On Suffrage, (June 1915) Wilkes-Barre, PA

Speech Text

[1] I am here tonight as a working woman, and it is as a working woman that I want to ask you to give votes to women…I know what I am talking about. I’ve been a working girl without a vote long enough, so I know what it means, what a handicap it is. I have worked for my living with my hands almost all my life. I began so young in a silk mill that I broke down my health, got tuberculosis, was sent away to a sanatorium and cured; but I shall never be very strong again, never be able to hold a hard job. I guess you who are working men know where that puts anybody with a living to earn. I can speak from experience: you won’t deny that. So when I go to your legislature that you men elected down there at Harrisburg ask for an 8-hour day and better working conditions for girls in textile mills, I’m talking what I know.

[2] When I come up here and speak on a street corner and ask you working men to put the defense of the ballot into working women’s hands, I’m asking what I’ve earned the right to talk about. I know; I’ve been there. I never in my life owned more property than I could pack up into a suitcase in five minutes and carry round with me without tiring myself at all. It doesn’t look as if I ever would own more than that much. I’m not in what you call the leisure class. Once in one of my meetings somebody called up and asked me, “Why don’t you talk about the injustice of women’s paying taxes without representation?” And I answered back, “Because I don’t know anything about it except what I read in books. I’m not taxed on anything but my daily bread that I earn myself. I’m not a property-owning expert. You’ll have to ask that question of someone else.”

[3] I was a labor union worker before I began to get interested in woman suffrage. What convinced me of women’s need for something more than they’ve got was the strike of the shirtwaist workers in New York City four years ago. I was helping in that strike. There were 50,000 children and young girls and women on strike in that industry then in New York. It was winter. Some of them were starving, very few of them had enough food to eat, or clothes to wear. I saw them go out in the snow and stand, quietly and peaceably, in front of the factories, picketing in defense of their jobs, but not molesting anybody. I was with them day after day. Day after day I saw big, fat, burly policemen in good warm coats drive those little girls back out of those streets, arresting them in twos or threes. But I never could get a policeman to arrest the hired thugs and strong-arm men that the manufacturers had in the streets there, who clubbed and mauled those strikers.

[4] It happened again and again at my meetings. I saw it with my own eyes; and I always saw the policeman turn his head the other way, to let the thugs finish their beating. If anybody got arrested, it was some little girl that was a witness. Day after day things got worse. Some well to do women of New York, some college women from the University, turned in to help us. By that time some of the girls had gone hungry a long time, and the cadets from the red light district had got into the way of going mornings to the halls and rooms where the strikers met for union meetings and passing out cards to those hungry girls telling them to meet So-and-so on a certain corner and get an easy job where there was plenty to eat and lots of money and no strikes—the easy job that we know as the life of shame. We older women who saw this going on went to the police and tried to get a watch set against these cadets.

[5] We brought charges against certain of these men. But do you think the police would arrest them? Not at all. Then with the help of the well-to-do women, we sent a committee to Mayor Gaynor, and told him we had a list of college men and college women volunteers whom we wanted him to appoint for us special officers, to go to these union meetings and break up the cadets’ business. Would he do it? Not at all. We represented 60,000 organized workers, but they were women workers. They had no votes. Gaynor was going to run again for mayor, and we couldn’t give him any votes. If a men’s union of 60,000 had asked Gaynor to appoint those college volunteers special policemen at no charge to the city, don’t you think he’d have done it? Why, yes, in a minute. He was going to run again for mayor. He’d respect 60,000 votes.

[6] I came away that day, after Mayor Gaynor had refused us. I came away converted to woman suffrage. Women workers need every defense that a man worker has. And I want to ask you to give it to them next November. You men know what it is to have to go on strike for living wages. Some of you know what it is to get beaten up by strong-arm methods, when you’re on strike. But you know, there’s always an election day coming pretty soon, and around election day you union men get a good deal of respect, don’t you? Election day is one of your best defenses, particularly if you belong to a strong trade—an eight-hour trade, well organized and well paid.

[7] The eight-hour trades aren’t women’s trades: they’re all men’s trades. And women’s trades are poorer paid. Lots of women in your mills right around here don’t earn enough to keep body and soul together, unless they have families and homes to give them a roof and part of their food. That’s one reason women in the silk mills and the stocking mills don’t form strong unions and stick in them; they can’t afford to pay union dues. And besides, they work ten hours on their feet before a high-powered machine: often the windows are kept shut because a breath of air would break the silk threads, and they have to work in such poor ventilation that at the end of the day they feel sick; they don’t feel as if they could go to a union meeting in the evening. That’s why your women are so hard to unionize, and so weak to help themselves.

[8] Give them a vote next election day. They need it. If a vote helps a working man, it would help a working woman the same way. If he needs the respect police and mayors and politicians pay to him towards every election day, the woman needs it more. If the working man isn’t willing to be deprived of his right to vote—if he realizes his wages would go down, and his union go to pieces if the bosses and the manufacturers were the only ones that had to say in the government and did his voting all for him—why, then he ought not any longer to deprive his sisters, the working women, of these defenses. It’s plain common sense.