Today in Feminist History: International Council of Women Gathers (June 17, 1904)

Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.

June 17, 1904: It’s been quite a day here in Berlin’s Philharmonic Hall, as delegates of Women’s National Councils from as far away as New Zealand assembled for an International Council of Women, the first such gathering since they last met in London five years ago.

PHOTO: Martha Carey Thomas, President of Bryn Mawr College since 1894

Today, Martha Carey Thomas had the opportunity to address some of the current myths about women and education before Susan B. Anthony, Reverend Anna Howard Shaw and Carrie Chapman Catt told women around the world about the benefits which have resulted in the four U.S. States with equal suffrage.

The myth that higher education is unhealthy or too difficult for women was demolished by Thomas, the current and second President of Bryn Mawr College. Speaking on “The University Education of Women in the United States,” she challenged theories such as that of Paul Broca, who believed that the brains of women were too small to intellectually compete with those of men. Then she attacked the popular notion that women are too weak for the rigors of college life by citing statistics to show that more men than women broke down from overwork in American colleges.

Thomas also noted that contrary to the assumptions of many, college women were just as interested in marriage as those who did not go to college. She then went on to attack the theory of Edward Clarke, who said that studying diverts blood from a woman’s reproductive organs to her brain, and can render her infertile. Thomas cited statistics showing that college educated wives actually had a higher number of children than those who did not attend college.

Carrie Chapman Catt said that the improvement in the character of the legislators in the four States where women can now vote—Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and Idaho—has been observed by everyone.

As an example of specific legislation, she said that in Colorado—where women were enfranchised by male voters approving a Statewide suffrage referendum in 1893—the past 11 years have seen lawmakers pass the best laws in the world in regard to the protection of children. She then went on to address a popular myth in regard to the emancipation of women. Though opponents of woman suffrage allege that it is destructive to the family, Catt noted that the divorce rate in Wyoming, where women won the vote first, in 1869, is lower than in other western states in which only men are eligible to vote.

This gathering is proving to be a great success, and has enabled many international friendships to be made, as well as suffrage campaign strategies to be shared. So, such events should occur on a regular basis until worldwide women suffrage—and then total equality for women—is achieved. 


David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.