What It Means to Be an Enfranchised Woman

Library of Congress

It is not a truism to say that nobody but the enfranchised woman knows what it means to be an enfranchised woman, for apparently this experience belongs in the category with running hotels and newspapers, and everybody thinks he understands perfectly what it signifies, even if he has only taken note of its operations from a car window. The average critic is ready to join in “Hilarion’s” song, and describe the ambitions of women according to Gilbert: —

The little pigs they’re teaching for to fly,
                                    For to fly,
And the niggers they’ll be bleaching, by and by,
                                    By and by;
Each newly joined aspirant to the clan,
                                    To the clan,
Must repudiate the tyrant known as man,
                                    Known as man.
They mock at him and flout him,
For they do not care about him,
And they’re going to do without him,
                                    If they can.

Others, with more sanguine temperaments, but hardly more judgment, expect to see sin wiped off the face of the globe. They expect the “kindly earth to slumber, lapt in universal law,” once woman is given a finger, even a little finger, in the political pie, and when nightmares continue to afflict the body politic they are grieved and do not understand.

When women were first enfranchised it was confidently predicted that they would neglect their homes in the pursuit of office. When a very small percentage of them showed the slightest disposition either to accept or to seek office, it was argued that the politicians would have none of them, and that they would soon be eliminated as a political factor. They have had something the experience of Ex-Governor Alva Adams, Democrat, who once said he had “never been able to make a political speech that pleased the Republicans.”

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When Mrs. Sarah Platt Decker, the president of the General Federation of Woman’s Clubs, was asked what it meant to her to be enfranchised, she replied, —

“You can’t exactly explain why suffrage is desirable. If you were to post a notice that all the workmen of this state would be disfranchised at the next general election, you would have war and bloody war. Why? Does it make any particular difference to any individual workman whether Roosevelt or Bryan is elected? Not a particle. Then why does he want to vote? Because the vote is an indefinable something that makes you part of the plan of the world. It means the same to women that it does to men. You never ask a boy, ‘Have you closed the saloons, have you purified politics and driven all the political tricksters out of the state?’ No, you put your hand on his shoulder and you say, “To-day, my boy, you are an American citizen,’ and that is what you say to your daughter.”

Columns of indiscriminate criticism and columns of injudicious praise have been written about the enfranchised woman, yet the general public does not get her point of view, and nobody seems to think of trying equal suffrage by the rule suggested by Mrs. Decker. It is assumed that it must mean something different in the case of woman, and her failure to bring about innumerable reforms is considered an evidence of her unfitness for the ballot, while nobody questions the fitness of those who, having voted for a hundred and twenty-five years, have made reforms necessary in every state of the Union.

What does the possession of the ballot mean to women? Much or little, according to the woman, just as it means much or little to the individual man. Duty is always largely a matter of personal equation. Many men and women carry their obligations lightly. They pay their debts when they get ready, or are compelled by process of law, and curfew ordinances are enacted for the benefit of their children.

And right at this point may be found one of the fundamental differences between men and women in politics. The man whose boy is brought home by the policeman or truancy officer may be intensely interested in politics, — national politics. He may be rabid on the subject of the tariff and hardly know the name of his alderman. The woman who is interested in politics begins at home, and has a vital interest in the quantity and purity of the water supply. She wants to know why the streets are not kept clean, and she is willing to help. It was the women of Denver who prevailed on the authorities to park Twenty-third Avenue, put up anti-expectoration signs, and provide garbage-cans and drinking fountains at the street corners. Denver’s politics are unquestionably dirty, but Denver itself is a clean city. To be sure the smoke-consumer ordinance is not enforced, nor the Sunday and midnight closing ordinances, because Denver is run upon the principle, so highly lauded, that “municipal government is business, not politics,” and there is a very perfect arrangement between the leading businesses of the city. Anything that can be done for the city without incommoding them can be accomplished, but business must not be interfered with, so the all-night saloon flourishes.

The first query put by the looker-on in Vienna who hopes to find out what the ballot means to woman is nearly always, “Do the women vote?” Now, that is a very significant question, for under it lies that latent distrust, that growing doubt of our form of government that can no longer be denied. Those who ask it doubtless know how many men fail to vote. Not long ago the returns showed that forty thousand men in the city of Boston had failed to avail themselves of their privilege to do so. No wonder we are asked if the women vote.

And they do. Let it be firmly fixed in the mind that women form but forty-two per cent of the population of Colorado, and that they cast forty-eight per cent of the vote, and the thoughtful individual will perceive that practically all the women vote. What is more, they vote just about the same in “off” years as they do in presidential campaigns. Statistics have been gathered several times, and the figures remain relatively the same. At other municipal election in Colorado Springs, the wealthiest and most exclusive town in the state and a Republican stronghold, the women cast fifty-two per cent of the vote, and elected a Democratic mayor on a law-enforcement platform.

The next question usually is, Are the nominations better out of consideration for the woman’s vote? This is a question that has to be answered in two ways: if one says, “Yes,” there must be a qualification of the affirmative. As a rule candidates are better men morally, but it does not follow that they are better officers. Unfortunately, the domestic virtues do not always insure sound judgment and executive ability. In politics Thoreau’s idea holds good: it is not enough for a man to be good, eh must be good for something; and this is a lesson that women and reformers have not yet learned.

There are at least two cases that deserve mention to show that women are not quite so extreme or so narrow as they are sometimes supposed to be. Two men have been nominated for judicial positions at different times and in different sections, neither of whom could get into the class with Cæsar’s wife. Their judicial record, however, was above reproach. One of them was reelected by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union vote, because he had closed the gambling places. The other received the endorsement of the Epworth League because he had closed the gambling dens and dance halls.

But these are exceptional cases. As a rule, a candidate must have a clean bill of health morally to appeal strongly to the woman voter. If not, he may receive a half-hearted support from those of his party, but will lose the independent vote entirely, and be pretty certain to be badly scratched on his own ticket. The saloon remains in politics, but it is there by its representatives; saloon-keepers are no longer so much in evidence, personally, at least. Whereas men in this business were frequently elected to office prior to 1893, none have been elected since in a number of towns, and they are not considered desirable candidates.

On this subject the women feel very strongly. When the first charter under the new law was to be framed for Denver a convention was called from all the non-partisan bodies in the city, and they nominated one-third of the twenty-one members of that convention, asking the two parties to send in nominations from which seven names could be chosen to fill out the entire quota. The proprietor of the Zang Brewing Company was a candidate for this honor, but the women were opposed to him. One, who had had more experience than the others, went to the leaders of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union delegation and stated her case this way. “This is our first chance,” she said, “to get at this industry in the open. It has under cover killed your local-option laws and every other law you have proposed, and we haven’t been sure who represented it. This man is a good citizen from our standpoint, if he is in a bad business. If he is in the convention, what he says will be authoritative, and we can probably secure larger concessions from him than we can from somebody, unknown, who will be looking after his interests; that they will be looked after, we know.” The women were obdurate, however, and he was not named. He did serve upon the second charter convention, after the first charter had been defeated.

On the question of temperance it has meant a great deal to the women to be enfranchised, though this is not evident in the large cities of the state. In Pueblo and Denver they are practically powerless. In Colorado Springs the sale of liquor is prohibited, and there is a more or less continuous warfare against its illicit sale by drugstores, and in so-called “clubs.” Greeley is also, by virtue of its charter, a “dry” town, but in the mining camps it is almost impossible to make much headway. All over the state, however, when the returns come in, the only question involved is usually “wet” or “dry,” and the temperance “arid belt” seems slowly growing.

One incident will suffice. Ten years ago there was a little town of less than a hundred inhabitants about twenty-five miles from Denver. It was a very tiny town, but it managed to support two saloons with the aid of the surrounding territory. A woman active in Women’s Christian Temperance Union work moved into the neighborhood shortly before the spring election, and learning that the sole question was the issuance of licenses to these saloons, she organized the women, who had only lacked a leader, and they defeated the license ticket, and have kept the saloon out of that town ever since. The town has more than quadrupled in size, and several important industries are now carried on there.

The last legislature passed a local-option law, about which there is a wide diversity of opinion. It requires a forty per cent referendum to submit the question of license or no license, and this is the main point of difference; advocates of the bill when it was pending explained that it would be much easier for temperance people to get signatures than for saloon men to do so, and that once “dry,” any territory would be much more likely to remain so. The opponents said that inasmuch as the initiative would generally rest with them, it was a hardship to require so many signatures to a petition for submission, and thus put upon them the double work and expense of getting the petition and making a campaign for its adoption. They argued that it would have been fairer and easier to have secured fifty-one per cent of the total vote. After eighteen months the “dry” territory has materially increased. Several wards excluded the saloon in the May election in Denver. As usual in such cases, the liquor dealers will contest the constitutionality of the law in the courts.

There have been individual campaigns and candidates that have shown something of the power of women when they have worked together. The reelection by the Civic Federation, of Mr. MacMurray as mayor of Denver, when he had broken with the Republican machine; the election of Mrs. Helen L. Grenfell three times to the state superintendency of public instruction; the election of judge Ben B. Lindsay when both party machines had an understanding that he was to be shelved, — these are significant instances; but after all, the real meaning of government lies deeper than the choice of a few eminently fit candidates for office and the exclusion of unfit individuals. If the franchise were important only on the occasion of Colorado’s biennial elections, it would mean no more to women than it—apparently—does to men. As Senator Peffer said of Kansas, that it was not a place but a condition, so one might say of the suffrage, that it is not the ballot itself, or the polls, but a general and well-understood, even if undefined, attitude of mind.

The ballot has brought with it an intangible something that no one can understand who has not had to deal with public officials first as a humble suppliant and then as a constituent. It is quite possible to find men who will refer slightingly to women, but that is not confined to suffrage states, and the men who sneer at them now are the same gentlemen who referred to them gently as “old hens” and “hatchet-faced females” in that chivalrous past that we hear so much about.

It is, by the way, a singular fact that men seem unable to consider the abstract question of voting quite apart from its personal bearings. For instance, one well-known Denver writer laments that since the disastrous year of 1893 he has seen upon the streets of Denver “the sad faces of unloved women.” Both before and since that time the sad faces of unloved, unlovable men have not been absent from our thoroughfares, but who ever thought of such a thing as disfranchising a man in order that he might be rendered attractive? Socrates would never have received so much as honorable mention in a beauty contest. Yet this kind of thing is accepted seriously, and men are influenced, not by arguments but by the personality of the one who presents them, when it is a matter of woman’s enfranchisement.

There are certain things that all women want. The first law they asked for after their enfranchisement was one making them co-equal guardians of their children, with the father, and it passed practically without a dissenting voice. They had not secured it before, and such a law does not obtain in a third of the states of the Union to-day, though everywhere women have sought to obtain it. The next thing they did was to establish a State Home for Dependent Children, and from that time on they have passed first one and then another law for the protection of childhood, until no children in the world are better cared for than those of Colorado. Other states have similar laws, and some of them claim to possess better ones, but the peculiarity of the Colorado laws is that they are enforced. This is largely possible because the Colorado Humane Society is a part of the state administration, though its management remains in the society. This bureau has over seven hundred volunteer officers, scattered all over the state; this means that in the vast territory of one hundred and three thousand odd square miles there is no place so remote, on lonely prairie or in deserted mountain glen, that the law cannot hear “an infant crying in the night … and with no language but a cry.”

The greatest difficulty in enforcing the compulsory school law is in the cases of foreigners who can’t understand why a man has not the right to work his own children in “a free country.” One of the truancy officers reported the case of an Italian boy several times. To evade the school law the father sent the child into the net county and put him to work in a coal mine; but it is a state law, and the authorities brought the boy back and brought the father into court, where he was given his choice of sending his boy to school or going to jail himself.

Women have always been regarded as natural conservatives, but it is interesting to note the gradual effacement of the imaginary lines of demarcation between social classes where women are most active in public affairs. The Pingree Gardens, Social Settlements, Neighborhood Houses, Day Nurseries, and like interests fostered by women’s clubs have done much to bring women together, and the ballot-box is the most democratic of all social institutions. True, the woman meets only her own neighbors at the polls, while she touches elbows with all the world in shops, theatres, and public places; but in all other places it is an individual interest, at the polls it is a common interest and one that affects the public. The difference is infinite. And as the woman of education and intelligence is apt to be better informed than the woman of more restricted opportunities, she has greater influence, and thus it comes that slowly but surely the process that seems to some people to be one of disintegration, becomes a leveling up.

To those who fear the fierce partisanship of women it may be rather startling to know that such a thing as a party measure has never been espoused by women in any legislature, in Colorado at least. Women want the same things, and they have worked together in perfect harmony. They wanted a pure-food law, and secured one in line with the national provision in the last legislature; they want civil service, and they have obtained that in a measure, though the ideal thing is yet to come; they want honest elections and the elimination of graft.

During the session of the last legislature an attempt was made to change the law in regard to the control of the State Bureau of Child and Animal Protection, taking it from the Colorado Humane Society and creating a political board. Every federated club in the state besieged its senators and representatives, and the vice-chairmen of the two dominant parties waited on different members of the legislature together to enter their protest. Men understand that in legislative matters, when they oppose the women, it is practically all the women, and the great independent vote of the state.

One inference would be that this would bestow on the women the balance of power, and make them invincible; but long ago they found that if there was no politics in their attempts to secure cleaner politics by means of better registration, primary laws, etc., there was no politics in the opposition to them, and Republican and Democratic machine men agreed that nothing must be done to interfere with the machine, and still agree. Hinc illæ lachrimæ. After a dozen years of this the enfranchised woman understands that eternal vigilance is the price of a republican form of government, and that most people grow weary in well-doing about the second watch. Sometimes she grows discouraged, like that great home-keeping army of men who take no interest in politics; in rare instances she understands the belligerent tendencies of Carrie Nation; and sometimes she begins to see, even if it is through a glass darkly, that government is an evolutionary process, and it does not yet appear what it shall be. If she is a reader of newspapers, which have been fairly successful in filching from us our convictions, leaving nothing more stable than a few opinions in their place, she believes that we are on the top wave of prosperity, or on the way to destruction, according to her political affiliations. If she has read a little history and learned to reason, she thanks God and takes courage.

Unfortunately, the thinking type of citizen, man or woman, is not the commonest among us. Whatever else has caused the condition prevalent over the United States, our political situation is not the result of deep, earnest, general thoughtfulness.

But the enfranchised woman has to think, whether she wants to or not. At church she is likely to be reminded that it is her civic duty to see that the city is made decent for childish feet; at the club she hears of the iniquities of food adulteration and learns that the food she is setting before the king may be the cause of bibulous habits, while her own bread and honey are nothing but the chaff the wind has failed to drive away, and a preparation of glucose. When the county commissioners misappropriate the public funds she knows that it is the children’s bread that is being given to dogs.

What does it mean to be an enfranchised woman? It is easier to tell what it doesn’t mean. It does not mean the pleasing discovery that “politics is the science of government;” it does not mean attending a few political meetings and reading a few bits of campaign literature; it does not even mean going to the polls and voting as conscientiously as one knows how. All of that is but a small portion of it. The vital part of being enfranchised is not to be found in its political aspects at all, but in its effect in teaching us our relationship with the life about us. The real significance lies in getting in touch with what newspaper people call “the human interest” of daily life, and finding one’s own place in the great scheme of the universe.

And to be enfranchised means to make mistakes? Yes, dozens of them. And failures? Yes, scores, and some of the worst of them comes in the guise of successes. That’s what it means to be alive. The journey to the Delectable Mountains does not lie through the Elysian fields but through the Slough of Despond, past the Giant Despair, over the Hill Difficulty, and down into the Valley of the Shadow. And many men are discouraged with equal suffrage? Yes, but hearken unto this true story.

During the last campaign in Colorado a little German woman walked into one of the state headquarters and sat down with a sigh. “Vell,” she said, wiping her forehead, “I vas most discourached mit mens. You know dey haf change die precincts in our county, und ve not rechister die same blace some more but fife miles oudt in die country. I vas visiting mit some friends dere, und dot snow come and der man he not can pull die beets. Die men stink of nuttings but die beets dis fall. I say, ‘Now you cannot pull die beets, hitch up vonce and ve go rechister,’ and er sagen, ‘Ach, nein, dere vas blenty of dime!’ I vas dot provoked, aber I say, ‘No, dere is shust to-day und to-morrow. You get dot big vagon, und I go finds some beeples.’ Vell, he got hitched up, und I find zwelf beeples, und ve drive dot fife miles und ven ve get dere it was fife o’clock. Der shudge und die clerks dey haf sit dere all day, und ve vas die erste to come to rechister. Ach, dese men! I vas discourached mit dem!”

Both men and women find human nature discouraging at times, and it behooves us to be patient with one another. The stream does not rise higher than its source, and with us government is not a remote something far away, but just what we, in our individual precincts, will that it shall be.

When the school readers give the children “The Launching of the Ship” as the perfect picture of the Union that is to sail on, —

In spite of rock and tempest’s roar,
In spite of false lights on the shore, —

they give them also “The Ship that Found Herself” as a companion piece. Part of us are like the foremast that believed the whole sea was in a conspiracy against the ship, and part of us are like the rivets, and “confess that we can’t keep the ship together,” and all of us need somebody like the Steam to come along and tell us that “a rivet, and especially a rivet in our position, is really the one indispensable part of the ship.” Until this miracle happens and we learn to pull together, we shall continue to experience the discomfort that comes from pulling apart. The enfranchised woman has to find this out before she can hope to find herself or learn what enfranchisement means. That man is still seeking it, need not discourage her.