Woman Suffrage in the Tenements
“I easily showed my acquaintances in the neighborhood how to register; more easily, I told them when and where; most easily, I reminded them to go and vote. This took little time; but it was not all.”
My acquaintance with the women of tenement districts antedates any vividness in my view of woman suffrage. It was, indeed, through my association with them that I came to wish to look more closely upon what one of my icily neutral friends is wont to refer to as “that flamboyant and inflammable subject.”
One day, a coworker in the social settlement of Boston in which I was most particularly interested met me with a request that was almost an entreaty. “Will you help me,” she asked abruptly, “to teach the women of this neighborhood how to register and vote for the school committee?”
As I did not at once reply, she added: “Most of them have children who go to school; they ought to care how the schools are conducted. They have a right to a voice in the matter; they should use that voice.”
“It does seem so,” I assented. Then, suddenly recollecting that, even from my intimate friends among the women of the vicinity, I never had heard the most casual allusion to the possession of the cited right, I queried: “Have some of them spoken of it to you? None of them have to me. Do any of them ever vote?”
“That’s the trouble, they don’t vote,” said my colleague frankly. “Even the ones who have lived here almost always don’t; they know very little about it. We must tell them more. Some of the foreigners aren’t yet qualified voters; the ones who are know nothing about it. We must tell them everything.” She reverted to the words with which she had opened the conversation: “Will you help me?”
A great many things were happening at that time, to my especially near acquaintances in the tenements. All my spare hours and moments were filled with visits, visitors, club meetings, and preparatory arrangements for all three. Again, I did not immediately reply; and my coworker, understanding my silence, said: “Of course you haven’t any time; but this won’t take any.”
“Won’t it?” a premonition led me to ask.
“Oh, no,” was the response. “You can do all that is necessary during the process of your usual calls. Show the women how to register; tell them when and where; and remind them to go and vote. That’s all.”
That, I shortly realized, was not all. I easily showed my acquaintances in the neighborhood how to register; more easily, I told them when and where; most easily, I reminded them to go and vote. This took little time; but it was not all. It was merely the too facile beginning of a prolonged, arduous, and futile endeavor.
One of my best friends in the tenement district was a woman who had long since formed the habit of discussing with me any Janus-headed topic which presented itself within her range of observation, from the Shakespeare-Bacon controversy to the case of Capital vs. Labor. She was unmarried; and none of the members of her immediate household were school children; but it so fell out that I went to her first, in pursuance of the promise I had given my coworker. Briefly I explained the primary object of my visit. The woman evinced the liveliest interest; she had never heard of woman suffrage.
“An’ in America, everywhere, do they vote for school committees?” she inquired.
I replied with statistical exactness; and more eagerly she asked: “In America, anywhere, do they vote for anything else?”
I explained still further. The pleasure of my friend increased. “An’ in states where they can’t, do they want to?” she interrogated.
“Some of them do; some do not,” I replied. Then, impelled by a natural desire to be as precise as possible, I amended: “Some of them think women ought to be allowed to vote just as men are. They think women have the same right to the ballot that men have.”
“An’ some of ’em, they think dif’rent?” my hostess pursued.
“Yes,” I returned; “they have the opposite opinion.”
The eyes of the woman with whom I was conversing brightened. She saw in the subject a new variety of a favorite species. “Has there been much talk ’bout it?” she asked.
“Rather a great deal,” I told her.
“There must ha’ been interestin’ things said?” she hazarded.
“Oh, yes!” I affirmed.
In the course of the six or eight months that followed, I appreciated, as never before, how many had been said, and how very interesting they were. My judicial friend neither registered nor voted, “I’d like to go over the arguin’ that’s been done, first,” she had said.
She was a busy woman. By long hours of close labor in a tailoring establishment she supported her aged mother, an invalid sister, and herself. Her intellectual craving and alertness were such, nevertheless, that at the end of a day’s work in the shop, and an evening partly spent in aiding her mother in the performance of sundry household duties, she still succeeded in finding the time and retaining the inclination to read a fairly large number of books, and to come tot he settlement for the purpose of discussing them with me.
To her request for “books ’bout women votin’,” I at once acceded by providing her with as many leaflets and pamphlets on both sides of the question as I could collect. One night, she asked me to sum up for her the chief arguments of the two opposing parties. Not being quite intrepid enough to attempt even half the task she would have imposed upon me, I arranged, as occasion gave me opportunity, that she hear an address by Dr. Abbott, and a lecture by Mrs. Livermore. My own interest in the subject had been so stimulated that I met her frequent advances toward a new weighing of its merits and demerits with an eagerness that matched her own.
For this reason, I was unable to reproach myself, when, without the faintest warning, she left the topic, to which she has not, thus far, though a number of years have elapsed, again returned. I was leaving her one night, after a protracted call, during which she had spoken at length of various other subjects to which I knew she had given much thought, but not even briefly of woman suffrage. At the door, she detained me. “Didn’t you tell me once,” she began, “that a wonderful book had been wrote ’bout my trade?”
“About tailoring? Did I?” I said vaguely; it seemed so many weeks since we had alluded to her occupation. “I don’t remember any book about it, — except Sartor Resartus” —
“That’s the name,” she interrupted. “I’d like to read it.”
“I should be glad to lend it to you,” I responded.
“Thank you,” she said simply.
“You may have it to-morrow,” I said; and then, as she merely thanked me again, I added; “It has no particular connection with woman suffrage; you didn’t suppose it had?”
“Oh, no,” she laconically replied.
The next evening, she came to get Sartor Resartus. I was occupied with a club meeting; but I took a moment from it, in which to say to my friend as I gave her the book, “What about the ballot for woman?”
“More talk than anything else,” she rejoined.
It was impossible for me to continue the conversation on that evening. The demands of the club meeting were insistent. For many months afterward, my friend made no reference to it. Somewhat to my surprise, she read Sartor Resartus with the greatest avidity; in its pages she discovered numberless topics for animated debate. No one of these turned upon the question which so lately had captivated her attention. My curiosity was aroused, but I refused it the coveted indulgence of interrogation.
One day, not very long ago, the woman broke her rather noticeable silence. She called upon me, just when another caller and I had reached a point in a discussion of the suffrage movement from which we could not, without further remarks, depart. The woman from the tenement listened. When she was alone with me, she smiled.
“While I was waitin’ for you the other night,” she began, before I had spoken, “I learned a poem you’d marked in a little book layin’ on the table.”
“What was it?” I inquired, as she paused.
By way of reply, she repeated, with evident relish, these lines, —
Myself when young died eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great argument
About it and about: but evermore
Came out by the same door where in I went!
“I wasn’t thinking about woman suffrage, when I marked that,” I involuntarily demurred.
Again my friend smiled. “I was, when I was learnin’ it,” she said.
Presently she continued, “There’s so much talk ’bout it” —
“But there is about every debatable subject,” I interposed. “I have always thought you enjoyed it,” I further suggested.
“I do, when it’s interestin’,” explained the woman. “I mean,” she went on, “when it stays interestin’. It does, ’bout Shakespeare an’ Bacon. Them little essays o’ Bacon’s, they stay interestin’. Shakespeare, his books stay interestin’. Then, there’s lots o’ things been wrote ’bout ’em both that stay interestin’, too!”
She ceased, but only for an instant. “There’s Capital an’ Labor,” she commenced anew; “that stays interestin’. I never get tired of Sesame an’ Lilies; I never get tired o’ most that I’ve read ’bout it!”
“But what has all this to do with woman suffrage?” I now asked.
“I’m tired o’ woman suffrage,” returned my visitor. “I can’t settle it in my min’!”
“You can hardly settle the other questions you have been mentioning, either,” I reminded her.
“No,” she said, “but they are dif’rent. The things I’ve read, tryin’ to settle ’em, heartened me up, an’ made doin’ my jobs seem easier. The things I’ve read ’bout women votin’ made me sort o’ low in my feelin’s, an’ doin’ my jobs got to seem harder.”
She gazed at me intently. The burdens of her life, numerous, heavy, and distasteful, were known to me well, for she was an old and a dear friend. As if taking this into account, she said, with a slight emphasis on the pronoun: “I think I was right to stop botherin’ ’bout suffrage.”
A comment was obviously expected. “I think so, too!” I agreed.
There appeared nothing else to do. One of my acquaintances, who is an ardent suffragist, told me, when I related the incident to her, that I should have explained that the possession of the ballot would finally cause the work of all women, not only to seem, but to be, easier. Several of the pamphlets with which I had furnished my friend had already, most authoritatively, given her such an explanation. Another acquaintance, a strong anti-suffragist, asked me why I did not say to her that the reverse would be the case, should the ballot be granted to women. Some of the leaflets she had studied said it, not without force and firmness. My coworker observed that I ought to have suggested to her that it was her duty to concern herself with the question, whether she would or no. All the pamphlets she had seen had offered, unmistakably, a suggestion of that description.
I could not blame myself for the wandering of my friend’s attention from the problem of equal suffrage. She had received from me all the help in investigating the opposite claims of the question that it had been possible to give. The knowledge of the subject that she had acquired was by no means inconsiderable; though the appeal it had made to her was small. She knew much about it; but she cared little. Studying the matter had excited without inspiring her. In the course of time, that woman may be ready to answer, at least for herself, the vexed question. At present, she is not prepared so much as to hear it asked. There are so many things that she must do, first; and those things are difficult and tedious. Does it not seem that, before all else, their accomplishment should be alleviated and hastened; and this, moreover, in such manner as she herself prefers?
Another woman, to whom I went, became less broadly, if quite as deeply, sensible of the, for her, too enigmatical nature of the subject. She had five young children, three of whom were pupils in the public school of the immediate neighborhood. Her interest in the processes of their education was, I knew, unusually keen.
“Yes, I’ll be real glad to register, an’ vote, if it’ll keep the schools good, and make ’em better,” she said, in unhesitating response to the tidings, which she had not until now received, that the right to make, in this way, the attempt, was legally hers. “I’ve got three children in school, an’ two more to go; an’ I want ’em to learn well.”
She registered. As the proper time drew near, being unable to call upon her, I wrote, reminding her to cast her vote. The night before election, she came to the settlement. Not finding me, she journeyed out to the far-away street and number given her by the head resident. I heard her asking for me, somewhat breathlessly, and I hurried to the door. “Are any of the children ill?” I inquired, in alarm. “Has something happened to your husband?”
“No,” she replied; “but who’ll I vote for?”
The next day, she did not go to the polls. She has not yet used her ballot. “I never know who to vote for,” she explained one day.
“I can’t decide for you,” I said, as I had so often said to her during the evening upon which she had besought me to make such a decision; “but I will try to help you to find out how to decide for yourself.”
We were in the kitchen; the larger of the two rooms in which she, her husband, and their five children lived. She was ironing, attending to the cooking of her dinner, and watching her baby, who played on the floor. She looked at me kindly. “I know ou will,” she exclaimed; “but, if you’d jes’ as soon, I’d ruther you’d help me ’bout things that’s pressin’ on me more!”
This woman had a neighbor, one of my particular friends in the tenements, who advanced a decidedly longer distance upon the subject before she summarily retreated. She had four children, all of whom she sent regularly to school. Her husband was an inefficient carpenter, so frequently out of employment that the support of the family almost entirely depended upon her. The eldest of the children was sixteen years of age; but the mother would not consent to her leaving school and beginning to earn her own living.
“She’ll have to do it quick enough,” was her reason, sadly spoken. “The chance to get educated is all I can give her; an’ I want her to have it; I want all my children to have it. I wish I’d had it!”
To my information regarding her prerogatives in connection with the selection of school committees, she accorded close attention. Hardly had she registered before she approached me with inquiries relative to present candidates for that office in her city. She had very few leisure hours; and they seldom were coincident with mine; but I did my utmost to assist her to acquaint herself with the most important factors in the problem. The success of her effort in that direction was slight; her gratitude to me, my co-worker observed, was even more slender.
“Oh, I voted,” she told me, after election day; “but I ain’t sure now I voted right, an’ I ain’t sure I done any good votin’, anyway.” In rather an aggrieved tone, she continued: “I’ve been so took up, findin’ out ’bout it, I’ve let my housework run slack. My littlest girl, she’s been sent home from school twice, ’cause o’ her havin’ on a dirty dress. Nobody was here to fix her up clean, an’ send her back, so she missed them two days. It would ha’ been better for her educatin’, if I’d washed her clothes in the time I was learnin’ ’bout school committees.” She did not spare herself; neither did she spare me. “The other things you’ve helped me into made me do what I’d ought to do, better; this made me do it worse,” she concluded.
“I meant well,” I ventured.
“O’ course, I know you did,” my friend generously returned; “but,” she inexorably added, “I don’t want to fuss over votin’ no more.”
A suffragist assured me that the fault could not be ascribed to the ballot; she added soothingly that it did not necessarily belong to me. I was unable to fix it upon my friend of the tenement district. The weight of responsibility seemed to fall upon the unripeness of the moment.
One of the most unhappy experiences I ever had in the tenements grew out of that essay of mine to show the women I knew how to register; to tell them when, and where, and to remind them to go and vote. A woman, whom nature and misfortune had made so suspicious of humankind that she seldom trusted any one, had, tardily but quite fully, given me her affection and confidence. She had two children; the elder, a boy, was rather a troublesome member of a public school in the vicinity. The mother was interested in hearing that she might, if she wished, take part in the general government of the city schools. I explained to her as minutely as I was able just how relatively large and small that part was. She registered; in due season she voted; she had been finally ready to make a choice of candidates.
In the middle of the year, her son, becoming more unmanageable by his teachers, was covertly, and then most openly, threatened with the parental school; to which, at last, he went. My friend was grievously incensed: against the teachers; against the committee; against herself, because she had voted for that committee; and against me, because i had revealed to her the fact that she was a qualified voter. For a long time, she was very cold to me, very distant. I was distinctly puzzled. Once formerly, she had had more apparent cause to be offended with me. I had told her, not that she might, but that she ought to have her little girl vaccinated. She was reluctant; and I urged until she consented. The small girl was vaccinated; and, in consequence of its “taking” most thoroughly, very ill. The mother not only understood my great resultant distress; she sought to soften it, begging me repeatedly to remember that I was “not to blame.” There are two sides to the vaccination question; undeniably, I had pushed my side; whereas I had merely presented the bare facts of there being sides to the school committee question. She had chosen entirely for herself, both as to candidates, and as to using her right to vote for them.
I had begun to wonder whether she would ever again come to see me, or wish me to go to see her, when, one morning, I had a postal card from her, “My baby is sick,” it said. I went to her without delay. She greeted me with the old accustomed warmth. Nothing was said about the recent shadow upon our friendship, until I was bidding her good-by. Then she detained me. “Whenever folks have come round my husband ’bout votin’,” she commenced, “they’s always had some secret meanin’; an’ it’s turned out bad for him afterwards, sometimes.” She stopped; but I remained silent, and after an instant she went on; “I see now you didn’t have no secret meanin’ when you told me I could vote. You didn’t care, ’cause o’ my wonderin’ if maybe you’d had?” she pleaded.
“Yes, I did care,” I was obliged to confess; “but it’s past now.”
“My thinkin’ ’bout votin ’s past, too,” my friend confided in turn. “It got me all ugly in my feelins, havin’ to do with it; so I’m goin’ to let it ’lone.”
It has been suggested to me that I might have tried to show her that such a result need not inevitably have followed. There were so many other things to be done for her, first!
But two, of all the many women whom I knew, exhibited any evidences of lucid partisanship.
“What for do I want to register?” one of these asked, after listening to my careful directions as to the time and place for performing that preliminary deed.
“In order that you may vote,” I began.
“Why’d I be a-votin’?” she demanded. “Votin ’s for men!”
To the other, I said, “You are qualified to vote for school committees.”
“If I’m qualified to vote for one thing, why ain’t I qualified to vote for everything?” she retorted.
Only one woman attained to any height of abstraction in her view of the subject. In some one of the leaflets which, in answer to her petition, I had sent to her, she found a prediction to the effect that, with the ballot, women would abolish saloons. Her husband was a drunkard. She came to talk about the prophecy.
“Do you think women could?” she asked eagerly.
“It is quite possible; don’t you see that it is?” I ventured.
She mediated for an interval; and then she shook her head. “They might shut up the saloons,” she granted. “I can see they could; but I don’t believe they could stop men drinkin’, that way. It ain’t so much havin’ saloons, as wantin’ whiskey, that makes ’em drink. Nobody’s votin’ ’gainst saloons can keep men from wantin’ whiskey.”
The woman was not a political economist, nor a student of civic governments. It is doubtful if, even after her reading of many pamphlets for, and against, woman suffrage, she was aware of the most superficial definitions of the words; but, nevertheless, she had divined that the ballot, whether of men or of women, is not, whatever else it may be, essentially an ethical force.
Few of the women to whom I so zestfully had gone registered that year; fewer still voted. “Next time, more of them will,” my coworker said. The next time, not so many of them did. In the several following elections of school committees, none of them, so far as I have learned, have taken part. They are not suffragists; but neither are they anti-suffragists; scarcely are they conscious neutralists. To no one of these factions are they yet quite ready to begin to belong.
The random bits of conversation relating to woman suffrage that the young girls composing a club of which I was in charge chanced at that period to hear, supplied them with the impetus to challenge an association of boys of very nearly the same ages to a debate on the question. For a while, interest in the subject mounted high. The girls were enthusiastically thorough in their search for arguments on the affirmative side, which, it need not be said, was the side apportioned to them. Among themselves, however, and with me, they discussed the subject from every conceivable view-point. One of my friends ironically congratulated me upon the rapid case with which my literary club, slowly organized and painstakingly maintained, was being transformed into a bureau of political information.
After the debate, the girls ceased, at least verbally, to consider the problem. Very nearly all of them are now of voting age; most of them are industrially employed. They are all intelligent; but, none the less, they are not ready to pass judgment upon the question of woman suffrage; the other things which they must do, first, have not yet finished.
“Do you still want to vote?” I asked one of them not long ago. She had been so positively a suffragist during the weeks that preceded the debate.
“Vote?” she said in perplexity. “Oh,” she exclaimed, a light breaking in upon her, “you are thinking about that debate we had! Wasn’t it exciting? I had almost forgotten about it,” she added; “it was so long ago. I haven’t thought about voting since then.”
“Do you mean that, now, you don’t want the ballot?” I queried.
“No,” she said meditatively, “I mean that I just don’t think about it, one way or the other.” She turned her face, young, sweet, and eager, to me. “There is so much else to think about!” she said.
An older girl, not a member of the girls’ club, though she was one of the especial friends in the tenements, came as a guest to the debate. She was inspired by it to read rather widely concerning the part taken by women in the making of history. Like most persons, she was more attracted to individual women than to compositive woman. She became familiar with numerous biographical sketches; these sketches were, necessarily, somewhat incongruously various.
“What kinds of women do you prefer?” I broadly inquired of her one day.
“Kinds like Dante’s Beatrice,” was the answer; “and like Queen Victoria, and Joan of Arc.”
Thereupon, I advised her to turn her attention, temporarily, from specific biography to general history. Among the books upon which she now happened was Mrs. Gilman’s Women and Economics.
“It’s the most interesting book I ever saw about women,” she declared; “so different form the other things I’ve read.” The effect it immediately produced was to arouse in her a bitter sense of the deep wrongs of women; and an even more bitter sense of the relatively deeper culpability of men, in respect to those wrongs.
“Woman is downtrodden by man,” the girl said to me one evening, in the course of a discussion of the book: “she always has been; history proves it! I never realized it, until I read that book; but it’s true.”
Some few years passed; and the girl married. One day, recently, I went to see her. She was engaged in teaching her first child, a little boy, to walk alone.
“Do you remember how I used to read books about great women?” she suddenly asked.
I assured her that I did; she continued, “I still enjoy it. I read one the other day, the loveliest I have ever seen.”
“What was it?” I inquired.
“Margaret Ogilvy,” was the answer; “a man wrote it about his mother.”
My coworker, to whom I recounted some portion of these experiences, admitted their significance. She cautioned me, however, against forgetting that a theory is a less tangible offering than a fact.
“But school suffrage for women in Massachusetts is a fact!” I remonstrated.
“It’s only the smallest segment of one,” she retorted. “The right to equal suffrage with man would be the whole fact. If the women of whom you have been speaking had that, they wouldn’t be indifferent to it.”
Several years later, I chanced to spend a few weeks in the state of Colorado. In Denver, I met some of the women whose homes were in that section of the city which corresponds to the East Side of New York. Occasionally at my instance, but more frequently of their own accord, they talked to me about their political privileges. The whole fact of the right to equal suffrage with men has been in their possession for ten years. They have it; but they seemed hardly more able to cope with it than those other women to whom it had been proffered in the shape of a theory.
One woman, after ascertaining that I was a visitor from another state, and in no way connected with local politics, told me that she never voted. “Lots o’ my friends don’t, either,” she volunteered.
“But why?” I asked. “You have the right.”
“Yes,” she returned warmly, “but I never asked for it! Besides,” she went on more calmly, “I’ve seen women I know be all mixed an’ muddled up, doin’ it.”
In spite of unimpaired memories of what I had happened to see of an identical character, I could not forbear inquiring, “Need they have been?”
The woman reflected. Then, she said, “There’s no tellin’. Anyway, they was!”
A neighbor, upon whom I afterward called, was still more concrete in her expressions of an opinion. “I don’t vote,” she declared; “but I’d jes’ as soon do it, if I knowed how.”
“Mightn’t you learn?” I suggested.
She shook her head. “No,” she said; “there’s Democrats an’ Republicans. I can’t seem to choose between ’em. It looks like they was pretty much the same kind o’ people.”
“Some one might help you” — I began.
“There ain’t no one to help me,” was her rejoinder, “’cept Democrats or Republicans; an’ if I ask them, they’d tell me to choose theyselves!”
“I was about to say,” I continued, “that it isn’t altogether a question of making a choice between two political parties. There is a great deal more in the use of the ballot than that.”
“I s’pose so,” acquiesced my hostess; “but if I can’t git that much out of it straight, how kin I git any more?”
When I mentioned this incident to a woman voter in Colorado, more fortunately conditioned, she observed that the other woman’s husband probably had an idea of the meaning of the ballot not one whit clearer. This I found to be the case. It seemed to me, however, that the fact that it was the case only served incalculably to increase the already insurmountable difficulty of the situation.
Another woman said decidedly that she was glad she had a vote. “It pays me well, some o’ the time,” she explained.
“How?” I asked.
“Why,” she answered in surprise, “sometimes I gets only one dollar for goin’ an’ votin’; sometimes more.”
“But, that’s dreadful.” I found myself protesting. “The ballot will never bring you any good, if you do that,” I added, without great coherence.
The woman stared at me in blank amazement. “Why,” she cried, “all the good it do bring is that!”
“Your own principles, — don’t you want to be free to vote as you think best?” I urged.
Still she stared. “I never think anything ’bout it,” she replied, in all sincerity. “Votin’ ain’t nothin’ to me. It’s a bother to do, but people say, ‘Come do it; an’ you’ll be paid for your trouble;’ an’ I goes. I’m a poor woman. It’s a easy way to get a little extra money. My husband, he do it, too. There ain’t no badness ’bout it,” she ended, with simple frankness.
She was not corrupt; she merely did not comprehend. Perhaps, eventually, she may; but it seems, to speak very mildly indeed, a pity that her acquisition of the ballot should so far precede the awakening in her of an appreciation of the good which the use of that ballot is meant to bring.
An older woman whom I met disclosed a manner of dealing with her prerogative which I afterward learned was rather common among the women of the poorer districts of Denver.
“I know some of the nicest people in town,” she informed me; “generally, I votes the way they wants me to. They are awful kind to me; o’ course they don’t never give me money for votin’,” she quickly supplemented, “I votes the way they wants, jes’ ’cause they’s good to me.”
She paused, as if for a comment; and I said sententiously, “It is natural to incline to think favorably of the opinions of people who are kind” —
“Do you mean, to agree with ’em?” interposed the woman. “I don’t; I’d ruther ha’ voted dif’rent, lots o’ times” —
“Then why didn’t you?” I questioned.
“Well,” she said reflectively, “they was good to me. I couldn’t do nothing for them but vote like they wanted; an’ it seemed sort o’ meant not to.”
“But, if you thought oppositely” — I began.
“It seemed sort o’ mean not to do w’at they wanted,” she repeated.
She was conscious of coercion; but she conceived that to yield was rather praiseworthy than otherwise.
Another woman of middle age touched more surely upon the same aspect of the subject. “They’ve always talked a lot out here ’bout the freein’ o’ women,” she complained. “They used to say we was slaves, an’ votin’ would ’mancipate us; but me, I don’t feel as much free as ’fore they told us we could do all the votin’ there was to do.”
“A new responsibility is likely to make one feel less free,” I suggested.
“It’s not that,” said the woman gloomily, “w’at’s been worryin’ me. It’s havin’ other people want to take the ’spons’bility for me. One tells me one thing to do; one, another” —
“They are, perhaps, trying to help you,” I put in.
“No, they ain’t,” contradicted the woman; “they’s tryin’ to get me to help them!”
She may have been wrong; I found reason to believe that she was. She may have been right; I discovered as firm reason to believe that she might be. In either event, she is, to borrow her own words, not so much free as she was before they told her that she might have all the suffrage to be had. She had not been ready for the gift; during ten years of ownership it had cumbered her.
Remembering how zealously, if episodically, the club of girls at the settlement had considered the question of woman suffrage, I sought the acquaintance in Denver of some girls and young women of similar environment and approximately the same ages. Unlike the members of my club, they had grown up in a state in which, during very nearly half their lives, equal suffrage had been not a theory, but a fact.
One young woman, employed in a shop in the city, smiled at the word when I spoke of her political privilege.
“Privilege!” she echoed. “I don’t call it that. I’ve only had it a little while, myself, but I find it just an extra worry.”
I told her I did not quite understand; and she explained: “We are expected, here, to vote like our employer. Nothing is said, much, but we are. We don’t mind; he’s a good man, and we like him. But sometimes other people tell us it’s wicked. They say we ought to have our own opinions.”
She looked at me appealingly. “Are yout hat kind of person, too?” she inquired. “Do you think I’m wicked not to have my own opinion?” Her face saddened. “I never had a chance to!” she concluded.
Another young woman, an employee in another establishment, was more subtle.
“Suffrage is all right for rich women,” she said; “women who can do what they want to without risking their living. But it’s hard for girls like me. My father’s boss has one ticket; my boss has another. If i don’t want to vote his way, my father’s boss gets mad; I’ve got to vote my boss’s way, no matter what i want, because if I don’t, he might get mad, and I might lose my job. And whichever I do, somebody is sure to think I’ve done the other. If I didn’t have to, I wouldn’t vote at all.”
“Do you think women shouldn’t?” I asked.
“Why, if they want to, and if they can do it like they please, they might as well, I suppose,” was her involved reply.
The girl appeared to have something else to say; and I waited. “I wonder if you’ll know what I mean,” she began. For a moment, she was silent; then she went on: “I wonder if you will, when I tell you I feel I was a nicer person before I voted.”
“How nicer?” I said.
“Well,” she replied, “I hadn’t done things i didn’t want to do because I was afraid not to. That’s why I’ve voted, and voted the way I did, every time I’ve done it.”
That young woman was more nearly ready to consider the advisability or the inadvisability of the placing upon women of those political responsibilities now borne almost wholly by men, than any other woman whom, throughout the course of many years’ work in the poorer districts of large cities, I have ever met; but even she was not quite ready; she still had other things to do, first.
To the eyes of that comparatively small number of women whose days are devoted in large measure to contemplating it from one standpoint or another, the question of equal suffrage would seem to loom larger than any of the other problems appertaining to women of modern times. It was not primarily for those women that these pages were written. Still less is it with the intent of adding one small fagot to the fire they have built round about it that this series of experiences with woman suffrage in the tenements is offered. Some other settlement worker, perchance, has not yet begun to introduce the subject of equal suffrage to her friends of the tenement neighborhood. In the hope that to that person it may prove not only interesting, but perhaps also of service, this account of the negative, and worse than negative, results following upon such an introduction is given.
The ultra-suffragists declare that women have always been ready for the ballot; the extreme anti-suffragists predict that women never will be; the pronounced neutralists, when the inquiry is put to them, reply, as did Miss Charlotte Brontë, when Mr. Thackeray asked her if she liked London, “Yes, and no.” Which faction is correct, no one can say, for no one knows. Certain it is, however, that the women of the tenements , the overburdened women, the women whose opportunities for development have been pitifully meagre, are not ready. They must do so many other things first. Before we put the suffrage question to them before we hold out the ballot, either as a theory or as a fact, shall we not help them with those things?