Speeches Before the National American Woman Suffrage Association Conventions, 1903–1906 Primary Source eText

Primary Source

Two women stand on a city street in 1905, beating a drum and singing songs to attract attention to the cause of women's suffrage. © HULTON-DEUTSCH COLLECTION/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Two women stand on a city street in 1905, beating a drum and singing songs to attract attention to the cause of women's suffrage. © HULTON-DEUTSCH COLLECTION/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Published by Gale Cengage © HULTON-DEUTSCH COLLECTION/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.


By: Henry Dixon Bruns, Belle Kearney, Helen Loring Grenfell, Anna Howard Shaw, and Jane Addams

Date: 1903, 1903, 1904, 1905, 1906

Source: Harper, Ida Husted, ed. The History of Woman Suffrage. Volume V. New York: Little & Ives, 1922, 66–67, 82–83, 102–103, 125, 169–170, 178–179.

About the Author: Dr. Henry Dixon Bruns (1859–1933) was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on the eve of the Civil War (1861–1865). He graduated from the medical college of the University of Louisiana and spent most of his professional career in New Orleans. Belle Kearney (1863–1939) was a Mississippi-born advocate of woman suffrage. Widely traveled, Kearney was a prominent speaker who addressed audiences across the country on suffrage and temperance issues. Helen Grenfell was one of the first women in the United States elected to statewide public office. She was chosen as Colorado's superintendent of instruction in 1899. Dr. Anna Howard Shaw (1847–1919), along with Susan B. Anthony, was a leader of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, founded in 1890. The British-born Shaw was also a leading temperance activist, a licensed physician, and the first woman ordained as minister in the Methodist Protestant Church. Jane Addams (1860–1935) was an active social reformer best know as the founder of Hull House Settlement in Chicago. Addams's interests and influence in various social movements were extensive, including her prominent role in the woman suffrage campaign. Her involvement in international pacifism led to her being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.


The woman suffrage movement began with the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. Organized by Lucretia Coffin Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the Seneca Falls Convention passed twelve resolutions outlining inequities affecting women, ranging from limitations on property and parental rights to disenfranchisement. An element of a much broader reform movement, the Seneca Falls agenda, like other reform initiatives of the period, overlapped with and was eventually subsumed by antislavery agitation. It was not until after that controversy was resolved that there was any hope of focusing popular attention on woman suffrage.

Leaders of the woman suffrage movement viewed the Union victory in the Civil War and the beginning of reconstruction after the war as a unique opportunity to achieve voting rights for women. Women had battled for abolition and had made significant contributions to the Union cause on the home front. Many expected their (male) anti-slavery allies to fight for universal suffrage, rather than merely gaining voting rights for freed black men. This did not happen. When the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were enacted to enfranchise former male slaves, women were totally ignored.

One outcome of the struggle over the amendments was the emergence of stronger woman suffrage organizations. In May1869, Stanton and Susan B. Anthony led a splinter group at the annual meeting of the Equal Rights Association to form the National Woman Suffrage Association. Limited only to women, this organization reflected the frustration Stanton and Anthony felt over insufficient interest shown by the male leadership of the Equal Rights Association in regard to women's issues.

The competing American Woman Suffrage Association was established in November 1869. Led by former allies in the Equal Rights Association, including Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe, the American Association was more conservative in its approach. This rift in the woman suffrage movement, centered less on objectives than on tactics, lasted until 1890. Unification was made possible primarily because the entire movement became more legitimized. The confrontational approach the National Association used in their early years diminished. The suffrage movement, in fact, had become a socially acceptable activity dominated by middle-class and upper-class women.

At the same time, women were finding themselves drawn into the workforce out of necessity. The highly industrialized, urban world regularly thrust women into situations in which they had to work to support themselves and their families. They confronted overwhelming obstacles, since cities lacked the support network traditionally available in rural communities. With the influx of immigrants and rural Americans into the cities, women played an increasingly critical role in the new economy. In addition to more traditional roles as teachers and house servants, woman workers dominated much of the textile industry, clerked in the growing retail trade, and began to take on clerical roles (using the catalyst for female independence—the typewriter) in the growing corporate and governmental bureaucracies.


The emerging role of women in public and economic life made the lack of voting rights increasingly anachronistic. Nonetheless, resistance continued to come from various segments of society. Social conservatives, often using religious or biblical rationalizations, clung to traditional male and female roles. The South, hard at work creating a society that systematically excluded black males from voting, was not interested in raising the issue of an expanded franchise. Some business leaders were often concerned that an enfranchised female population would support labor legislation. Most active in the fight against woman suffrage, however, were the liquor interests. Their fear, probably correct, was that women voters would tip the scale in favor of prohibition. As a result, progress was very slow. By 1900, women could vote only in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and Idaho, and in the occasional school-board election in less liberal states. At the dawn of the new century, the suffrage movement was in the doldrums.

After 1900, the suffrage movement was reinvigorated by Progressives. They agitated for a more democratic political system, and the adoption by some suffrage groups movement of a more visible and confrontational style, in imitation of British suffragists. Gradually, the pace of activity increased, and, after 1910, a number of victories had been achieved at the state level.

Primary Source: Speeches Before the National American Woman Suffrage Association Conventions, 1903–1906

SYNOPSIS: The National American Woman Suffrage Association held annual conventions, meeting on alternate years in a different location around the country; otherwise the convention was held in Washington, D.C. Below are brief excerpts from speeches given at National American Woman Suffrage Association conventions between 1900 and 1909. These speeches touch on various arguments used to support woman suffrage.

One of the notable addresses of the convention was that of the eminent physician, Dr. Henry Dixon Bruns—a lifelong advocate of woman suffrage—on Liberty, Male and Female, a part of which was as follows:

I can conceive of but one watchword for a free people. It is written between the lines of our own constitution and underlies the institutions of every liberal government: "Equal rights and opportunities for all; special privileges to none," understanding by this that the Government shall protect all in the enjoyment of their natural rights—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—and that all who measure up to a certain standard shall have a voice in shaping the policy and choosing the agents of the government under which they live. I can imagine none better than that now accepted by a majority, I believe, of the American people, namely, evidence of intelligence and the possession of a certain degree of education and of character evidenced by the acquirement of a modicum of property and the payment of a minimum tax. It was for regulation of the full suffrage in this manner that I contended in our constitutional convention of 1898, to wit: the admission to the franchise of all women possessing these qualifications. I still believe that this would have afforded the best solution of our peculiar difficulties and have spared us the un-American subterfuge of "mother tongue" and "grandfather" clause. If a vote could have been taken immediately after the notable address made by your distinguished president before the convention, I feel confident that women would have been admitted to the suffrage in this State.…

Keep ever in your mind that the professional politician is your implacable enemy. To him an election is not a process for ascertaining the will of the majority but a battle to be won by any strategy whose maneuvers do not end within the walls of a penitentiary. He knows that yours would be an uninfluenceable vote, that you do not loaf on street corners or spend your time in barrooms and he could not "get at" you; therefore he will never consent to your enfranchisement until compelled by the gathering force of public opinion; then, as usual, he will probably undergo a sudden change of heart and be found in the forefront of your line of battle… Do not rely upon wise and eloquent appeals to Legislatures and conventions. It is in the campaigns for the election of the legislative bodies that you should marshal your forces and use to the full the all-sufficient influence with which your antagonists credit you. Secure the election of men who do not give up to party all that was meant for mankind and your pleas are not so likely to be heard in vain.

The address of Miss Belle Kearney, Mississippi's famous orator, was a leading feature of the last evening's program—The South and Woman Suffrage. It began with a comprehensive review of the part the South had had in the development of the nation from its earliest days. "During the seventy-one years reaching from Washington's administration to that of Lincoln," she said, "the United States was practically under the domination of southern thought and leadership." She showed the record southern leaders had made in the wars; she traced the progress of slavery, which began alike in the North and South but proved unnecessary in the former, and told of the enormous struggle for white supremacy which had been placed on the South by the enfranchisement of the negro. "The present suffrage laws in the southern States are only temporary measures for protection," she said. "The enfranchisement of women will have to be effected and an educational and property qualification for the ballot be made to apply without discrimination to both sexes and both races." The address closed as follows:

The enfranchisement of women would insure immediate and durable white supremacy, honestly attained, for upon unquestioned authority it is stated that in every southern State but one there are more educated women than all the illiterate voters, white and black, native and foreign, combined. As you probably know, of all the women in the South who can read and write, ten out of every eleven are white. When it comes to the proportion of property between the races, that of the white outweighs that of the black immeasurably. The South is slow to grasp the great fact that the enfranchisement of women would settle the race question in politics. The civilization of the North is threatened by the influx of foreigners with their imported customs; by the greed of monopolistic wealth and the unrest among the working class; by the strength of the liquor traffic and encroachments upon religious belief. Some day the North will be compelled to look to the South for redemption from those evils on account of the purity of its Anglo-Saxon blood, the simplicity of its social and economic structure, the great advance in prohibitory law and the maintenance of the sanctity of its faith, which has been kept inviolate. Just as surely as the North will be forced to turn to the South for the nation's salvation, just so surely will the South be compelled to look to its Anglo-Saxon women as the medium through which to retain the supremacy of the white race over the African.

Mrs. Helen Loring Grenfell, as State Superintendent of Education, spoke with high authority and by her dignified and beautiful presence no less than by her ability made a deep impression on all who heard her. She pointed out that Colorado came into the Union in 1876 with School suffrage for women and through this they had always been able to keep the schools on a nonpartisan basis. She showed that it paid more per capita for public schools than any other State, leaving even New York and Massachusetts behind; described its advanced position from kindergartens to training schools and colleges, with especial care in guarding the welfare of children, and continued:

In the East we hear of "the question of coeducation." It is not a question west of the Mississippi River, it never has been, it never will be. The eastern arrangement seems to us merely a curious survival of antiquated ideas, a kind of sex-consciousness which we have lost sight of in our care for the human being… The place of State Superintendent has always been held by a woman since women became eligible. The first superintendent elected was a Republican, the second a Democrat, each holding the place for one term; the third, who is now serving her third term, was nominated as a Silver Republican but has really been elected and twice re-elected without regard to politics—an example of the independence of the vote where school affairs are concerned. There are 59 counties in Colorado and 33 of them, including most of those with the largest population, have women county superintendents.…

I have found Colorado women much like their sisters elsewhere save that they have a broader view of public affairs and they take naturally a more active interest in the world's work. They have learned to think and to say what they think simply and freely in gatherings where men and women meet to discuss the vital concerns of life. They have not forgotten that they are women but they have come to know that they are also human beings, and, like Terence, they find nothing that concerns humanity foreign to them. Surely had we not been faithful in the smaller things, we should not have had these large opportunities given to us… I can not help thinking that my sisters elsewhere have lost something rare and precious from their lives through the lack of that complete citizenship which has been bestowed upon the women of Colorado, and I hope the day may be near when those sisters may be made man's equal under the law of the land as they have always been under the law of God.

[Dr. Anna Howard Shaw] The recent attacks of Cardinal Gibbons and former President Cleveland, who had protested against women taking part in the Government lest it interfere with the home, she answered with keen analysis, saying in part:

The great fear that the participation of women in public affairs will impair the quality and character of home service is irrational and contrary to the tests of experience. Does an intelligent interest in the education of a child render a woman less a mother? Does the housekeeping instinct of woman, manifested in a desire for clean streets, pure water and unadulterated food, destroy her efficiency as a home-maker? Does a desire for an environment of moral and civic purity show neglect of the highest good of the family? It is the "men must fight and women must weep" theory of life which makes men fear that the larger service of women will impair the high ideal of home. The newer ideal that men must cease fighting and thus remove one prolific cause for women's weeping, and that they shall together build up a more perfect home and a more ideal government, is infinitely more sane and desirable. Participation in the larger and broader concerns of the State will increase instead of decrease the efficiency of government and tend to development that self-control, that more perfect judgment which are wanting in much of the home training of today.

It was at this meeting that Miss Jane Addams of Hull House, Chicago, made the address on The Modern City and the Municipal Franchise for Women, which was thenceforth a part of the standard suffrage literature. Quotations are wholly inadequate.

It has been well said that the modern city is a stronghold of industrialism quite as the feudal city was a stronghold of militarism, but the modern cites fear no enemies and rivals from without and their problems of government are solely internal. Affairs for the most part are going badly in these great new centres, in which the quickly-congregated population has not yet learned to arrange its affairs satisfactorily. Unsanitary housing, poisonous sewage, contaminated water, infant mortality, the spread of contagion, adulterated food, impure milk, smoke-laden air, ill-ventilated factories, dangerous occupations, juvenile crime, unwholesome crowding, prostitution and drunkenness are the enemies which the modern cities must face and overcome, would they survive. Logically their electorate should be made up of those who can bear a valiant part in this arduous contest, those who in the past have at least attempted to care for children, to clean houses, to prepare foods, to isolate the family from moral dangers; those who have traditionally taken care of that side of life which inevitably becomes the subject of municipal consideration and control as soon as the population is congested. To test the elector's fitness to deal with this situation by his ability to bear arms is absurd. These problems must be solved, if they are solved at all, not from the military point of view, not even from the industrial point of view, but from a third, which is rapidly developing in all the great cities of the world—the human-welfare point of view.…

City housekeeping has failed partly because women, the traditional housekeepers, have not been consulted as to its multiform activities. The men have been carelessly indifferent to much of this civic housekeeping, as they have always been indifferent to the detail of the household… The very multifariousness and complexity of a city government demand the help of minds accustomed to detail and variety of work, to a sense of obligation for the health and welfare of young children and to a responsibility for the cleanliness and comfort of other people. Because all these things have traditionally been in the hands of women, if they take no part in them now they are not only missing the education which the natural participation in civic life would bring to them but they are losing what they have always had.

Further Resources


Evans, Sara M. Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America. New York: Free Press, 1989.

Flexner, Eleanor, and Ellen Fitzpatrick. Century of Struggle, The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975.


"Conflict in the United States: Woman Suffrage Movement between 1904–1912." Available online at http://www.geocities.com/emilyc_25/; website home page http://www.geocities.com (accessed May 19, 2003).

"History of Woman Suffrage in the United States." Available online at http://www.dpsinfo.com/women/history/timeline.html; website home page http://www.dpsinfo.com (accessed May 19, 2003).

"Woman Suffrage Timeline—Winning the Vote." Available online at http://www.womenshistory.about.com/library/weekly/aa031600a... ; website home page http://www.womenshistory.about.com (accessed May 19, 2003).