Laura Clay gave a speech before U.S. Senate committee to support a federal amendment for woman suffrage

Randolph Hollingsworth's picture

Laura Clay joined with others of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) to lobby the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Woman Suffrage on March 3, 1908. The committee met at 10 o’clock a.m. in the Marble Room of the Senate (a meeting space near the Senate Chamber) – only two senators were present: Alexander Clay (chairman) of Georgia and Joseph Johnston of Alabama. The session began with a short address by Rev. Anna Howard Shaw, the NAWSA president, who asked for the committee to favor an “amendment to the National Constitution, forbidding the disfranchisement of United States citizens on account of sex." Rev. Shaw asserted that the amendment would "… make this nation, in fact as well as in theory, a government of, by, and for the people, instead of what it now is, a government of, by, and for men. That is, a male oligarchy would be evolved into a democracy.” The following women next spoke:

  • Belva Ann Lockwood, lawyer and journalist, first woman to practice before the Supreme Court and first to be placed on official ballots for president
  • Fannie J. Fernald, President of the Woman’s Suffrage Association of Maine
  • Isabel C. Barrows, of New York
  • Anne Fitzhugh Miller, President of the Geneva (Ontario Co., N.Y.) Political Equality Club
  • Ida Husted Harper, journalist, editor of The History of Woman Suffrage and official biographer of Susan B. Anthony
  • Ella Hawley Crossett, President of NY State Woman Suffrage Association

Then, Laura Clay gave her speech, transcribed below. After Clay, Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the International Alliance of Women, spoke. Rev. Shaw concluded the session, asking that the committee present the woman suffrage amendment to Senate, and that the committee print 10,000 copies of the hearing. The hearing closed at 11:55 a.m. and, according to the Evening Sun article, seventy-five women -- including spouses and daughters of members of Congress -- poured into the room to talk about the session. Rev. Shaw got them to move out to the east front of the Capitol to have their picture taken. The article also emphasized that the two Senators did not speak during or after the session - the reporter described them as "dumbfounded."

Transcript of Laura Clay's Statement (pp. 20-22)

Gentlemen, in speaking for our petition for a submission of a sixteenth amendment what I say will be simply something to show why we believe the people are ready for the extension of the franchise to women and should be given this means to imprint their convictions upon the Constitution.
   It is reported that in a recent interview with a delegation of equal suffragists a very distinguished statesman of New York said to them, “The settlement of this question depends finally upon the women.” I will remark first, therefore upon how the women are speaking for themselves.
   More petitions have been made by women for suffrage than have ever been made before by any class seeking to be admitted to the electorate. They have given every proof that if they possessed the ballot they would use it dutifully in expressing the womanly view on the vast and varied number of public questions which are brought before the voters. We have 4 States – Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Idaho – where women vote; and the records prove that they vote as generally as the men do. There is a long list of associations, composed of women or of women and men, outside of the suffrage associations proper, which have endorsed the right of suffrage for women. The call of their names will show the widely varied interests of those they represent. Among them are the National Women’s Single Tax League, National W.C.T.U., International Women’s Union Label League, National Purity Conference, National Free Baptist Woman’s Missionary Society, United Textile Workers of America, Ladies of the Modern Maccabees, Ladies of the Maccabees of the World, National Council of Women, Nurses Association of the Pacific Coast, Native Daughters of the Golden West, Women Workers of the Middle West, International Council of Women (representing 20 countries and upward of 6,000,000 of members), and many others. There is but one of which I know that opposes it, the Association Opposed to the Extension of Suffrage to Women.
   And this association is not opposed in such a radical manner as at first sight appears, for the fundamental principle of the woman suffragists is the right of women to have an equal voice with men in deciding the conditions and laws under which both live. If there should occur such a change in governmental methods as that, something should be substituted for the ballot to express that right for men, then the woman suffragists would simultaneously change their demand and ask for the new mode of expressing an opinion on equal terms, without in the least affecting the essential nature of our present demand. Now, though the Association Opposed to the Extension of Suffrage to Women nominally set themselves in opposition, really in their way they also are asserting our underlying principle, because they are organized to express their opinion on one question of public interest, and do not disclaim a right to act in the same way upon every other public question. In claiming these rights they agree with us; it is only in method they disagree. They prefer to form an association, collect funds, and pay salaries to secretaries and others to distribute literature and in such ways to bring to bear their influence; a costly method and one not within the means of the majority of women. The suffragists prefer to use the ballot, which is the established method of exercising choice of opinion, is open to the poorest and has its machinery already paid for out of the taxes levied upon women as well as men. Intelligent women of our day are informed, and most often feel a personal responsibility in some degree, on all public matters; and perhaps without calling themselves suffragists they do maintain the fundamental principle of suffragists, and are now, as shown by their petitions and other public expressions of opinion, fully committed to the principle that women share in public interests, and ought to help in deciding them. Through all grades of legislative bodies, from city councils, where women petition for police matrons or street-cleaning ordinances, to the National Congress, where they petition for child-labor laws, pure-food bills or interstate-commerce regulations, the desire of women to be heard in public affairs is constantly brought into evidence. The toil, expense, and humiliation which public-spirited women thus endure in their enforced attitude of perpetual petitioners for what they believe is for the good of the people, is converting hosts to desire the direct, easy, and dignified means advocated by the suffragists to attain the same ends. The demand for ballot is growing among women as surely as their interest in questions affected by law is growing.
   Just as among women the Association Opposed to the Extension of Suffrage to Women constitutes the only definite opposition to be found against equal suffrage, while other associations, representing hundreds of thousands of women engaged in philanthropies and intellectual and industrial pursuits have indorsed it, so it is among men. In the 4 States where women have the franchise it has been given by the votes of men; and in many other States constitutional amendments, though defeated so far at the polls, still have received affirmative votes from large minorities. Again, many associations, organized for a large variety of social, industrial, and reform objects, officially indorse woman suffrage. Just as there is only one woman’s association opposed to woman suffrage, though not very consistently, so there is but one among men avowedly opposed to it, with the difference that that one is thoroughly consistent. The organized liquor traffic is, I believe, the only association which in its newspaper organs, its public acts, and its unvarying political attitude, really embodies that antagonism to the fundamental principle of woman suffrage which goes deeper than aversion to the mere method by which that principle shall be put into operation. The saloons and the dens and dives which are too often allied with them know that self-respecting and thoughtful womanhood is a more dangerous enemy to their business than prohibitory laws on statute books; and so they always oppose the right of women to any voice in the Government under which they live. Their opposition has defeated equal suffrage amendments in several States, as the suffragists know to their cost. The liquor forces want nothing which leads women to think, and fear their influence upon law. Many strong associations of men value the intelligence of women, and desire to enlist it in their own behalf. Educators see that suffrage for women would help the schools, temperance men see that it is what the liquor interest most fears, labor men admit that it is necessary to secure and maintain the best wages for themselves as well as women; and so all these and many others indorse suffrage for women.
   There is not much in these practical hopes of benefiting themselves to flatter the sentimental theory that men are only waiting to find out that women want the ballot to give it to them; but there is much to rejoice the philosophy which holds that the union of the interests of men and women is so vital that it is impossible ever to separate them, a philosophy whose outcome is likely to speed the day when woman suffrage will be a very live issue for party consideration. When extensive bodies of men possessing votes apprehend that their own interests demand the right of suffrage in the hands of women, it follows that they will quickly take measures to give it to them. Our allies, men whose interests are wrapped up with ours, are increasing so greatly in numbers that already the time seems drawing near when one or the other of the dominant parties will declare itself for its own benefit on the side of this last great enlargement of the electorate. Woman suffrage is bound to come, perhaps is bound to come soon; and the party which soonest declares itself in its favor must benefit most from the votes of that large class of women whose political opinions are not yet crystallized on party lines, or whose minds correspond to those of the independent votes among men. Gratitude will be a strong attractive power. We believe the time is not far off when our people will desire to express themselves on this question, and the submission of such an amendment to the National Constitution as we petition for will give their legislatures an opportunity to do so in the manner in accordance with the national precedents.

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This post contributes to the timeline for the Kentucky Woman Suffrage Project - to see it within the context of all the timeline entries, visit the KWSP Digital Timeline here.