William B. Greene in “The Word:” Woman’s Suffrage

The origin of William B. Greene’s essay on “The Right of Suffrage” has been a bit of a puzzle, as it appears without previous publication information and does not appear to have have been separately published prior to its appearance in the Socialistic, Communistic, Mutualistic and Financial Fragments. (Boston: Lee & Shepard, 1875.) Part of the mystery is solved by this column from The Word, where Ezra H. Heywood quotes from a “private letter” that obviously contained at least some of the ideas for the essay. Heywood’s closing paragraph mentions Greene’s sponsorship of “the Working Women’s Convention, held in Boston, in April, 1869.” This phase of Greene’s activism still needs research. There are references in several sources to his association with Jennie Collins (1828-1887), the founder of “Boffin’s Bower” in Boston, and the Working Women’s League. Greene’s wife, Anna, and daughter, Bessie, were both also active in work with poor women and single mothers. Greene himself was a sort of gruff and contrary defender of women’s rights, but a tremendous amount of his later writing, starting with the 1853 Constitutional Convention speech, deals with women’s issues.


The subjection of women has been a prominent topic in the debates of the Labor Reform League from the outset, opinion among its members seeming to be pretty nearly unanimous that it is both unjust and impolitic to deny them a voice in framing laws they are compelled to obey. One of our most efficient co-adjutators, however, Col. Wm. B. Greene, objects strongly to the way in which the woman suffrage agitation is conducted, and we take the liberty to extract from a private letter the following explanation of his position:

“1st. It goes on the ground that the majority has a right to govern the minority, that sovereignty naturally and rightfully inheres in the majority, which I deny. The woman suffrage talk sounds to me like black republicanism run into the ground. Mrs. Livermore tells me, from the platform, that she wants the ballot so that she may be able to stop my wine and tobacco, by legislation, and force me to be virtuous according to her pattern—which is not encouraging to me. I find the majority of the American legal voters too much for me as it is, and am not willing to increase its numbers, power or prestige.

2d. I go for minority representation and for checks whereby the minority may offer successful resistance to the majority. The Democrats of Massachusetts ought to have one-third of the State representation in Congress, instead of having none at all, for they throw one-third of the votes. The present unjust legislation in Washington would be impossible if the Democratic and other minorities had their full and just proportional representation. As soon as we have proportional representation in the federal, State and municipal governments, that is, as soon as the ballot becomes a weapon of defence in the hand of minorities, instead of being as it is now, a weapon of injustice and tyranny in the hand of the majority, I am willing that women should also have it; for women need protection as much as men do. When the women vote, I would have both men and women vote in sealed envelopes, with signed botes, so that cheating would be impossible, and would have the voting done through the post office. I think that if some women, say your wife for example, would get out a new programme for the women-suffrage agitation, connecting it with minority representation, she would make a ten stroke. I think there are many men who, like me, are unwilling to surrender their sovereignty to Mrs. Livermore, [but] would like to see the women vote.”

Col. Greene was the originator of the Working Women’s Convention, held in Boston, in April, 1869, the revelations of which produced a profound impression throughout the nation, awakening discussion and inspiring other movements still in progress. We think the Boston school of woman-suffrage advocates deserve the contempt he feels for them, on account of the indifference, not to say patronizing insolence, with which they have treated the righteous claims of the working-women.

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Independent scholar, translator and archivist.