Speech on Partial Suffrage (Kentucky Constitutional Convention, December 12, 1890)
Miss Laura Clay. Gentlemen, I thank you very much for the opportunity of speaking a few words on the amendment read in your hearing. What we wish of your, is not now to consider woman suffrage at all. What we ask of you is, that you shall give the General Assembly the power in its discretion, to extend suffrage to women on the same terms as it is now extended to men.
It has been my privilege and pleasure, in the last few days, to hear gentlemen recalling and emphasizing the great principles that lie at the basis of our government. I have heard the instruction with joy, with an uplifting of the spirit, as the gentlemen spoke of the sacred rights of humanity, in this Hall. It has been declared in the noble Bill of Rights framed by them, that they believe in equal rights to all, exclusive privileges for none. I have heard suffrage described as the crowning glory of the freeman. I have heard all of these things, and seen with a joy which only a native-born Kentucky woman can feel, that, amidst all the difficulties now surrounding us, there was an unfeigned and earnest spirit to preserve to our State the blessings which we have had of free government, and to secure good and free government to all. There has been but one tone in regard to ballot reform. It has been shown that there was danger, and I have heard these gentlemen speak for the purity of the ballot, and, while they speak fearlessly, they speak words of warning, that we must guard the sacredness of the ballot. Eternal vigilance was the burden of the cry. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty; and these gentlemen wish to exercise that vigilance. Mingling with these words of pure patriotism and love of liberty, there is a note of warning, as I say, and it has brought to my memory powerfully the time I spent in the Capital city of our Mother State, Virginia. While I was there I saw the old church in which Patrick Henry spoke those immortal words, “Give me liberty or give me death.” I went into the Capitol, and there I saw a fac-simile of Magna Charta, the very beginning of Constitutional Government. I saw there the autograph of the father of his country, whose solemn warnings were quoted yesterday in relation to the purity of the ballot-box. I saw mementoes of many of the revolutionary fathers, but the thing that thrilled most through my heart in my visit to that city were words of which those spoken in this hall seemed the echo, that freedom is a sacred gift to be preserved by greatest care. Those words were written by the Burgesses of Virginia in the first Bill of Rights, in the old colonial days, and they ran something like this: “That we cannot long preserve free government or the blessings of liberty to ourselves without a firm adherence to justice and a frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.” Gentlemen, I do not propose to argue woman’s suffrage. You have your own opinion; but I speak of justice, and justice only. Think of the words of our forefathers, “a firm adherence to justice, and a frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.” What we ask, will it not be a firm adherence to justice? Shall we fear what shall follow in the footsteps of a firm adherence to justice?
Will it not give the people another opportunity for recurrence to fundamental principles? We ask that the General Assembly shall be granted the power to extend suffrage to women; that Assembly whose members are representatives of this people as you are yourselves. We know that this question is a growing one. We know you are afraid of evil powers; the powers of those who will endeavor to breakdown your work for the sake of evil; but I know there is not a gentleman on this floor who is afraid any evil will ever call in women’s suffrage to subserve its end. The women know, and the sons of women know, that none will ever dare to call in woman’s suffrage to help any evil thing. I appeal to the intelligence of every gentleman on this floor. Who can deny, who believes in the fundamental principles of our Government, that woman’s suffrage is just? Nothing can stand in the way of granting this measure except the various ideas of expediency. Ah! Those people who that the right is not expedient; there may be some who believe that the time is not yet come for it. We do not ask it now; what we ask is, that when the time shall come, we shall be able to take it promptly. There was a respectable minority yesterday who thought it might be well to leave it in the power of the General Assembly to revise the work of this Constitution, or one important part of it, that relating to the manner of taking the votes of the people. Shall you be afraid to trust the General Assembly with the control of this, when the time comes when popular sentiment shall ripen? That secret ballot is a mode; this is a principle. Are you afraid to trust the principle in the hands of the General Assembly any more than the method? This is all we ask. It is a principle which will be laid before the General Assembly, a principle which can never be sustained by them until it is the voice of the people, for no evil manipulator will ever bring up woman’s suffrage for fraud. That is the thing I present to you, and ask your consideration of it. I am as true a patriot as any man in this country, and it is with rejoicing hope and courage that I see the unfeigned desire of this Constitutional Convention to maintain the rights of free government. But it occurred to me, could these men be speaking these lofty thoughts and not remember, with any thrill of sympathetic pain, that there were others besides men as patriotic and intelligent, as law-abiding, as peace-loving—others who give as many hostages for the honor and safety of the State as they? Can they utter these noble sentiments, and yet exclude from any share in them the women of their homes? Can it be that gentlemen utter thoughts which uplift the soul, express all this noble feeling, these patriotic and high motives, and then shut out from them forever the women in this Commonwealth by the organic law? Will the men forget that women also have rights, and that we have more right than simply to be governed for our good? That the highest right of a free woman, as well as of a free man, is self-government? That the people you are called on to govern, are not only men, but women? Women do not ever dream that they have more wisdom than man; but this we do say, that women have a different wisdom from men. Wisdom is not only manly but womanly; men are patriotic, women are patriotic. The laws touch women as they do men. I was about to say as much, but I am almost tempted to say more than men, for men have better means of self-defense than women. Women must look only to the law for defense. The appeal I make to you is not to give suffrage to us now, because we know the people might not sustain you and it might endanger your work; but this is what we do say, will you leave this House and allow no hope for women? Will you go from this hall and forget every appeal of the women who are here with hearts and feelings like yours, and all the sentiments of liberty and independence which is a manly quality, but none the less womanly. I ask you to give us hope. Show that your hearts are not entirely closed to the appeals of women who are just as earnest in their desire for liberty as our forefathers when they trod the snow with bleeding feet. These things are as dear to us as they are dear to you, and the love of liberty can not forever be maintained in the hears to men unless they are taught at the knees of their mothers the great rights of mankind; and shall those sons grow up and say to the mothers, “these rights are for me and not for you?” We ask nothing now to be given us, but we do ask that the women of this Commonwealth, as they think of this noble assembly, which, in all other respects, and I hope will in this, has so far answered their highest expectations, I do entreat that the women shall not close their labors without saying they are unwilling to forever tie up the hands of women, but that they shall share in the noblest privileges of the freeman, that of self-government, and that this Constitutional Convention will foresee and provide for the reform to come. We beg of this Convention that it will take such action as will not lay one straw in the way when the time comes for the people to confer the privilege of self-government upon women.