American Women and Paternalism


Is the American woman, judged by what she has done with the vote and by what she is endeavoring to do with it, paternalistic by nature and habit? Is it that she sees in the central government what the primitive woman saw in her lord and master? That she seeks her legislative ends through the Federal arm as she from the beginning of the race has sought her personal ends through the strong arm of the individual man, and its power to defend, ensure and enforce?

In a word, are we enfranchised American women, as revealed in our approach to organized government, holdovers? Are we survivals of the system in which the chief authority of family, or tribe, resided in the eldest valid male ascendant, who governed by paternal right? A system which is not so far receded as we would believe.

We think of the cave woman, the nomad woman, the feudal woman, the clan woman, the pioneer woman, as each a part of a group which, whether as family, tribe, fief, clan, or stockadecommune, looked to the accredited male for that ensurance of safety and well-being wherein she might fulfill her part as woman. As a matter of fact, the American woman’s place in a patriarchal group and her outlook from within it come well nigh down to our own day — or to the day of some of us. Life in my own childhood in Kentucky revolved in a literal sense about the father as the head of the family. Wife, children, and servants, widowed mother and dependent sisters, alike recognized in him their head and front, their source of supply and of dispensation; alike looked to him for judgment and decree, and obeyed these.

In my home in the 70’s and in those other households known to me, following breakfast six mornings out of seven came a rite unfailing and — so far as my knowledge went — universal. As the father of the family appeared at his front door, putting his silk hat on his head, the house-boy came around from the kitchen door with a basket in his hand, their objective being the local market. I, in my own case, was allowed to go along now and then, making a trio of the daily duo, trotting on these occasions between my six-foot parent and Bob, the colored house-boy, accommodating my steps as I could to my father’s greater stride.

I can see the market in my memory now, the country wagons backed along the curb outside, and within the building itself, the rows of stalls facing upon a brick concourse, each with its specialty: fruits and vegetables; eggs and poultry; fish and oysters; meats, fresh, smoked, and cured; in season bear, venison, wild turkey, partridges, squirrels, rabbits, and — this being that season ‘ when the frost is on the punkin ‘ — fox-grapes, pawpaws, persimmons, ‘possum!

Some blocks farther on the way to my father’s place of business we came to our next daily objective, this being comestibles again, which this time were defined in gold letters on the showwindow as ‘Staple & Fancy Groceries.’

I was in my teens when I discovered that cabbage and its near of kin, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, were recognized and reputable adjuncts to civilized man’s gustatory pleasures. My father, who did not like them himself, did not so consider them. In his household, with its otherwise plentiful table, we never had them. What the man of the family sent home in that market basket each day, this his household — adults, servants and minors — received, prepared, and ate.

I, or some child with whom I played, might want a nickel. Or, our ambitions soaring, we might even aspire to a shinplaster ten-cent piece.

‘Ask your father to give it to you.’

Such was the unvarying rejoinder of the women of our Southern households as I knew them. That our fathers seem, in retrospect, always to have complied, does not weaken the argument that we in my day moved through the head, the central power of the family unit, to get certain things.

I recall, or it seems so to me now, very little ready money in those homes. My father, as I have shown, provided and paid for the food. He provided the fuel. He paid the servants. He gave us children — including the said colored Bob and one Susy, the child of the colored cook — our Sunday-school money all around on Sunday mornings.

‘The children’s shoes are shabby.’

Thus the women of every household that I knew, to the man of the family. And I recall in my own case the rejoinder of my father: ‘Have Bob bring the children down to me after school, and I ‘ll take ‘em by and have ‘em measured for new shoes. Better order their slippers for summer now too?’

Our photographs taken? Yes, going with our mother to our father’s store, Bob along to carry packages and bundles if there be any, the group proceeding from there on — under the paternal care — to the photographer, and the fixing of our countenances by the camera.

Within the home, however, within the protected family circle our mothers ruled, saying to us children and servants, Go; and again, Come. Or at any rate, these mothers of ours were expected so to rule. We children of the various households in the neighborhood fell out among ourselves from time to time. Our mothers were our high courts of appeal here. That child who said, ‘ I’m going straight to papa and tell him as soon as he gets home,’ was commonly conceded among us not to have played the game; or worse, he was bearing witness to something amiss in his home: was the evidence of some incompetency on the part of his mother. I do not recall in my experience an instance of a servant appealing over the head of the mistress of the household to the man.

Years later, during the winter of 1918-19, I was in a town in the far South for some months, and here I found the family life, very nearly as I’ve depicted it, still the rule.


It seems to me, when I consider what we women here in the United States have done with the vote in the first three years of our enfranchisement, and are planning to do, that Uncle Sam in the minds of the American woman to-day, stands in her political world as the Southern father stood in his household ; as the strong arm of her lord and master stood to the earlier woman; that is, as the agent or instrument, the authority or vested power, through which the individual, or the individual group, shall and must move to obtain its ends.

Keeping in our minds, then, the question, ‘Is the American woman paternalistic?’ suppose we take as our measure of values the following premises left us by two of the forefathers.

Washington says: —

If, in the opinion of the people, the distribution of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected in the way which the Constitution designates.

But let there be no change by usurpation, for this, though it may in one instance be the instrument of good, is the ordinary weapon by which free governments are destroyed.

Lincoln says: —

It is my duty and my oath to maintain inviolate the rights of the States, to order and control, under the Constitution, their own affairs by their own judgment exclusively. Such maintenance is for the preservation of that balance of power on which our institutions rest.

With these premises in mind, suppose we look at what the women here in the United States have done with the vote through national legislation, from November 1920 to December 1923; and what, through national legislation, they are endeavoring to do.

One of woman’s own organs, the Woman Citizen, says: —

When one speaks of woman’s national legislative work, one means that Washington group representing fourteen national organizations which make up the Women’s Joint Congressional Committee.

And since we want to realize who are the women seeking to influence government, it may be a good thing to line them up here: —

American Association of University Women
American Home Economics Association
General Federation of Women’s Clubs
Girls’ Friendly Society in America
National Congress of Mothers and Parent-Teacher Associations
National Consumers’ League
National Council of Jewish Women
National Council of Women
National Federation of Business and Professional Women
National League of Women Voters
National Women’s Christian Temperance Union
National Woman’s Trade Union League
National Board of the Young Women’s Christian Association
Service Star League.

Besides the fourteen groups here named, there is the National Woman’s Party, which also is exerting political influence in Washington. The activities of that group are not touched on in this article, however, discussion of them calling for a separate consideration.

It is the first-named fourteen groups which, representing some millions of women and concentrated in this Women’s Joint Congressional Committee, put their strength behind and won — or aided in winning — the following measures: —

The Sheppard-Towner law. ‘A measure for woman, won by women,’ designed to secure through combined Federal and State aid the protection of mothers and new-born babies.

The Cable law. ‘A measure of straight feminism,’ establishing through Federal control the right of a married woman to citizenship independent of her husband.

They also: —

Made permanent: The Woman’s Bureau of The United States Department of Labor.

Helped to secure: The bill for the reclassification of the Federal Civil Service.

Gave assistance in passing: The Voight bill to prevent the shipment of ‘filled milk’ in interstate commerce.

Exerted pressure to get: A Federal Coal Commission appointed.

Measures asked for by women, but not yet won, are: —

The continuance of the Inter-departmental Social Hygiene Board by its transference to the Department of Justice.

A Child Labor Amendment to the Constitution.

The Fess Amendment to increase appropriations for training in home economics.

A uniform divorce law.

The Sterling-Towner, or SterlingReed Bill, as it is now called. A measure asking for a Federal Department of Education, with a Secretary in the Cabinet, and one hundred million dollars annually to be distributed; fifteen millions for the maintaining of the Department, and eighty-five millions for distribution among the States under the observation of this Secretary.

Here then are the things which the women of the United States have done with the vote through national legislation, and are trying to do. Excellent measures in themselves, every one of them, no doubt, but in their nature paternalistic. All tending toward a centring of the governing power, which in turn means excessive government regulation and a piling up of the bureaucratic system. Yet the millions of women who — through these organizations and this Women’s Joint Congressional Committee — are behind these measures are convinced as to their excellence, and conscientious in their endorsements. Of this I am sure.

They are convinced, and they are conscientious, that is to say, so far as the individual women who make up these organizations know anything about these measures.

To instance: The General Federation of Women’s Clubs is, at this moment of writing, behind the Sterling-Reed Bill. Yet of sixty individual members of clubs within the Federation, recently asked for their opinions on this measure with its proposed Federal assumption of what up to now in our national history has been the duties of the States, fifty-three, by their own statements, never have heard of it.

Herd instinct is as common to women as it is to men. The American woman not only is as gregarious as the American man, — as is evidenced by her nation-wide passion for group organization, — but she, within her clubs and federations, is even more ready than, say, the male rotarian, optimist, booster, and so on, to accept leadership unquestioningly. In this, it may be, she is but running true to her centuries of inclusion within the group which functioned through its vested head. Whatever the explanation, it is my experience that ‘isolation through intellectual withdrawal’ is rarer among American women than among American men.

Relying upon our leaders, the mass of us organized women too often know little or nothing about the measures which we from time to time endorse. And as a woman’s club member of thirty-one years’ standing myself, I hold I’ve a right to an opinion.

‘George,’ in the person of the accredited male, has ‘done it’ for women through so many centuries that George to-day, as personified by our accredited women-leaders, is a change only in sex and personality. And often the immediate George, in the person of a local woman-chairman who presents a measure or a cause to her club, is speaking at the instance of still another George, in the shape of a central or national board; or again, at the request of some other organization.

Mrs. B—, the local chairman of our own or any club, arises on the appointed day. Her proposed interpolation into the business or the programme for the day has been arranged for, expedition through well-oiled machinery having come to be more and more necessary in club routine.

Mrs. B—, who is an experienced parliamentarian, is also a specific thinker, concerned not with general principles as a rule, but with concrete business. She has assembled her case with efficiency — which is to say, she has assembled for her use all those points supplied her by the sponsor back of this measure or cause, which are favorable to it. This does not mean that this measure or cause is fundamentally vital or even dear to Mrs. B— or, at any rate, dear to her prior to the day before yesterday when as chairman of, say, general legislation, or child welfare, or forest conservation, or what not, she in the routine of her official business became the spokeswoman for it. Nor does it mean that Mrs. B— lacks in conscientiousness. It means, on the contrary, that she, in accordance with her ideas of a departmental chairman’s duty and loyalty, is doing her best for the measure. And in accordance with her ideas of a chairman’s routine duty and efficiency, she is getting her measure successfully across and out of the way, with as little loss of the club’s precious time as may be.

The chairman, having thus done her part, sits down, and the presiding officer glances at the watch upon her desk. It is nearing five o’clock, which is the hour for adjournment and home.

‘All who are in favor of this club going on record as endorsing this bill now before the Legislature of our State, — or the House, or the Senate, at Washington, — will please say Aye. — The oyes have it.’

Nor is this an exaggerated illustration of the methods by which false impressions are often conveyed by committees who, seeking to influence legislation, claim they voice the demands of the millions of women within the various organizations.

These herd habits among organized women were grave enough prior to 1920. But with woman now an enfranchised citizen, such group movements, under leadership, and free of the individual responsibility, assume graver possibilities for mischief. ‘ Boomerangs’ suggest themselves to the mind; also ‘edged tools ‘; and again, ‘ Fools rush in ‘ and so forth.

Obediently and pliantly we women within our organizations thus endorse, apparently unaware that no thinking creature has a right to an opinion on any subject touching the public weal unless it rests upon the best information to be had on the subject by the individual.

Conceding to these accredited women leaders of ours this full understanding and consequent right to an opinion, why is it that they knock so constantly, and in our names, at Uncle Sam’s door?

Johnny, symbol for the State machine, say, is wasting the forests of his State, even as Johnny, the small son of some woman among us, in his day wasted the contents of the cookie-jar. Johnny’s mother, had she appealed to Johnny’s father to punish the son for a transgression coming within her jurisdiction, would have been acknowledging her own incompetency. And these women leaders of ours are acknowledging themselves, and us, to be poor citizen-housekeepers within our individual States, when they cry in the name of the women of the State, ‘Uncle Sam, make us a law, a Federal law, requiring — yes, compelling our Johnny, who is wasting the forests here in our State, to behave.’

Why Uncle Sam, and why a Federal law? When it is clearly our duty as responsible parts now of our local governments, to make our own State behave — our duty to remember, if indeed we’ve ever grasped, that in respect to our Federal Government ‘an irreducible minimum of compulsion is the very essence of good government.5


Again: If it be the American woman’s patriarchal or father complex which is at the root of her leaning to paternalism, may it not then be her mother instinct which, aroused by those things which she and her federations have discovered for themselves in these last several decades, is driving her to regard the ends she has in view as the important factors, and the means by which she gains these ends as negligible ?

The organized American woman has discovered for herself that wherever she started with her proposed welfarework, whether with the school, the factory, the jail, the prison, the housing problem, the courts, and so on, all paths uncovered by her, be these local, State or National, led to politics, the festering centre a political machine.

The American woman in these conditions, without the vote, appeared to herself innocuous; indeed she was made to feel herself innocuous by the politician himself; whereas she foresaw herself, with the vote, an organized power for good, a force irresistible and invincible. And it is the writer’s own belief that here— in the organized American woman’s sense of frustration, in her sudden consciousness of her need of a weapon, when on opening the door she found, as it were, the wolf at the throat of Grandmother and Red Riding-Hood — is the explanation of the nation-wide demand for the franchise by women which marked the first and second decades of the nineteenth century: this, more than the suffrage-preachings and agitations of the preceding forty years. This, independent of the part which the World War, and the American woman’s part in it, were to have in further arousing her latent citizen-instincts.

She has her weapon alike of offense and defense now. Yet the American woman is asking Uncle Sam to do what she should be doing for herself.

True that father in the old days provided shelter, protection, and the means for sustenance. But true also, that mother was the administrator and executive within the home provided. Father had his affairs downtown to see to. Household business, making beds, cooking the meals, keeping the children in order — these were not the responsibilities of father. And Uncle Sam has our national and world affairs, that are his rightful business, to see to; the ordering of the affairs of the forty-eight States is not the duty of Uncle Sam.

It seems a bit paradoxical that women here in the United States should fail to see an analogy between the home and the State; between the functioning of the family group within the home, and the functioning of the citizen group within the State. Strange they should fail to grasp that the home is at once the symbol of, and the basic unit in, local self-government.

How is it, men in these United States, that your sisters, wives, and daughters are thus limited in their understanding of what, in our democratic republic, is government? Is it that you, all this long while, have rated us as being intellectually as well as politically outside the body politic?

It almost would seem so. For when did you ever share with us, your women folk within the home, those general truths which, however self-evident to you through the exercising of your citizenship, were ungrasped by us within our four walls? When in the exchange of the daily round of your household, did you ever say to us, for instance: —

‘Local self-government here in our town, city, and county, Carrie, Mary, and Kate, is the preparatory school in which the citizen acquires the rudiments of government. And this local self-government, as we have it right here in our village, has always and justly been considered of the highest importance in maintaining our Republic. We American people do not need to look to the Constitution for this right. We had the right before the Constitution, which we ourselves set up and authorized!

‘Our forefathers sought a new country. Here, face to face with nature, they perforce relied mainly upon themselves. Remoteness became their opportunity. Nowhere in the history of the world, to that time, had local self-government reached so high a point of efficiency as in the American colonies. For they had come to see, these forefathers of ours, that it was all-important that people should manage their own local affairs instead of having them managed for them by a distant and interfering government.

‘The early New Englander in especial “learned to govern himself because he worked as his own master, where he depended on his individual action for promotion, and where he controlled the government in which he lived.” These little democracies of New England prided themselves on being sufficient unto themselves, and out of them came the liberties of the States, and the greatness of our Country!

‘An impregnable foundation this was in self-government. The collapse of royal government in our American story left the thirteen Colonies in a chaotic state. The old government of a king had disappeared. A new one could not be immediately developed to take its place. In the meanwhile the Revolution was upon us.

‘And what do we find? The institutions of local self-government throughout the thirteen Colonies, the town, the county systems, were left intact; and on these the Colonies rested, a people with no central government whatever, until the Articles of Confederation could be set up and ratified.’

No, men of these United States, since you did not point out these things to us in the past, you cannot to-day build upon such a knowledge on our part, and say: —

‘We ask you, Carrie, Mary, and Kate, to reflect upon our story as a self-governing people, and then to recall to your minds what in these last few years, when revolution came, happened in Russia under autocratic rule; in the German Empire under paternalism; in Austria; in Hungary; in Greece; in China; wherever indeed the peoples were not developed in self-rule and self-reliance through local self-government.

‘Never forgetting that in our own case, here in the United States, our separate State governments under the Constitution which we ourselves set up, controlled for these forefathers of ours exclusively “as to taxes, schools, trades, inheritance, marriage, divorce, courts, police, local boards, and in a hundred different ways; the early American’s belief being that the proper place to rectify local evils is at home, where we see and appreciate them, and can apply a direct remedy suited to the peculiar evil.”’


States’ rights! Here again the writer has come to a conclusion which, however, is not of her own originating. And the conclusion is that these words ‘States’ rights’ are intricately interwoven in the minds of the great proportion of the American women with things sinister and ominous and fraught with menace; that we are face to face here, as in the paternalistic tendency, with a bit of woman’s psychology.

It is my belief that at the words ‘States’ rights’ the minds of innumerable of us American women hark back to the war between the States — this despite the fact that these words are interwoven with our history as a nation from the beginning. That with us women, many of us being the daughters and granddaughters of men and women who on the one side or the other went through that cataclysm, the words ‘States’ rights’ are synonymous only with fratricidal warfare and bloodshed. That with these words arise, out of our subconscious minds, survivals of our inherited past, memories of burning homesteads, battlefields, bereft women, and fatherless children.

I do not mean that we women are conscious of this. On the contrary, we’re not. I mean that in the subconsciousness of numbers of American women is that which makes us unwittingly antagonistic to the words, ‘States’ rights.’

There’s a further reason why we women dislike to be reminded of, or to concede, Suites’ rights, and this less worthy of us. An observer has recently pointed out that the American woman wants what she wants, and wants it right away! Uniform legislation arrived at through the individual States calls for time and patience, and the American woman has discovered that she moves through the Federal arm direct.

The observer just quoted points out further, that, the American woman in her activities wants, not your way, nor our way, but her own way.

’Group legislation’ we at large have been saying to Labor for some while.

’Group legislation’ we’re crying nowadays to the would-be Blocs, the farmer and others.

‘Group legislation’ we’ll have to cry next to the organized American woman and her lobby, the Women’s Joint Congressional Committee. For, of man’s political weapons, the American woman has taken for her own the lobby — of them all the most undemocratic.

We reach another point here. Woman throughout her long past, with her narrowly centred activities, has not concerned herself with the sources whence her needs are supplied. From her place beside the newborn, the suffering, and the old, she has looked to man: —

‘Bring the herb, the exorcist, the physician, the leech, the surgeon.’

So woman here in the United States to-day, with her thoughts centred upon the innumerable children who through illiteracy are deprived of their chance in life, looks to Uncle Sam.

‘I want better schools and more of them. I want higher pay for teachers. I want longer school terms. I want equipment, and plenty of it. I want illiteracy wiped out, and wiped out quick, and you, of course, to pay for these.’

An uncle of mine, back in those same days when I was a child and greenbacks were the legal tender, one day brought me a newly-minted silver half-dollar.

I plied him with questions.

‘Where did you get it?’

‘From Uncle Sam.’

I grasped this. ‘ Where did he get it? ‘

‘From his mint, where his money’s made.’

Whereupon I saw Uncle Sam’s mint pouring out silver half-dollars as a certain old water-mill known to me poured out cornmeal, and Uncle Sam filling and refilling his pockets at need.

It almost would seem that the American woman in her turn thinks of Uncle Sam’s money as inexhaustibly at hand. That she does not grasp, for example, that our Federal government, in order to give one hundred million dollars to the States every year for education, as she is urging that it shall, must take these same hundred millions out of the pockets of the people in these States. She, on the contrary, appears to think that the States in such event will be the recipients of bounty—beneficiaries who get something for nothing.


The American woman has been accused of lacking the laboratory — the scientific — spirit: this in the business of the home, as in other affairs which are her own. The spirit, that is, which experiments in the small, and having reached a better and closer knowledge through observation, trial, and reasoning, offers the conclusions to the world.

Woman in the United States, as represented by these fourteen organizations, is putting her strength — at the moment these words are being written — behind a uniform divorce law. Within the scope of such a law, the antipodes, as it were, are to be brought together, which is to say, South Carolina and Nevada. There is more here perhaps than at first appears.

South Carolina, to take her case first, never has recognized divorce, and may have her ideas about this. It is possible even that the women within these fourteen organizations will be up against a bit of psychology here themselves — State psychology. South Carolina — or so those who know her at all suspect —sees in this stand of hers, maintained through a hundred and thirty-odd years, not alone the isolation of the higher virtue but — and here we reach the crux — a social withdrawal, a class distinction, a group elegance. Were she less well-bred, were she not the scion of a genuine aristocracy, she might be heard to thank God that she, as regards divorce, is not as the other States. Whereas Nevada, who sponsors Reno as her own, sees in divorce an asset, a commodity with a market value; promotes divorce as a source of revenue. Or so the rest of us are led to believe.

Have the women who speak through these fourteen organizations, and who would impose a uniform law on these two States that represent the extremes of opinion upon divorce — have these women, then, a law to offer the fortyeight States? And have they reason to believe that it is a good law — a law that has been tried out?

Back in those same patriarchal 70’s, a boy, one Billy W—lived two doors from my home. He lived to experiment. His workshop, which was a bench in the corner of his father’s stable, was as famous in our neighborhood as the Little Scorpions’ Club is in the nation to-day. He was borne out on a plank and to the hospital on one occasion, a scalded victim of experiment as centred in a miniature engine and boiler. Still another time he blew himself through the roof, rafters and window-sashes along with him. But — and mark you this, dear ladies — he experimented in his own family stable, not in mine, nor in his other neighbors’. It was himself he blew up, not us.

Why not draft a model divorce-law; then persuade some one State — New York State has a proverbially bad law — to try it out. How long did the laboratories labor to find, say, the diphtheria serum? And M. and Mme. Curie to discover radium? A good divorce law having been proven, offer it to the remaining forty-seven States.

We have a precedent in procedure if we care for one— a case in point. Some years ago the American Bankers’ Association recognized the desirability of uniform laws with reference to negotiable instruments, to do away with the confusion caused by the different laws in the different States. And after careful consideration they drafted a law known as the Negotiable Instruments Act, which then was presented to the legislatures of the different States by the local bankers, and adopted in its entirety by all, or practically all, thus giving the uniform legislation desired.

The duty of the father is to protect against outside aggression. Also of the Federal government — ‘protection’ by the government meaning to secure to the States and to the individual the rights reserved to each under the Constitution. If the government goes beyond this, it becomes not a protector but an aggressor. In government regulations of commerce, labor, railroads, press, government relief of the poor, government systems of education, there is danger.

‘The mischief begins when, instead of calling forth the activities and powers of individuals and bodies, government substitutes its own activities for them; when, instead of informing, advising, and upon occasion denouncing, it makes them work in fetters or bids them stand aside and does their work instead of them. The worth of a State is, in the long run, the worth of the individuals composing it.’

Is it that we women here in the United States need to look at things, for a bit, in the large? That we need to realize that our present weakness as citizens lies in the ignorance of our wider ignorance? That we need to lift our eyes from the particular wrong to the especial group, and, sweeping the horizon of the whole, see that there is no graver question in modern popular government than ‘What shall government do for its citizens?’ and ‘How far shall government interfere with the actions of its citizens?’