Address to the Students of the State Institute and College in Columbus, Mississippi
It is a great privilege to address you. Your being here and the character of the institution and of the education that you are receiving and the results to be accomplished by that, are all calculated to inspire in one enthusiasm and sympathy with the work which is going on. I have a lot of maxims and a lot of principles that I would like to advance to young ladies in your situation. I wish that every woman in the world was so situated that she did not think it was necessary for her to marry if she did not want to. Now that is a proposition that I am prepared to defend against all comers. I am the last one to take a position against that old doctrine of the common law that there ought to be nothing to interfere with matrimony. But I would have the matter so arranged that the women when they come to decide and make their choice shall have a full and free choice, and that can only be reached when they are put in a situation where that which they choose is not a life which they select because it is better than some that they expect, but a life that they look forward to with unmixed happiness.
Seriously speaking, I think the most important education that we have is the education which now I am glad to say is being accepted as the proper one, the one which ought to be most widely diffused, that industrial, vocational education which puts young men and young women in a position from which they can by their own efforts work themselves to independence. And I am glad to know that that principle obtains here in its best sense, and I am glad to congratulate these young women on the opportunity which this great institution affords them to carve out their future and their own happiness.
I know it is generally supposed that those who inherit wealth are in the best situation for a future happy life—I mean in this world—but I venture to think that the best legacy that can be left to a young man is a good education and a good character. The necessity that he is under of getting out to hustle is an advantage which he does not appreciate when he is going through the process, but after he has won success and looks back and compares his life with that of the men who, when he entered life had money and means to support themselves, and enjoy themselves, he will be convinced of the great advantage that fate gave him when it did not give him a fortune or a competence. The same thing is true with respect to the young women who are given a fair chance in life to earn and carve out their own futures. The great trouble has been that we have not given the women a fair show. We have not opened all the avenues to livelihood which they are quite as well able to fill, and in certain respects better able to fill, than we are.
I am not a rabid suffragist. The truth is I am not in favor of suffrage for women until I can be convinced that all the women desire it; and when they desire it I am in favor of giving it to them, and when they desire it they will get it too. But I do believe that one of the advantages of giving them that kind of influence will be more certainly to open the avenues of self-support to them than heretofore has been done. The great principle of popular government is that every class in the community, assuming that it has intelligence enough to know its own interest, can be better trusted to look after that interest than any other class, however altruistic that class. While husbands respect the wishes of wives, if they are good husbands, and know what is good for them, I don't know that they always manifest the utmost liberality with reference to the treatment of unmarried women. What we are bound to have in the future through influences working, the effect of which we can see, and the growth into the success of which we can anticipate, is that women are going to be given greater independence in the matter of earning their livelihood, and that then they will reach the point, which I do not think they now have reached, of regarding an education without a competence as a greater benefit than one with the means of support.
I shall be glad that I shall not have any property to leave to my boys, of whom I have two, but only a good character and a pride in themselves and a good education; but for my daughter I am going to scrape together as much as I can give her and as good an education as I can so that she shall take in the lesson which I first sought to announce as the text of my discourse, that she marry only when she chooses to marry and not because of circumstances.
And now, my dear young ladies, I am delighted to have met you. You get a man who lives beyond fifty and he has certain views of life that he reasons about in his own mind and every once in a while he finds an opportunity to give expression to them, and that is what you have offered me this morning, and hence you have had to endure this speech.
APP Note: At the time of President Taft's visit, this institution was known officially as the "Mississippi Industrial Institute and College for the Education of White Girls," typically shortened to "Mississippi Industrial Institute and College." In 1920 it was renamed "Mississippi State College for Women." In 1982 it became coeducational.
William Howard Taft, Address to the Students of the State Institute and College in Columbus, Mississippi Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/365228