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Unsurprisingly, not everyone is convinced by Victoria’s argument that women are already enfranchised. Sticklers point out that Wyoming is a territory, not a state; the fourth article says nothing about territories. Others note that the courts and historical practice have left the question of voting qualifications to the states, which have determined for themselves who shall vote and who shall not.
But there is a larger problem with Victoria’s argument: not enough people hear—or read—it. Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly thrives in its niche in New York City, but it circulates meagerly beyond the city. The political classes in Washington are almost wholly unaware of its existence or contents.
Benjamin Butler works to remedy both problems. He holds additional meetings with Victoria, helping her sharpen the argument. And he arranges an invitation to her to visit the national capital and address the judiciary committee of the House of Representatives.
The invitation doesn’t surprise Victoria, but it confounds Elizabeth Stanton and Susan Anthony and the rest of the leadership of the National Woman Suffrage Association, which is meeting in Washington at the very time Victoria is scheduled to speak to the judiciary committee. Some in the group propose to ignore Victoria, others to shun her for her checkered past and her failure to fall in step behind Stanton and Anthony. But Anthony has watched Victoria for months, and she is practical enough to realize that beauty opens doors mere argument leaves closed. She insists that the group support Victoria, and she leads a delegation to the Capitol where they claim front-row seats in the meeting room.
Victoria presents the argument for women’s constitutionally sanctioned but politically unrealized suffrage in the language of a legal petition, or memorial, to the judiciary committees of both the House and the Senate. In this document she speaks in the third person, positing a series of facts about herself as petitioner, about women as citizens, and about the Constitution as the law of the land:
“That she was born in the State of Ohio, and is above the age of twenty-one years; that she has resided in the State of New York during the past three years; that she is still a resident thereof, and that she is a citizen of the United States, as declared by the Fourteenth Article of Amendments to the Constitution of the United States;
“That since the adoption of the Fifteenth Article of Amendments to the Constitution, neither the State of New York nor any other State, nor any Territory, has passed any law to abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote, as established by said article, neither on account of sex or otherwise;
“That, nevertheless, the right to vote is denied to women citizens of the United States by the operation of Election Laws in the several States and Territories, which laws were enacted prior to the adoption of the said Fifteenth Article, and which are inconsistent with the Constitution as amended, and, therefore, are void and of no effect; but which being still enforced by the said States and Territories, render the Constitution inoperative as regards the right of women citizens to vote.”
Victoria pauses to catch her breath, then proceeds to a list of whereases:
“Whereas, Article 6, Section 2, declares ‘That this Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof, and all treaties made or which shall be made under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and all judges in every State shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution and Laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding’;
“And whereas, no distinction between citizens is made in the Constitution of the United States on account of sex, but the Fourteenth Article of Amendments to it provides that ‘no State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States…nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws’;
“And whereas, Congress has power to make laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution all powers vested by the Constitution in the Government of the United States; and to make or alter all regulations in relation to holding election for Senators and Representatives, and especially to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of the said Fourteenth Article;
“And whereas, the continuance of the enforcement of said local election laws, denying and abridging the Right of Citizens to Vote on account of sex, is a grievance to your memorialist and to various other persons, citizens of the United States, being women.”
She pauses again, looks around the table at the members of Congress and delivers the conclusion:
“Therefore your memorialist would most respectfully petition your Honorable Bodies to make such laws as in the wisdom of Congress shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the right vested by the Constitution in the citizens of the United States to vote, without regard to sex.”
She supplements the memorial with remarks on republican theory and American history. The essence of a republic is that political power flows from the citizenry to the government, rather than in the opposite direction, as is the case in monarchies, she says. “All citizens of a republic by rightful act or implication confer sovereign power. As sovereignty cannot be forfeited, relinquished or abandoned, those from whom it flows—the citizens—are equal in conferring the power, and should be equal in the enjoyment of its benefits and in the exercise of its rights and privileges.” Women are fully citizens. “The Constitution makes no distinction of sex. The Constitution defines a woman born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, to be a citizen.” The Constitution recognizes voting right of citizens. The Fifteenth Amendment has made this explicit. “It declares that 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.’” The Fifteenth Amendment is silent on sex. But its silence allows other principles, central to republican government, to become determinative.
Some of these principles are as old as the republic itself. “The citizen who is taxed should also have a voice in the subject matter of taxation. ‘No taxation without representation’ is a right which was fundamentally established at the very birth of our country’s independence.” This right remains fundamental. “By what ethics does any free government impose taxes on women without giving them a voice upon the subject or a participation in the public declaration as to how and by whom these taxes shall be applied for common public use? Women are free to own and to control property, separate and apart from males, and they are held responsible in their own proper persons, in every particular, as well as men, in and out of court. Women have the same inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that men have. Why have they not this right politically, as well as men?”
The life of the nation depends on women. “Women constitute a majority of the people of this country. They hold vast portions of the nation’s wealth and pay a proportionate share of the taxes. They are entrusted with the most holy duties and the most vital responsibilities of society: they bear, rear and educate men; they train and mould their characters; they inspire the noblest impulses in men; they often hold the accumulated fortunes of a man’s life for the safety of the family and as guardians of the infants. And yet they are debarred from uttering any opinion, by public vote, as to the management by public servants of these interests. They are the secret counselors, the best advisers, the most devoted aids in the most trying periods of men’s lives, and yet men shrink from trusting them in the common questions of ordinary politics. Men trust women in the market, in the shop, on the highway and the railroad, and in all other public places and assemblies. But when they propose to carry a slip of paper with a name upon it to the polls, they fear them.”
The question of the vote touches the welfare not only of women but of the country as a whole. “The American nation, in its march onward and upward, cannot publicly choke the intellectual and political activity of half its citizens by narrow statutes. The will of the entire people is the true basis of republican government, and a free expression of that will by the public vote of all citizens, without distinctions of race, color, occupation or sex, is the only means by which that will can be ascertained.”