By Kit-Bacon Gressitt
Reading 19th century documents about the women’s suffrage debate in the relative comfort of the 21st century is interesting and annoying.
It’s annoying because of the lack of progress we’ve made toward women’s equality since such debates were first held in our fledgling Congress. And it’s even more annoying because the attitudes of yore persist today. While the Trump regime is doing what it can to roll back women’s rights, from removing protections against unfair pay and sexual harassment to limiting reproductive healthcare access, troglodytes spew gender bias akin to the recent multipage diatribe by a Google engineer denigrating women’s sensibilities and innate capabilities; all proof that we’ve not come a long way, baby.
Interest and annoyance aside, though, it’s also surprising to read transcripts of antique speechifying that, other than the flowery language of the 19th century aristocracy, don’t sound so different from today’s male putdowns of the female of the species.
Consider the 1887 debate in the U.S. Senate on a joint resolution to amend the Constitution and grant women the right to vote.
Those hell-bent on denying women’s suffrage were well represented by the portly and walrus-mustachioed Senator George Graham Vest, D-Missouri. His opinion that day has since been uttered by way too many contemporary folks—from rappers to religious leaders, from politicians to pundits.
Senator Vest had this to say about his womenfolk:
Women are essentially emotional. It is no disparagement to them they are so. It is no more insulting to say that women are emotional than to say that they are delicately constructed physically and unfitted to become soldiers or workmen under the sterner, harder pursuits of life.
What we want in this country is to avoid emotional suffrage, and what we need is to put more logic into public affairs and less feeling. There are spheres in which feeling should be paramount. There are kingdoms in which the heart should reign supreme. That kingdom belongs to woman. The realm of sentiment, the realm of love, the realm of the gentler and the holier and kindlier attributes that make the name of wife, mother, and sister next to that of God himself.
I would not, and I say it deliberately, degrade woman by giving her the right of suffrage. I mean the word in its full signification, because I believe that woman as she is today, the queen of home and of hearts, is above the political collisions of this world, and should always be kept above them.
It is claimed that if the suffrage be given to women it is to protect them. Protect them from whom? The brute that would invade their rights, would coerce the suffrage of his wife, or sister, or mother as he would wring from her the hard earnings of her toil to gratify his own beastly appetites and passions.
It is said that suffrage is to be given to enlarge the sphere of woman’s influence. Mr. President, it would destroy her influence. It would take her down from that pedestal where she is today, influencing as a mother the minds of her offspring, influencing by her gentle and kindly caress the action of her husband toward the good and pure.
The tardy Senator George Frisbie Hoar, R-Massachusetts, offered up his best shot in response:
I was absent on a public duty and came in just at the close of the speech of my honorable friend from Missouri. I wish, however, to say one word in regard to what seemed to be the burden of his speech.
He says that the women who ask this change in our political organization … will want to be President of the United States, and want to be Senators, and want to be marshals and sheriffs, and that seems to him supremely ridiculous.
Now I do not understand that that is the proposition. What they want to do and to be, is to be eligible to such public duty as a majority of their fellow-citizens may think they are fitted for. The majority of public duties in this country do not require robust, physical health, or exposure to what is base or unhealthy; and when those duties are imposed upon anybody they will be imposed only upon such persons as are fit for them.
But the [women] want that if the majority of the American people think a woman like Queen Victoria, or Queen Elizabeth, or Queen Isabella of Spain, or Maria Theresa of Hungary (the four most brilliant sovereigns of any sex in modern history with only two or three exceptions), the fittest person to be President of the United States, they may be permitted to exercise their choice accordingly.
Had I been present, I’d have cheered Senator Hoar with a long and hearty “Hear, hear! Hear, hear! Hear, hear!” although Senator Vest would probably have warned me to be silent, but I like to think I’d have persisted.
Nevertheless, the vote failed. Of seventy-six senators, there were thirty-four nays to sixteen yeas; twenty-five cowards were off having the vapors during the vote; and one senator had died.
Perhaps the pressure at home was too much for him.
Despite the all-male Senate’s denial of equality for the delicate and emotional sex and Senator Vest’s presumption that he was doing the queens of home and of hearts a huge honking favor by refusing them a political voice, a handful of territories and states gave women more credit, granting them varying degrees of local suffrage.
After a lot more annoying oratory and, more important, the dogged work of a national women’s movement, including temperance activists, women did win full suffrage when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was certified on August 26, 1920. Hence Women’s Equality Day.
Darn sad, though, that it remains a misnomer. Let’s just hope Trump doesn’t try to roll back women’s suffrage, too.
About Kit-Bacon Gressitt
Spawned by a Southern Baptist creationist and a liberal social worker, K-B inherited the requisite sense of humor to survive family dinner-table debates and the imagination to avoid them. She has an MFA in Creative Writing, and has taught Women’s Studies in the Cal State University system. Her narrative nonfiction, commentary, political fiction, reviews and poetry are pending publication or have been published by Thoughtcrime Press’ Not My President anthology, Ducts magazine, The Missing Slate, Trivia: Feminist Voices, Ms. Magazine blog, San Diego Poetry Annual, The North County Times, San Diego Uptown News, Gay San Diego, Chiron Review (the ancient one, before the internet), American University’s iVory Towerz, and others; she was the grateful recipient of two Poets & Writers grants in 2016-17; and she was one of 12 national finalists for the 2016 Kentucky Writers Fellowship. And, K-B is a founding editor of WritersResist.com.