The Justice of Woman Suffrage (1912)

The Justice of Woman Suffrage (1912)

By Mary Church Terrell

It is difficult to believe that any individual in the United States with one drop of African blood in his veins can oppose woman suffrage. It is queer and curious enough to hear an intelligent colored woman argue against granting suffrage to her sex, but for an intelligent colored man to oppose woman suffrage is the most preposterous and ridiculous thing in the world. What could be more absurd than to see one group of human beings who are denied rights which they are trying to secure for themselves working to prevent another group from obtaining the same rights? For the very arguments which are advanced against granting the right of suffrage to women are offered by those who have disfranchised colored men.

If I were a colored man, and were unfortunate enough not to grasp the absurdity of opposing suffrage because of the sex of a human being, I should at least be consistent enough never to raise my voice against those who have disfranchised my brothers and myself on account of race. However, the intelligent colored man who opposes woman suffrage is very rare, indeed. While on a lecture tour recently I frequently discussed woman suffrage with the leading citizens in the communities in which I spoke. It was very gratifying, indeed, to see that in the majority of instances these men stood right on the question of woman suffrage.

Frederick Douglass did many things of which I am proud, but there is nothing he ever did in his long and brilliant career in which I take keener pleasure and greater pride than I do in his ardent advocacy of equal political rights for women, and the effective service he rendered the cause of woman suffrage sixty years ago. When the resolution demanding equal political rights for women was introduced in the meeting held at Seneca Falls, N. Y., in 1848, Frederick Douglass was the only man in the convention courageous and broad minded enough to second the motion. It was largely due to Douglass’s masterful arguments and matchless eloquence that the motion was carried, in spite of the opposition of its very distinguished and powerful foes. In his autobiography Douglass says: “Observing woman’s agency, devotion and efficiency, gratitude for this high service early moved me to give favorable attention to the subject of what is called ‘woman’s rights’ and caused me to be denominated a woman’s rights man. I am glad to say,” he adds, “that I have never been ashamed to be thus designated. I have been convinced of the wisdom of woman suffrage and I have never denied the faith.”

To assign reasons in this day and time to prove that it is unjust to withhold from one-half of the human race rights and privileges freely accorded the other half, which is neither more deserving nor more capable of exercising them, seems almost like a reflection upon the intelligence of those to whom they are presented. To argue the inalienability and the equality of human rights in the twentieth century in a country whose government was founded upon the eternal principles that all men are created free and equal, that governments get their just powers from the consent of the governed, seems like laying one’s self open to the charge of anachronism. For 2,000 years mankind has been breaking down the various barriers which interposed themselves between human beings and their perfect freedom to exercise all the faculties with which they have been divinely endowed. Even in monarchies old fetters, which formerly restricted freedom, dwarfed the intellect and doomed certain individuals to narrow, circumscribed spheres because of the mere accident of birth, are being loosed and broken one by one.

What a reproach it is to a government which owes its very existence to the loved freedom in the human heart that it should deprive any of its citizens of their sacred and cherished rights. The founders of this republic called heaven and earth to witness that it should be called a government of the people, for the people and by the people; and yet the elective franchise is withheld from one-half of its citizens, many of whom are intelligent, virtuous and cultured, and unstintingly bestowed upon the other half, many of whom are illiterate, degraded and vicious, because by an unparalleled exhibition of lexicographical acrobatics the word “people” has been turned and twisted to mean all who were shrewd and wise enough to have themselves born boys instead of girls, and white instead of black.

But why grant women the suffrage when the majority do not want it, the remonstrants sometimes ask with innocent engaging seriousness. Simply because there are many people, men as well as women, who are so constructed as to be unable to ascertain by any process of reason what is the best thing for them to have or to do. Until the path is blazed by the pioneer, even some people who have superior intellects and moral courage dare not forge ahead. On the same principle and for just exactly the same reason that American women would reject suffrage, Chinese women, if they dared to express any opinion at all, would object to having the feet of their baby girls removed from the bandages which stunt their growth. East Indian women would scorn the proferred freedom of their American sisters as unnatural and vulgar and would die rather than have their harems abolished. Slaves sometimes prefer to bear the ills of bondage rather than accept the blessings of freedom, because their poor beclouded brains have been stunted and dwarfed by oppression so long that they cannot comprehend what liberty means and have no desire to enjoy it.

Citation: Terrell, Mary Church. 1912. “The Justice of Woman Suffrage.” The Crisis. 4(5):243–245.