommendation that we do have such a committee in the House of Representatives does not in any way commit you to the adoption of a belief in the principle of self-government for women as a part of your own mental equipment. If merely says that you are willing to recommend that the mothers of the race, your wives, daughters, mothers, and sisters shall have in the lower branch of the Congress of the United States, as they have in the Senate, one committee to which they may go freely, and as often as the rapidly changing problems, difficulties, and conditions shall demand. That it shall be the duty of this committee to really investigate, understand, and know fundamentally the legal and political status and the anomalous situation of one half of all the citizens and to act for their best interests and development in a Government which they help to support.

This is not much to ask, and it is not much to give, nor will it be needed for very many more years.

The Democratic Party has the opportunity of a century. It has its own hands to make the women of all lands for all time its debtors and admirers, and to make of its profession of "a government of the people, by the people, for the people; a reality and not an iridescent dream for one-half of that people.

But whether the Democratic Party is ready for this step or not it is surely not so blind as to deny the right of one-half of these people to have a very little part of its own tax money expended for one single committee whose duty it shall be to look into, with patience and honest effort, the present very unequal and anomalous situation and help to discover such remedies as may seem sane and in harmony with the twentieth century.

When I go to California with my husband I am a voter and a unit. I have a legal and political status as a sane, individual citizen.

When we return to my State of Virginia, I promptly become a cipher and he is the only unit in our family. I do not like that. He does not like it.

There are now these absurd anomalies for ever 4,000,000 women. Their property is involved, as well as their sense of dignity and justice.

You have given the Indians and islanders now several committees to look into and adjust similar and less oppressive questions and conditions. Are we less to you than are they?

And in speaking of my own State of Virginia, Mr. Chairman, I am reminded that your own great ancestor, of whom all Virginians are so proud, expressed for men—he no doubt thought he was expressing it for all mankind—the sentiment which burns in every human breast if that human being has arrived at a sane and self-respecting human status and is not mentally a mere pawn in the discard of humanity.

Your great ancestor, the immortal Patrick Henry, said, that which we women echo to-day, "Give me liberty or give me death." He meant it. We mean it. His descendants are justly proud of him, as are all Virginians. Their pride rests upon the fact that he stood for liberty and progress, for the furthest forward reach of his time.

The descendants of the men to-day will search the history of our time for the acts of you men of to-day that they may be proud of the blood that courses in their veins, even as you look back and are proud, not of the reactionary, the halting, or the feeble acts of your forefathers, but of the acts that made of this land the beacon of liberty to the world.

One little step toward that liberty is this committee which you have it in your hands, large part, to give.

Shall we ask it of you in vain? Shall your descendants point with pride or with chagrin to your grasp of the fundamental principles of government, of liberty, of democracy?

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 https://hdl.handle.net/2027/hvd.32044087355962.