From the Vault: Julia Ward Howe and the Woman Suffrage Movement

March 31, 2016, 10:09 am

“Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.” – Mother’s Day Proclamation, Julia Ward Howe

In honor of Women’s History Month, we thought it would be appropriate to take a look at a Suffrage speech by one of America’s early Girl Bosses, Julia Ward Howe.  She was born in New York City, in May of 1819 and became one of the country’s foremost social activists, abolitionists, and poets. She is also responsible for writing the lyrics for the Battle Hymn of the Republic, previously known as John Brown’s Body.

From the collection of the Redwood Library.

 “The ballot, the most perfect weapon yet devised of moral and intellectual power. We do not wish to take it from the hands of any man; we would put it into the hands of every woman.”

Photograph by Sarah Choat Sears, Creative Commons.

After Howe rewrote the lyrics to the popular song, John Brown’s Body, she used her fame to become active in reform. She founded and served on many suffrage and women’s associations, including the New England Woman Suffrage Association, the Association of American Women, and the American Woman Suffrage Association.  She advocated for women’s education, and published numerous articles and calls to action for the women of the country. She was a great orator, and in the 1880s went on a speaking tour of the Pacific Coast, later founding the Century Club of San Francisco. In 1908, Julia became the first woman to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, whose mission was to “foster, assist, and sustain excellence in American literature, music and art.”

At the age of eighty-nine, Ms. Julia Ward Howe delivered the following speech at a Suffrage Hearing at the State House in Boston, February 4th, 1908.

Boston: a Little Island of Darkness

“The religion which makes me a moral agent equally with my father and brother, gives me my right and title to the citizenship which I am here to assert. I ought to share equally with them its privileges and its duties. No man can have more at stake in the community than I have. Imposition of taxes, laws concerning public health, order and morality affect me precisely as they affect the male members of my family, and I am bound equally with them to look to the maintenance of a worthy and proper standard and status in all of these departments.

The wisdom of our ancestors decided that the ballot is the safest instrument for the maintenance of the well-being of the state. We do not claim for it infallibility in the past or in the future, nothing of human devising is infallible either in church or in state. But most of us are born with a latent sense of good, and a desire for its attainment. Education adds to this rudimentary endowment the most precious inheritance of civilization, the thought and experience of past ages. Out of these are evolved the moral law, and the maxims of political economy. Regarding these fundamental principles which govern society we women were long kept in tutelage. Thanks to the growth of human intelligence, led by a few valorous spirits, we have now freedom to enter into this glorious heritage of the ages. With equal moral and mental capacity, we now have education equal to that enjoyed by men. Where is the deficit? Where the deficiency which bars our way to the full exercise of our social and political efficiency? We think that it must be with those who fail to interpret aright the promise of this, our twentieth century, those by whom the logic of freedom and it’s just conclusions are imperfectly apprehended. The women of England have long enjoyed the privilege of the suffrage for which we ask. The women of New Zealand have it. Several of our western states have granted it, distancing our slow Boston by a score or more of years. And shall we, in all this light, remain a little island of darkness?

History shows us many parallels to this state of things. The people before the flood thought that the world was clean enough as it was. No need for any Deluge to wash away its wickedness. But God thought otherwise, and the flood came. From the earliest ages of human history, through the days of Moses, through those of Christ, human progress has been resisted by those who should have been the most zealous for its advancement.

It is quite true that woman suffrage is a feature of a new time. The foremost spirits among men are now making new and unaccustomed studies, both of the actual state of society and of that which it is capable of reaching. To attain this higher level, this worthier status, a greater moral effort is necessary. We must employ efficiently the whole ethical force of society. Half, perhaps two thirds, of this force has been kept latent; by the imperfect training and education of women, and by the legal and social tutelage in which they have been held. Time and with it human progress have brought to pass wonderful changes. The one for which we ask will be one the happiest and most beneficent.

‘Aid it, paper, aid it, pen,

Aid it, minds of noble men.’

Such, gentlemen, we believe you to be, and to you, as such, we commit the fate of our petition.”

photograph by Sarah Choat Sears, Creative Commons.

Interested in learning more about Julia Ward Howe? We have plenty of primary and secondary sources related to this remarkable woman. Search our catalog here: http:/

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