American Women and Public Affairs

ARE American women in general taking an interest in public affairs since their enfranchisement? Or is this interest confined as hitherto to the comparatively few women here and there: to the individual woman disinterestedly thoughtful, and to the immediately interested women, directing spirits in women’s organized activities?

The writer happened during the past fourteen months to cross and crisscross the United States. She has spent two months in the Far West and on the Pacific coast; a month in New York City; some days in Denver; some days in Chicago; a month in Florida; a fortnight in Indiana; a month in Tennessee. She has been around a bit in her own state of Kentucky.

In these varied circumstances and conditions of routine life, social life, club life, hotel life, and the chance contacts of travel, she feels that she has touched a fairly representative crosssection of her sex.

Especially in California, Florida, and more recently in a summer hotel in the mountains of Tennessee, the women whom she met were gathered from many quarters of the country. While in her home city, Louisville, and in New York City, during this time she has mingled with women of varied activities and affiliations. By a crosssection of her sex, therefore, she means the country woman, the town woman, the city woman; the professional woman, the woman of wealth; the uninformed woman, the woman of average education, the cultivated woman.

And within this period she can recall no instance in any casual group, social or otherwise, composed entirely of women, where the conversation voluntarily turned on public affairs as such: on politics; on government, or on the principles or fundamentals back of these things. Voluntarily, please note.

From time to time she has heard personalities: a story, let us say, of the late President or of Mrs. Harding; an anathema against, or a eulogy of, this and that public figure — Mr. Wilson, Mr. Lodge, Mr. Harvey, and so forth. But even these are the exceptions.

Occasionally she has heard some woman say that prohibition is a success because she has heard, or read, that such and such local jail at such and such place, is empty; and another woman say that it is a failure because all the young people — or so she has heard, or read — carry hip flasks. But never once in any entirely feminine group has she heard any voluntary, any casual, discussion of, for example, the right to personal liberty as opposed to the right of government to protect the individual against himself.

In mixed groups, men and women, yes, she has heard these and other issues of public moment discussed.

But, whatever the nature of public affairs thus touched on in these mixed groups, whether immigration, the I. W. W., or the tariff on lemons on the Pacific coast; peonage, convict labor, the whipping-post, or the Ku Klux, in Florida; evolution and the Fundamentalists in Tennessee and Kentucky; Al Smith and the ‘wets’ in New York City; the subject was always introduced by a man, and any sustained discussion was carried on by the men.

I am not claiming that these women were not as able to take part in such discussions as the men. On this point I venture no opinion. Nor am I claiming that these men were invariably informed, or that the argument was invariably impressive, or convincing.

I am saying that in my judgment American women generally are not interested in public affairs, national or local, in the concrete or in the abstract.

Having made this charge, I will make another. The American woman, as I meet her, is more concerned with informing herself along almost any line rather than politics and public affairs. And when I say this, I have in mind my friends, my associates, my acquaintances, myself, my dressmaker, my milliner, my cook, my younger relatives, and the daughters of my friends.

Last spring, to test my theory, I brought up the word ‘Fundamentalist’ in six diverse groups of Kentucky women, and did not find a woman in these six groups who knew what a Fundamentalist was. And this in the state where, owing to the activities of these same Fundamentalists, ‘evolution was saved to the world,’ a year and more ago, by a majority of one vote in the legislature. Yet these six groups were made up of intelligent, cultivated women, competent and able in their chosen activities; but with little or no interest in public affairs.

I was on a train when the news of President Harding’s death shocked the country. The following morning, in our sleeper, the question came up, who — on the automatic succession of Mr. Coolidge to the presidency — would be the Vice-President.

I did not know when asked, nor did any of us in the sleeper, man or woman. But the point I want to make is that none of the women seemed in the least interested, in the least disturbed by the consciousness that it was our place, as well as the men’s, to repudiate our ignorance and find out.

I heard a clergyman from the North, called to a church in the South, ask a group of five Southern women just what was the attitude of the white South generally to the Dyer AntiLynching bill. These five women, representing as they did three states where racial friction is intense, never had heard of the bill.

I heard a man on the porch of a hotel at an Indiana water-cure ask a group of women how women in general feel about the World Court. They confessed without a qualm that they personally did not feel at all; that, while they had heard the name, they did n’t know what the World Court was.

A man in my hearing brought up the Sheppard-Towner law in a group of men and women. ‘Why is it that all that you women have done thus far with your ballot and your legislation tends toward paternalism, toward centralization of government, toward Federal interference with State rights — that justifiable bugaboo with many in this country of ours, from the time of Jefferson to this? And Federal interference in a sense, and to an extent, which we men and our fathers and grandfathers, North or South, have never contemplated?’

The ensuing discussion waxed interesting, but it was a masculine discussion. If the women had a point of view to advance, or a position to defend, they did not embrace their opportunity. On the contrary, before the end of the discussion, they were out of it, drifting off to piano, magazine, or card-table.

Did or did not ‘Sheppard-Towner law,’ ‘Federal interference,’‘Centralization,’ mean anything to them?

Mulling over these matters, I approached two women who came within my category of women who in their separate ways are interested. One — the individual woman disinterestedly thoughtful, a B. S. and an M. A. in this case as it happens — holds the chair of psychology in a woman’s college. The other — the immediately interested woman, a directing spirit in women’s organized activities — is vicechairman in her party for her city and county committee. I put the same question to each: —

‘We American women, according to recent articles in the magazines, have earned a name as successful organizers and excellent executives. We are further charged in these articles with a driving desire, an obsession even, to get things done, to carry our end, to put things over, to show that we can if we will; this without always considering the ultimate result.

‘Can it be that we brought enfranchisement upon ourselves when on the whole we, the American women in the mass, did not care for it; that we were not, and are not, interested in having it; are not awake to what it. signifies, or alive to the responsibilities our acceptance of it implies?’

The first woman writes me: —

‘Habit-formation is a slow and regular process. Legislation opens opportunity for habit-formation for the next generation, but will not affect the present generation unless there is a strong conscious interest on the part of each individual to interrupt the habits already formed.

‘Women will, and do, discuss childand home-welfare because of their present conscious responsibility. Just as men do not, not because of lack of general interest, but because of the lack of specific responsibility along these lines. Women’s interest thus far in the history of the world has been specific, not general.’

The second woman writes:—

‘Many men, especially men in the rural districts and the small towns, are still, and actively, resenting the giving of suffrage to women as a whole, and in particular to their own household women, and seek to discourage, not only its exercise, but such interest in affairs as will lead to any desire to exercise it.

‘A countryman of some standing told me recently that, if his wife ever voted, she could start from that moment and make her own living. That he ‘d work for her no longer in that event, and that he’d told her so.

‘A woman called me on the telephone preceding a recent local election to ask my advice about voting, saying she had two little children, and her husband told her he would leave her if she went to the polls. These cases are not as exceptional as you would suppose. As for the women of the great prosperous American middle-class, I begin to believe it is because they are so materially comfortable that they are plethoric.

‘As for arousing woman’s interest in affairs and in the exercise of the ballot, I have this to say: Give her something tangible and within her experience to talk about, and to work for. Tell her her district needs a new sehoolhouse; or her town a new sewer; or her city an up-to-date health department. Women are not interested in abstract principles. They wish some concrete result.’

Whatever the explanation, I am forced to conclude that, among American women the country over, apart from those few disinterestedly thoughtful, and those directly concerned, there is a lack of interest in public affairs, an apathy, an absence of concern, not so much in the issue at hand, as in the principle behind it.