World History 2 9 - 1.2.3 Textual Sources: The Importance of Language

The different types of language used in a source are clues to its interpretation. Linguists call the use of language rhetoric. Rhetorical choices, decisions about the way words are used and put together, are often deliberate and intended to achieve a certain outcome. For example, think about the way you talk to a professor versus the way you talk to a friend. We must closely examine the rhetorical choices in any primary document to correctly interpret it. To practice this skill, consider the 1887 speech given by Senator George G. Vest, a Democrat from Missouri, regarding whether women in the United States should be given the right to vote in Senator Vest on Women’s Suffrage and the guiding questions that follow.

In Their Own Words

Senator Vest on Women’s Suffrage

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, governments debated whether women should be given the right to vote. Opponents such as Senator George G. Vest, Democrat of Missouri, claimed they acted in women’s and society’s best interest by denying women suffrage. In 1887, when Vest delivered this speech to Congress, Democrats tended to be anti-Black and anti-immigrant, and they found their greatest support in the rural south. How does Vest depict himself as a supporter of women? Where is his anti-immigrant bias revealed?

If this Government, which is based on the intelligence of the people, shall ever be destroyed it will be by injudicious, immature, or corrupt suffrage. If the ship of state launched by our fathers shall ever be destroyed, it will be by striking the rock of universal, unprepared suffrage. [. . .]

The Senator who last spoke on this question refers to the successful experiment in regard to woman suffrage in the Territories of Wyoming and Washington. Mr. President, it is not upon the plains of the sparsely settled Territories of the West that woman suffrage can be tested. Suffrage in the rural districts and sparsely settled regions of this country must from the very nature of things remain pure when corrupt everywhere else. The danger of corrupt suffrage is in the cities, and those masses of population to which civilization tends everywhere in all history. Whilst the country has been pure and patriotic, cities have been the first cancers to appear upon the body-politic in all ages of the world. [. . .]

I pity the man who can consider any question affecting the influence of woman with the cold, dry logic of business. What man can, without aversion, turn from the blessed memory of that dear old grandmother, or the gentle words and caressing hand of that dear blessed mother gone to the unknown world, to face in its stead the idea of a female justice of the peace or township constable? For my part I want when I go to my home— [. . .] the earnest, loving look and touch of a true woman. I want to go back to the jurisdiction of the wife, the mother; and instead of a lecture upon finance or the tariff, or upon the construction of the Constitution, I want those blessed, loving details of domestic life and domestic love. [. . .]

I believe [women] are better than men, but I do not believe they are adapted to the political work of this world. I do not believe that the Great Intelligence ever intended them to invade the sphere of work given to men, tearing down and destroying all the best influences for which God has intended them. [. . .]

Women are essentially emotional. It is no disparagement to them they are so. It is no more insulting to say that women are emotional than to say that they are delicately constructed physically and unfitted to become soldiers or workmen under the sterner, harder pursuits of life.

What we want in this country is to avoid emotional suffrage, and what we need is to put more logic into public affairs and less feeling. There are spheres in which feeling should be paramount. There are kingdoms in which the heart should reign supreme. That kingdom belongs to woman. The realm of sentiment, the realm of love, the realm of the gentler and the holier and kindlier attributes that make the name of wife, mother, and sister next to that of God himself.

I would not, and I say it deliberately, degrade woman by giving her the right of suffrage. I mean the word in its full signification, because I believe that woman as she is to-day, the queen of the home and of hearts, is above the political collisions of this world, and should always be kept above them.

—George G. Vest, a speech to the 48th Congress, January 25, 1887

  • According to Vest, why is he opposed to women’s suffrage?
  • What language does Vest use to flatter women? What stereotypes does he evoke?
  • How does Vest use language to contrast the public world of men with the domestic world presided over by women?

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax