“On Women's Right to Vote” Themes
The main themes in “On Women’s Right to Vote” include gender, citizenship and personhood, and justice.
- Gender: Anthony argues that the Constitution’s phrase “we the people” includes women and that depriving women of their rights leads to discord between women and men.
- Citizenship and personhood: Based on the use of the word “persons” in definitions of “citizens,” Anthony establishes that women, as US citizens, have the right to vote.
- Justice: The speech demonstrates the fundamentally unjust, and unconstitutional, nature of denying women the right to participate in democracy by voting.
Last Updated on May 27, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 803
Gender is at the center of Anthony’s project in making this speech, as the first paragraph makes clear when she sets out her intentions. Since she has been arrested for possessing a gender that a certain law equates with lacking a right to vote, she must prove that people of her gender do have the right to vote in order to show that she has committed no crime.
She argues that women are part of “we the people,” that the union of the United States of America is not composed of only white men or only men. Without the right to vote, women are governed by men, meaning that they do not have their full rights. Not only that, she says, but men and women are doomed to clash while men rule women, so that every household will contain a “rebellion” in feeling if not in fact. While one gender rules another, the genders will always be at odds, in a state of continual resentment.
Citizenship and Personhood
The question of who is a person and who is a citizen is crucial to the speech. Anthony seeks to demonstrate to her listeners that women are citizens. She argues that they are citizens because they are part of the “more perfect union” that the Constitution forms, part of “we the people.” Women are part of “the governed” that “consent of the governed” requires, making them citizens who have a right to give that consent, which they can only do by voting. She also uses a dictionary definition to establish who is a United States citizen. All three of the dictionaries she cites use the term “person” to define a citizen, which is where the question of personhood comes in. Having raised the question of whether women are persons, Anthony swiftly answers it with the rhetorical assumption that no one would deny that women are persons.
The word “persons” is important because it is used in the Fourteenth Amendment, which declares that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.” If a woman is a person, a woman born or naturalized in the United States is a citizen. And as a citizen, she has the right to vote, and no state can take away a US citizen’s rights. That, too, is stated in the Fourteenth Amendment: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.”
The underlying question in this speech is one of justice. Was it just for Anthony to be arrested for trying to vote? She seeks to prove that it was not. If she has a right to vote, then arresting her for trying to vote is just as unjust as arresting her for speaking freely or for assembling with others to protest grievances, rights that the First Amendment guarantees. The Constitution is meant to “establish justice,” and it does so by protecting the rights of the people.
A just government must also rule by the consent of the governed, and if women cannot vote, they cannot give their consent. So a government under which women cannot vote is inherently unjust, according to Anthony. If the Constitution establishes justice, it gives women the right to vote. The implication here is that those who created the Constitution intended “we the people” whose “blessings of liberty” are secured through democracy to include women.
Race appears less often in this speech than other themes, but it does so at vital moments. Before the Civil War and the Fourteenth Amendment, Black men and all women were governed by white men. After four years of fighting, Congress passed an amendment to give Black men the right to vote. In this context, Anthony’s statement that rule of the “Saxon” over the “African” “might be endured” takes on new significance. What she is saying is that this type of rule of one group over another, which was just overthrown in a brutal and bloody war and then prohibited in a Constitutional Amendment, is less unjust than the rule of men over women. She returns to race at the end of the speech, when she says that the laws preventing women from voting are invalid, just as every law preventing Black people from voting is invalid. Notably, the last word of the speech is “Negroes.” Anthony clearly resents that voting rights have been extended to Black men but not to women, and that anger shows up in her racist statement that it would be “endurable” for white people to rule over Black people, which they no longer did at that time, at least in theory. In reality, however, white Southerners employed many tactics to stop Black people from voting.
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