Ida Husted Harper

Women in Municipal Government – May 16, 1893

Ida Husted Harper
May 16, 1893— Chicago, Illinois
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Harper gave this address at the World's Congress of Representative Women.

When the young people of the present generation read Uncle Tom's Cabin, and the speeches of Garrison and Phillips, and the history of antebellum days, they are filled with amazement. They are unable to comprehend that the monstrous evil of slavery existed and flourished in this beautiful country, and found its defenders among ministers and church members and the so-called best element of society. "And you named this the land of the free," they exclaim, "when three million human beings were held in bondage!" And we scarcely know how to explain to them the peculiar condition of public sentiment whose finer perceptions had become dulled by long familiarity with this crime. So indignant do they grow over the thought, we scarcely can persuade them that they owe any respect to ancestors who tolerated such an evil.

Just like this will it be, a few generations hence, as the youth of that age read of a time when the women of the nation were held in a state of political bondage. "Do you mean to say women were compelled to pay taxes and yet were refused all representation?" they will inquire. "Did they collect taxes from women to pay public officials and then not permit them to hold any of the offices or vote for those who did?" "Did they compel women to obey the laws and not let them help make the laws or select the lawmakers?" "Did they allow men who had no property to vote taxes on the property of women, to build railroads, sewers, etc., and not let the women express their wishes in respect to these improvements?" "Did the most ignorant and degraded of foreigners, the lowest and most vicious of Americans, the paupers and vagrants, and saloon-keepers and drunkards, who happened to be men, have the privilege and the power of the ballot, while the hosts of church women, and the army of school-teachers, and all the wives and mothers were disfranchised because they were women?" And when all these questions are answered in the affirmative, these broad-minded and liberally educated young people will be filled with contempt for the generations that sanctioned this terrible injustice. Then they will begin to study the family history, and one will shout with triumphant joy, "My father and mother protested against these wrongs and fought long and bravely until they were abolished;" and another will discover, with deep humiliation and a shame which never can be eradicated, that his father voted against equal rights for women, and that his mother was a "remonstrant."

Future generations never can understand the social and political conditions which would not permit all citizens to have a voice in the municipal government of the city in which they lived, owned property, and paid taxes. Even we who are living under these conditions can not quite comprehend that absolute defiance of equity, justice, and right on the part of men who, having the power, refuse to grant to women the same privileges in the municipality which they themselves enjoy. There is not an interest which men have in the good government of the town or city that is not shared by women. Take, for instance, the question of street improvement, and we find women even more anxious for well-paved and cleanly kept streets. It is their dresses which must sweep up the debris; it is their thinly shod feet which must suffer from the cobblestones between the street railroad-tracks, and from the inequalities of sidewalks and curbstones. Cleanliness is an essential characteristic of women, and if they were invested with the power to bring it about, the littered and dirty streets of our cities would be a thing of the past in a very short time. The woman who looks well to the ways of her own household would give equally as good attention to the ways of the city in which she and her family must live. There is a crying need for women in municipal housekeeping. In the making of parks, the building of fountains, the planting of shade-trees, women would feel even greater interest than do men.

Then we come to the subject of public health; here women are vitally interested. If sewers are defective, if drainage is bad, if water is impure, women and children, as well as men, must suffer; and it is highly probable that women, being less engrossed in business, would look into these things with more care than men. There is an idea that women are not deeply interested in these things, which would not be strange, as they have always been debarred from having any part in them, but facts do not bear out this theory. The Association of Collegiate Alumnae, composed of a good many hundreds of the most highly educated women in the United States, with all the great questions of the day before them, selected the subject of drainage and sewerage for their investigations. They have brought forward a collection of valuable statistics and suggestions which have attracted the respectful attention of those best acquainted with these matters, and promise fruitful results. In New York, Indianapolis, Chicago, and a number of cities, the women have formed sanitary associations, and petitioned the boards of health to permit them to cooperate in the effort to keep the city clean and to enforce the rules of the board. This, at first, has been refused, or grudgingly granted, although after a trial their assistance has always been pronounced to be desirable. But here we have the spectacle, first, of women begging permission to do what is plainly their duty and right as citizens to do; second, performing without pay a work which men are receiving a salary for doing, and this salary women are taxed to pay. " But," they say, "women do not know how to construct sewers, lay off streets, build pavements, etc." Neither do men, except the few who have learned the business. But women have quite as much ability as men to select a good workman, to hold him to a contract, and to punish him for dishonesty.

A part of municipal business is to build school-houses, employ teachers, and decide various questions relating to the schools. Why should these matters be solely in the hands of men? Women, as a rule, are much more interested in educational matters than men are, and know much more about the school-life of the children, the courses of study, and the fitness of teachers. They are quite as capable of selecting good locations and building suitable school-houses. Over half the States in the Union have given women school suffrage and the right to serve on school boards.

"But," they say, "women can not serve on the police force." But they can, and do, and should serve as police matrons, and the women of our cities are insisting that there shall be not only matrons at the police stations, but at the jails; and that girls and women in prisons and reformatories shall be placed in charge of those of their own sex. There are always enough men trying to get on the police force to make it improbable that there will be any demand for women to serve, and women can continue in the future, as in the past, to contribute their share of the taxes out of which the salaries of the police force are paid.

The Girl's Reformatory and Woman's Prison of Indiana is wholly under the management of women, and it is said to be one of the most -perfectly conducted in the world. In the few instances where women have been placed on the boards of State and municipal institutions the latter always have been benefited. Why is there not a representation of women on the boards of all State institutions, for the insane, the blind, the deaf-mutes, the feeble-minded, the orphans, the criminal? Do not children and the afflicted, above all others, need the attention and sympathy of women? Women have petitioned again and again to serve on these boards, and have been refused. They are just as much interested as men in these institutions; their taxes help support them; why must women petition men for a representation in their supervision and management?

In our large cities the ordinances relating to reform and morality are practically a dead letter. A new administration goes into power under the most solemn promises to enforce existing laws. A few spasmodic efforts are made and then the city government drops down to the dead level of its predecessor. The saloons openly defy the law; gambling flourishes practically unrestrained; houses of evil character are not questioned as to their business. Then the people wax indignant with righteous wrath and demand REFORM, in large capitals. The political managers of both parties hold long and anxious consultations. Where can they find candidates who will represent at the same time reform and a constituency? Nobody thinks that this demand for reform represents the majority of the votes, but there is just enough of a respectable sentiment to make it dangerous to ignore it. This man can not get the saloon vote, and that one can not get the foreign vote. Naturally it is not so much of a question what he will do after he is elected as whether he can be elected. As a result the conscientious voter finds himself with very little choice among candidates. After the election the official is continually intimidated by the threat that he will injure his party if he attempt any measure of reform.

And thus it goes, and thus it will continue to go until the character of the constituency is changed. So long as officials are dependent upon a constituency of the ignorant, the degraded, the demoralized, the unprincipled, while the representation of sobriety, intelligence, and integrity remains a minority, just so long shall we have corruption, and inefficiency, and cowardice in official life. Changing the politics of an administration will not materially change results. Nothing could be more absurd than the cry that popular government is not a success. Let us first try it before we pronounce it a failure. Only one-half of the people have any voice in the management of affairs. The better half, the half that stands for the church, the sanctity of the marriage tie, the purity of the home, the correct rearing of the children, the promotion of temperance, the preservation of virtue, the condemnation of vice this half has been entirely shut out from any participation in municipal government. And yet this class possesses in high degree the qualities which are most needed and most conspicuously lacking.

If men had made a grand success of their work in municipal government, women might not be so persistent in pressing their claims to a representation; but men have made a conspicuous and self-confessed failure. From every city in the country comes the same cry of distress, "corruption, inefficiency, and cowardice on the part of officials, and no hope of anything better." There is hope, there is relief, if the debt-burdened and badly governed cities will accept it. No general would give up a battle with a great force in reserve, only waiting the call to move forward. The women of the country are this reserve corps. They are vitally interested in every question that relates to the municipality ; they are intelligent, patriotic, well-informed, and capable ; they have executive ability, they are economical, they are resolute in enforcing what is right ; they are exacting in demanding the fulfillment of pledges. Bring the candidates for municipal office up to the requirements of a constituency of women. Make the officials answerable to a constituency of women. If men can not be found who will be equal to these demands, then take the city officials from the able and trustworthy women of the community. But there are many men of business ability, unimpeachable honesty, and high moral courage who would be willing to serve their municipality, if the offices could be separated from the influences of corrupt politics and politicians. There are many such men who would gladly take an interest in municipal politics, and the welfare of the city, if they were not in a helpless minority. Re-enforce these men with a constituency of women, who will assist and sustain them; recognize the rights of women as citizens; bring in the best element to counteract the influence of the worst; and then, and then only, shall we be able to judge of the merits of a government by the people.