“Woman cannot do man’s work. There is not, in my opinion, any mental equality between the sexes…. Women are just as bright as men, but they are less logical, more moved by impulses and instincts…. Each sex must confine itself to certain sorts of occupation, men being unable to do much of women’s work, as women are unable to do much of men’s.”
What a great quotation to open with during Women’s History Month. As you may have guessed, those words were spoken long ago—1909, in fact. The statement alone was disturbing enough, even back then, but what made it worse was the source: not an illiterate, but one of the most powerful and influential men in upstate New York.
William Croswell Doane was his name, a man whose position as first bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Albany in 1868 gave him dominion over nineteen counties. He ruled over a huge rectangular area covering all land due east of a line extending from St. Lawrence County south to the New Jersey line near Binghamton—nearly half of New York State’s land mass.
With that kind of reach, and with the control religion exerts over so many lives, it’s easy to see just how influential Doane could be. He wielded power openly and behind the scenes, doing all he could to influence lawmakers and the wealthy men supporting them.
The quotations cited above were from interviews with Doane shortly after his speech at the 1909 graduation ceremony of Albany’s St. Agnes School, which he founded in 1870. Since it was a school for girls, it seems ironic that he was so outspoken against the movement for women’s rights. But the school was an outstanding educational facility that sought to produce the “right” kind of young women—“good wives, sisters, and mothers,” in Doane’s own words, intelligent women who could serve a household well by instructing the children and conversing with her husband on topics of importance.
While Doane often spoke of women in positive ways, it was always from the biblical perspective, a text that leaders like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony fought against constantly. Stanton stated it plainly: “The Bible has a strong hold on multitudes of women, and is the chief block in the way of their emancipation. The general tendency of its teachings is to degrade woman, to assign her an inferior position, subject to man. It makes her the origin of evil, marriage a condition of slavery, maternity a curse. I want to show women that the book is written by men for men. No man has ever seen or talked with God, and when the old Hebrews tell us God said so, we know it was a figment of their imagination.”
Clearly Doane had his hands full with several adversaries, but he never backed down from the church’s position. Drawing particular attention were two of his speeches, both given before graduating classes at St. Agnes. The second was in 1909, from which the quotes above were excerpted. During the first speech, in 1895, Doane cut loose with a barrage of criticisms of the women’s rights movement, and suffrage in particular.
“One gets sick and tired of the way in which the talk of woman’s vocation fills the air … in the parade and push of its claims for recognition for what are called ‘its rights.’ I believe that God will yet save this state and nation from the aggravated miseries of an enlarged, unqualified suffrage which, in its universality of male voters, is our most threatening danger today.
“But if we are to be visited with this other infliction as a well-earned punishment for many national sins, then I believe that when we have tasted its bitterness, we shall be brought back, perhaps through anarchy and revolution, to a democracy which shall demand for its existence, government by men whom education and actual Americanism and interest in the nation qualify to govern.”
Translation: if women win the vote, it will ruin the country, lead to revolution, and result in men ruling once again because only they are truly qualified. Again, these were not the rantings of a perceived lunatic, but the church-backed statements of a leader respected far and wide among politicians and average citizens.
He also warned that with “a great body of women who sell themselves, soul and body … in New York City, with 50,000 fallen women … whose votes, purchasable by the highest bidder, might turn the tide of any election.” Doane’s next breath would have been well spent condemning male voters who would resort to purchasing votes from thousands of prostitutes, but it was women he was targeting, not men.
As if that weren’t enough, he then delved into new territory, laying blame on women for the Civil War. “There is no such violence of partisanship in the world as the violence of female partnership. It was the woman of the South who fanned the flame of secession, who forced the continuance of the hopeless strife, and who today … are the unrelenting, unforgetting, unforgiving Southerners.… There can be no doubt that women in the South knew more, thought more, felt more, talked more about politics than the women of the North. And what was the result and effect of their intelligent interest? Slavery and the slave law, with all their frightful possibilities … and sectionalism run mad when the opportunity for the war came!”
The New York Herald said Doane’s “… address before the graduates of St. Agnes School in Albany on June 6  created more discussion than any other woman suffrage utterance of the year.” Judging by the nature of his comments, it was doubtless true.
Doane’s other arguments against women’s suffrage: the vote was already in too many hands “not qualified to use it judiciously”; it will disturb the balanced relations between men and women; women will sell their votes like some men already do; it will destroy the instinctive respect and chivalry of men towards women; and it will cause arguments at home. Or, as Doane put it so eloquently, “The fires of political discord shall be lighted on the hearthstone of domestic peace.”
One of my all-time favorite quotes, ingenious in its brevity, is attributed to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who, upon hearing of the bishop’s comments, said: “What utter rot!”
Stanton provided further commentary, fearless and confident in her belief that women would inevitably prevail. “Respect and chivalry, he claims? Why, the blatant palaver of such stuff makes me actually sick. He is just like dear old Mrs. Partington, trying to sweep back the ocean with her broom. It can’t be done, not even by a thousand Bishop Doanes.”
The politics of fear, practiced so often today, is obviously nothing new. Politicians and preachers have employed the tactic throughout history. A century ago in America in the battle over suffrage, it eventually lost out to sanity and some smart, unrelenting women pioneers.
But the land of the free and defender of human rights was hardly the first to give women the vote. Before women won the right in the United States, it had already been legalized in Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan Republic, Belgium, British East Africa, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Holland, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Poland, Rhodesia, Scotland, Sweden, and Wales.