Leonora O’Reilly

Women's Opportunities in the Civil Service - Aug. 29, 1901

Leonora O’Reilly
August 29, 1901— Buffalo, New York
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O'Reilly gave this speech to the National Society of Women Workers in Buffalo, New York.

Perhaps no one subject today is exciting more wide spread interest among medical men, if not among all thinking people, than that of the part insects play in the spread of disease. Says a leading New York newspaper referring to the subject: "The spraying of ponds and puddles with oil is after all a temporary expedient and only commendable as the most convenient method of minimizing the effects of causes which it does nothing to destroy." What is needed in Staten Island as everywhere else where mosquitoes threaten human health and temper, is not the occasional or even frequent use of petroleum or other insect-destroyers, but a thorough utilization of the means which modern sanitary science provides for improving general health conditions.

Now, I think I hear you asking, "What have mosquitoes to do with civil government or Civil Service Reform, especially with woman's opportunities in Civil Service Reform?"

Mosquitoes? Nothing, perhaps, save for the common sense conclusion arrived at by the intelligence of the medical men, that the spread of disease can be most effectively controlled by measures directed to the destruction of the cause of the disease. With this homely example before us let us see what is the disease which threatens our body social today, and what we as women can do to destroy the germ of that disease.

Our present social ailment , one which has affected every department of the government, has grown out of what is known as the "spoils system;" a system based on the old barbaric principle that "to the victor belong the spoils." Let us not waste time discussing whether this principle could ever have been right, but, rather, granting that possibly it may have had its uses in times past, let us acknowledge that today, in the twentieth century, we have outgrown such war-like methods in civil government at least.

In the early days of our Republic the questions asked of each office seeker were, "Is he honest? Is he capable? Is he faithful to the constitution?" In our present diseased state, the one question asked of an office seeker is, "Is he faithful to the party?" Now parties are not bad things in themselves; they are good institutions where they represent the collective aspirations of a group of people for what they believe to be the best interest of the body politic. But just so soon as a party loses sight of the good of the whole and works for "party" right or wrong, it becomes a menace to the community and must be dealt with accordingly.

Loyalty is one of the cardinal virtues. But it must be loyalty to a worthy end. We must change the spirit which blandly cries "my party right or wrong" to one which shall more truly express the sentiment of intelligent free men.

Now, what can we non-voting women do toward this end?

A great deal, sisters mine. Those are not idle words which say, the hand that rocks the cradle sways the world. If all state secrets were uncovered, don't you think in these days as well as in the days of old, many Heads of Departments would disappear behind female figures and faces? But, be that as it may, wisdom tells us we should always make use of the opportunity at hand today, as a preparation for the larger duty of tomorrow which is sure to come as a reward for today's work well done.

Firs t and foremost, we are home-makers and possibly home-keepers, and it is in the home and school that the nation is trained. In our local organizations we stand as united home-keepers; in this national organization, as the nation's home-keepers.

The United States is our home. What we can do for the health and happiness of these States, our home, is as much a part of our daily concern as how to make the special home we happen to be born into happier and more comfortable.

In this national organization, without political affiliation or pledge to any party, we stand free and unhampered, able to take a broad outlook upon our national home. Each club and each individual is a part of the patriotic conscience which must actually guide the better life of America. Can we not in our organized, national capacity take some united action which aims at the uplifting of our national life?

For twenty years we have had an agitation going on in the country known as The Civil Service Reform. It has no partisan significance; it seeks to lift all parties to a higher conception of public duty. Its ultimate object is to take away from the political parties the great bulk of appointments in the purely executive or business part of the Government. This desired change has been called the Merit System. Positions under it can be obtained only by those qualified to fill the offices. There is no consideration given to anything but special fitness. It is designed to secure the right of any well equipped citizen, man or woman, irrespective of party, wealth or influence, to serve the people in public office whether in town, state or nation. Civil Service Reform is not a cure for all our woes; it is a relief for the time being. Some day some one will come wise enough to tell us how to thoroughly purify our social life for all time.

Civil Service Reform is not a matter of politics alone; it concerns our moral life, our moral responsibilities. Through our club life, as we enter more and more into the work of the betterment of the world,—and take a more intelligent interest in philanthropic, industrial, educational and corrective measures, we face the spoils system everywhere. Our first step as women , as citizens, as part of the civil government, is to protest against the system which has packed our institutions and public departments with inefficient employees. What one among us but has known of some institution or asylum where the unfortunate classes have been in charge of the miserably unfit? Great public works have miscarried or been ruined as a result of poor construction; in the large cities the police corruption is proverbial; the public health has suffered and hordes of mercenaries have often been maintained in the place of trained public servants.

Laws may be passed from time to time, but a mightier force even than law itself must be brought to bear upon the question. Public sentiment is the power behind the throne in all democratic government. As a moral force put into vigorous action it is irresistible. The first step is to enlighten this public sentiment. The process is largely individual. When each man and each woman sees the truth and does what he or she can do to promote it, the ideals of this nation can be realized, but not until then. That we see the truth, and see it more clearly every day, is indisputable, but to see and not to act is criminal if not fatal. Women, lacking the direct power of the ballot, forget their possible share in the mighty engine of public opinion.

The most important factor in the forming of this public opinion is the training of the young. This is primarily woman's function. Good citizenship must be taught in the home and the common schools. No opportunity should be lost to impress upon the child his or her future share in the government. For a Democracy is not necessarily a perfect government; it is a continuous growth, a long slow education where each individual man or woman learns his or her personal responsibility for the well being of all. And let us not forget that one of the strongest arguments for Civil Service Reform is that it stimulates education. In a government founded upon the intelligence and integrity of every citizen the foundation stone must be education.

It may be that through this very reform we will learn that all have not equal opportunities to get an education. Let this not frighten or discourage us. Like the spraying of the ponds, we are doing our best for the time being. When we as a people become thoroughly convinced that ignorance is the cause of all our woes, have no fear but that there is hand, head and heart enough in this land of ours to wipe out the pest for all time.

But I have been talking a long time on the ethical side of Woman's Opportunity in Civil Service Reform to a very practical body of women. The truth is, sisters mine, I am convinced that if we get right ethically we can' t go far wrong practically, so I've left the practical part of my speech for the close, so that if you cut me off before the finish I shall have said my say and you may guess the statistics.

When women have had an opportunity in Civil Service what has been the result? The same as every where else. She has not failed. Says the Hon. John R. Proctor, United States Civil Service Commissioner: "Three distinct benefits have accrued to the women of the United States by reason of the introduction of the merit system.

First;—They may obtain employment in the government service without political influence.

Second;—they may continue in the public service without fear of dismissal by reason of changes occurring in the administration.

Third;—no restriction is placed upon women's rising to any position in the classified service which their education and adaptability will permit them to fill."

"And how does this law work?" I think I hear my practical sister ask. Thiswise: from July 16th, 1883, to June 30th, 1900, there were appointed to the classified service in the department of Washington, through competitive examination, two thousand and forty-four women. This number includes one thousand two hundred and sixty printers' assistants in the Bureau of Engraving and Printing at a compensation of a dollar and a quarter a day, which is the lowest salary paid in the classified service. About one-third of all the employees in the department of Washington are women. They are employed in ordinary clerical capacity although many technical positions are filled by them.

Three women employees receive $1800 a year; about fifty receive $1600 a year; one hundred receive $1400; four hundred and fifty receive $1200; three hundred receive $1000; and the remainder receive from $660 to $900 per year.

A fair comparison of the progress made by women in government employ since the enactment of the Civil Service Law of 1883, is shown in the State Department, office of the Secretary. In 1883 there were ten women employed and the highest salary received was $1400, there being but one who received that. In 1889, in the same office, there were seventeen, the highest salary being $1600 ; there were several employed at $1400, and others at $1200 a year.

Of the total number of women taking the competitive examinations during the past ten years, over seventy-seven per cent have successfully passed and there are fifty-seven kinds of examinations which are open alike to men and women. At the present time the proportion of women to men being appointed is about one-sixth in the departments at Washington.

Appointments of women winning their places through open competition will continue as the women continue to offer superior qualifications for doing public work. And with this last word I will leave you, fellow working women. Offer superior qualifications for doing public work. Glorious as woman's record has been, there is still a beyond; there are many departments to be opened up to us; there is still room for a greater liberality on the part of those who decide whether men or women shall have these positions. Remember, this government is not outside of us. It is we who are the government. What we want it to be it shall be. With this thought in mind let every one of the clubs represented here make a study of our own government. Let some clubs study Civil Service Reform Movement, others the meaning of Constitutional Government, still others learn what it means to be born into a Republic or a Democracy. Such studies would not be without the field of woman's club work; therefore, take it up, fellow working women, and encourage that intelligence which maintains it to be a duty for us to leave our country in a healthier state than that in which we found it. No citizen can do more nor should he do less than that. When we have done this much, be sure the next generation will pick up the work where we leave off and carry it still farther along toward that city of the future where man shall live with man as brother.

As transcribed in Anderson, J. (1984). Outspoken Women: Speeches by American Women Reformers. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.