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Defining Documents in American History: Dissent and Protest

Lecture on Constitutional Equality

by Bradley A. Skeen, PhD

Date: 1871

Author: Victoria Woodhull

Genre: Speech

Summary Overview

In January 1871, Victoria Woodhull became the first women to appear before a congressional committee when she addressed the House Judiciary Committee in a bid to persuade Congress to enact female suffrage, or the right to vote. Benjamin Butler—a high-ranking Massachusetts Republican who would later chair the panel—allowed her to deliver her plea in person. Woodhull based her arguments on her belief that women already had the right to vote, in that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution implicitly granted that right to all citizens, not just men. The majority of the Representatives on the committee did not accept her arguments and voted to dismiss the request, but the minority report written by just two of the committee’s members, Butler and William Loughridge, supported the cause, saying that women were “competent voters.” Woodhull went on to deliver fiery lectures on the constitutional enfranchisement of women, notably at Lincoln Hall in Washington, D.C. in February of 1871. This expansion of her argument was published that same year in pamphlet form as Lecture on Constitutional Equality.

Defining Moment

With her Lecture on Constitutional Equality, Woodhull announced and expanded upon the address she had presented to Congress in January 1871 on the subject of woman suffrage. She had been given the privilege of a congressional audience mostly because she had gained a celebrity status shunned by other suffragettes. Woodhull was regularly featured in sensationalist newspaper stories relating to her roles as a newspaper publisher, as the first female owner of a stock brokerage, and as an announced presidential candidate. The scandal attached to her background made her more interesting to reporters than the staid personas of respectable middle-class suffragettes like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In fact, a wide variety of suffragettes looked to Woodhull to make their case to the public and government. One advantage that Woodhull possessed as a spokeswoman for the woman suffrage movement was that, as an outsider, she had not taken part in the contentious split over the Fifteenth Amendment. The movement for woman suffrage had always been closely aligned with that for the abolition of slavery. When the Fifteenth Amendment, granting the right to vote to freed slaves, was being written, some more radical suffragettes, such as Anthony, campaigned for the same amendment to explicitly grant women the right to vote also, a position eventually advocated by the National Woman Suffrage Association. Meanwhile, conservatives such as Lucy Stone, a founder of the American Woman Suffrage Association, did not want to risk losing suffrage for former slaves by trying to then gain suffrage for all.

Author Biography

Victoria Claflin Woodhull was born on September 23, 1838, on an Ohio farm. She married to the physician Canning Woodhull (an alcoholic and poor provider) when she was fourteen. By the time of the Civil War, Woodhull’s parents were in the business of promoting her younger sister, Tennessee Claflin, claiming that she could cure disease through mesmerism, or hypnosis. Claflin was indicted for manslaughter following the death a patient she was treating for breast cancer. The sisters practiced in various cities, with Woodhull providing consultations as a spirit medium, connecting clients with dead relatives. Remarrying, Woodhull moved to New York City in 1868.

In 1870, shipping and railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt consulted the sisters, probably in the hope of contacting his dead son. Vanderbilt came to establish the two as heads of a brokerage firm he capitalized, making them the first female stockbrokers in America. Using their new income, the sisters started a newspaper to promote suffrage for women. In 1870 she announced her candidacy for the presidency of the United States in the 1872 election. She would be formally nominated by the Equal Rights Party in 1872, with the abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass as her running mate.

By 1872 it had become clear that Woodhull had become too radical for her own good; she was damaging the public image of her causes, forfeiting the support of Vanderbilt and her political allies. Acting on instructions from the spirit world, so she claimed, Woodhull attacked prominent Protestant preacher Henry Ward Beecher. Woodhull published evidence of Beecher’s adultery in her newspaper, leading to perhaps the greatest scandal in nineteenth-century America. Woodhull spent many weeks in prison and saw her personal finances ruined by prosecution brought about by the postal censor Anthony Comstock over the publication of the Beecher story, though the case against her was thrown out on a technicality. After these proceedings, Woodhull was viewed as a martyr and was able to begin a national lecture tour that largely restored her fortunes. She died on June 9, 1927.

Historical Document

I have no doubt it seems strange to many of you that a woman should appear before the people in this public manner for political purposes, and it is due both to you and myself that I should give my reasons for so doing.

On the 19th of December, 1870, I memorialized Congress, setting forth what I believed to be the truth and right regarding Equal Suffrage for all citizens. This memorial was referred to the Judiciary Committees of Congress. On the 12th of January I appeared before the House Judiciary Committee and submitted to them the Constitutional and Legal points upon which I predicated such equality. January 20th Mr. Bingham, on behalf of the majority of said Committee, submitted his report to the House in which, while he admitted all my basic propositions, Congress was recommended to take no action.…I assumed and recommended that Congress should pass a Declaratory Act, forever settling the mooted question of suffrage.

Thus it is seen that equally able men differ upon a simple point of Constitutional Law, and it is fair to presume that Congress will also differ when these Reports come up for action. That a proposition involving such momentous results as this, should receive a one-third vote upon first coming before Congress has raised it in importance, which spreads alarm on all sides among the opposition. So long as it was not made to appear that women were denied Constitutional rights, no opposition was aroused; but now that new light is shed, by which it is seen that such is the case, all the Conservative weapons of bitterness, hatred and malice are marshalled in the hope to extinguish it, before it can enlighten the masses of the people, who are always true to freedom and justice.

Public opinion is against Equality, but it is simply from prejudice, which requires but to be informed to pass away. No greater prejudice exists against equality than there did against the proposition that the world was a globe. This passed away under the influence of better information, so also will present prejudice pass, when better informed upon the question of equality.…

I come before you, to declare that my sex are entitled to the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The first two I cannot be deprived of except for cause and by due process of law; but upon the last, a right is usurped to place restrictions so general as to include the whole of my sex, and for which no reasons of public good can be assigned. I ask the right to pursue happiness by having a voice in that government to which I am accountable. I have not forfeited that right, still I am denied. Was assumed arbitrary authority ever more arbitrarily exercised? In practice, then, our laws are false to the principles which we profess. I have the right to life, to liberty, unless I forfeit it by an infringement upon others’ rights, in which case the State becomes the arbiter and deprives me of them for the public good. I also have the right to pursue happiness, unless I forfeit it in the same way, and am denied it accordingly. It cannot be said, with any justice, that my pursuit of happiness in voting for any man for office, would be an infringement of one of his rights as a citizen or as an individual. I hold, then, that in denying me this right without my having forfeited it, that departure is made from the principles of the Constitution, and also from the true principles of government, for I am denied a right born with me, and which is inalienable.…

If freedom consists in having an actual share in appointing those who frame the laws, are not the women of this country in absolute bondage, and can government, in the face of the XV Amendment, assume to deny them the right to vote, being in this “condition of servitude?” According to Franklin we are absolutely enslaved, for there are “governors set over us by other men,” and we are “subject to the laws” they make. Is not Franklin good authority in matters of freedom? Again, rehearsing the arguments that have emanated from Congress and applying them to the present case, we learn that “It is idle to show that, in certain instances, the fathers failed to apply the sublime principles which they declared. Their failure can be no apology for those on whom the duty is now cast.” Shall it be an apology now? Shall the omission of others to do justice keep the government from measuring it to those who now cry out for it?…

I am subject to tyranny! I am taxed in every conceivable way. For publishing a paper I must pay—for engaging in the banking and brokerage business I must pay—of what it is my fortune to acquire each year I must turn over a certain per cent—I must pay high prices for tea, coffee and sugar: to all these must I submit, that men’s government may be maintained, a government in the administration of which I am denied a voice, and from its edicts there is no appeal. I must submit to a heavy advance upon the first cost of nearly everything I wear in order that industries in which I have no interest may exist at my expense. I am compelled to pay extravagant rates of fare wherever I travel, because the franchises, extended to gigantic corporations, enable them to sap the vitality of the country, to make their managers money kings, by means of which they boast of being able to control not only legislators but even a State judiciary.

To be compelled to submit to these extortions that such ends may be gained, upon any pretext or under any circumstances, is bad enough: but to be compelled to submit to them, and also denied the right to cast my vote against them, is a tyranny more odious than that which, being rebelled against, gave this country independence.…

Therefore it is, that instead of growing in republican liberty, we are departing from it. From an unassuming, acquiescent part of society, woman has gradually passed to an individualized human being, and as she has advanced, one after another evident right of the common people has been accorded to her. She has now become so much individualized as to demand the full and unrestrained exercise of all the rights which can be predicated of a people constructing a government based on individual sovereignty. She asks it, and shall Congress deny her?

The formal abolition of slavery created several millions of male negro citizens, who, a portion of the acknowledged citizens assumed to say, were not entitled to equal rights with themselves. To get over this difficulty, Congress in its wisdom saw fit to propose a XIV Amendment to the Constitution, which passed into a law by ratification by the States. Sec. I. of the Amendment declares: “All persons, born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States. Nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty and property without due process of law, nor deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law.”…

After the adoption of the XIV Amendment it was found that still more legislation [XV Amendment] was required to secure the exercise of the right to vote to all who by it were declared to be citizens, and the following comprehensive amendment was passed by Congress and ratified by the States: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.” Nothing could be more explicit than this language, and nothing more comprehensive. “But,” says the objector, ever on the alert, “it may be denied on account of sex.” It must be remembered “that is law which is written,” and that all inferences drawn must be in accord with the general intent of the instrument involved by the inference. If the right to vote cannot be denied on account of race, how can it be denied on account of a constituent part of race, unless the power of denial is specially expressed. The larger always includes the smaller, which, if reserved, the reservation that it has no broader application. Whoever it may include, under logical construction, to them the right to vote shall not be denied. Take the African race and the black color and the previous slaves out of the way, and what application would this Amendment then have? This is the way to test these things, the way to arrive at what they mean. Who will pretend to say this Amendment would mean nothing were there no negroes, and there had been no Southern slaves? Who will pretend to say that the Amendment would mean nothing in the coming election, provided that there never before had been an election under the Constitution? If you provide a Constitutional amendment, having one race specially in view, it must not be forgotten that there are other races besides. Thirty-seven States constitute the United States. If you speak of the United States you speak of all the States, for they are all included. If you speak of a part of the United States, you must designate what part, in order that it may be known what you mean. A race is composed of two sexes. If you speak of a race you include both sexes. If you speak of a part of a race, you must designate which part in order to make yourselves intelligible.…

I make the plain and broad assertion, that the women of this country are as much subject to men as the slaves were to their masters. The extent of the subjection may be less and its severity milder, but it is a complete subjection nevertheless. What can women do that men deny them? What could not the slave have done if not denied?

It is not the women who are happily situated, whose husbands hold positions of honor and trust, who are blessed by the bestowal of wealth, comforts and ease that I plead for. These do not feel their condition of servitude any more than the happy, well-treated slave felt her condition. Had slavery been of this kind it is at least questionable if it would not still have been in existence; but it was not all of this kind. Its barbarities, horrors and inhumanities roused the blood of some who were free, and by their efforts the male portion of a race were elevated by Congress to the exercise of the rights of citizenship. Thus would I have Congress regard woman, and shape their action, not from the condition of those who are so well cared for as not to wish a change to enlarge their sphere of action, but for the toiling female millions, who have human rights which should be respected.…

We are now prepared to dispose of the sex argument. If the right to vote shall not be denied to any person of any race, how shall it be denied to the female part of all races? Even if it could be denied on account of sex, I ask, what warrant men have to presume that it is the female sex to whom such denial can be made instead of the male sex? Men, you are wrong, and you stand convicted before the world of denying me, a woman, the right to vote, not by any right of law, but simply because you have usurped the power so to do, just as all other tyrants in all ages have, to rule their subjects. The extent of the tyranny in either case being limited only by the power to enforce it.…

Under such glaring inconsistencies, such unwarrantable tyranny, such unscrupulous despotism. What is there left women to do but to become the mothers of the future government.

We will have our rights. We say no longer by your leave. We have besought, argued and convinced, but we have failed; and we will not fail.

We will try you just once more. If the very next Congress refuse women all the legitimate results of citizenship; if they indeed merely so much as fail by a proper declaratory act to withdraw every obstacle to the most ample exercise of the franchise, then we give here and now, deliberate notification of what we will do next.

There is one alternative left, and we have resolved on that. This convention is for the purpose of this declaration. As surely as one year passes, from this day, and this right is not fully, frankly and unequivocally considered, we shall proceed to call another convention expressly to frame a new constitution and to erect a new government, complete in all its parts, and to take measures to maintain it as effectually as men do theirs.

If for people to govern themselves is so unimportant a matter as men now assert it to be, they could not justify themselves in interfering. If, on the contrary, it is the important thing we conceive it to be, they can but applaud us for exercising our right.

We mean treason; we mean secession, and on a thousand times grander scale than was that of the South. We are plotting revolution; we will overthrow this bogus republic and plant a government of righteousness in its stead, which shall not only profess to derive its power from the consent of the governed, but shall do so in reality.

Glossary

besought: asked for, begged for

Bingham: John Bingham, Ohio congressman

Franklin: Benjamin Franklin, one of the nation’s founders

mooted: having no legal significance, already settled

Document Analysis

The argument that Woodhull delivered to Congress and later reprised for popular consumption in New York (even after her proposals had been rejected by a two-thirds vote of Congress’s joint Judiciary Committee) was essentially based on traditional suffragist thought going back to the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention on women’s rights. Woodhull begins the main part of her argument by adapting the language of the Declaration of Independence: “I come before you, to declare that my sex are entitled to the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This pattern of adaptation had been established by the Declaration of Sentiments produced at Seneca Falls. The essence of Woodhull’s argument is that the right to personal freedom attaches to the condition of being human and that if the full exercise of freedom, including the right to vote, is denied women, it is a tyranny worse than that exercised by George III over the American colonies or by slave owners over slaves. In particular, Woodhull considers the legal position of women in America up until 1871 to be a “previous condition of servitude,” which, according to the newly passed Fifteenth Amendment, could not be used as a bar to voting rights.

Again following the Declaration of Sentiments, Woodhull moves on to a specific list of grievances against women’s freedoms, also based insofar as possible on the Declaration of Independence. Women are subject to laws over whose making they have no control because they neither vote for nor serve as legislators. In particular, women must pay taxes that they have no role in levying, a point echoing the colonial American grievance against taxation without representation. Woodhull moves on to the main part of her argument, an analysis of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, which after the Civil War established the newly freed slaves as citizens and specifically granted them the right to vote. She contends that if there was any doubt about the equality of women’s citizenship before, the broadly inclusive language of the Fourteenth Amendment should settle it: “All persons, born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” She does not, however, directly address the second clause of the amendment, which expressly prohibits states from denying suffrage to any male citizens only. Yet she insists that the inclusive language must be read in the broadest possible meaning, to comprehend everyone not specifically excluded. In such a reading, the specific mention of males indicates nothing about females.

It was the very brief and general language of the Fifteenth Amendment, however, that was the main support of suffragette hopes. Woodhull quotes the text in full: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.” She regards this text as clearly supporting her cause: “Nothing could be more explicit than this language, and nothing more comprehensive.” She presents two arguments for the inclusion of women within the language of the amendment. Since gender is a larger and more inclusive category than any of those specifically mentioned in the amendment, she supposes that it must be inferred that gender also cannot be used to deny the right to vote. Her second, and more powerful, argument, is actually the opposite of the first. She quite rightly reads the amendment as not referring exclusively to the “black” race but as applying equally to all races and to people of all colors. Since, insofar as race is a legal category, all women belong to some race, the guarantee of rights to members of any race includes the female members of the races unless, as the amendment does not do, they are specifically excluded. As she reasons, “A race is composed of two sexes. If you speak of a race you include both sexes. If you speak of a part of a race, you must designate which part in order to make yourselves intelligible.”

The remainder of Woodhull’s address departs from the mainstream of the suffrage movement. Most suffragettes were middle-class women from conservative backgrounds, and while they thought it just that women be granted the vote and other legal rights of citizens, they distanced themselves from the more radical political ideologies embraced by Woodhull (such as Socialism), both because they did not find them appealing and because they did not want their movement to be perceived as a general threat to the existing social order. Woodhull had no such scruples, and her further proposals here are of a piece with her radical decision to run for the presidency. She states that if women are not granted full equality by Congress to elect and be elected in 1872, women will start a new American revolution and create a new constitution based on freedom rather than tyranny.

Essential Themes

Victoria Woodhull’s 1871 address to the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee came at a time when the initial wave of th women’s movement in the United States began to break on the rocks of reconstruction. As the movement split over whether to push for women’s suffrage along with black male suffrage during the debate over the 15th amendment, the coalition that had emerged from the abolition movement and solidified at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention began to fragment. Here, Woodhull uses the traditional—for the time—method of arguing for women’s suffrage: a generous reading of the 14th and 15th amendments. Woodhull, however, did not confine her self to this line of reasoning. A key component of her speech comes near the end. She had already announced her intention to run for the Presidency in 1872 and, here, she calls for a new nation to come forth if the demands of the women’s suffrage movement are not met by that time. We mean treason,” she proclaims. “We mean secession, and on a thousand times grander scale than was that of the South. We are plotting revolution; we will overthrow this bogus republic and plant a government of righteousness in its stead.” This call for revolution heralded a new age not just in American gender politics but for American politics in general, as radical movements like socialism, communism, and anarchism would rear their heads in the coming decades.

Bibliography and Additional Reading

1 

Caplan, Sheri J. Petticoats and Pinstripes: Portraits of Women in Wall Street’s History. (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2013).

2 

Fitzpatrick, Ellen. The Highest Glass Ceiling : Women’s Quest for the American Presidency. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016).

3 

Gabriel, Mary. Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull Uncensored. (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 1998)

4 

Goldsmith, Barbara. Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull. (New York: Harper Perennial, 1998).

Citation Types

Type
Format
MLA 9th
Skeen, Bradley A. "Lecture On Constitutional Equality." Defining Documents in American History: Dissent and Protest, edited by Aaron Gulyas, Salem Press, 2017. Salem Online, online.salempress.com/articleDetails.do?articleName=DDProtest_0077.
APA 7th
Skeen, B. A. (2017). Lecture on Constitutional Equality. In A. Gulyas (Ed.), Defining Documents in American History: Dissent and Protest. Salem Press.
CMOS 17th
Skeen, Bradley A. "Lecture On Constitutional Equality." Edited by Aaron Gulyas. Defining Documents in American History: Dissent and Protest. Hackensack: Salem Press, 2017. Accessed May 17, 2024. online.salempress.com.