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The Silence of the Suffragettes: Women's Right to Vote in Congressional Publications

The English word "suffrage" is derived from the Latin "suffragium," meaning a "voting tablet"—by extension a "vote," and by further extension a "voice" or "say" in government. It probably comes as no surprise that in the publications of the U.S. Congress it took a long time for the voice of women to be heard and women's suffrage to become a significant issue.

In the publications that comprise the "American State Papers"—the public papers of the first 14 Congresses and a bit beyond—as well as in the Reports and Documents of the "U.S. Congressional Serial Set," there is much discussion of suffrage. However, this discussion is most often in reference to white and male suffrage.

Consider this text from Miscellaneous Publication 141 in the American State Papers on the political status of the city of Washington, in which women are placed between children and persons non compos mentis (that is, exhibiting mental unsoundness):

And be it enacted, That all the lands belonging to minors, persons absent out of the State, married women, and persons non compos mentis

The grounds for denying suffrage to women are, alas, a legacy of prejudice for which an appeal to the "natural order," precedence, practical considerations and even to the Almighty was in this case, as in many others, sought as a justification for something that reason itself could not justify. In Serial Set Report 546 on political conditions in Rhode Island in 1844, we read:

But it may be asked, if all who belong to the political society shall have an equal voice in controlling its concerns, why are women and children excluded? Why is the right of suffrage to be confined to males over 21 years of age?

In relation to women, the answer is, that their interests are so intimately blended with those of men, it would be useless to give them a voice in the government. The Almighty himself, by making them weaker in person, has decreed their dependence on man. They are, therefore, with propriety, represented in the political concerns of society through the other sex, to whom their affections and sympathies are allied, and on whom they are dependent for protection. This exclusion is in accordance with the voice of nature, and the practice of all nations in all ages: it is in unison with the wishes and desires of women themselves, who prefer to wield the potent sceptre which sways the empire of the heart and the affections, to the rude encounter and turbulent passions of the political arena.

Besides, it is a fact which will be generally conceded, that women reflect the political sentiments and feelings of their male relatives. And, if they did not, the difference of opinion which they would express at the polls would lead to domestic dissensions, which could not fail to lower the moral tone of the community. All enlightened women, therefore, have, with scarcely an exception, concurred in the propriety of those wise ordinances of society which have, with a tender anxiety for their welfare, rescued them from the contamination of political strife.

Four years later on July 19-20, 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott organized the Seneca Falls Convention on women's rights in Seneca Falls, New York. These two forceful women had met at the 1840 World Anti-slavery Convention in London, and there would continue to be much cross-fertilization among the various movements for the liberation of slaves and of women.

Stanton drafted a "Declaration of Sentiments," modeled upon the Declaration of Independence, which affirmed "all men and women are created equal." And yet, despite the passage of the declaration by the Convention—not to a small degree due to a persuasive speech by Frederick Douglas—there is no mention of the Seneca Falls Convention or its "Declaration of Sentiments" in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set. One must turn to the popular press where it was well covered. See, for example, the in-depth article in the "Weekly Eagle" of Brattleboro, Vermont, for August 17, 1848, which concludes:

The members of the Convention "anticipate no small amount of misconception, misrepresentation, and ridicule," as they "enter upon the great work" before them. They intend, however to employ agents, circulate tracts, petition the state and national legislatures, and endeavor to enlist the pulpit and the press.

It seems that is not a free country after all. But no one will deny that it is a "great country."

Petitions were submitted, tracts distributed and appeals broadly made, but it was not until 1870 that real progress began to be evinced. In that year, suffragette Victoria C. Woodhull, also an advocate of free love (a position that did not necessarily advance the women's suffrage movement in the eyes of all), submitted a memorial to Congress advocating a woman's right to vote (S.Misc.Doc. 16, 41st Congress, 3rd Session).

In the Report (H.Rpt. 22, 41st Congress, 3rd Session) on Woodhull's memorial, the majority of the House Committee on the Judiciary decided that:

The suggestion is made that Congress, by a mere declaratory act, shall say that the construction claimed in the memorial is the true construction of the Constitution, or, in other words, that by the Constitution of the United States the right to vote is vested in citizens of the United States "without regard to sex," anything in the constitution and laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding. In the opinion of the committee, such declaratory act is not authorized by the Constitution nor within the legislative power of Congress. We therefore recommend the adoption of the following resolution:

Resolved, That the prayer of the petitioner be not granted, that the memorial be laid on the table, and that the Committee on the Judiciary be discharged from the further consideration of the subject.

Congressmen William Loughbridge and Benjamin F. Butler submitted a minority Report whose reasoned arguments did not prevail, and so it would be decades before the following resolution of that minority on the Committee and the female minority of the nation would be realized, namely:

That this right is included in the "privileges of citizens of the United States," which are guaranteed by section 1 of article 14 of amendments to the Constitution of the United States; and that women citizens, who are otherwise qualified by the laws of the State where they reside, are competent voters for Representatives in Congress.

The Territory of Utah, however, for reasons of its own, enfranchised women in 1870 and women retained the right to vote until the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887 struck down both polygamy and women's suffrage. And the story of the search for women's electoral equality, highlighted if not begun by the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments, would continue in this great country for decades longer.

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