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The Women's Joint Congressional Committee and the Politics of Maternalism, 1920-30
By JAN DOOLITTLE WILSON
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2007 the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Emergence of the WJCC
On August 26, 1920, Tennessee became the thirty-sixth state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, thus ending the seventy-two-year struggle for women's suffrage formally launched in 1848 at Seneca Falls, New York. Most women who had been active in the suffrage campaign, however, realized that a new struggle had just begun, one more daunting in many respects than that of the past century. For them, suffrage had never been merely an end but rather a means with which to carry out more effectively the broad social reform goals initiated by women's organizations prior to 1920. As Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, noted, "Winning the vote did not end the woman's campaign for equality and justice. Many a hard fought battle lies ahead and its field will be found in unexpected places."
Immediately following the victory speeches and celebrations, women activists began to consider the best methods through which to implement reform within a new political climate. Aware that the struggle for the Nineteenth Amendment had united diverse women of often contradictory political leanings, former suffrage leaders recognized the need for continued cooperation to secure further social reform and women's full citizenship. As the Woman Citizen, the official publication of the National League of Women Voters, warned, "Now that the vote is won, ... [w]omen who have worked hand in hand for years find themselves split up into members of all the different political camps. They are sometimes aligned in opposition to those who have been their closest friends. This opposition is inevitable; but let us resolutely make up our minds that it shall not interfere with the friendship." Hence, former suffrage leaders hoped that women's natural political differences would not preclude the possibility of continued benevolence and united reform efforts.
Former suffrage leaders were not alone in speculating about women's political behavior in the wake of the Nineteenth Amendment. One month after ratification, the New York Herald declared that the entire nation was waiting to see how women would vote in the upcoming election. The Herald speculated whether women would vote according to the best interests of the nation or unwisely use their newfound political power to exact revenge on antisuffrage politicians. Ultimately, the article confidently concluded that the great majority of women were not so petty and vindictive as to vote out of spite. Rather, "they are going to vote like men on the principles of parties, the issues of the day and the ability, the public service and the character of the candidates," and in doing so, "will abundantly prove their moral and intellectual capacity as well as their legal right to exercise the ballot."
As J. Stanley Lemons has pointed out, the "women's vote" was an unknown quantity in the early 1920s, and no one knew with any certainty just what effect "universal" suffrage would have on the political life of the nation. Least certain of all were male politicians, who responded to the potential power and possible threat of women's votes in various ways. Some feared that women would favor principle above party loyalty; others worried that they would place sentiment over practicality. But whatever their individual opinion of women's political behavior, most politicians agreed that winning the "woman vote" was crucial to their party's success in the November 1920 election.
As early as 1919, several congressmen were weighing carefully the possible political repercussions of their party's record on women's suffrage. In a letter, Gifford Pinchot urged Senator Boies Penrose not to seek election as chairman of the Committee on Finance, claiming that the senator's well-known opposition to the Nineteenth Amendment made him a political liability of the Republican Party in the 1920 election. The Republicans, he noted, "cannot win against the Democrats unless the farmers, the women, and the progressives, and some of the organized workers vote with us. Your name as Chairman of the Committee on Finance would go far to insure their hostility to the Republican Party."
Members of the Democratic Party likewise recognized the politically charged nature of women's suffrage. Some tried to convince fellow Democrats to support the Nineteenth Amendment for the good of the party. Writing in February 1920, Senator Thomas Walsh of Montana, a longtime champion of the federal suffrage amendment, mourned that Democrats "have been woefully outclassed" by Republicans on the issue of ratification. The overwhelming majority of state legislatures that had already ratified the Nineteenth Amendment, he noted, were Republican controlled, a fact that "could not help but operate adversely to us in those states in which the women are now permitted to vote." It was therefore imperative that states with Democratic governors call special legislative sessions to consider the amendment. If the inaction of Democratic-led states prevented women from voting in the November election, warned Walsh, the Republicans would have little trouble stirring women "against the party so apparently responsible for the failure of the cause in which so many of them are deeply interested."
Democratic members of the Senate Committee on Woman Suffrage agreed with Walsh's assessment. In a petition circulated to all Democratic senators, the committee claimed that passage of the Nineteenth Amendment during the present Democrat-controlled Congress was crucial to the survival of the Democratic Party. The returns from the November election ensured that the next Congress would be dominated by Republicans, the majority of whom had publicly pledged to vote in favor of the amendment. If the amendment passed during the next session of Congress, the committee warned, the "Democrats will be taunted with the political cry that the Republican Party enfranchised the women," a political stigma from which the party might never recover. The petition concluded by urging all antisuffrage Democrats to reconsider the issue of women's suffrage and hence save the Democratic Party "from future jeopardy."
Democrats' fears were realized when a Republican-controlled Congress submitted the Nineteenth Amendment to the states in June 1919. Of the 56 senators voting in favor of the amendment, 36 were Republicans; in the House, 201 Republicans, compared to only 105 Democrats, cast affirmative votes. Equally damaging to the Democratic Party was the Republican vote in state legislatures. Of the 36 legislatures that ratified the Nineteenth Amendment, 27 were Republican controlled.
While Republicans hastened to label their party as the institution that had eliminated sexual inequality, former suffrage leaders recognized the contributions of both parties. In an article in the Woman Citizen, Carrie Chapman Catt, for example, thanked each party on behalf of the National American Woman Suffrage Association for its contribution to women's political freedom. Catt was quick to observe, however, that women themselves deserved most of the credit for the suffrage victory and that if both parties had not tolerated for so many years the "vote-winning policies of delay, women would have been enfranchised long ago." Two days after ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, Catt wrote that women could best pursue political participation and social reform through partisan channels. Yet working through political parties did not mean blindly espousing party doctrines: "They [political parties] furnish us with the machinery through which we are enabled to reach the public, create public consciousness, and keep the public informed." Partisan participation, then, was not the same as partisan loyalty, and politicians could not help but remember suffragists' promise "to clean house when they got the vote."
Yet the results of the first test of "universal suffrage" were much more ambiguous than either suffragists or their critics had predicted. Women turned out in fairly large numbers at the polls in 1920, casting approximately one-third of the total vote and sometimes outnumbering registered male voters. Fully two-thirds of eligible women voters chose to stay at home on November 2, however. In addition, of the eight female congressional candidates nominated by the two major parties, only one, an antisuffrage Republican from Oklahoma, was elected. Paula Baker, Nancy Cott, and other historians have noted that the less than spectacular turnout of women voters in the 1920 election was due in part to the overall decline in voter participation, which had begun around 18 6 and intensified in the 1910s and 1920s. As Cott has observed, whereas nearly 80 percent of the eligible electorate had voted in the late nineteenth century, only about half participated in the presidential elections of 1920, 1924, and 1928. "Not simply women's nonvoting but also male voters' sinking interest," writes Cott, "caused the voter participation trough of the 1920s." Also, Kristi Andersen points out that women's relatively low turnout in the 1920 election was due not only to the fact that women were unpracticed at or unsocialized to voting. "Rather, they had grown up learning that women were by nature unsuited to politics, that by definition politics was a male concern." Women, therefore, "had not only to learn new habits, but to unlearn old assumptions about acceptable behavior."
Although suffragists were disappointed that more women had not exercised their newfound right, they viewed the 1920 election as the first tentative step toward women's political education. As the Woman Citizen wryly observed, women had quickly learned that they faced a no-win situation at the polls. If they chose to align their votes in accordance with party issues, they were dismissed as unthinking political clones of their male relatives. Yet if they decided to cast an independent vote, they were accused of sex antagonism. In the end, the election had proved that no one could reasonably expect women to accomplish in just a few months what men had taken nearly a century to achieve. "Woman suffrage is here forever," Carrie Chapman Catt optimistically concluded, "and on the whole, women have good and sufficient reason to be fairly well satisfied with this, their first participation in a great national contest."
Three weeks after the election, Catt praised the formation of the National League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan organization created from the remnants of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Women, freshly inducted into the voting body, had great need of political education and training free from the political biases of the citizenship schools of the major parties. A woman's political education, Catt observed, must be "strictly, honorably non-partisan" if she was to make intelligent and independent voting decisions. This the League of Women Voters readily afforded, as well as a chance for her to continue work for child welfare, social hygiene, protective industrial laws, and legal equality. Until the parties recognized women as political equals, she warned, partisanship could be a dangerous undertaking.
Parties there will be and men and women will compose them. The suffrage appeal has been-Give us in reality the democracy which the nation claims. The next contest apparently will be based on the plea, Give us democracy within the party.... THE LEAGUE OF WOMEN VOTERS has an enemy, but it has only one-the kind of partisanship which makes its victories to any call outside its own circles blind, deaf, and dumb.... Partisan suspicion and distrust of each other on the inside will disintegrate and destroy. Beware!
Although Catt encouraged women to exercise their newly won right and to work together with men toward common goals, she cautioned that they would find political autonomy and recognition only in a nonpartisan woman's organization like the League of Women Voters.
Observations such as Catt's were rather unsettling to politicians who feared that women would reject party politics in favor of sexual solidarity. In a 1921 speech before a women's club in Canton, Ohio, Representative Nicholas Longworth, for example, praised the achievements of the Republican Party, especially its record on progressive reform legislation and its initiation of policies leading to a more complete realization of social justice. In the election of 1920, Longworth observed, the party had gained a "splendid new body of voters, the clear-minded, straight-thinking women of America." Yet growing divisions along sex and class lines, he warned, threatened the future success of the party. Claiming that he did not advocate "blind subservience to party leaders," Long-worth nevertheless urged women to behave "as citizens and not as women" and to pursue social change by working within the Republican Party, not by working against it. Albert Beveridge, a former Republican senator from Indiana, observed that the manner in which women exercised their newly won right "will determine the nature and results of this sweeping reform." If women's votes mirrored those of their spouses, brothers, or fathers, Beveridge cautioned, the electorate would merely double and the expense of elections would multiply. If, however, women voted as a bloc, "the exercise of their suffrage means that we have introduced a caste into our public affairs-and a caste based on sex." In his mind, therefore, women's only appropriate political action was to exercise individual judgment in the voting booth yet maximize the effectiveness of their votes by joining political parties, for "merely sniping from the bushes does not accomplish much. The guerrilla usually receives-and earns-the detestation of both sides."
Governor Nathan Miller of New York offered a more forceful reproach of women's political behavior before the New York State League of Women Voters in January 1921. Claiming that responsible government could be realized only through partisan action, Miller asserted that there was no room in the political life of the nation for a league of women voters. "'I have a very firm conviction,'" he added, "'that any organization which seeks to exert political power is a menace to our institutions, unless it is organized as a political party.'" More specific, Miller charged that any group that attempted to exercise political influence through the use of coercion, intimidation, promises of political support, or threats of retaliation undermined the very foundation of representative government. Such groups, he argued, took advantage of their political power and disregarded the public good by frightening the "'weak-kneed and the spineless'" into supporting their political demands.
Miller's remarks evoked a spirited response from Catt, who, in a speech following the governor's address, refuted the notion that groups working outside political parties were a menace to American political institutions. Although parties were vital to the administration of government, Catt noted, only groups working outside of the parties generated real social change. Concerned primarily with self-preservation, parties rarely initiated or adopted new ideas unless they were convinced that their failure to do so would result in a loss of political support. Far from a menace to liberty, groups like the League of Women Voters, Catt argued, were a vital aspect of democracy, for they forced the major parties to recognize the will of the people and to adopt policies leading to the improvement of American society. "The League of Women Voters," she concluded, "aspires to be a part of the big majorities which administer our government, and at the same time, it wishes to be one of the minorities which agitates and educates and shapes ideas today which the majority will adopt tomorrow."
Shortly after Miller's address, the Woman Citizen reprinted excerpts from several New York papers that were highly critical of the governor's characterization of women's organizations. The Albany Times Union, for example, declared that if the League of Women Voters was a menace to American institutions, "'then there are tens of thousands of Men's Associations in this country that are a menace to American institutions and Governor Miller belongs to some of them.'" Furthermore, the paper continued, Miller's definition rendered invalid every organization in the country except the two dominant political parties and turned independent voters into "'pariahs'" and "'political outcasts.'" If citizens in the previous century had followed Miller's definition of responsible government, the Times Union observed, "'there never would have been any Republican Party and Abraham Lincoln would never have been president of the United States.'"
Excerpted from The Women's Joint Congressional Committee and the Politics of Maternalism, 1920-30 by JAN DOOLITTLE WILSON Copyright © 2007 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
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