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Strength in Numbers: Kelley on Women, Labor, and the Power of the Ballot

In 1890, two competing organizations working to gain the right for women to vote joined forces to form the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA). NAWSA campaigned diligently for the vote in a variety of ways, but did not achieve success until the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920. This prolonged struggle entangled female activists in other important political and moral issues that divided the nation along racial, ethnic, and class lines. Florence Kelley, a Chicago-born labor reformer, socialist, and woman suffrage advocate, employed pragmatic arguments in support of women’s right to vote. In this selection from a speech to the 1898 NAWSA convention, Kelly argued that working women, particularly factory workers, needed the ballot to protect themselves from exploitation at the hands of their powerful employers. She also argued that working men needed their feminine counterparts to vote in order to strengthen labor’s presence at the polls.

No one needs all the powers of the fullest citizenship more urgently than the wage-earning woman, and from two different points of view—that of actual money wages and that of her wider needs as a human being and a member of the community.

The wages paid any body of working people are determined by many influences, chief among which is the position of the particular body of workers in question. Thus the printers, by their intelligence, their powerful organization, their solidarity and united action, keep up their wages in spite of the invasion of their domain by new and improved machinery. On the other hand, the garment-workers, the sweaters' victims, poor, unorganized, unintelligent, despised, remain forever on the verge of pauperism, irrespective of their endless toil. If, now, by some untoward fate the printers should suddenly find themselves disfranchised, placed in a position in which their members were politically inferior to the members of other trades, no effort of their own short of complete enfranchisement could restore to them that prestige, that good standing in the esteem of their fellow-craftsmen and the public at large which they now enjoy, and which contributes materially in support of their demand for high wages.

In the garment trades, on the other hand, the presence of a body of the disfranchised, of the weak and young, undoubtedly contributes to the economic weakness of these trades. Custom, habit, tradition, the regard of the public, both employing and employed, for the people who do certain kinds of labor, contribute to determine the price of that labor, and no disfranchised class of workers can permanently hold its own in competition with enfranchised rivals. But this works both ways. It is fatal for any body of workers to have forever hanging from the fringes of its skirts other bodies on a level just below its own; for that means continual pressure downward, additional difficulty to be overcome in the struggle to maintain reasonable rates of wages. Hence, within the space of two generations there has been a complete revolution in the attitude of the trades-unions toward the women working in their trades. Whereas forty years ago women might have knocked in vain at the doors of the most enlightened trade-union, to-day the Federation of Labor keeps in the field paid organizers whose duty it is to enlist in the unions as many women as possible. The workingmen have perceived that women are in the field of industry to stay; and they see, too, that there can not be two standards of work and wages for any trade without constant menace to the higher standard. Hence their effort to place the women upon the same industrial level with themselves in order that all may pull together in the effort to maintain reasonable conditions of life.

But this same menace holds with regard to the vote. The lack of the ballot places the wage-earning woman upon a level of irresponsibility compared with her enfranchised fellow workingman. By impairing her standing in the community the general rating of her value as a human being, and consequently as a worker, is lowered. In order to be rated as good as a good man in the field of her earnings, she must show herself better than he. She must be more steady, or more trustworthy, or more skilled, or more cheap in order to have the same chance of employment. Thus, while women are accused of lowering wages, might they not justly reply that it is only by conceding something from the pay which they would gladly claim, that they can hold their own in the market, so long as they labor under the disadvantage of disfranchisement? . . .

Finally, the very fact that women now form about one-fifth of the employees in manufacture and commerce in this country has opened a vast field of industrial legislation directly affecting women as wage-earners. The courts in some of the States, notably in Illinois, are taking the position that women can not be treated as a class apart and legislated for by themselves, as has been done in the factory laws of England and on the continent of Europe, but must abide by that universal freedom of contract which characterizes labor in the United States. This renders the situation of the working woman absolutely anomalous. On the one hand, she is cut off from the protection awarded to her sisters abroad; on the other, she has no such power to defend her interests at the polls, as is the heritage of her brothers at home. This position is untenable, and there can be no pause in the agitation for full political power and responsibility until these are granted to all the women of the nation.

Source: Susan B. Anthony, History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. IV (1886): 311–13. Reprinted in Aileen S. Kraditor, ed., Up From the Pedestal: Selected Writings in the History of American Feminism (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1968), 274–276.

See Also:"The Solitude of Self": Stanton Appeals for Women's Rights
"A Heritage of Scorn": Harper Urges A Color-Blind Cause
"Durable White Supremacy": Belle Kearney Puts Black Men in Their Place
Class Versus Gender: Catt Taps Middle-Class and Nativist Fears to Boost Women's Causes
More Logic, Less Feeling: Senator Vest Nixes Woman Suffrage