Suffrage Convention March 1919 Article C.C.C.
There was a triple significance in the convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association held at St. Louis in the last week of March of this year.
It was the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of equal suffrage as a working principle of government; the Jubilee of the National Association’s, and the inauguration of a new force in American political life. A half century ago, the legislature of the territory of Wyoming had granted women the same political privileges as the men of the territory enjoyed. This was the first commonwealth in the world to give women the ballot on equal terms with men. It stood, therefore, as a working model of a new step in democracy.
When Wyoming became a state, this governmental principle was challenged at the national’s capital and the stateship of Wyoming was menaced unless the woman electorate was dropped.
“We will stay out of statehood a hundred years; but we will not go into the Union without our women,” was the unhurried response of those western men, thus establishing a new record in chivalry.
In the same year that Wyoming gave equal rights to women – 1869 – the National Woman Suffrage Association was formed for the purpose of gaining equal rights for women by federal enactment. This meant, of course, the acceptance by the United States government of woman suffrage as a fundamental part of the democracy it proclaimed before the world.
Both of these advance steps were the outcome of the freeing of the negro and of the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the Constitution of the United States. Those amendments, by excluding women, made a mock of their own asseverations.
Wyoming accepted this as a fact. The National American Woman Suffrage Association has been seeking for fifty years to persuade the national government to accept it also and incorporate Justice to women in the Constitution by the adoption of the federal suffrage amendment.
The St. Louis Convention was therefore the Golden Jubilee of the National’s fight for federal recognition of women’s political existence.
But the convention was more than a commemorative; it was prophetic and constructive.
The federal suffrage amendment fight is now on the eve of victory. Nothing delays it but the last kicks of a dying opposition.
In the meanwhile, woman suffrage as an actual factor in the vote for the next President, has won in twenty-eight states.
This means that in 306 out of a total 531 electoral votes, women now share. It means that almost two-thirds of the women of voting age in this land now live in territory which concedes their right to vote for its chief executive.
In seventeen of these twenty-eight states, women may have a voice in the congressmen who represent them in the United States Congress. In fifteen of them, women may vote on equal terms with men. Therefore however wonderful the past of the woman suffrage cause has been in its sacrifices, its struggles and its attainments, the greatest of all the reasons for the St. Louis Convention did not rest upon celebrations. The eternal feminine beckons on to new duties and new responsibilities – and, first of all, to a stable organization which shall “carry on” after the vote was won and correlate the activities of the emancipated women of the country.
Woman have learned much in these fifty years of effort. They have learned, for example, some of the blind spots in our democracy. They know where, and, to some extent, to what influences the electorate is vulnerable. They have found out, at great cost to themselves, how votes may be manipulated and ignorant men, unconsciously to themselves, made to thwart the freedom of the sisters and wives.
They have also learned in their national discussions how any one backward section of the country may retard the development of good laws for women and children.
Therefore as women, virtually concerned with the honor of the nation and with the welfare of the race, these women met at St. Louis for a third plan, a plan which faces towards the future, instead of celebrating the past. This plan was the formation of the League of Women Voters, whose main object was to catch up and use to the full the newly gained political freedom of millions of women.
It was never at any time feared that these enfranchised women would fail to work for that which is worthiest. It had, however, been clearly foreseen, that their energies might be sucked up in the local conflicts within their state borders, and that, having gained freedom for themselves, they might unthinkingly leave it to the women of other parts of the country to gain freedom for themselves.
They might, indeed, fail to remember that the child, unprotected in our state, leaves childhoods everywhere exposed to onslaughts of the enemies of progress. They might even forget, in their own content, that there were any women anywhere not as free as themselves and so a menace to a united womanhood.
With bitter experiences fresh in their minds, these women thus banded themselves into a non-partisan, non-sectarian body, to accomplish eight forms of service for their native land. Two things had been written deep in their consciousness. As war workers – for every suffrage association in the country gave of its best to service at home and abroad throughout the war – they had learned that a grave menace to Allied victory lay in the great percentage of illiteracy which now exists in the United States.
Women of the country had met this illiteracy at the polls in their suffrage campaigns. They had been defeated by it more than once.
Having whole-heartedly worked for their political freedom, as no men had ever worked for it, having proved by this very loyalty to American institutions that they are worthy to be counted among those whose patriotism is tried and proved, the women of the voting states, united in this League of Women Voters, determined that their united act should be to raise the standards of citizenship for both men and women.
A committee on American Citizenship, therefore, heads the list of eight committees to which the League has dedicated its first year of work.
Reforms in the electorate to be worked for include: Compulsory education from 6 to 16; education of adults; English, the national language; higher qualification for citizenship; direct citizenship for women; naturalization for married women; compulsory publication in foreign language newspapers of lessons in citizenship, schools of citizenship, an oath of allegiance from every man and every woman, and an educational qualification for the vote.
This high standard for an American electorate, this maintaining of the morals of a free people, seems the first essential step to be taken towards a better democracy by women who have worked for fifty years to gain citizenship for themselves.
Next in order of immediate importance has been the stabilization of conditions of that part of their sex which is concerned in the industrial enterprises of the country. That this host of women, every year growing larger and larger, until it now numbers nearly 13,000,000, mostly young women, shall not be so exploited as to imperil the future of the race or the welfare of the women of the Land.
The remaining six committees adopted and approved by the League cover: Child welfare, Improvement of Election Laws and Methods; Social Hygiene; Unification of Laws Concerning Civil Status of Women; Food Supply and Demand and Research. The last is a committee supplementary to all the others and one upon which all the others will depend.
It will readily be seen that the problems faced by the League of Women Voters are all practical ones. They are concerned with the preservation of American institutions; with the protection of the home and of the child; with better standards of living and with the maintenance of a stable government.
There has been much talking about and about as to whether the League of Women Voters is a woman’s party, antagonistic to men. If it is not a sex-conscious, politically hostile group, how will it achieve its ends?
It is not a party; but it has a party’s weapon – the ballot – It is, above all, not a sex segregation. While this idea of working outside of any political party for the protection of those American ideals for which America was founded was initiated by a group of women, they are very far from planning to work without the assistance of men. Their plan does not aim at sex hostility. It is no Epraim among political parties, its hand against every man. But neither is it a parlor uplift movement. The women who compose it are backed up by the possession of the right to express their convictions at the polls. They will not hesitate to use their ballots fearlessly whether it is with or against the party of their inheritance.
Having already established enfranchisement, they will be no longer inhabited by fear that action may imperil the political status of the women in their several states. They can dare, as they have never dared before.
This League of Voters is an effort to make into a working reality those dreams of a free America which have been potent in the long fight women have made for the ballot. They have for so long declared that democracy is something worth giving a life-time to obtain, that they will not rest until there is an all-American democracy which lives up to its own boasts.