Speech on Suffrage by Louis D. Brandeis

 

A Speech on Suffrage Given by Louis D. Brandeis at the Tremont Temple on October 12, 1915

 

The demand for equal suffrage is supported by two powerful arguments: the right of woman to have her full share in determining the conditions under which she and her children shall live, and the duty of woman to bear her full share of responsibility for the conditions of the community. That women should enjoy this right and perform this duty is essential to the success of democracy.

This need of the state seems to me the strongest argument for equal suffrage. The state requires of women that fuller development which can only come through the assumption of broad responsibilities, and it requires the help which only women so developed can give. My own conversion to suffrage came through experience-through finding that in the public work in which I took part, the aid of women was not only most effective, but at times indispensable. We who believe in democracy are convinced that no class or section of the community is so wise or so just that it can safely be trusted to govern well other classes or sections. This is largely because of the limit of our understanding-our contracted vision.

The general welfare demands, therefore, of each class and section of the community (if not indeed of each individual) that contribution which it alone can make-the better understanding which comes from familiarity, from intensity of interest, from being persons directly affected. In public works with which I have been engaged, involving efforts at social and economic betterment, I have found that the contribution of women was peculiarly valuable. It was a contribution which men could not or at least did not make. It embraced deep understanding; a recognition of true values; deep devotion and singleness of purpose.

The widespread change in attitude towards woman suffrage today as compared with a generation ago, does not represent so much a change of opinion and [as?] a change of conditions. There has come about through quiet evolution in the past generation a change in the functions of government, and in the condition of women, so vast that if it had come suddenly, it would have been recognized as perhaps the greatest of human revolutions. Little more than a generation ago we led distinctly individual lives. The function of the state was mainly the preservation of order among these individual units. The state concerned itself only to a slight degree with individual families. Today the state is in a certain sense one large family. We have come to recognize that in a democracy everyone is affected by what every other person does, and that to protect each from harm each must become his brothers' keeper. Just as we established in our cities rules for fire protection, laws to prevent contagion, and laws to insure the purity of food-matters previously left to the discretion of the individual household-so we have undertaken, through the power of the state, to ensure, to a certain extent, the proper bringing up of the family. We compel school attendance. We prohibit the labor in store and factory by small children. We prevent the sale to them of cigarettes. We limit likewise the hours of labor of women. And even for adult men we prohibit by factory laws and by tenement house laws, the working or living under conditions deemed unsafe or unsanitary.

In connection with all of these matters woman has done great service. Women's function is still the care of the family and of the home. But the family and the hours which demanded her attention have grown, while the duties of woman in her individual family have been much diminished by the woolen and cotton mills, which released her of spinning; by the ready to wear garment manufactures, and the hosiery mills which relieved her largely of sewing and knitting; the preserving and canning establishments, and the prepared food establishment which relieved her largely of work incident to cooking. By reason of smaller families, or not marrying, the great social changes which have attended the industrial revolution have brought duties to the larger house, and the larger family, demanding of her exacting attention, and for these she has been fitted by the gradual change in her condition and occupation. She has been fitted for these new duties, or rather, for the new application of old duties, partly by what is called higher education; and to a far greater degree by her participation in the industrial life of the nation. The women in industry-the 7,000,000 wage earning or salary earning women of the country, receive a training which fits them for the problems of government, just as well as do the occupations of men. Some of the problems of government they are not adapted for, but that is also true of men. This is but an instance of the fundamental truth upon which democracy rests: that the general welfare can be attained best by cooperation of all classes and sections of the community-by each contributing what it can do best. Men and women will supplement each other here in the political world as they do in other departments of life, if only the opportunity is given. This surely they have done in suffrage states.

Of women's ability to bear her fair share of the common burden, no observer of life during the past generation should doubt. Indeed they have shown great aptitude specifically in things political. Can anyone find in the political life of this commonwealth finer work of organization or more public spirited devotion than that exhibited by the women in the present campaign?