Catt's presidential address at the National American Woman Suffrage Association Convention in 1919.
Every suffragist will hope for a fitting commemoration of this 50th Anniversary of our national organization and the Golden Jubilee of the first grant of full suffrage to women. She will hope for a memorial dedicated to the memory of our brave departed leaders, to the sacrifices they made for our cause, to the scores of victories won.
She will not be content with resolutions of self congratulation; with speeches of tribute; nor will any suffragist propose a monument built of marble which only a few would see and fewer comprehend. What then shall it be? I venture to propose a memorial whose benefits will bless our entire nation and bring happiness to the humblest of our citizens.
What vainglorious proposal is this, do you ask? I propose no marvel; merely the most natural, the most appropriate and the most patriotic memorial that could be suggested - a League of Women Voters to "Finish the Fight," and to aid in the reconstruction of the Nation.
What could be more natural than that women having attained their political independence should desire to give service in token of their gratitude? What could be more appropriate than that such women should do for the coming generation, what those of a preceding period did for them? What could be more patriotic than that these women should use their new freedom to make their nation safer for their children and their children's children? I put the question to you, fellow suffragists; would not such a League express the spirit of our movement and our common feelings of gratitude upon this occasion more clearly than any other form of Memorial?
Let us raise up a League of Women Voters—the name and form of organization to be determined by the voters themselves; a League that shall be non-partisan and non-sectarian in character and that shall be consecrated to three chief aims:
- To use its utmost influence to secure the final enfranchisement of the women of every state in our own Republic and to reach out across the seas in aid of the women's struggle for her own in every land.
- To remove the remaining legal discriminations against women in the codes and constitutions of the several states in order that the feet of coming women may find these stumbling blocks removed.
- To make our democracy so safe for the Nation and so safe for the world, that every citizen may feel secure and great men will acknowledge the worthiness of the American Republic to lead.
As Matthew Arnold said, long ago: "Having in mind things true, things elevated, things just, things pure, things amiable, things of good report—having these in mind, studying and loving these, is what saves States." To these "things true" the League should consecrate itself and thus help to save the great Republic from many a disaster which now threatens.
These aims are not so vague and shadowy as may seem at first hearing. Five years should see them all either accomplished or well on their way. Voters should enlist for a five years' service. At the end of that time account should be taken of achievements won and the importance of the unfinished program. A new determination can then be made concerning the advisability of a continuance of the League.
We departed from a policy rigidly adhered to for fifty years—neutrality toward controversial subjects—when we, as an association, took up departments of war activity. It must be borne in mind that to adopt work for such problems as these now proposed under the banner of our Association, means an even wider departure from this policy. But normal evolution and the quickening influences of war have made a new world for women and that world is calling to women voters to keep pace with the new demands.
Millions of women have been enfranchised. Fifteen states have made them full voters, and nine others have extended so many suffrage rights that they might be called "near voters." Our own Board of Directors represent these changed conditions and ten members are voters and two others "near voters."
We must, therefore, ask ourselves some very frank questions and give to them fearless answers.
For years women have labored to secure the vote as a tool with which to build a better nation. The world expects the millions of women voters and near voters to take their appropriate place in political work, to have opinions on the great questions of the day, and to conduct themselves like "freemen." Will the unenfrancished woman deny the enfranchised on her right to use her new found freedom to its utmost good?
Among these questions which we must ask ourselves in the convention are these:
Has the time come when voters and men voters should separate, the voters to go forward doing their work as free women in the great world while the unfree woman is left to struggle on alone toward liberty unattained? Or shall voters and non-voters draw closer together, making the demand for the completion of the suffrage struggle stronger and at the same time pitting the high ideals of our movement, its conception of justice, its enthusiasm, behind the many "things true"? Shall we merely unite for the one purpose of hastening the final day of the century-long struggle for the enfranchisement of women or shall we frankly change our policy, recognizing that in this period more great issues are pressing for attention than at any other period of the world, and therefore unitedly use our votes and our utmost influence to "keep God's truth marching on"?
For example, can we, because some of us are not yet political free, desert the woman industrial worker in this crucial moment when exploitation and sex conflict threaten her security? Is it not our duty to stand by her and her cause for the sake of all womanhood?
It must be remembered that no League of Women Voters can be possible suggested lines, unless the National American Woman Suffrage Association is willing to amend its established policy in response to what seems a new time and new conditions. It must be further remembered that to make these amendments involves the most fundamental changes in our internal policy ever proposed. It will doubtless arouse sharp differences of opinion, and action should be taken only after careful and sincere reflection.
Aim I. Suffrage for Women. That this object is necessarily included in the aims of a league of women voters is due to the compact of thirty-three men to continue our disfranchisement. Although they were a minority, their position in the United States Senate made their position decisive. Any one of them passing from the minority to the majority could have brought the woman's struggle to an end. The Legislatures of this year were ready and anxious to ratify. By this date, the necessary number of states would have made the amendment an integral part of the constitution. Tonight we would be lowering the curtain upon the last act in the century-long campaign. We would be saying our good-byes to the old battlefields of the past and would be reporting for duty on the next, the battle of the future. But thirty-three called "Halt!"
We are like a housewife who had packed all her household goods preparatory to moving into a larger and finer house. Then, when the day set for the removal arrived, it was discovered that the only key to the only door had been lost, and one of the thirty-three men had hidden it away. So, very wearily, she was forced to unpack her belongings and to set up housekeeping once more in the old quarters, which had suddenly grown more cramped and depressing, while the atmosphere had taken on a heavy, musty odor of decaying argument. Meantime, thousands of dollars must be raised, and suffrage shoulders must bend to the burden again. Every dollar that you are forced to give, every hour that you are compelled to work , every dreary duty that you are obliged to perform to keep the suffrage campaign going, may be laid at the door of any one of the thirty-three. If you are a Republican, you may select any one of twenty-one Democrats, or if you are a Democrat, you may select any one of twelve Republicans, as your particular oppressor. Or, if you are just a suffragist, you may divide the responsibility equally among thirty-three oppressors.
If your gratitude for all the wonderful gains made exceeds your resentment because those gains were not more numerous, let your plaudits of praise go forth to two-thirds of the House of Representatives, to the sixty-three in the United States Senate, to the chairmen of the majorities of the National Democratic and Republican committees, to the President of the United States, to the late ex-President and great leader of his party, Theodore Roosevelt, and to the latest to our cause, the only living ex-President.
Be of good cheer; the Sixty-sixth Congress has found the key. We shall move out of the House of Prejudice and into the House of Freedom not later than 1921. Two years more should finish the fight, but the journey will be sweeter, the task easier, and the early victory more certain if voters and non-voters stand together by their common cause.
Aim II. Corrections in the Law. Although the civil code in its application to women bears little resemblance to the Common Law in operation at the time our organized movement began, and which denied to the married woman the right to collect her wages or control her property, the right to sue or be sued, the right to make a will or give testimony in the courts, the denial to the married mother of any legal rights in her children, yet there are curious relics of that period, little forgotten oversights, which appear at unexpected times and places to do injury to individual women. No woman can possibly know the intricacies and peculiarities of the codes of law in forty-eight states. She cannot be expected to know that the age of consent for her daughter is eighteen years in Wyoming and ten in Florida; that she will herself become possessed of half the estate of her husband in California and one-third in New Jersey; that she is an equal guardian with her husband over her children in Illinois, but that she has no claim upon them at all in Louisiana. She cannot be expected to know that if her husband beats her, is disloyal to her, guilty of non-support, plus all other causes which in different countries and states of our own Republic are held as sufficient for divorce, she could not possibly secure one in South Carolina. She is not likely to know that in Colorado she may legally demand an eight hour working day, but that she could be compelled to work sixteen hours in Alabama for her daily wage; that her minor children could not legally be employed under the laws of Oregon, but that no law will protect them in the event their father desires to hire them out in North Carolina.
These laws can be more generally unified. The best and dearest laws should be used as a standard to which other states should be urged to lift their legislation, and those failing to do so should be made to feel their unprogressive isolation. This is largely a technical task for a lawyer, but at last, there is no state in our country wherein women may not practice law and there are thousands of women lawyers. There must be one among them amply qualified and willing to serve as director. She should have her attorney's fees and the rest of us in gratitude that we may manage our own pocket books, should be glad to contribute to it.
A National Commission already exists to secure the unification of State laws. Although it has aimed chiefly at commercial law, it should be willing to help. The American Bar Association would surely co-operate in this object. In the main the changes necessary would scarcely be controversial. Lawyers and Legislatures would gladly aid and five years should so clear up the codes that every State would be made safer for women and less safe for unscrupulous lawyers familiarly known as "shysters."
Aim III. Making Democracy Safe for the World. The searchlight of war has revealed many flaws in our civilization and pointed clearly to the imperative need of many changes in customs, laws and education. The combined program of reconstruction offered by the many groups of patriotic, intelligent men and women in one of disconcerting length. We shall learn something of the needs of legislation along these suggested lines from the sectional discussion of the Voters' Conference and it will be the privilege of the delegates to choose what may seem to them most important for a nationwide woman voters' program.
I venture to propose recommendations for the treatment of a single ill—one which appears to me more fundamental, more national in character, more menacing to the future security of our country, than any other.
In June 1918, in the midst of the war, the Secretary of the Interior [unreadable] his Annual Report in which he called the nation's attention to [unreadable] facts which were familiar to many citizens but which came to others with startling surprise.
It would seem to be almost axiomatic, that an illiterate cannot make a good soldier in modern warfare. Until last April the Regular Army would not enlist illiterates, yet in the first draft between 30,000 and 40,000 illiterates were brought into the Army and practically as many near illiterates.
They cannot not sign their names.
They cannot read their orders posted daily on bulletin boards in camp.
They cannot read their manual of arms.
They cannot read their letters or write home.
They cannot understand the signals or follow the Signal Corps in time of battle.
There are 700 ,000 men who cannot read or write who may be drafted within our army within the next year or two, since there were 4,600,000 illiterates over twenty years of age in 1910. This [unreadable] equals the total population of the States of California, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Delaware. The percentage of illiterates varies in the several states from 1.7 per cent in Iowa to 29 per cent in Louisiana. But the most appalling fact is that 58 per cent are white persons and of these 1,500,000 are native born whites.
A few days ago the Surgeon General presented a similar statement to Congress. It seems that the tests of illiteracy which have been applied by the Census takers have been so inadequate as to make the total results entirely misleading.
Although our country has boasted of its free schools as its greatest glory for half a century, the general education of the country is amazingly defective. While the Census report has informed the world that 8 per cent of illiteracy was the record of the country, the army figures for draft men now put the per cent of illiteracy as 24.9 per cent or practically one-fourth of the entire population. In one Southern camp it was found that the test for white men showed nearly 25 per cent of illiteracy and the test for negroes 75 per cent. There is no disclaiming the statement made by the army authorities that of the 1,552,256 men examined, 386,196, or one-fourth, were unable to read American newspapers or to write letters home to their families. They were unable to read or understand signs about the camp or a written or printed order. In factories they would have been unable to understand the signs and instructions intended to prevent them from accident.
These facts announce to the smug and self-satisfied American the presence of an unmistakable national danger. It is idle to deny it and foolhardy to neglect it. The extent of its possibilities cannot be overestimated. Other nations have fallen when the causes were less obviously certain to bring disaster.
This mass of illiteracy presented an immediate and almost insurmountable handicap to war preparation. The experiences and illustrations of difficulties poured forth from every camp. Dr. John H. Finley, Commissioner of Education for the State of New York, described a common scene at one of the great cantonments where a group of Italian and Slavic men were practicing the challenge when on sentry duty. "Each pupil shouldered a long handled stove shovel and aimed at the teacher who ran along the side of the room as if to evade the guard. The pupil called out, in broken English, 'Halt, who goes there?' the teacher answered 'Friend.' And then in utterly unintelligible English the pupil attempted to pronounce the words, 'Advance and give the countersign.'" Surely no other nation, unless it may have been our Canadian neighbor, had its preparations for war hindered by tasks like this.
Dr. Claxton, head of the Federal Bureau of Education, tells of the request of one commander for extra men to aid a machine gun corps. A group of illiterates and foreign born were sent him but, in a few days one hundred and thirty-seven were sent back because they could not be trained to handle a machine gun until they had first been taught enough English to understand instructions.
An instructor in bayonet drill, utterly fagged by the day's work, was creeping wearily off to his bunk when he saw a group of men awkwardly following the practice. He suddenly appeared among them, and began to give the instructions. The men seemed to listen eagerly and the teacher kept up a running fire of talk for a half hour. When he paused exhausted, a pupil interjected, "Me no understand, me Pole—all, all men Pole."
Through these handicaps, America made her way to war.
The loss of efficiency in the fighting forces at the front and the tremendous economic loss to the nation occasioned by such vast groups of illiterates, tells only a small part of the story. The pitiless searchlight of war revealed other facts equally disturbing to patriots.
It was clear at the beginning that the complete organization of the civilian forces at home and the maintenance of national morale would prove quite as significant factors in winning the war as the army at the front. Dr. Claxton told a Washington Conference on Americanization that "the Secretary of Agriculture is sending out millions of dollars' worth of bulletins urging farmers to produce more food and telling them how to do so; but two and half millions of farmers cannot read a word of them and nearly twice as many read with such difficulty that they make little or no use of these bulletins."
The Food Administration met the same obstruction and in many cities the rumor that the Government would confiscate all the canned products put up by the housewife found such ready belief among the illiterate and non-English-speaking people, that robbers claiming to represent the Government found little difficulty in making way with such household stores.
The efforts of the Woman's Committee to enroll women for service was hindered by similar perplexing misunderstandings and ignorant women were easily convinced by trouble makers that the Government intended to conscript them into munition factories far away from their homes and their children.
In this manner the practical problem of civilian war organizations was hampered; but infinitely more seriously did illiteracy interfere with the effort to produce a common understanding of why our nation had entered the war and the creation of a determined national will to win.
Most federal officials responsible for the conduct of the war and most war workers were inspired by high ideals. Every speech made, every document written to hold our nation to her task, made an appeal to stand by the cause of freedom, of democracy, of liberation for all the oppressed of earth. Yet, how could such aims be comprehended by the millions of native-born illiterates and near-illiterates and by the millions of non-English-speaking immigrants? How could they be realized by the thousands of boys whose lives were conscripted from these classes to serve these lofty purposes? As a matter of fact they never did comprehend.
Some of those lads died over there; died for the cause of human liberty they did not understand. A vacant chair is left in the old home down in the Kentucky mountains, or up in the Maine north woods—what does it mean to the family? The Government commanded the son to go, they knew not where, for they could not read a map. He never came back. Will that family love or hate the Government?
One mountaineer in Kentucky after hearing thrilling tales of battles "over there" in the Red Cross Drive, ejaculated: "I always knew we'd have to fight them ---- Yanks again some day." To him German and Yank were all one, the common enemies to civilization, and both lived in a far away, unknown land. That the [unreadable] of the Blue and the Gray, the Gray and the Blue, has [unreadable] together and were marching side by side in stricken France to the strains of "Dixie" or "John Brown's Body," as might happen, [unreadable] a glorious truth which such as he could not comprehend.
Not only did the ignorant sections of our population fail to understand the meaning of the war but they offered fertile soil for enemy propaganda. A hot house growth was guaranteed from a planting of any morsel of gossip if carefully enough adapted to the [unreadable] be [unreadable].
The facts bared by preparation for war aroused a widespread anxiety and a corresponding interest in so-called Americanization. "It will be remembered that when, at a great meeting in Washington, we offered the services of our association to the Government in the event of war, we named this line of work as one which would be necessary and adopted it as one of our war departments. I well remember one high governmental official who expressed a sneering contempt of the idea that Americanization could become a war task. But our prediction was correct. The Federal authorities soon appealed to Governors and to the Councils of Defense to push the movement, and a National Americanization Conference was called by the Government.
All over the land men and women turned enthusiastically to teaching English to their neighbors. States appropriated money for extension classes of the public schools; classes were formed in factories, churches and clubs.
The results were encouraging. All the efforts were well spent; but to balance the story it must also be recorded that there were factory owners, making big profits on Government contracts, who refused to allow classes among their employees. The masses of non-English-speaking adults did not want to learn English, and the work, excellent as it was in many states, only reached a very small minority.
The armistice brought was to an end. The American contribution of men, food, money, munitions, ships, had come at such time that it proved the decisive factor in the great war. The nation had successfully surmounted her obstacles and won her objective.
Yet every patriot who knew his America felt a keen relief from anxiety because the test had been a short and not a long war. Had prices of clothing and food continued to mount higher, had drive after drive for money followed each other, had the strain borne down with increasing heaviness for four years instead of one and a half, what would have happened? Would these sections of our population have endured patiently that which they did not understand or would there have been uncontrollable eruptions which might have tripped the nation in its onward march to victory?
Many eloquent pens have told us of the soul of France, the soul of Belgium and Poland and Serbia—people on one kind defending the land of their fathers and their fathers' fathers. But the national soul of America counts so many who do not know and cannot understand: what is its real staying power? What is its real quality? No one knows.
Happily, the war ended; but the problem, big and threatening, is still here. That it was a serious hindrance to the successful mobilization of the fighting and civilian forces of the nation, as well as a decided economic loss, has been demonstrated. Yet the handicaps to these phases of national efficiency are infinitesimal as compared to the impediments which illiteracy offers to successfully applied democracy.
NO one knows this more thoroughly than suffragists. In many a tragic campaign they have pleaded with these voters for their liberty, and in thousands of precincts they have seen them come, and under direction, vote woman suffrage down. They have borne the insult and the taunts of poll-workers who had such voters in charge.
Many an American woman with revolutionary blood in her veins, born on American soil, educated in American schools, familiar with American history and ideals, has seen the process by which her State has denied to her a voice in her own government through the votes of men born in other lands, unable to speak our language, unable to read their ballots, but automatically enfranchised when the nation extends its certificate of naturalization.
How many times, at the end of a campaign, have I seen women with faces drawn, white and tearless, who spoke no bitter words of condemnation and betrayed little emotion. Some thought they didn't care, some thought them to be suffering mildly from disappointment, but well I know what was in their hearts. It was not the denial of the vote, but the manner in which that denial had been accomplished, which filled them with a speechless despair. There is a woman in this convention whose tragic face and bearing upon such a night was so riveted into my memory, that I never see her or hear her name that the scene does not rise before me. She had made tremendous personal sacrifice, and no person in her State had wielded a more powerful influence for good than she. It was one of the states wherein a deal was made with the directors of a foreign vote and suffrage was voted down and counted out in exchange for political favors. We knew it. This woman pressed my hand in silence. We have never spoken nor written about that election, but some thoughts of others we can read. She was not thinking, "My state has wronged me, my friends and neighbors have treated me unfairly." Ah, no. The unspoken prayer on her lips was "My country, my country; the rocks of destruction are ahead. God save her, God save her."
Millions of American men and women have never met this problem face to face; they have never reflected upon its meaning but suffragists know it all too well. On hundreds of platforms and through the columns of thousands of newspapers they have warned the nation of the danger to its institutions, certain to arise if this condition should be long neglected.
Not only would woman suffrage have been established many years ago, but political corruption, lifting its hydra head at unexpected times and places and elevating men without conscience to power, could and would have been stamped out in all its worst manifestations long ago, had these millions of illiterate foreigners and natives not offered dangerous temptations to unscrupulous men. It is my sincerest and most earnest conviction that had our nation met this problem frankly fifty years ago; had so-called Americanization begun then, had political leaders faced the obvious menace to our institutions instead of evading, avoiding and placating it, had political parties stood for American ideals in their practice as well as in the brave words of their platforms and made war on corruption instead of using it secretly each to beat the other, we would never have had a world war. A democracy, functioning honestly in this country, would have spread to other lands with great rapidity.
A very slight acquaintance with man suffrage movements in Europe before the war revealed the fact that there was no more important contributory influence to the delay of the enfranchisement of men than the exaggerated reports that self government had been a failure in this country. Thousands of intelligent, observant, foreign-born citizens quite unintentionally reinforced those reports with illustrations of the manner in which money and intrigue frequently replaced public opinion in the determination of elections. Among the factors intricately entangled, which made conditions possible for a Kaiser to dream of world command, no honest-minded American will forget American sins of omission.
I was a passenger on a great ship which sailed from England in 1914 when all the world was at peace. It arrived in New York to find all the world at war. It was one of the last ships to bring a big steerage of immigrants, nearly all males. As we approached the port, the immigrants were brought on deck and ordered in single file to march before the health inspectors. Hats were ordered off, in order that eyes might be examined. None understood the instructions and many kept their hats on. The ship's officers knocked the hats off with most ungentle blows. They jostled and pushed them, they struck at the men and kicked at them. The scene reminded me of a criminal chain gang. The immigrants knew they were being abused, as flashes of anger in their faces showed, but they did not know why. The only offense of these newcomers was their inability to understand any language but their own! It was their first introduction to "the land of the brave and the free."
Time passes and such men find their way to a Naturalization Court. Meanwhile, most of them have lived among their own nationality, amid uncomfortable surroundings; they have performed unskilled work at proportional pay. They are as ignorant as when they arrived. They have been too tired and too unambitious to attend night schools, but they have managed to memorize the answers to the questions necessary to citizenship. Huddled in a court, often dingy and stuffy with dozens or even hundreds of others, a [unreadable]
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Time passes and an election approaches. Men of the immigrant's nationality come to him to engage his promise to vote as they direct. The new citizen is taken to the polls and his ticket. which he can neither read nor understand, finds its way into the ballot box. He does not know for what the party stands that he has supported. He does not know what the men do whom he has helped elect. He does not know the meaning of the measures he has voted up or down.
From the moment when he first beheld the figure of "Liberty enlightening the World" in the harbor of New York to his exit from the election booth, he has seen nothing, heard nothing, experienced nothing, which has given him a glimmer of American ideals. And this has been the experience of millions of men. When the war came, men and women who never took any interest in them before, suddenly wondered whether these men would be loyal.
Why should they be loyal?
Loyalty is not like a change of coats, one to be left behind in Italy or Greece and another put on in the port of New York. Loyalty is born of love of one's country. Before a foreigner will love this land, he must understand it, know that it is kind and hospitable to him and that in some fashion it is a better land to him and his children than any other in the world.
Let us go to the other end of the problem and ask who is responsible for foreign votes in blocks, for the use of money, jobs and favors to win and hold those blocks of men? To answer that question completely the spaces of a book would be required. Political Committees, driven madly by the push and whirl of a campaign, have little time for ethics. Politics has become war to be won by strategy and maneuver. The end justifies the means and the system as it exists is utilized to the full with as little actual knowledge of the facts allowed to leak out as possible. The leaders of great commercial interests, who want to give good account of their stewardship to the thousands of citizens who have invested their honest savings in the enterprise and other interests, made mad by utterly selfish strife for big dividends, grow fearful of popular government. Some conscientiously, others banefully, make contributions to parties' or candidates' expenses, in a spirit of self preservation. In exchange for contributions, they receive assurance that no legislation shall disturb the even tenor of their way. So it happens that some men are tagged by the invisible government, and vote, talk and act as other minds direct. The system is complicated and its ways are devious. A state may go forward with no sign of criminality in its politics for a long period, when suddenly a piece of stupendous rascality is put through with all trails leading to definite evidence carefully concealed.
The iniquitous interference of the brewing and whiskey interests with politics, their large contributions of money to parties; their control of large blocks of foreign-born voters, their absolute dictatorship over men in high places, had much to do with the establishment of national prohibition.
When the Public Service Commission of New Hampshire investigated the interference with politics of the Boston and Maine Railroad and discovered that it had made contributions to defeat woman suffrage, it pointed to the probability that these interests work together to secure the defeat of any man or measure inimical to the advantage of any one of them.
The great cotton industries, North and South, employing thousands of women and in some states, children; the packers trust, making enormous profits while the price of meat is prohibitive to the poor, are known to take a master hand in politics. Who would suspect that so simple a proposal as daylight saving would draw into politics the forces of any vested interests? Yet, here come the great gas and electric light corporations to make vigorous protest and get the law repealed, if they can.
We may later discover that some of the thousands of war contractors for ships, munitions and equipment, may join hands to oppose the League of Nations.
Between these two stands the majority of our population, the common people, intelligent and understanding, respecting and upholding American ideals, voting wisely, conducting themselves honestly. To these classes we owe the fact that the Republic has lived and moved forward, despite its load of illiteracy and the consequent tempering interference of those whose only motive is private gain. It is to these we owe the victory of our nation in the war. It was they who caught the vision of a war of liberation, of an America freeing the oppressed people of the world, and kept our nation at her task. Whenever there is a cause of justice, of common national welfare, of national progress, here in America we "tell it to the people," and from mountain and valley, city and farm, this great middle class rally to its support.
Were all our populations like these, our democracy would be safe for the nation and safe for the world. But at one end of our national life is the mass of illiteracy which knows not America nor her ideals. All unconsciously it offers a means whereby ambitious men, as unamerican in spirit as those they stoop to use, may gain their selfish aims.
At the other extreme, hurried men, busy with big risks and thrilled with the prospect of accomplishing some super task, knowing commercial America only, men of big finance, living and thinking in terms of dollars only, furnish the spirit, the fund and the motive whereby American democracy has become endangered.
Both man and worker emerge from their political encounter with a definite contempt for democracy. These workers become ready soil for propaganda of class war and all their experience has prepared them to accept the doctrine of agitators that political democracy is a failure, that the rule of the people by votes is a snare and a delusion and that the only thing which counts is the new proposal of industrial democracy which must be won by strikes or sabotage. One strike, they claim, will win more industrial liberty than forty years of votes.
Meanwhile manufacturers, great employers, contributors to political confusion, realizing the growing unrest of the employed, assume the attitude of self defense and become a force of stubborn resistance. That we are still a nation maintaining its vision of liberty is due to the fact that among the manufacturers and great commercial and financial men there are many, perhaps most, who are broad visioned, public spirited and responsive to the trend of progress. Among the illiterate also, there are those who, despite the handicap which a lack of education places upon them, understand the American ideal that democracy honestly administered is the only method by which the normal evolution of society be achieved. The fact remains however that the problem created by the existence of these two extremes in our society is an undeniable peril to our institution.
It is a law of social psychology that wherever reaction becomes unseeing, oppressively unreasoning, there corresponding radicalism, as unreasoning, develops. As Russian Czarism bred Bolshevism and Kaiserism bred revolution, so everywhere the more intense the reaction, the bolder the radicalism; and these extremes each exciting and baiting the other, continue their play, one growing more reactionary, the other more radical, until the fury bursts in some national tragedy. No nation has ever had or will ever have a more dangerous enemy than organized reaction.
The word reaction must not be too indiscriminately used. There is a tendency among advocates of causes to hurl it at those who may honestly disagree with them. There is one infallible test. When man, party or group organizes for destruction of ideals and progress and never offers construction; when such oppose, but never propose; tear down and never build up, that is reaction. Constructive criticism is always wholesome, but that proposes when it opposes. When we contemplate the amazing action of the minority of the United States Senate concerning the woman suffrage amendment, when we reflect upon the incredible attitude of the same body toward the League of Nations to which the oppressed peoples of the world, left exposed to terrible dangers by the outcome of the war, are now turning for protection; when the many expressions heard since the Armistice are taken into account, that "a war for democracy" was mere twaddle used to keep this country going, but the war was really one of self defense, it becomes clear that we have a more forceful reactionary influence in this country than most of us had realized. This influence is not Democratic, it is not Republican, it is found within both dominant parties. It is a minority, but clever, united and insistent.
Illiteracy (and its concomitant, reaction) is the great American menace. It represents a defect in our institutions which has grown more dangerous under the neglect of half a century. It threatened to wreck our war preparations, it threatens now to wreck the reconstruction of the world. Until this problem is met frankly and disposed of definitely and decisively, there can be no security for American democracy, no guarantee of good government.
What shall we do about it? Shall we who have struggled for our enfranchisement at least a quarter of a century longer on its account, shall we, who know its meaning and its danger, tum our backs upon it? For a half century women have sacrificed and labored hard to persuade our forty-eight states and our nation to lift them up to political equality with men who cannot speak our language and who cannot read their ballots. Shall we not turn again to these states and to the nation and demand that, without delay, these men shall now be lifted up to qualified equality with them?
How is it possible to approach so vast a task, do you ask? What can we do?
Let us begin by eliminating the word "Americanization!" That word sounds too much like Russianizing the Poles, Germanizing the Alsatians, and Hungarianizing the Croats. It sounds too much like oppression, whereas the only way to succeed in making true Americans of the foreign-born citizens, is to give them an incentive to be Americans in all the senses that word implies.
I venture to suggest nine proposals as a practical program whereby illiteracy may be eliminated. None of them are original. Most of them are advocated by many associations and I believe that every patriotic American will support the entire program when its meaning is made clear. Yet at present there is no unified leadership and no unified support of any of these proposals. It is not my idea that the League will assume the sole leadership or furnish the sole support of these proposals but that it shall cooperate with other agencies to secure a joint leadership and provide an important and influential support. The active interest of both political parties, the National and all State governments should be secured and this combination should furnish a leadership which will guarantee quick action. We have seen what united governmental and political leadership can do to produce quick national action in time of war. The same unification should be secured for a patriotic peace program—not to Americanize our foreign citizens but to nationalize the entire electorate. These proposals should strike a popular chord and stir little controversy but people "are so fond of the old and so fearful of the new" that there may be more resistance than we think. If, at first, political leaders are timid, suffragists will not be afraid to follow the vision of right until they grow bolder, if unexpected opposition develops they will not hesitate to meet it.
Compulsory Education in Every State. Laws compelling all children between the ages of five and fourteen to attend school, should be enacted in every State. Educational laws exist in all states but most of them are inadequate. The period of school attendance is not long enough and the laws are not enforced with sufficient thoroughness. The law should provide for nine months of schooling each year for the nine years between the ages of five and fourteen. Either established schools of teachers should be furnished to reach the remotest hamlet and the most isolated farmer's children. The opposition to this proposal will chiefly be made on account of increased taxation. A fair compromise can be made and the complete aim of the proposal may be reached by degrees. A bill providing federal aid for the states lagging in their educational provisions has been introduced in more than one Congress. It is based upon the same system of cooperation which was used in the good roads campaign and should be passed.
In every state the campaign slogan should be "No child over fourteen who cannot read and write after 1925."
Education of Adults. By volunteer classes in extension courses of the public schools, all possible illiterate adults should be reached. Here the chief handicap will be the illiterates themselves who have no ambition to go to school at the end of a hard day's work. But even this obstacle can and will be overcome when once the slogans are nationalized—"Every American knows how to read." "Every American speaks English." There are dozens of foreign born women's societies, with educated, broad visioned women as national officers. Through these the most sympathetic and effective cooperation can be secured.
English the national language. With full realization of the importance of a knowledge of languages in commercial and diplomatic life, such studies should not be eliminated from our schools, but no school, public or private, giving courses of general education, should be conducted in any other language than English.
The war revealed the fact that there were large numbers of rural public schools conducted in the German language where no word of English was ever heard.
Higher Qualifications for Citizenship and more sympathetic and impressive ceremonials of naturalization. The naturalization law was enacted more than a hundred years ago and its modification since that date has been so slight as to make it wholly unequal to the complicated problems which have arisen as the result of an immigration practically unrestricted. That law needs amending.
Direct Citizenship of Women. No woman should be qualified to vote through citizenship by marriage, the qualification for the vote should include an individual naturalization which will compel the wife to possess the same degree of intelligence as her husband.
Education in Citizenship through foreign language papers. Simple lessons in citizenship, explanation of political events, meaning of American ideals should be made compulsory by the government in all foreign language papers and copy for such lessons should be provided by the Federal Government.
Oath of Allegiance. Every citizen, male and female, native and foreign born, educated and ignorant, should take an impressive oath of allegiance to the United States as one qualification for the vote.
Schools of Citizenship." In every rural school district and city ward schools of Citizenship should be established in conjunction with the public school. Attendance should be made compulsory for all youth, and virtually so for adults by making a certificate from such school a qualification for naturalization and for the vote. To establish such schools, with a program of proved effectiveness and to coordinate its functions with those of the naturalization courts and elections boards, would doubtless require a generation, but if the support of the ideal can be made truly national, a certificate of citizenship should eventually become the proudest token of successfully supplied democracy.
An educational qualification for every voter in the United States after a definite date to be determined; a test sufficiently thorough to signify real intelligence and to eliminate any need for emblems on the ballot to guide a voter to his party ticket.
Shall we then put our shoulders to the wheel? Shall we pledge our bit in this great American crisis?
The soldier boys are coming home, your boys, the nation's boys, and they have been face to face with death. Even when expected death has a strangely sobering influence over the household, but what have these boys not seen, what have they not endured? One soldier writing home said, "It is terrible, Mother, to walk over the field after a battle with dead and dying men on every side." One who has walked on such a field will never be the same again. Such men know that thousands of youths lie on the world's battle fields today because civilization and governments and the rule of men were somehow inadequate. They know that organized society in some way broke down. They will do their part that it shall not happen again. But to those of sterner fiber, the memory is transformed into a spiritual force, uplifting, exalting, giving the brains of men clear understanding, filling the souls of men with visions of "things true."
To such men the pettiness of narrow partisanship, politics without aim, a country without progress will never be tolerable.
Today these boys are hunting jobs, sweethearting, enjoying mothers' cooking, finding their niche in the world, but tomorrow they will be filling legislative and congressional halls, gubernatorial and presidential chairs—leading the nation. They will bring fresh young minds and lofty ideals to the task. Shall we go our own way and leave this task to them? Or, shall we clear the way for them by sweeping this most immediate and threatening menace to national security out of the way?
They have fought "over there" for the spirit of democracy. Shall we not give over to them a country in which democracy is realized by a people speaking one language, reading its own ballots and honoring one flag?
Is an America which every citizen may love and under whose flag every citizen may feel secure, what we want? Is an America freed from the combined threat of alternative control by aggressive reaction and that of revolution worth while? Then all the progressive forces of the nation must be united to bring it about and we must do our part. It needs sane heads, constructive plans and earnest work. Does the task seem overwhelming?
At Ypres a Colonel said to his Commander, "We cannot hold out much longer. It is impossible." I only want men who can do the impossible; you must hold," replied General French, and the line held and because it held, the war was won.
All things worth having are possible. I believe in my America, I believe in her ideals, her common sense, her responsiveness to duty. When she understands, she has never proved false to a single appeal to justice. She has never failed to rise to her full measure of greatness when the call has been made. She will not fail now.
Arise women voters of East and West, of North and South, in this your first union together; strong of faith, fearless of spirit, let the nation hear you pledge all that you have and all that you are to a new crusade—an American crusade, a national crusade; a crusade that shall not end until the electorate of the Republic is intelligent, clean, American.
Every patriotic American hearing your pledge will respond with another. The spirit of this new crusade will travel from state to state, from city to city, arousing every teacher, school board, high school and college, every church, every moral and social power until all progressive agencies will be united in a nation-wide campaign against the world's oldest enemy—ignorance. What should be done, can be done; what can be done, let us do. And may "God's truth go marching on."
Speech from a publication of the National Women Suffrage Publishing Co., Inc., 1919.