Women In Politics
A Three-Part Article in Good Housekeeping (1940)
We are about to have a collective coming of age! The women in the United States have been participants in government for nearly twenty years. I think it behooves us to look back on this period in which we have been serving our apprenticeship and decide what our accomplishments have been, how much good our education has done us, and whether we really are able to consider ourselves full-fledged citizens.
Where did we start and how far have we come?
Twenty years ago, when we were granted the right of suffrage, some people thought that women were going to revolutionize the conduct of government. Yet all we were given was the right to vote. Men had had the vote on a fairly universal basis ever since the country was established—without achieving Utopia. Everyone knew that corruption still existed, and that the gentlemen did not always devote themselves to their civic duties in the unselfish and ardent manner that might be expected in a democracy. In 1919, however, this fact did not seem to prevent the belief that all desirable reforms would come about by the granting of suffrage to women. Alas and alas, the reforms just did not happen!
Perhaps it would be as well to mention also that some of the dire results prophesied if women were given the vote haven’t come about, either.
Let us see what women have actually done in public life thus far.
It is fair, I think, to speak first of some of the women who were leaders in the fight for suffrage because of their influence on the thought of the men and women of the period, even though they may not actually have held public office. By studying them, I think we can get a very good idea of the qualities women must bring to public life. Dr. Anna Howard Shaw is dead; but Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt is still alive, and I have had the privilege of knowing her for many years. Both seem to have certain qualities in common: a deep belief in the justice of a cause; the power to organize and inspire other women; the ability to speak fluently, and to be both humorous and dramatic. Add good physical health—not a quality, perhaps, but an essential—and you have a picture of these two suffrage leaders.
Certain other suffrage leaders I know only from hearsay. Inez Milholland, for instance, was probably very able, and she certainly used her personal attractions to drive home her point! There is no question about it, both charm and good looks are useful weapons, which ladies can always use to good advantage when they have them, no matter what offices they hold.
Available facts about women who have actually occupied political office during the past twenty years are incomplete, and it is extremely difficult to get accurate information. We can get figures for certain years and nothing for other years. Fortunately, the League of Women Voters will shortly publish its 1939 compilation on women in public office, which will supplement our information.
There are certain trends, however, that even incomplete figures seem to show. In the past ten years fewer women have been elected to Congress and to state legislatures. The peak was reached in 1929, when thirty-eight states could boast of one hundred and forty-nine women in state legislatures. In 1939 there were only twenty-eight states having women representatives, and the total was only one hundred and twenty-nine women.
However, the change is so very slight that I think we may consider it a temporary fluctuation, indicating nothing more than that women haven’t yet gained real confidence in themselves in that type of competition. Besides, as we shall see, the number of women in appointive positions is steadily increasing.
In the United States Senate, Gladys Pyle, Republican of South Dakota, was elected in November 1938 for an unexpired term, which ended January 3, 1939. And three other women Senators were appointed to finish out unexpired terms and then retired. Mrs. Hattie Caraway, Democrat of Arkansas, is the one woman who has really served as a United States Senator. She was first appointed to succeed her husband in 1931, and then elected in 1932 and reelected in 1938. She has, I think, gained confidence in her ability and is respected by men in political life. At first one heard that she was under this or that influence; that she was a rubber stamp; that she did little thinking for herself but of late one hears a great deal more about her being a useful member of the Senate and having a mind of her own. There is no doubt that she has grown and that her record can bear comparison with that of any of her colleagues. P
In the House of Representatives, we have had twenty-one women members. Jeannette Rankin served before the adoption of the federal suffrage amendment. Her state of Montana had passed a suffrage act of its own. She will always be remembered for her inability to vote for war. One of the dramatic incidents reported in the newspapers of the day was how she burst into tears and refused to cast her vote in favor of war. I was not present, but I have always had a certain sympathy with the gesture even though it was futile.
Of these twenty-one members, eleven have been Republicans and ten Democrats. In the short session of the 71st Congress, nine women’s names were carried on the rolls of the House of Representatives. This is the largest number carried at any one time. Since then the number has been steadily decreasing, till today there are only four women members of the House: Mary Norton of New Jersey, Caroline O’Day of New York, Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts, and Jessie Sumner of Illinois. Three of these women I know well; all are good, hard-working members and on a par with the men who have served with them.
I always think of Mary Norton as being primarily interested in welfare work, though she has grown far beyond those first interests. Caroline O’Day has fixed ideas on the subject of war, which nothing could change. Anyone who has seen her signature would know that she can wield the artist’s brush, so it is no surprise to find that she was for many years a painter and illustrator, working here and in Paris. Edith Nourse Rogers still has her interest in World War soldiers, and she still looks charming in her old Red Cross uniform.
I remember also Ruth Hanna McCormick Simms, who, as a member of the House of Representatives, did credit to a family that has often served the public. And Mrs. Florence Kahn of California was an able and witty member, who would be welcomed back by the House with open arms. The picture is much the same in state legislatures.
We have had only two women state governors, both Democrats— Mrs. Nellie Tayloe Ross of Wyoming and Mrs. Miriam A. Ferguson of Texas. I met Mrs. Ferguson once and then only for a few minutes; but it is generally conceded that her job was that of being her husband’s mouthpiece. This is pardonable in private life, but extremely unwise in public life, where every individual should stand on his or her own feet.
Mrs. Ross went into politics through the urging of her husband’s friends, notably the present Senator, Joseph O’Mahoney of Wyoming. As far as I know, she filled her office creditably, had good advisors, knew her own limitations, and was on the whole an average good governor, though not a great one. She was elected for one term only, and that does not permit a man or a woman to accomplish much.
We will find on the rolls of both the elective and appointive officials, according to the laws of their respective states, a number of women as secretaries of state, state treasurers, state auditors—which looks as though women are better mathematicians than they are credited with being!
In the appointive positions, the trend shows an upward curve in both state and federal governments. This would seem to prove me correct in my surmise that women are not yet prepared to go out and stand up under the average political campaign. In addition men rarely are inclined to give them nominations for elective positions if there is a chance to elect a man; so, frequently, a woman is beaten for an elective office before she starts to run.
In the old days men always said that politics was too rough-and-tumble a business for women; but that idea is gradually wearing away. There is more truth in the statement that men have a different attitude toward politics than women. They play politics a little more like a game. With the men, it becomes a serious occupation for a few weeks before election; whereas women look upon it as a serious matter year in and year out. It is associated with their patriotism and their duty to their country.
There are moments when I think that women’s fervor to work continuously does not make them very popular with the gentlemen!
Mrs. Mabel Walker Willebrandt won my admiration long before I actually met her, while she was making a name for herself in President Hoover’s administration. She helped to attain a model federal prison for women. This institution, headed by Dr. Mary Harris, does great credit to the vision of the women who fought so hard to obtain a new type of prison for women offenders. The head of the Department of Home Economics in the Department of Agriculture is Dr. Louise Stanley. She has been working there for a great many years, just as has Mary Anderson, the head of the Women’s Bureau in the Department of Labor. Both of them have built up able staffs and are considered to be very useful government employees.
Katharine Lenroot, for instance, now chief of the Children’s Bureau in the Department of Labor, followed Grace Abbott, with whom she had worked for many years. Both women have done a social-service job; but at the same time they have had to be good politicians, for their job could be carried on only if the men in Congress were convinced that it was being well done and that the people at home were receiving a service which they desired and in which they believed.
In 1933 about thirty-five women came into important positions in Washington, and in the last six or seven years there has been an increase in the number of women appointed to more important offices. Strange as it may seem, I think this is due to the work of a woman who never held any office, except that of Vice-Chairman of the Democratic National Committee in charge of the Women’s Division—Miss Molly Dewson.
Miss Dewson was interested in politics because of what she thought women could achieve through political organizations. She began her career in Boston, at the age of twenty-three, as a supervisor of the Girls’ Parole Department of Massachusetts. She made her contact with state legislatures while she worked for the Consumers’ League. She came into partisan political work during a national campaign. When that was over, she stayed on in the National Democratic Committee, and I think virtually all the men, from the President and Postmaster General Farley to most of the other heads of Departments, will concede that there has rarely been a woman more active in getting women into political positions! She was almost uncomfortably honest, at times somewhat brusque; but she had a sense of humor and a loyalty and devotion that made many people admire her and grieve when she was transferred from political work to the Social Security Board and when, finally, because of illness, she had to retire from active work.
Many women in Washington today hold positions because of ability and preparation that has little or no connection with political work. They have been distinguished along some special line, and frequently they came in long before the present administration. But those who came in during this administration owe a great deal to Molly Dewson, and women as a whole should be grateful for the fact that she never backed a woman whom she did not think capable of holding the job she was trying to get. The record of women in office during the past few years shows that her judgment was, on the whole, good.
We have, for instance, the first woman member of a President’s Cabinet—the Secretary of Labor, Miss Frances Perkins. Most of us find it difficult to recall the names of former Secretaries of Labor. I happen to remember one or two; but I find, when I ask my friends about them, that the only Secretary of Labor whom they know much about is Frances Perkins, the present encumbent. They do not always sing her praises; but they do know that she exists—first, because she had a career before she held her present office; next, because she has held an extremely difficult position in a most trying period and, on the whole, has acquitted herself well. She has never really learned to handle the press, so her newspaper contacts are bad. This is partly because she is suspicious of reporters, and those around her, trying to protect her, accentuate this suspicion. I cannot say that this attitude is never justified; but with her keen intuition and her wide experience and contact with human nature, she should be able to distinguish between the fine and trustworthy correspondents and those who cannot be trusted. Newspaper correspondents are no different from other human beings—they are good and bad. Years ago Louis Howe told me that no group of people has a higher standard of ethics, and I still believe that to be true.
This inability to deal with the press is, I think, Frances Perkins’ greatest weakness. I think she has been the best Secretary of Labor this country has had. Mrs. Nellie Tayloe Ross, whom I have already mentioned as a former Governor of Wyoming, was Vice-Chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 1928 and was appointed Director of the Mint in the Treasury Department in 1933. There is nothing spectacular about her job; but it requires steady work. I think she has always performed her duties conscientiously.
The first woman Assistant Secretary of the Treasury was appointed in 1934: Miss Josephine Roche of Colorado. She has long been interested in social questions, and she transformed her coal mines in Colorado, when she inherited them from her father, to meet the standards she felt should exist in that industry. She came to Washington a proved executive. She retired of her own volition, feeling that her business required her attention; but she has retained the position of Chairman of the Committee to study medical service in this country. This Committee is doing an excellent piece of work.
In one other important branch of the government, the diplomatic service, we have had our first woman minister to a foreign country—Ruth Bryan Rohde, who was appointed our Minister to Denmark in 1933. She identified herself to such an extent with the interests of the country to which she was accredited that she returned to us married to a Dane. She resigned in 1936. Mrs. J. Borden Harriman was appointed Minister to Norway in 1937. From all accounts she has taken a great interest in the conditions of the people there and has been able to give to our country a very much better understanding of the Norwegian people.
Two women held major judicial posts in 1930. Florence Allen, a judge on the Supreme Court Bench in Ohio, and Genevieve R. Cline, who had been appointed to the United States Customs Court in New York City, which is a life commission. In 1939 Florence Allen was appointed by President Roosevelt to the United States Circuit Court of Appeals, 5th District. Miss Cline remained on the bench in New York. Miss Garrick H. Buck was made judge of the 5th District of the Supreme Court in Hawaii.
In the Labor Department we find Miss Mary La Dame, special assistant to the Secretary of Labor. Everyone knows the name of Mrs. Lucille Foster McMillin, on the Civil Service Commission. She, like Mrs. Ellen Woodward, formerly head of the women’s and professional projects under the Works Progress Administration, and now on the Social Security Board, would impress you first as a very feminine woman with charm and social distinction; but both of them know how to be good executives and work hard. They may carry their sympathetic understanding of human problems with them in their working hours, but they also carry level heads and a keen intelligence, which makes them acceptable members of any men’s conference. Mrs. Florence Kerr, who is now in the Works Progress Administration, is proving herself to be a good executive, also.
Miss Katherine Blackburn is head of one of the most interesting bureaus in Washington, the Bureau of Press Intelligence, which will get for any member of the government information on any subject! To be sure, the Library of Congress will do this, too, but not quite in the up-to-date, last-minute manner that Katherine Blackburn has evolved.
Over in the Printing Office is a woman who won her knowledge in the printing rooms of a number of newspapers. Miss Jo Coffin comes from the ranks of labor, just as does Miss Rose Schneiderman, who was a valuable member of the Advisory Committee of the National Recovery Administration while it functioned, and who today is in the New York State Department of Labor as Secretary to the Commissioner. Both of them are interesting women, capable of firing the imagination of young people, resourceful, tactful, patient, and therefore valuable in their contacts with their superiors and their fellow workers.
Marian Bannister, the sister of Senator Carter Glass of Virginia, reminds me of the old French nobility. I am sure she could walk to the guillotine with absolute dignity and calm! She signs the President’s paycheck and all the mail that goes out of the office of the Treasurer.
Mrs. Jewell W. Swofford is chairman of the United States Employment Compensation Commission. And Laura S. Brown and Lucy Howorth are doing good work in the Veterans Administration, For the first time there is a woman, Marion J. Harron, on the Board of Tax Appeals.
In 1939 there were approximately fifty-five women in major positions throughout the federal government. The number of women in clerical, fiscal, and professional positions has grown to 162,518.
Many other women I have not mentioned are competently filling important positions; but my list is already too long. I do not wish to close, however, without mentioning three women. Mrs. Mary Harriman Rumsey, who headed the Consumers’ Division in the old NRA days, had a thankless job. She devoted herself to it nevertheless, and had she lived, would, I think, have helped in a field not as yet sufficiently developed in this country.
Two other women, while not actually holding public office, have done so much to affect the thinking of both men and women on political questions that I feel they should not be forgotten. One is Anne O’Hare McCormick, who was chosen last year as the woman of distinction for 1939. She has established a record in her interviews with important people who make world policies today; Her fairness, her ability to understand varying points of view and to report the essence of a conversation have won her distinction and a following among thinking people everywhere. Her analysis and presentation of world situations has helped clarify many difficult and universally interesting points.
The other woman is Dorothy Thompson, also a political writer of distinction, swayed perhaps by her own emotions, personal interests, and past experience, but still with such a gift of expression that she has a great following.
All these women are blazing trails for women in the future, and by the success or failure of their work they will either increase the possibility of women’s participation in government or make the public less anxious to place women in positions of responsibility.
To me it seems that those who have borne the brunt of the fight thus far are rather shining examples of what women can do in the political arena if they really work, and I think it will be interesting to watch not individual women, but the accomplishment of women as a whole in the field of public affairs.
Now that we have considered what has happened to women in the political arena since they were granted the right of suffrage, I think it is only fair to deal with that perennial question: “What have women accomplished for human betterment with the vote?”
Of course, I never felt that there was any particular reason why we should expect miracles to occur as a result of giving women the right to vote. It was denied them for so long that men acquired great interest in public questions and women felt these questions were not their responsibility. Therefore, women for many years have been accustomed to centering their interests in the home or in allied activities. They have left the administration of government almost exclusively in the hands of men.
Changing the habits of thought of any group of people, men or women, is not a rapid process, so I am not in the least surprised, at the end of twenty-one years of suffrage, that the answer to: “What have women accomplished by their vote?” is frequently a shrug of the shoulders.
Women have used this suffrage, as far as I can tell, approximately as much as men have. There is a great percentage of people, eligible to vote, who do not vote on election day, and there is no proof that they are predominately either men or women. And, strange though it may seem, women apparently make up their minds on public questions in much the same way that men do.
I think it is fairly obvious that women have voted on most questions as individuals and not as a group, in much the same way that men do, and that they are influenced by their environment and their experience and background, just as men are.
There are women, however, who, either because they have no confidence in themselves, or because of the age-old tradition that men are superior for some reason or other, will say: “Oh, Mrs. Roosevelt, it is all right for you to urge women to think independently and clearly on all these social questions, but I still like to take my guidance from the men and do as they tell me.” Well, perhaps there are some men who, for the sake of peace in the family, accept a woman’s point of view even on political questions.
You will find, I think, women divided in the same groupings that have divided men, and they approach any question before the electorate in much the same way. There are liberals and conservatives among the women as well as among the men. As far as I can judge, only one thing stands out—namely, that on the whole, during the last twenty years, government has been taking increasing cognizance of humanitarian questions, things that deal with the happiness of human beings, such as health, education, security. There is nothing, of course, to prove that this is entirely because of the women’s interest, and yet I think it is significant that this change has come about during the period when women have been exercising their franchise. It makes me surmise that women who do take an interest in public questions have thrust these interests to the fore, and obliged their fellow citizens to consider them. Whereas in the past these human problems have remained more or less in the background, today they are discussed by every governing body.
No revolution has come about because women have been given the vote, and it is perfectly true that many women are not thrilled by their opportunity to take part in political-party work. They probably do not like it so well as the men do, for we do not find them competing for places on party committees or for actual recognition in the political positions.
The women, however, are gradually increasing their activities. There are more women in civil-service positions and there are more women in rather inconspicuous, but important positions in city, state, and federal governments where technical knowledge is required.
When I went to Washington, I was so much impressed by the work they were doing that I started to have parties for women executives in various departments, and I discovered an astonishing number of women doing very important work, but getting comparatively little recognition because government is still a man’s world.
As a result of all this, however, I find the influence of women emerging into a more important sphere. There was a time when no one asked: “What will the women think about this?” Now that question comes up often. It is true that we had more women in elective positions a few years ago; but I think the change is so slight that it is just a temporary fluctuation, and due to the fact that women haven’t yet gained real confidence in themselves in that type of competition. Women are quite willing to compete in an examination that tests their knowledge even though there is still a prejudice against appointing them to certain positions because of their sex. To come out and fight a political campaign, however, is still difficult for most women. That is one reason why a woman who does hold an office, either elective or appointive, so often obtains it at her husband’s death or as a result of his interests. She is continuing work she might never have taken up on her own initiative.
We have had, of course, a few failures among women who have taken office either because men have urged them to do so, or because they have followed in their husbands’ footsteps. When a woman fails, it is much more serious than when a man fails, because the average person attributes the failure not to the individual, but to the fact that she is a woman.
Let us acknowledge that there has been no really great change in government and that there is no sign that when moral questions come up, women rise in a body to bring about certain reforms.
Their achievements certainly do not justify their having the suffrage; but then there are people who question whether men’s achievements justify their having the suffrage. I think Mr. Hitler and Mr. Mussolini quite openly question this and are perhaps rather successfully curtailing the independence of both men and women, for the good of the human race and the state, so they say! We do not agree with that point of view; but the dictators have persuaded a good many people to accept it. I think we in this country feel that suffrage is not a question of achievement, but merely a right granted to individuals, and women, because they are individuals, have this right in exactly the same measure as men.
Let us acknowledge, too, the fact that women frequently try to stay out of fights which have to be made to get rid of corruption in politics. As far as I know, it was very largely a group of young men, perhaps assisted by a few women, who cleaned up the Kansas City, Missouri, situation and finally proved that the political-boss system under Mr. Pendergast—or anybody else, for that matter—rarely brought about an honestly run government. The same thing might be said about the Hines case in New York City. These political bosses, who used their political power for personal gain, were the result of a system. Probably Mr. Pendergast and Mr. Hines are kind and good in many ways according to their own lights. They happened to fall on times which were evil for them because the public conscience has changed as to what is right and wrong in positions of public responsibility. These men may feel that they were unjustly singled out, for many other men have done much the same things they have done, but the conscience of the public was not yet aroused against them. I fear, however, that we cannot claim that women have any greater part in this change than have men.
Looking for concrete achievements, I feel we can really credit to the women only one over this period of years, and that is the one already mentioned—the government’s attitude of concern for the welfare of human beings. On the whole, more interest is now taken in social questions. The government is concerned about housing, about the care of citizens who temporarily are unable to take care of themselves, about the care of handicapped children, whether handicapped by poor homes or by straitened circumstances. This is a general change, which I attribute to the fact that men had to appeal for the vote of the women and have therefore taken a greater interest in subjects they feel may draw women to their support.
There are, of course, many men who have been conscious of the need for some changes; but a big majority of them have of late been moved to action in certain situations to which they had given little thought in the past. Women have become better educated, and women have taken more active part in helping to educate men connected with government to think in terms of human betterment. Therefore, I should say that, while one could claim no particular accomplishment, there has been a tremendous change in the outlook of government, which can be attributed to the fact that women have the ballot.
When people ask: “Have women in politics advanced temperance or other moral reforms?” I always point out that they have been as divided on moral questions as on political questions. They did not have the vote when the prohibition amendment was originally passed. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union group undoubtedly worked for the passage of this amendment and against its repeal; but other groups of women were undoubtedly a factor in its ultimate repeal. Many of the best workers in the women’s organizations for repeal worked because they felt a moral obligation to something greater than prohibition. They sensed the fact that we were developing a group of lawbreakers in this country, and, sad to say, many of the leaders of public thought were offenders in this respect. These leaders said that breaking a law was justified if you felt that a law did not represent the will of the majority. I always felt that anyone had a right to work to have the law changed, but that we should live up to it as long as it remained on the statute books. However, I think that my stand was distinctly a minority stand, and as far as women are concerned, they were divided on this as on many other moral questions.
What the future holds, none of us knows; but in this country we now hold that women have the same rights as men have. They do not have to justify their achievements as a group. I think we might legitimately ask whether as a democracy we have gone forward in the past twenty-one years, and take it for granted that if we have, it means that the majority of the women, as well as the majority of the men, have justified their right to suffrage.
Where are we going as women? Do we know where we are going? Do we know where we want to go?
I have a suggestion to make that will probably seem to you entirely paradoxical. Yet at the present juncture of civilization, it seems to me the only way for women to grow.
Women must become more conscious of themselves as women and of their ability to function as a group. At the same time they must try to wipe from men’s consciousness the need to consider them as a group or as women in their everyday activities, especially as workers in industry or the professions.
Let us consider first what women can do united in a cause.
It is perfectly obvious that women are not all alike. They do not think alike, nor do the feel alike on many subjects. Therefore, you can no more unite all women on a great variety of subjects than you can unite all men.
If I am right that, as I stated above, women have caused a basic change in the attitude of government toward human beings, then there are certain fundamental things that mean more to the great majority of women than to the great majority of men. These things are undoubtedly tied up with women s biological functions. The women bear the children, and love them even before they come into the world. Some of you will say that the maternal instinct is not universal in women, and that now and then you will find a man whose paternal instinct is very strong—even stronger than his wife’s maternal instinct. These are the exceptions which prove the rule, however. The pride most men feel in the little new bundle of humanity must grow gradually into love and devotion. I will not deny that this love develops fast with everything a man does for the new small and helpless human being which belongs to him; but a man can nearly always be more objective about his children than a woman can be.
This ability to be objective about children is one thing women have to fight to acquire; never, no matter what a child may do or how old he may be, is a woman quite divorced from the baby who once lay so helpless in her arms. This is the first fundamental truth for us to recognize, and we find it in greater or less degree in women who have never had a child. From it springs that concern about the home, the shelter for the children. And here is the great point of unity for the majority of women.
It is easy to make women realize that a force which threatens any home may threaten theirs. For that reason, I think that, as women realize what their political power might mean if they were united, they may decide now and then to unite on something which to them seems fundamental. It is quite possible, in the present state of world turmoil, that we may find women rising up to save civilization if they realize how great the menace is. I grant you that things will have to be pretty bad before they will do it, for most women are accustomed to managing men only in the minor details of life and to accepting the traditional yoke where the big things are concerned.
I have heard people say that the United States is a matriarchy—that the women rule. This is true only in nonessentials. Yes, the husbands spoil their wives; they let them travel and spend more money than foreign women do, but that is because money has come to us more easily in the past and therefore we have spent it more easily. The Frenchwoman who is her husband’s business partner has more real hold on him than the American woman who travels abroad alone has on her husband. She buys all the clothes she wants without knowing whether her husband will be able to pay the bills, because she is completely shut out of the part of his life that holds most of his ambition and consumes the greater part of his time.
This country is no matriarchy, nor are we in any danger of being governed by women. I repeat here what I have so often said in answer to the question: “Can a women be President of the United States?” At present the answer is emphatically “No.” It will be a long time before a woman will have any chance of nomination or election. As things stand today, even if an emotional wave swept a woman into this office, her election would be valueless, as she could never hold her following long enough to put over her program. It is hard enough for a man to do that, with all the traditional schooling men have had; for a woman, it would be impossible because of the age-old prejudice. In government, in business, and in the professions there may be a day when women will be looked upon as persons. We are, however, far from that day as yet.
But, as I said before, if we women ever feel that something serious is threatening our homes and our children’s lives, then we may awaken to the political and economic power that is ours. Not to work to elect a woman but to work for a cause.
There may be a women’s crusade against war, which will spread to other countries. I have a feeling that the women of the United States may lead this crusade, because the events of the last few months have left us the one great nation at peace in the world. Some of our South American neighbors have as much potential greatness as we have, but are not yet so far developed. We women may find ourselves in the forefront of a very great struggle some day. I think it will take the form of a determination to put an end to war for all time.
It is obvious that American women cannot do this alone; but throughout the world this might prove a unifying interest for women. When they get to the point of feeling that men’s domination is ruining their homes, then they will use whatever weapons lie at hand.
I think we in this country should be prepared for something of this kind. That is why I said that we must become more conscious of ourselves as women and of the force we might wield if we were ever to have a women s cause. We must be careful, however, not to try to wield this force for unimportant things. If we do, it will split up, for we are as individualistic as men in everyday affairs.
The consideration of future possibilities for peace seem to me of paramount importance; but other things of worth enter into our present considerations. Great changes in our civilization have to be considered, and the women are going to weigh the effect of these changes on the home. I believe women can be educated to think about all homes and not so much about their own individual homes. If certain changes have to be made in industry, in our economic life, and in our relationship to one another, the women will probably be more ready to make them if they can see that the changes have a bearing on home life as a whole. That is the only thing that will ever make women come together as a political force.
Women should be able to weigh from this point of view all questions that arise in their local communities. They should vote with that in mind. But when it comes to standing for office or accepting administrative positions, they should realize that their particular interests are not the only ones that will come up, and that, while they may keep their personal interests, they must prove that as persons they can qualify in understanding and in evaluating the interests of the men, too.
Now let us consider women in the other phases of activity where they wish to be persons and wipe out the sex consideration.
Opposition to women who work is usually based on the theory that men have to support families. This, of course, is only saying something that sounds well, for we know that almost all working women are supporting someone besides themselves. And women themselves are partly to blame for the fact that equal pay for equal work has not become an actuality. They have accepted lower pay very often and taken advantage of it occasionally, too, as an excuse for not doing their share of their particular job.
If women want equal consideration, they must prepare themselves to adjust to other people and make no appeals on the ground of sex. Whether women take part in the business or in the political world, this is equally true.
A woman who cannot engage in an occupation and hold it because of her own ability had much better get out of that particular occupation, and do something else, where her ability will count. Otherwise, she is hanging on by her eyebrows, trying to exploit one person after another, and in the end she is going to be unsuccessful and drag down with her other women who are trying to do honest work.
In the business and professional world women have made great advances. In many fields there is opportunity for them to work with men on an equal footing. To be sure, sometimes prejudice on the score of sex will be unfair and a woman will have to prove her ability and do better work than a man to gain the same recognition. If you will look at the picture of Mrs. Bloomer, made a hundred years ago, and think of the women today in factories, offices, executive positions, and professions, that picture alone will symbolize for you the distance women have traveled in less than a century.
In the political field they haven’t gone so far. This field has long been exclusively the prerogative of men; but women are on the march. I do not think that it would be possible or desirable to form them into a separate women’s political unit. Too many questions arise in government which are not fundamentals that stir women as women. Women will belong to political parties; they will work in them and leave them in much the way that men have done. It will take some great cause that touches their particular interests to unite them as women politically, and they will not remain united once their cause is either won or lost.
I do not look, therefore, for a sudden awakening on their part to a desire for greater participation in the government of the nation, unless circumstances arise that arouse all the citizens of our democracy to a feeling of their individual responsibility for the preservation of this form of government. Otherwise, I think it will be a gradual growth, an evolution.
There is a tendency for women not to support other women when they are either elected or appointed to office. There is no reason, of course, why we should expect any woman to have the support of all women just because of her sex; but neither should women be prejudiced against women as such. We must learn to judge other women’s work just as we would judge men’s work, to evaluate it and to be sure that we understand and know the facts before we pass judgment.
Considering women as persons must begin with women themselves. They must guard against the temptation to be jealous. That little disparaging phrase one sometimes hears, which suggests that a woman has failed because she is a woman! A woman may fail; but women must begin to impress it upon everyone that a woman’s failure to do a job cannot be attributed to her sex, but is due to certain incapacities that might as easily be found in a man.
A good example of the way women tend to follow and play up to a man’s opinion came out in a conversation I once overheard. In a hotel corridor a man was loudly proclaiming: “No woman should be Secretary of Labor; she isn’t strong enough. These labor guys need someone to knock their heads together.” The little woman next to him murmured gentle acquiescence and added, “Miss Perkins has never seemed to me to be a very womanly woman.” Of course, she did not know Miss Perkins, and, of course, she was only saying what she thought would please her man; but it was a perfect example of our inability as women to think objectively of other women in business or politics. Her comment had nothing whatsoever to do with the gentleman’s assertion that a strong man was needed as Secretary of Labor; but the little woman could think of nothing more disparaging to say at the moment, and she knew it would be an entirely acceptable remark!
There is one place, however, where sex must be a cleavage in daily activity. Women run their homes as women. They live their social lives as women and they have a right to call upon man’s chivalry and to use their wiles to make men do the things that make life’s contacts pleasanter in these two spheres. Sex is a weapon and one that women have a right to use, because this is a part of life in which men and women live as men and women and complement, but do not compete with each other. They are both needed in the world of business and politics to bring their different points of view and different methods of doing things to the service of civilization as individuals, with no consideration of sex involved; but in the home and in social life they must emphasize the difference between the sexes because it adds to the flavor of life together.
Some people feel that the entry of women into industry has brought about the fact that there are not enough jobs. But we don’t need to eliminate workers, we need to create jobs. We certainly haven’t reached a point of satiety when all around us we can see that work needs to be done. Let us, therefore, as women unite for great fundamental causes; but let us insist on doing the work of the world as individuals when we wish to be modern versions of Mrs. Bloomer, and let us function only as women in our homes. We need not feel humiliated if we elect to do only this, for this was our first field of activity, and it will always remain our most important one.
We must be careful, however, to remain in the home not as parasites, but because our abilities lie along the lines of domestic life. Remember that a home requires all the tact and all the executive ability required in any business. The farmer’s wife, for instance, must get into her day more work than does the average businessman. Many a woman runs the family home on a slender pay envelope by planning her budget and doing her buying along lines that would make many a failing business succeed.
It will always take all kinds of women to make up a world, and only now and then will they unite their interests. When they do, I think it is safe to say that something historically important will happen.
Roosevelt, E. (1940). Women in politics. Good Housekeeping, 110 (January 1940): 8-9, 150; (March 1940): 45, 68; (April 1940):201-203.
Republished from New Deal Network.