Congress, like the Washington Monument, presents many aspects to many people. To the woman who lobbies for suffrage, Congress is an assemblage of uncomprehending male beings. Only that and nothing more.
In the four hundred and thirty-five members of the Sixty-Third Congress of these United States, there are representatives who are suffragists by political expediency, and there are representatives who are suffragists by the grace of conviction. A majority, however, of the legislators have given little or no thought to the subject.
The average Congressman makes a point of ‘being courteous to the ladies.’ When two women enter his office in the busy morning hours, he puts down his paper and tries to look pleasant, although he may be in the midst of a eulogy of himself in his home paper. The secretary stops work, too, and tries to decide whether it will be claims, civil service, or just cards to the gallery.
The suspense is short. One of the women says, ‘Good morning; I am Miss A. This is Miss B. No, thank you, we won’t sit down. Will you be good enough to tell us how you stand on woman suffrage?’
The Representative tries to look as if he had known all the time that that was going to be the question. If he be a Northerner, he says, ‘Ladies, I endeavor to represent my state in the truest sense, and whenever the majority of ladies in my state express themselves as wishing the ballot, I shall earnestly endeavor to fulfill the obligations of my office’; and so on.
If he be a Southerner, he says, ‘My dear madam, I believe that is a question which each state should decide for itself.’ And then follows a disquisition upon state rights. Every woman who has lobbied for suffrage at the national capital is fully equipped to make a state-rights speech. She is familiar with every argument, including citations from speeches of former legislators and statesmen. Then the Representative, be he from the North, East, South, or West, looks complacent and quite prepared to say, ‘Good morning,’ pleasantly.
But the lobbyist does not say good morning. She is apt to say, ‘But of course you must have an opinion on so important a subject. Would you mind very much telling us whether or not you would favor suffrage if the women in your state should desire the ballot?
The secretary looks happy and the Congressman resigned. The discussion which follows is not long, for that precious knowledge of the psychological moment when to go is as important to a lobbyist as to a diplomat.
To put the question and get the answer sounds quite simple, but indeed it is not. Many a lobbyist in the early days of her experience, thinks to herself, ‘Lobbying is not really so dreadful. Mr. Blank was very pleasant.’ And then she starts to put down on her little pad what Mr. Blank had said, only to find that he has not answered her question.
I shall never forget my first experience, and how I walked those stone floors for ten minutes before my courage was equal to the ordeal. Only one other incident in my life stands out as equaling this in humiliation. When quite a little child I had to take back to a large and terrible butcher some meat which was not what had been ordered. When I opened the Congressman’s door the second time, he looked surprised, but more so a second later when I said to him, ‘Will you be good enough to tell me whether you are for or against equal suffrage?’ He was distinctly embarrassed and, I like to think, a little ashamed. The secretary chuckled, and the Congressman answered my question. Although it was most distressing to me, the incident had value, for the secretary reported to me later that the Congressman had related the experience to others as a joke on himself and a warning to them.
The first instructions which the green lobbyist gets from her veteran sisters are these: ‘Be gentle and persistent; don’t be clever!’ A trial of wits may result only in befogging the issue and disturbing the pleasant serenity of the Congressman. On one occasion a brilliant young woman, after a long argument, left an important man quite flustered, and failed to learn how he stood on the question of equal suffrage. The next day two of us were told to ‘First pacify, and then get him to record.’ We felt, I presume, as do young reporters when a brutal city editor hands out without a word of counsel a difficult assignment. We decided to ask him about the actual legislative process through which a bill passes in becoming a law, taking as an example a resolution then before his committee in which I knew that he was greatly interested. We were just ignorant enough to disarm him, and intelligent enough to arouse his interest. Before we left he quite willingly told us where he stood on equal suffrage.
A lobbyist very soon learns not to generalize about Congressmen. She finds that all Southerners are not garbed in black broadcloth, with low-cut vest and black string tie. Neither does the Western Congressman necessarily wear a wide-brimmed Stetson, or pack a six-shooter in the hip-pocket. Nor does the Down-easter always resemble a Hart, Schaffner and Marx clothing model. The mentalities of Congressmen are not necessarily sectional.
For instance: One morning we put our customary query to a Northern Democrat—a spick-and-span typical business man. He looked bored. He said, ‘Oh, I guess it’s coming, all right, so I might as well get in early. Yep, you can say I’m for it.’
‘Oh, dear,’ sighed my companion, ‘let’s do a Southern one next!’ We did. He was a chunky little man in a brown suit and a little round brown felt hat. There were traces of brown tobacco, too. In answer to the query, he said, at once, ‘Well, I reckon you all have got a right to it, ’fore the kinky-headed niggers!’
On the contrary, the contrasts within state lines are often more startling than the sectional contrasts. Take, for instance, a Middle-Western state. The first member visited was a tall, learn, dark man, of morose expression. He would make up well as a pirate, by the addition of a big, black moustache and a dagger. In answer to our question, he said, ‘Well, you’re good-looking suffragettes, anyway!’ His secretary looked worried. My companion’s face expressed horror. I replied that that was beside the question, and repeated my query. The Congressman refused to answer any question not propounded by a constituent from his own district.
The second member, from the same state, was a pleasant-faced, gray-haired man, plump, and of a most amiable appearance. He sprang from his chair as we entered, and beamed, as we supposed, with enthusiasm for the cause. He assumed the statesmanlike attitude near the large table, and said, in answer to the query, ‘Ladies, I am an old-fashioned Democrat.’ He repeated this several times in answer to question differently expressed. In despair we finally said, ‘Good morning,’ and he replied, ‘Good morning, ladies; I am an old-fashioned Democrat!’
The third one was as tall, lean, and lank as the first, grayish of hair and of clothing, but with the difference of great precision and neatness in his dress. Our errand stated, he said, ‘Ladies, you know Votes for Women won’t bring the millennium.’ Our hearts sank. We had heard about the millennium many times before. Then the tall, thin man gazed long out the window. And when he looked back at us, we knew we need not fear what he was about to say. It was this: ‘My folks were pioneers in our state, and everything my father did, I guess my mother more than matched him in what she did. I am for suffrage, ladies, and I thank you for coming to ask me.’
We found many quiet little eddies of thought where our simple questions seemed a veritable thunderbolt. One dear old gentleman seemed so anxious to do something for us; and when I told him what we wanted, he looked like a hurt child. All he could say was, ‘Well, I’ll be dinged!’ And then hastily apologized for his language.
Another man, elderly, but not so dear, met us at the door all smiles. Before we could state our errand, he assured us he would do anything for the ladies, anything at all. ‘Why, I’d swim the Hellespont for the ladies, or I’d go after the Golden Fleece like—Dick,’ he called, turning back to the room, ‘what was the name of the fellow that got the Fleece?’ ‘Jason, sir,’ answered Dick, promptly. ‘Yes, like Jason,’ said the Congressman. ‘I’d do more than that for the ladies.’ But when we told him what we did want him to do, he utterly disconcerted us by bursting into loud laughter. ‘That is a good joke,’ he finally gasped, ‘you ladies telling me that. Why I saw a lady once who wanted to vote, and she had short hair!’ Here his mirth overcame him again, and we left him wiping his eyes with a huge bandanna.
The House of Representatives Office Building consists of five floors of corridors and doors. Behind each door sits a Congressman, each man with a different personality. As she opens one of these doors to call on the Congressman, the women the woman lobbyist can judge neither by manner nor by dress what the personality of the man is. Gruffness may be just a cloak for shyness, and the well-dressed, immaculate member is not always helpful.
A Representative from an Eastern state said to us, ‘Really, I can’t say I have ever given the matter a thought. The ladies in my state are not interested. In fact, I recall having heard from two ladies of social prominence—really quite prominent socially—that they rather disapprove of this matter.’
My companion murmured something to the effect that social prominence did not always make for progress or intelligence, and the secretary giggled.
In the corridor, my companion said wearily, ‘Don’t you always expect the tidy ones to be suffragists?’ Every woman feels that way instinctively. To discover tidiness reactionary—be it expressed in shirt-sleeves or a Prince Albert—is always a shock to a woman. I find that the home-makers who lobby make far more excuses for little lacks in manner or appearance than the women who work with men out in the world.
A young business woman who sometimes helps me, spoke derisively of the spots on the vest of an important statesman. I suggested that he had no woman to look after him. She replied crisply, ‘A woman? What’s the matter with ten cents’ worth of benzine and a rag?’
A business woman is less apprehensive, too, of taking the time of the member. I had been rather fearful of intruding upon the time of a Congressman, until I met the secretary of a certain member who has served his country long in Congress. I had gone many times to his office and found only the busy secretary. One day I said in despair to her, ‘Isn’t Mr. C. ever here?’ ‘Good gracious, yes,’ she replied, ‘I should think he was. He was here for an hour this morning, and nearly drove me crazy. Just kept pestering me until I could hardly do my work. I declare I believe I’ll have to get a pack of cards and teach him how to play solitaire!’
After a little experience, lobbying becomes quite impersonal.
A young Southern girl was taken to see a Southern member. The man almost verged upon rudeness in his repudiation of the subject. I expected, once safely outside the door, to hear from the girl expressions of surprise at the lack of the traditional Southern chivalry on the part of the member we had just left. Instead, she said, ‘Poor dear, I know what’s the matter with him. Did you see his flannels? Winter flannels to-day! Just like my father: neer would change his flannels until mother made him.’
The same day the Southern girl went to see a member from her own state. He was not in his office, but his secretary, a polite, uncomprehending young man, was distinctly curious. So we stayed a minute. When he gathered our purpose, he said, ‘Ladies, indeed I don’t want to be discourteous. I wouldn’t be discourteous. I wouldn’t be discourteous to a lady for the world, but surely you ladies—’ and then he hesitated — ‘have nice homes.’
The girl replied simply, ‘Yes, indeed, I have; I think it’s the most beautiful home in the whole world. You can see all of our county from our front piazza. But I reckon you don’t know how the mill-women in our state live or what kind of homes they have.’
Only in exceptional cases does the woman lobbyist encounter rudeness. In fact, so far as I was concerned, the cases of rudeness were confined to individual instances of Congressmen from a couple of Middle Western states. We found later that the reason for this attitude was the fact that the woman-suffrage question and the liquor question had unfortunately been coupled in the previous campaigns of the Congressmen in question. One of them rose large and glowering from behind his desk and said, in a loud tone, that he did not admit our right to question him. We asked him very meekly if he would mind telling us who would have that right. He thought hard over this for a minute or two, and finally answered, ‘I would admit the right, of the senior member from my state,’ quite forgetting that that same senior representative was a strong ally of the suffrage cause. We were so sorry to leave him in such an unhappy state of mind, but it seemed unavoidable.
On another day—a very hot day—we entered the office of a pleasant-faced, middle-aged man. He looked promising, as he sat there reading his paper. He might easily have been a nice Uncle Jim or Uncle George. We stated our errand, and the nice-looking person roared at us, ‘I won’t be threatened! You can’t coerce me!’ We were very warm and weary and asked him if we might sit down a minute, and he assented to that proposition. He continued, ‘I won’t be listed; I won’t have my name put down on a list; the idea is preposterous! When I register an opinion I register it on the floor of the House!’ At which point, I gently interrupted to assure him that that was exactly what we wanted; that his was the real spirit; that to have it discussed on the floor of the House was our object. ‘What!’ he roared, ‘me talk about women voting? You’ll never get that on the floor of the House in a million years!’
He wanted to make a wager then and there, but lobbyists do not make bets with Congressmen, so we lost that opportunity. We then led the conversation from suffrage to himself, and learned that he represented ‘a happy farming community where women are content to mind their homes.’ He said homes. He may have meant husbands. We left him feeling quite cheerful. A month later we saw him again and he was calm and almost civil.
Frequently, before the lobbyist’s second visit, members talk their experience over with other Congressmen and acquire a different point of view. A friendly secretary told us that a Congressman in their corridor had lately asked his (the secretary’s) employer, ‘Did two ladies come to see you a little while back about voting?’ His Congressman answered, ‘Yes, and mighty nice ladies, too; they didn’t take much of my time.’ ‘No,’ the other one said, grimly, ‘they didn’t take much of my time either, but it will take a heap of my secretary’s time to answer the letters I am getting from my state.’
One Tammany member—or ‘organization’ member, I should day—said, ‘Ladies, I’ll be quite frank with you; I used to be against you, but I have been reading up on the subject.’ Here he waved his arm toward a shelf where there was much suffrage literature, and continued. ‘Now, I see what it has done and I am with you.’
We were greatly pleased by the effect of suffrage literature on the minds of public men, until we talked to another New Yorker farther down the corridor. In response to the customary query, he said plaintively, ‘Oh, it’s coming. Why the ladies in my state cut down Blank’s plurality two thousand last election, and he never had his plurality pared before.’ He was referring to the Tammany Representative with the shelf full of suffrage literature.
The physical exertion of lobbying was one day impressed upon our minds in an interesting manner. A friendly Representative from a Middle-Western state kindly volunteered to go around with us to the offices for a couple of hours. At the end of the first hour he was very droopy. At the end of the second hour he frankly confessed that he could do no more. ‘You ladies surely have got good heads on you; but what i want to know is, how in thunder can your feet stand it?’ We have been working for five hours before we met him.
That was the day we found the pedestal—that old-fashioned, uncomfortable piece of furniture on which a certain type of man is accustomed to place all women. We had previously thought that the pedestal was lost forever; but there it was, in the possession of an elderly gentleman with a face like a cameo and the manners of a Chesterfield. When we could politely leave, after listening to a long dissertation on the glories of his state, and the virtues of the homekeeping women thereof, our weary Congressman said dryly, ‘I wonder if he uses any of that stuff on the scrubwomen who will be around here pretty soon?’
One young man, in response to our query as to his views on suffrage, rose to his feet, and majestically waved his arm toward the corner of the room, where stood the usual enormous desk. ‘That,’ he declaimed, ‘is what I believe in!’ I decided at last that he was referring to a large, framed photograph which stood on the desk. It was a likeness of a woman and child, and i ventured timidly that ‘She looked like a good suffragist.’ ‘Suffragist!’ he roared; ‘she is a wife and a mother!’
In the corridor my companion said, ‘What do we do when they are like that?’ ‘We come again,’ I replied.
Another young man was argumentative along the old familiar home-keeping line. In my reply, I touched upon the handling of garbage as surely being within a woman’s kingdom. He became at once quite excited, and said, ‘I think ladies are much too fine to go smelling around garbage-cans!’ We found later that his family name was intimately connected with a garbage-reduction scandal in his own state, and therefore my allusion had been most unfortunate.
We are so accustomed to the usual stock arguments against woman suffrage, that the replies come automatically; they are card-indexed in the brain, as it were. But occasionally we encounter an argument so overwhelming that it leaves us speechless.
One large statesman, in response to our query, said, ‘I have a mother to whom I am most deeply attached, and for that reason I am unalterably opposed to woman suffrage!’
There seemed to be no adequate reply.
Through these varied experiences the woman is beginning to lose a little of that awe with which she has been taught to regard a statesman, and the statesman is coming to understand that even a gentle, voteless female may possess potentialities for political embarrassment.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.