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Walter McKenzie Clark, 1846-1924
Address by Chief Justice Walter Clark Before the Federation of Women's Clubs, New Bern, N. C., 8 May, 1913
[S. l.: s. n., 1913?].


Items summarized here:

While the right to vote, obtained for women nationally in 1920 with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, has often been seen as the pinnacle of women's rights, the slow road of progress towards equality has included many struggles for other rights, including the right for a woman to own property after marriage, the right to hold the position of notary public, the right to earn equal pay for equal work, and the right to organize in order to effect sociopolitical change.

In his 1913 speech to the Federation of Women's Clubs in New Bern, North Carolina, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Walter Clark argued that the "present status of women", while still "imperfect and in many respects still unjust," was nonetheless evolving over time (p. 2). Tracing that evolution, Clark begins by noting that the "status of women under the common law", which included the absolute economic and physical ownership of the wife by the husband upon marriage, "was simply that of a slave" (p. 2). The husband controlled "all her personal property . . . the rents and profits of her real estate," and the wife, upon the death of her husband, "could not appoint a guardian for her children" (p. 2). The husband could also "beat her without cause" and "imprison his wife" without fear of retribution, unless "she was permanently injured" (p. 2). That treatment improved only slightly when North Carolina revised its constitution in 1868, allowing a married woman to "own her property as fully as if she had remained single," except that she "must get the written assent of her husband to convey her realty" (p. 3). As Clark notes, even that small improvement was often eroded by biased judges: "It has taken act after act of our Legislature to secure to married women the rights which were conferred on them by the Constitution of 1868, and they have not yet quite reached the full enjoyment of the rights given them by that Constitution" (p. 5).

Clark also argues for women's election and movement into the government and the workforce, including the role of notary public. He cites historic cases of women who successfully held positions of legal and political power, including the Old Testament figure "Deborah . . . Judge over all Israel" and the "brilliant reigns of many other female sovereigns," including "[English queens] Elizabeth and Victoria . . . Isabella of Spain . . . Maria Theresa of Austria, and Catherine the Great of Russia" (p. 11). He concludes that most of these changes will require full women's suffrage if they are to be realized, and he argues that women "now pay taxes without representation" and "bear the burdens of bad government even more than men" since they lack any real legal recourse (p. 13).

Clark delineates the major arguments for and against full women's suffrage, carefully raising objections to all the negative arguments. He acknowledges that many people think women "should employ themselves with their home duties," but wittily finds that "an hour off once every two years" should not hinder her work and, if it does, they "need the ballot" even more severely (p. 15). And while women may not have significant electoral experience, neither does a 21-year-old "boy," "yet he is admitted at once to the suffrage" (p. 16). Clark emphasizes his points by noting the "average man is thoroughly imbued with the idea of his superiority to women," yet this belief "is due most largely to the fact that it was not spanked out of them by their mothers when they were little" (p. 17). Clark admits that at each stage of progress, "the opposition was as fierce and prophecies of evil to come therefrom were as dreadful as those which are now made in regard to their [women's] admission to the suffrage" (p. 18). Nonetheless, women "have caught sight of that immortal sea of justice which enwraps the globe" and which brings with it, "for all mankind . . . a brighter and a happier day" (p. 24).

Two years after his 1913 address, Clark wrote The Right of Women to Make a Living, the dissenting opinion in the North Carolina Supreme Court case Beckett [sic] v. Knight. The suit involved the disputed choice by the governor to appoint Mrs. Noland Knight to the position of notary public. Under the state constitution, "any one who is a voter" could not "be disqualified to hold office" (p. 4). Women, however, were not voters before 1920 and thus were interpreted as being unable, via the constitution, to hold an office. Women were, however, admitted to positions of "trust and profit" (p. 1). The case, which was appealed to the state Supreme Court, revolved around whether the position of notary public was that of "office" or that of trust and profit.

Clark disagreed with the Court's finding against Mrs. Knight. Clark offers a complex and complicated reading of the constitution and the subsequent laws, but his main points center upon the use of the word "office" and the success of other women in appointed positions. He notes that women have been appointed as public school board trustees, a position classified as "a place of trust and profit and not an office," and that they have "discharged the duties thereof with credit to themselves and to the benefit of the public" (p. 1). He also argues that the constitution fails to define an office and that the word itself is "frequently used loosely," adding to the difficulties (p. 1). Clark notes that the position has been alternately declared an office and not an office, depending on the circumstances. Due to the confusion surrounding the term, Clark concludes that "it would not have disqualified the General Assembly of North Carolina from defining it to be a mere place of trust or profit, and authorizing women to hold it" (p. 2).

Clark's sentiment regarding the benefits of employing women are in some ways echoed by the 1918 publication "Some North Carolinians on Equal Pay" (author unknown). The foreword explains that requests were sent "to some of our influential men and women for a statement in support of equal pay for equal work" by North Carolina teachers (p. 2). The compiler of this collection states that North Carolina will not be able to "secure and keep a strong enthusiastic corps of teachers until this injustice has been removed" (p. 2). The foreword is followed by 34 pages of quotations from various North Carolinians who support equal pay for female teachers. The publication is broken up into sections delineated by position, including quotes from state officials, ministers, educators, editors, women, physicians, businessmen, and attorneys at law. These advocates argue that "compensation should not be regulated by sex, but by the amount of service performed" (p. 5), that the "present inequitable system of higher pay for men cannot be justified from any standpoint" (p. 7) and that "there is no greater patriotic service which can be rendered at this time than caring for the children of our own country" (p. 17).

In order to promote these and other causes, North Carolina women often joined female-centric clubs and organizations. Researcher Nellie Roberson published three installments of an article titled "The Organized Work of Women in One State" in The Journal of Social Forces in 1922 and 1923. Roberson traces the intention and impact of various women's organizations in North Carolina. Noting that during the nineteenth century "the woman's club movement was a recognized force," she argues that these organizations "came into existence in America at the same time as the growth of the idea of individual freedom" (p. 50). In North Carolina, Roberson sees the woman's club as "helping to solve problems affecting the home and family, the church, the school and education, the government and industry" (p. 51). In this state alone, Roberson estimates that over 75,000 women are involved in "fifteen hundred local clubs," excluding "church societies" (p. 51).

Roberson's first installment focuses on "those clubs directly influencing home and family" (p. 51). Outlining each of these clubs and its membership, Roberson also describes the main goals of many of the clubs focused on home and family; these goals included "nutrition . . . millinery, remodeling, home dyeing, plain sewing, and dress designing" (p. 52). The clubs are often involved in canning, fruit juice creation, food preservation, "home dairy work, poultry work" and "demonstrations showing the value of milk in the diet" (p. 52). Other clubs are more concerned with elements of health and social services, including funding beds for tubercular children at a local sanatorium, supporting "classes in home hygiene and the care of the sick," "aiding the Salvation Army; educating girls; and providing homes for aged women" (pp. 53, 54).

In her second installment, Roberson addresses the roles of women's groups in schools and education. After listing numerous education-centered clubs, she illustrates some of the projects undertaken by the various groups, including "raising the educational standard in North Carolina by urging the lengthening of the school year, extending the course of study through the twelfth grade" and "arousing greater interest in higher education" (pp. 173-174). Roberson makes special note of the Sallie Southall Cotton Loan Fund, an "educational loan fund for girls, created in 1909," which had helped, by the time of publication, "thirty-nine young women . . . attend college by loaning the money without interest, provided the principal is repaid within two years" (p. 174). She notes that "not one girl has failed in her obligations" (p. 174). Groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Daughters of the American Revolution also focus on education by ensuring the perpetuation of historical knowledge and by helping soldiers, descendants of soldiers, and other "worthy students" afford educational opportunities (p. 175). Finally, Roberson notes that similar women's groups also work in "securing libraries for North Carolina," and encouraging the study of "art, literature, and music" (p. 176).

Roberson's final installment details "the part women's clubs have taken in shaping legislation and in improving conditions of women in industry" (p. 613). She notes that several groups elect representatives to push for "good legislation" (p. 613). Those measures fought for by many groups include "equal guardianship of both parents of the children; minimum age of consent, sixteen years . . . the eligibility of women for jury duty with certain exceptions . . . state censorship of moving pictures; and the revival of state prohibition laws so that they will harmonize with the national laws" (p. 614). Other groups focus on helping women become strong citizens, including "acquiring an acquaintance with the local town and its government" (p. 614). Finally, Roberson acknowledges that the "business woman" has her own concerns and groups which cater to her pay closer attention to issues such as "the need of a woman's dormitory at the State University" and "the appointment of a woman as commissioner of the state board of charities and public welfare" (p. 614).

Roberson's focus on the various groups aimed at aiding women, along with a review of the other documents summarized here, clearly illustrates that the struggle for women's rights included much more extensive goals than mere suffrage.

Meredith Malburne-Wade

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