Eugene V. Debs

Pioneer Women in America


From Eugene V. Debs, Labor & Freedom, St. Louis 1916, pp.95-103.
Originally published in Progressive Woman, April 1912.
Transcribed & marked up by

In looking over some old letters a day or two ago I found a postal card which Susan B. Anthony had written to me over thirty years ago, and, strangely enough, it was held fast by a letter that was written to me about the same time by Wendell Phillips, as if these two epistles had been attracted to each other and held together in the bonds of mutualism as were the great souls who had written them in their heroic struggle for human enfranchisement.

The faded and time-worn old card carried me back to the day I met Miss Anthony at the depot on her arrival at Terre Haute, where she was to speak in public for her sex. At that time Mrs. Ida Husted Harper, who afterward became Miss Anthony’s confidential friend and authorized biographer, and I, and two or three others, were about the only people in Terre Haute who believed that woman was a human being and entitled to the rights of citizenship. We had arranged these meetings for Miss Anthony and her three active coadjutors in woman’s cause at that time, and they arrived according to the schedule.

I shall never forget how Miss Anthony impressed me. She had all the charm of a real woman and all the strength of a perfect man. Style, personal adornment, she did not know; vanity found no lodgment in her great soul. She was born with a heroic purpose, and she set out in fulfillment of that purpose with a spirit of dauntless valor and determination which knew “no variableness or shadow of turning” to the day that ended her con secrated life and she passed from the scenes of men.

The trials, privations, insults borne by this grand old pioneer will never be known by those who are in the ranks today. An event characteristic of the struggle in which she engaged almost single-handed for so many years was her arrest and trial for voting in the presidential election of 1872. A fine of one hundred dollars and costs was imposed upon her, which she vowed she would not pay, even if she were sent to jail. When Miss Anthony said a thing she meant it. That fine was never paid.

It was, after all, a stroke of good fortune that Miss Anthony was the victim of this barbarous indignity. It inspired one of the greatest speeches of her life. In opening this dramatic plea and protest she said:

“Friends and Fellow-Citizens: I stand before you tonight under indictment for the alleged crime of having voted at the last presidential elec tion, without having a lawful right to vote. It shall be my work this evening to prove to you that in thus voting I not only committed no crime, but instead, simply exercised my citizen’s rights, guaranteed to me and all United States citizens by the National Constitution, beyond the power of any State to deny.”

She then quoted from the preamble of the Federal Constitution: “We, the people of the United States,” etc., and proceeded:

“It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we the male citizens; but, we the whole people, who formed the union. And we formed it, not to give the blessings of liberty, but to secure them; not to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity, but to the whole people – women as well as men. And it is a downright mockery to talk to women of their enjoyment of the blessings of liberty while they are denied the use of the only means of securing them provided by this democratic-republican government – the ballot. The early journals of Congress show that when the committee reported to that body the original articles of confederation, the very first article which became the subject of discussion was that respecting equality of suffrage. Article 4 said: ‘The better to secure and perpetuate mutual friendship and intercourse between the people of the different States of the Union, the free inhabitants of each of the States (paupers, vagabonds and fugitives from justice excepted) shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of the free citizen of the several States.’
“Thus, at the very beginning did the fathers see the necessity of the universal application of the great principle of equal rights to all, in order to produce the desired results – a harmonious union and a homogeneous people.”

Miss Anthony then quoted the New York State Constitution:

“No member of this State shall be disfranchised or deprived of the rights or privileges secured to any citizen thereof, unless by the law of the land or the judgment of its peers.”

She then proceeded with her argument, which has never been and never will be answered. It is to be regretted that space forbids more ample quotation in this article. Here is a glowing paragraph from her impassioned plea which is characteristic of the entire address:

“To them (women) this government has no just powers derived from the consent of the governed. To them this government is not a democracy. It is not a republic. It is an odious aristocracy; a hateful oligarchy of sex; the most hateful aristocracy ever established on the face of the globe; an oligarchy of wealth, where the rich govern the poor. An oligarchy of learning, where the educated govern the ignorant, or even an oligarchy of race, where the Saxon rules the African, might be endured; but this oligarchy of sex, which makes father, brothers, husband, sons the oligarch over the mother and sisters, the wife and daughters of every household; which ordains all men sovereigns, all women subjects; carries dissension, discord and rebellion into every home of the nation.”

There has never been a more logical unanswerable argument for the political enfranchisement of women than was here made by Miss Anthony. And yet only a very few of the people were fair enough to listen, intelligent enough to understand, or candid enough to give approval, if they did.

Susan B. Anthony’s whole career was one tempestuous struggle for the rights of her sex. She never wavered and she never wearied in the conflict. She had the moral courage of a martyr, and such she was as certainly as any that ever perished at the stake.

On my visit to Johnstown, N.Y., recently, the comrades pointed out the spot where Elizabeth Cady Stanton, another pioneer heroine of the movement, was born. Mrs. Stanton has long since been gathered to her fathers, but her work remains an imperishable monument in memory of her achievements.

It was at the first Woman’s Rights convention ever held in the United States, July 19, 1848, that Mrs. Stanton delivered an oration that will forever have a place in the literature of woman’s struggle for freedom. The doctrine she advocated was at that time little less than treason, but she knew it was true, and she boldly took her stand and maintained it to the end. In her speech at this first convention she said:

“Now is the time for the women of this country, if they would save our free institutions, to defend the right, to buckle on the armor that can best resist the keenest weapons of the enemy – contempt and ridicule. The same religious enthusiasm that nerved Joan of Arc to her work nerves us to ours. In every generation God calls some men and women for the utterance of the truth, a heroic action, and our work today is the fulfilling of what has long since been foretold by the prophet. ... We do not expect our path will be strewn with the flowers of popular applause, but over the thorns of bigotry and prejudice will be our way, and on our banner will beat dark storm-clouds of opposition from those who have entrenched themselves behind the stormy bulwarks of custom and authority, and who have fortified their position by every means, holy and unholy. But we will steadfastly abide the result. Unmoved we will bear it aloft. Undauntedly we will unfurl it to the gale, for we know that the storm cannot rend from it a shred, that the electric flash will but more clearly show to us the glorious words inscribed upon it: ’Equality of Rights’.”

There was thrilling power in the burning eloquence of Mrs. Stanton, but only they who had a part in the struggle at that time could have any conception of what bitter hatred, blind prejudice and malign persecution there were to overcome.

In February, 1854, Mrs. Stanton made a notable plea for the political rights of women to the legislature of New York. In mentally invoicing an average legislature today one gets some idea of the self-imposed task of this brave old pioneer, and the indomitable spirit required to undertake it, of arousing a body of sodden bourgeois legislators, ward politicians, to recognize the right of women to breathe the air of civilized citizenship and belong to themselves. In this thoroughly militant and inspiring appeal she said:

“The tyrant, Custom, has been summoned before the bar of Common Sense. His majesty no longer awes the multitude; his scepter is broken; his crown is trampled in the dust; the sentence of death is pronounced upon him. All nations, ranks and classes have, in turn, questioned and repudiated his authority; and now, that the monster is chained and caged, timid woman, on tiptoe, comes to look him in the face, and to demand of her brave sires and sons, who have struck stout blows for liberty, if, in this change of dynasty, she, too, shall find relief ...
“We demand the full recognition of all our rights as citizens of the Empire State. We are persons; natives, free-born citizens; property holders, taxpayers, yet we are denied the exercise of our right to the elective franchise. We support ourselves, and, in part, your schools, colleges, churches, your poor-houses, jails, prisons, the army, the navy, the whole machinery of government, and yet we have no voice in your councils. We have every qualification required by the constitution necessary to the legal voter but the one of sex. We are moral, virtuous and intelligent, and in all respects quite equal to the proud white man himself, and yet by your laws we are classed with idiots, lunatics and negroes.”

These two sturdy pioneers in woman’s struggle present a magnificent picture in the perspective. They did not know the meaning of discouragement. They were strangers to weakness and fear.

Both were of heroic mould. Both were born and endowed for great service and both made their names synonymous with the struggle of their sex to shake off the fetters of the centuries.

Mrs. Stanton was born in 1815, ante-dating Miss Anthony by five years. They were inseparable friends, and they who saw them together say that their love and fealty toward each other was so beautiful and touching that it was an inspiration to all their co-workers and shamed to silence all their bickerings and petty jealousies.

They both lived to be over eighty years. After full half a century of unrelaxing fidelity to their principles and unceasing battle for their cause they saw but the beginning of the glorious fruition of their consecrated service. Such has been the fate of all who, like these great souls, loved principle better than popularity and humanity more than themselves.

The women who are in the ranks today may well rejoice that these grand women and others who shared in their bitter persecution blazed the way through the dense wilderness of ignorance, prejudice and hatred for what is now a world movement, with millions proudly bearing its banner, inscribed with the conquering shibboleth: Equal Freedom and Equal Opportunities for All Mankind.