Isabella Beecher Hooker: 'We, the People' Includes Women

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The 21st in a series of articles commemorating Women's History Month by spotlighting a significant speech or testimony delivered by a woman in the U.S. on this date.

For Isabella Beecher Hooker, it was perfectly clear. In her remarks to the International Council of Women on the evening of March 30, 1888, she hammered home the point again and again: women are people. When the framers of the U.S. Constitution used the words “the people,” she argued, they meant women as well as men. “Can anything be plainer, then, than that a woman -- being a 'person' -- is a citizen, and being a ‘citizen’ has the citizen’s right to vote?” 

She was the youngest of 13 siblings in the illustrious Beecher family, which included her half-brother, Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, and her half-sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Hooker testified before Congress and petitioned Connecticut legislators for women’s suffrage. She co-wrote the state’s first property law for women. She campaigned for police reform. She toured the country many times, lecturing tirelessly on women’s rights. 

But her argument that women are “people” and therefore should be allowed to vote fell on deaf ears. Hooker’s legacy has been overshadowed by her distinguised siblings. Despite her accomplishments, history has largely forgotten her.

By Isabella Beecher Hooker

Inaugural convention, International Council of Women, Albaugh’s Opera House, Washington, D.C.

In the month of August, 1774, that eminent statesman and true patriot, Thomas, Jefferson, in a little tract entitled “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” used certain words which I will take for my text while addressing you today on the “Constitutional Rights of the Women Citizens of the United States.” They are these: 

“The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest.”

And again:

“The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them.”

May I ask your patient attention while I attempt to show: First, that under a proper interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, which he had so large a part in preparing, women have a right to vote today, on precisely the same terms with men; and secondly, that they ought, for various reasons, to exercise this right without subjection to molestation or delay, and men ought to help them to do so by every means in their power.

First let me speak of the Constitution of the United States, and assert that there is not a line in it, nor a word, forbidding women to vote; but, properly interpreted, that is, interpreted by the Declaration of Independence, and by the assertions of the Fathers, it actually guarantees to women the right to vote in all elections, both state and national. Listen to the preamble to the Constitution, and the preamble you know, is the key to what follows; it is the concrete, general statement of the great principles which subsequent articles express in detail. The preamble says:

“We, The People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of American.”

Commit this to memory, friends; learn it by heart as well as by head, and I should have no need to argue the question before you of my right to vote. For women are “people” surely, and desire, as much as men, to say the least, to establish justice and to insure domestic tranquility; and, brothers, you will never insure domestic tranquility in the days to come unless you allow women to vote, who pay taxes and bear equally with yourselves all the burdens of society; for they do not mean any longer to submit patiently and quietly to such injustice, and the sooner men understand this and graciously submit to become the political equals of their mothers, wives, and daughters — aye, of their grandmothers, for that is my category, instead of their political masters, as they now are, the sooner will this precious domestic tranquility be insured. Women are surely “people,” I said, and were when these words were written, and were as anxious as men to establish justice and promote the general welfare, and no one will have the hardihood to deny that our foremothers (have we not talked about our forefathers alone long enough?) did their full share in the work of establishing justice, providing for the common defense, and promoting the general welfare in all those early days. 

The truth is, friends, that when liberties had to be gained by the sword and protected by the sword, men necessarily came to the front and seemed to be the only creators and defenders of these liberties; hence all the way down women have been content to do their patriotic work silently and through men, who are the fighters by nature rather than themselves, until the present day; but now at last, when it is established that ballots instead of bullets are to rule the world, and we in this country are making and upholding our just laws by ballots alone, keeping our bullets for the few wretched Indians on the frontiers, whom we are wicked enough to wish to exterminate rather than to civilize and educate, now, it is high time that women ceased to attempt to establish justice and promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to themselves and their posterity, through the votes of men, because they cannot control these votes and turn them to high moral uses in government; on the contrary, our brothers, the best of them, are at their wit’s end today, and so appalled at the moral corruptions of the body politic that they are ready, some of them, to throw away their own power to vote and go back upon the whole theory of our government of the many, of the people (our government nominally of the people, by the people, and for the people), and to ask for the government of the few once more — the few rich, the few wise, the few educated.

But I shall deal with this point hereafter. I only wish to fasten upon your minds now this thought, that women are included in this word “people” of the preamble, and were intended to be included as much as men, and that their non-use of the ballot in all the past, because they chose to exercise their people’s powers in other ways, has not cut them off from their right to use the ballot at any time they may see fit; and you will perceive by a careful examination of the whole Constitution which follows the preamble, and which became the law of the land so early as 1789, that women were embraced in its provisions precisely as men were, and that the word “people,” so frequently used, always included them.

This is true of the four articles which I will consider, and of every other article in the Constitution where the word “people” is used. Article I of the Amendments is: “The right of The People to peaceably assemble and petition for a redress of grievances,” etc. No one doubts that women have that right equally with men; in fact, this is about the only political right that is cheerfully accorded to us today, because it is so easy to get rid of us and silence us in that way.

For years and years women have been petitioning Congress and the state legislatures to take down the political bars which men have put up, contrary to the national Constitution and the whole spirit of our government, and allow them to become active co-workers in promoting the general welfare; but the reply has been “leave to withdraw,” or its equivalent; and this simply because these women petitioners had no power to cut off the heads of these congressmen and assemblymen; (their political heads, I mean, because we do not believe much in bloodshed of any sort). So long ago as 1871 I got an order from a senator to the clerk of the Senate for a search for petitions then on file in his office, and here is the clerk’s report. He found the names of 20,000 women slumbering in the dusty pigeon holes of his office, and the honorable gentleman who asked me with a smile of contempt, “How many women really want to vote?” was surprised at the record, which was not a tenth part of the number who had been wearily petitioning our legislative bodies year after year since 1848.

And then there is Article II, with its provision for “the right of THE PEOPLE to keep and to bear arms,” etc., which right women assuredly have equally with men, and which, unless some new protective element is brought into society, women will be compelled to use in self-defense as never before, for the crimes against woman in her very womanhood are becoming unendurably frequent all over our land. The new protective element I hardly need say is the ballot in her own hands, since it is already in the hands of these ruffians who make night hideous, and who virtually close the thoroughfares of our cities and villages even to all honest women the moment the sun has gone down. Have you ever thought of it, gentlemen, you who are opposed to woman’s use of the ballot, that among her so-called protectors, who are to use her ballot for her, are these very men for whom we build most of our jails and penitentiaries, taxing the women to do it, and that every election day sees paupers and vagrants taken from the workhouse to elect the men who are to make and administer the laws for all women no less than all men? 

Article IV provides for “the right of THE PEOPLE to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures,” etc. Women surely need to be and are thus secured. And Article IX provides that the “enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny others retained by THE PEOPLE.”

Is it not perfectly clear that all these are the rights of women equally with men, and that the term “people” as here used was intended to embrace both?

Thus, then, the preamble and the Constitution under which our government was formed and began its work of protective legislation, plainly embraced women in all its provisions; and when the preamble declares that the object of all was to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, it surely did not mean to secure to men alone and their posterity these blessings of liberty, to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity, but to the whole people, women as well as men.

And note again the word “secure” in this preamble, which is scarcely less important than the word “people.” “Secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity” — not give the blessings of liberty, as though the framers of the Constitution were autocrats, with power to bestow or withhold liberties, but secure the blessings of liberty to those who already had the right to them from God and by their own free nature, and who were coming together for purposes of defense and security as against an outside world that still insisted that liberty was not the right of the many but of the few, and who might be able to overthrow this right of individuals to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, unless they combined together to defend and secure these rights.

And this is where the Declaration of Independence comes in as an interpreter of the Constitution, and it utters no uncertain voice on this question as to who are the “people” meant in the preamble and articles following. It says: “We hold these truths to be self-evident” -- (mark that, self-evident; that is, that they require no proof) -- “that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights;” -- (here again is the word “secure,” not give, grant, or bestow) -- “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” (not from the consent of half the governed -- the consent of the male half -- but the governed), and that “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to affect their safety and happiness.

That is to say, the fathers in Congress assembled in Philadelphia on the 4th of July, 1776, proclaimed over the whole earth that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, and that taxation without representation is tyranny, and for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, they mutually pledged to each other their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor; and yet we are told today that the women of these states have no right to vote until the men, who alone have been in the habit of voting, shall make some new and special laws to meet their case; in other words, till men shall grant women a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness -- a right to promote the general welfare -- a right to establish justice and secure the blessings of liberty to themselves and their posterity.

Now, friends, do you wonder that it makes my blood boil to hear such words as these; to hear from the lips of mere boys the assertion that they and their sex alone have the right to make and execute the laws that I and my daughters are to live under; that they are born to rule, and I born to obey; that because I and other women have blindly thought and loved to think in all the past that law-making and law-executing were safe in the hands of our brothers and fathers and husbands, they being the accredited protectors of women, we are to leave men now and forever to the use of this power, when we have reluctantly opened our eyes to the truth that it is not good for man to be alone in the state any more than in the family, in the church, and in social life; that the state needs mothers as well as fathers, and that moral corruption will not only continue to prevail, but with an advancing civilization will be steadily on the increase so long as woman is powerless to put down moral evils by the direct use of political power as well as by moral influence.

You tell me that I must submit to conditions before I can vote; I, who am a free-born citizen of the United States; while yet you admit this ignorant foreigner, if he is a man, to the full privileges and responsibilities of citizenship. I defy this assumption of power on the part of the men of this country. I declare to you as did the Apostle Paul: “I am free-born.” “With a great price obtained I this freedom,” said the Roman centurion to this patriotic old apostle; but he replied: “I am free-born.” 

Ah, friends, there is music in these words to my ear. They are the deep vibrations of a soul that loves its country as itself, and there are tens of thousands of women today that are ready to pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, to the maintenance of their rights as free-born citizens of this Republic, and who will never willingly consent to such desecration of constitutions, state or national, as would be caused by the addition of special articles providing for the right of women to vote. Such articles would virtually read thus: “All men are created equal; all women are also created equal not only to each other but to men; all men may peaceably assemble and petition for redress of grievances, may keep and bear arms, may be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures, may retain to themselves all rights not enumerated in the constitution, and all women may assemble, etc., etc.”

As well may theologians interpret “Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so to them,” to mean literally men, and therefore demand a new Scripture specially to include women in these and the like injunctions: “He that believeth shall be saved, and he that believeth not shall be condemned,” “No man can serve two masters,” “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth good things,” etc. No, friends, the truth is, precedent and prejudice, custom and blind conservatism, are the only barriers against women in government today. Constitutions are all right when properly interpreted and shorn of their man-made inconsistencies, and the laws are right save the voting laws. Every other law recognizes woman by the use of the masculine pronoun, and compels her to pay taxes, to be fined, imprisoned and hung as he, his and him, and it is simply absurd and wicked to tax and hang a woman by one statute and deny her right to vote by another, when the phraseology is precisely the same in both.

And now, as to the one article of the national Constitution which, it is claimed, forbids women to vote. Will you follow me patiently while I attempt to show that this article really in fact guarantees to women the right to vote for members of Congress rather than forbids it, and not only so, but it virtually calls upon the general government to interfere with the state governments if necessary for the purpose of protecting women in the exercise of this right. That article reads thus:

Art. I, Sec. 2. The House of Representatives shall be chosen every second year by THE PEOPLE of the several states, and the electors of each state shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the State Legislature.

Here you have it in full. The only paragraph in the United States Constitution that can be tortured to exclude women from voting for United States officers, and this is the way it is tortured by our adversaries. I speak advisedly when I say “adversaries”; for, friends, it is no pleasant task, this work of going up and down the length and breadth of the land proclaiming that women are free, and ought to use their freedom under a sense of responsibility and by the conscientious use of the ballot, the only token of political responsibility; and the men who keep up these laws of precedent and prejudice and shut us from the peaceful and womanly expression of our opinion and our will in matters of government are therefore the worst kind of adversaries. They compel us to most unwelcome duty, and to penalties of whose sting they have but little conception. Some of us know in our hearts today of fire and fagot, whose burning makes deeper scars than the martyr fires of old, and were it not for faith in God and love to man we should have given up the contest long ago.

Here, then, you have, I say, the only argument against the right of women to vote contained in the Constitution of the United States, and briefly stated it is this: The latter clause says that electors for members of Congress must have the same qualifications as electors for members of the state legislature, and the constitution of Connecticut, for instance, declares in Article VI, Section 2, that

“Every white male citizen of the United States, who shall have attained the age of twenty-one years and resided in this state one year and in the town six months, and shall be able to read any article of the Constitution, shall, on his taking such oath as may be prescribed by law, be an elector of the state.” 

Now, say objectors, women are not white male citizens of the United States, and as these are the only ones that may choose members of the legislature, these are the only ones who may choose members of Congress. To which I reply: first, that by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States the word “white” was expressly, and the word male virtually, blotted out from our state constitutions; and in Connecticut black men under that amendment were allowed to vote for years before the word “white” was expunged from its constitution; and second, that the first clause of this Article II, Section 2, which says that the House of Representatives shall be composed of members chosen by the people, denies to every state the right to make any qualification for state electors that shall interfere with the predominating right of the whole people to elect their members of Congress.

It is as if the United States Constitution had said, “The right of trial by jury shall be secured to all the people of the United States,” and Connecticut had said in her constitution, “Every white male citizen shall be entitled to a trial by jury.” Plainly such an article of a state constitution would be pronounced null and void, and the only reason the other has not been so pronounced long ago is that in the beginning men alone thought of voting, wished to vote, did vote, and so the authors of the state constitution, in defining who should be electors, naturally and as a matter of exactness, and without any thought of women, said “all white male citizens,” with such and such qualifications, may vote; and the case is all the stronger for women than for black men, because the enslavement and disfranchisement of black men was contemplated, reluctantly it is true, but nevertheless contemplated and recognized by the national Constitution, while the disfranchisement of women was not thought of or seriously considered for a moment. 

This is so plainly true that women did actually vote in a few instances in the earlier days, and they only ceased to do so because they did not appreciate its importance, or, as in New Jersey, because that state, in direct violation of the Constitution of the United States, as I think, specially disfranchised the women of the state.

And to those who may not be ready to admit that the national Constitution secures to women the right to vote in all cases equally with men, there is this special and decisive argument with regard to their right to vote for members of Congress. The Constitution, as we have seen, gives the right to the people of the state with only this limitation -- that the electors for members of Congress shall have the qualifications requisite for electors for the most numerous branch of the state legislature. The right is absolute, except that the state may fix the “qualifications.” 

Now what is a qualification? Sex is not one. A qualification is something that may be acquired, as a certain age, a certain time of residence, ability to read, etc. A certain height of stature could not be, a certain color of the eyes could not be. Nothing natural and unchangeable could be. So sex cannot be. The state, therefore, in making sex a disqualification, has attempted that which it had no power to do, and its action is so far void…

And now permit me to give you briefly the argument of woman’s right to vote in our state elections as well as national, in consequence of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution of the United States. It is simply this: Before the war, and Reconstruction acts following it, the word “citizen” was not fully defined, some jurists contending that all persons owing allegiance to the government and protected by it were properly citizens, and others that only those who were accredited legal voters could properly be called citizens.

Then, when the Republican Party desired to enfranchise the black men, partly for the sake of securing their votes (I do not say that this was the sole motive) in the next presidential election, it was not willing to deface the national Constitution by such words as these: “All black men, formerly slaves, are citizens of the United State;” and “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of black men;” and again, “The right of black citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by any State;” and therefore it was driven to the annunciation of a general principle of citizenship, applicable to all persons at all times, and this was the principle that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.” This is a grand assertion, a true one, and one in harmony, as I have already shown, with the spirit and letter of the whole Constitution of the United States and the Declaration of Independence, and, like them, it embraced all women as well as all men, and secured to all women no less than all men their right to vote.

Now, friends, mark these words: “Secure” and “right to vote.” Our claim is that the original Constitution gave no right to vote to any man or woman, but it simply secured to every man and woman his or her original, natural right to govern himself or herself, except so far as he or she delegates this to others for purposes of social order. And these amendments, following the spirit of the Constitution in preamble and articles, declare that all persons are citizens, and recognize the citizen’s right to vote. Can anything be plainer then than that a woman, being a “person,” is a citizen, and being a “citizen” has the citizen’s right to vote? 

It was under this conviction that she had a plain right to vote, and therefore a plain duty to vote, that Miss Anthony determined to cast her vote for president and members of Congress at a certain election. And she succeeded in convincing the registrars of her ward and the inspectors of elections that she had this right, insomuch that they registered her name, and the oath of the elector was administered and her ballot was received and counted, and then the United States came down upon her as a criminal and prosecuted her for illegal voting, under a law of Congress passed in 1870 on purpose to enforce the provisions of the 14th and 15th Amendments.

Please notice, now, that formerly each state had charge of its own elections and the United States had no right to interfere with the elections in any state, even though the election was for national officers, but in the eagerness of the Republican Party to enforce the amendments which would bring black votes to their aid, they gave a new power to Congress in this section: “Congress shall have the power to enforce this article,” viz: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote without denial on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” And Congress passed what is called the Enforcement Act of 1870, which is entitled, “An act to enforce the right of citizens of the United States to vote in the several states of the Union.” General terms again here you perceive, not an act to enforce the right of black men to vote in the several states of the Union, but of all citizens of the United States. And the first 18 clauses of the act are very minute in their provisions for the protection of these black men whose votes were wanted, and then there was a 19th clause that was intended solely to hinder white rebel men from voting, who had been disfranchised during the war, and this clause reads thus: “If at any election for representatives or delegates to Congress of the United States any person shall vote without having a lawful right to vote, every such person shall be deemed guilty of a crime, and shall for such crime be liable to prosecution in any court of the United States of competent jurisdiction, and on conviction thereof shall be punished by a fine not exceeding $500, or by a term of imprisonment not exceeding three years, or both, in the discretion of the court, and shall pay the costs of prosecution.”

And under this clause of the Enforcement Act of 1870, which was made expressly to punish white male rebel citizens for voting after they had been disfranchised for rebellion, Judge Hunt condemned Susan B. Anthony for the crime of voting “without having a lawful right to vote.” This woman, the blackest of black Republicans, who had, with others like herself, furnished Mr. Sumner with half his ammunition, in the shape of petitions from thousands and thousands of citizens in behalf of the black man -- names which it is an enormous task to collect, but without which all appeals to Congress to do justice would have been in vain -- this woman, who had violated the infamous fugitive slave law every time by giving the cup of cold water to the panting fugitive and speeding him on his way to free soil in Canada -- she, thank God! of all women in this land, was selected by the government of the United States to be prosecuted, dragged from one court to another, harassed during the space of nearly a year, tried at last in another city, and fined for the crime for voting for the president of the United States and members of Congress, under an act entitled “An act to enforce the right of citizens of the United States to vote in the several states of this Union,” and under a clause of that act that made it a crime for a rebel to vote, because he had been deprived of his citizen’s right to vote by special act of Congress in consequence of his crime of rebellion…

I said in the beginning that women ought to exercise their constitutional right to vote, and men ought to help them to do so by every means in their power. And this for two reasons:

One: Because questions of legislation today are largely questions of morals, and men alone are incompetent to deal with the morals of a community, however wise and just they may be, and however honest in their desire to promote the general welfare. Education, secular and religious, temperance, chastity, police regulations, penal institutions and reformatories -- who has more interest than women citizens in all these questions, or more wisdom to bring to their solution?

Two: There can be no true manhood nor true womanhood when men rule and women merely obey. Every mother in her home, every woman teacher in our schools, is at a discount today because of her political subordination. Every boy knows this, and consciously or unconsciously acts accordingly, and true political economy, which is only another name for the science of government, can never be taught until women are intelligent and responsible thinkers upon the subject equally with men and are able to carry out their convictions at the ballot box as men do. Hence, I repeat, it is the plain duty of every woman to desire to vote, and of every man to remove the obstacles in her way.   

I will only answer one objection. It is said, “We have too many voters already. It is unjust, to be sure, to exclude all women on this account, but we cannot help it. Men will not consent to be disfranchised, so we must make amends for our mistake in inviting all men to vote by forbidding all women.” This is too much like Charles Lamb, who, being reproved for going so late to his desk in the morning, said he made up for it by going home early in the afternoon.

But have we too many voters? In other words, is the doctrine of God and the fathers of this Republic an unsound one, that personal liberty and personal responsibility are the only foundations of integrity, whether in the individual or the nation? No, it is not unsound. It is just as true today as it was at Sinai and Plymouth Rock.

“Thou shalt” and “We will,” reads the Decalogue and the Covenant of that old-time Jewish people; and thus in spirit speak the Constitution of the United States and the Declaration of Independence; and it is a grand and wholesome doctrine and one we cannot afford to lose sight of for a moment. But those do lose sight of it who say we have too many voters already. No, we have not too many. On the contrary, to take away this ballot even from the ignorant and perverse is to invite discontent, social disturbance, and crime.

The restraints and benedictions of this little white symbol are so silent and so gentle, so atmospheric, so like the snowflakes that come down to guard the slumbering forces of the earth and prepare them for springing into bud, blossom, and fruit in due season, that few recognize the divine alchemy, and many impatient souls are saying we are on the wrong path -- the old world was right -- the government of the few is safe; the wise, the rich, should rule; the ignorant, the poor, should serve. But God, sitting between the eternities, has said otherwise, and we of this land are foreordained to prove his word just and true. And we will prove it by inviting every newcomer to our land to share our liberties so dearly bought and our responsibilities now grown so heavy that the shoulders which bear them are staggering under their weight; that by the joys of freedom and the burdens of responsibility they, with us, may grow into the stature of perfect men, and our country realize at last the dreams of the great souls who, “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of their intentions,” did “ordain and establish the Constitution for the United States of America” -- the grandest charter of human rights that the world has yet conceived.

Source: “The Constitutional Rights of the Women of the United States: An Address Before the International Council of Women, Washington D.C., March 30, 1888, by Isabella Beecher Hooker. (Hartford: The Case, Lockwood & Brainard Co.), 1900, pp. 1-26.

Dana Rubin is a speaker and consultant focused on women’s voice and speech. She’s the founder of Speaking While Female, the first-ever online collection of contemporary and historical speeches by women from across time and around the world. Dana recently gave a TEDx Talk on “Unlocking the Secret History of Women’s Speech,” and she’s working on an anthology of women’s speech. For more on how she helps organizations attract, retain and develop their women leaders, visit SpeakingWhileFemale.biz.



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