Political Parties and Women Voters
February 14, 1920 — Congress of the League of Women Voters, Chicago IL
I am going to ask you indulgence while I make a few remarks on the subject of the League of Women Voters.
Bismarck one time said that it was “impossible” to overestimate the stupidity of the human race.” Now, it I true that we are all stupid; we are so stupid on the one hand that we can’t express an idea so that other people will get the same understanding we have, and on the other, we are so stupid that we can’t take in other people’s ideas as they understand them. The result is that there is always confusion about every idea which makes its appearance. The League of women Voters is no exception to this worldwide rule. What I am going to say is not necessarily your interpretation of what the League of Women Voters is, or ought to do, because it is only my own personal view. We have certain opposition to the League of women Voters and that opposition is pretty largely political. The people who are interested in enrolling large numbers in political parties have expressed here and there rather cutting criticisms of the League of Women Voters. They have represented it according to their own viewpoint, which is a different view from what which we hold. These critics seem to think it is going to keep women out of the political parties. Fellow suffragists, we have come to a turn of the road. From about sixty years we have been appealing to political parties to give us the vote, for there was no possible way of every getting that vote until the political parties were willing that we should have it. I don’t think we have ever won the vote in a single state, even by a state referendum, where one or both of the political parties have not tacitly given their consent that it should go through. Certainly ratification would not have been possible without their aid.
Well then, is it our intention to continue on the outside of those political parties where we have been for sixty years and to go on appealing for their favor as we have always been doing? Are we going to petition them as we have always done? Well, if so, what was the use of getting the vote?
It certainly was never any idea of the proposed League of Women Voters that we should remain out of the parties and appeal to them for the things that we wanted to do. The only way to get things in this country is to find them on the inside of the political party. More and more the political parties become the power through which tings are accomplished. One cannot get congressional action or legislative action unless the political parties represented there are willing, so powerful are they.
It is not a question of whether they ought to be powerful or ought not to be powerful; they are. It is the trend of the present political development and instead of appealing to them for the things you want, it is better to get on the inside and help yourself to the things you want.
Recently we have been forced to an observation in the western states that we never had before. It was an amazing thing to us that the western governors did not call their special sessions immediately after the passing of the Federal Amendment. Those governors were all suffragists, their states were all for suffrage, but they assumed a peculiar and inexplicable “States Rightsy” attitude. They said, “Why, everybody knows how we stand. What is the use of our ratifying? Let’s wait and see if the suffragists can get enough other states and then we will make up the last twelve.”
And they couldn’t see it any other way, because there were always the little local questions that looked so much bitter than the national question. To my mind, that is not important. What was important was that here were no women that could bring about those special sessions until a good deal of time had elapsed. That made us ask the reason why, and we found that although the women had been voting for many years in some of those states, and they had enrolled in political parties, their positions were pretty largely those of a mere “ladies auxiliary.”
The old suffrage association had gone to pieces. There was no common body which would stand for a special session and bring political influence to bear. There were organizations. Thee was a federation of clubs which helped tremendously in several states, but it isn’t an organization that is designed for that kind of campaign and it doesn’t have the machinery with which to work politically. There was no non-partisan organization. The Republication women within a Republican state or the Democratic women within a Democratic state did not have the means or the machinery with which to call themselves together and say to the governor of their own party, “You ought to call this special session for us.”
To the parties they were an auxiliary; they had no place and little influence on the inside. That may happen in the future and especially if the women do not go into the political parties with the intention of being something more than a me-too inside those parties.
As I read the signs of the present political progress of women within the parties, you are going to have a continuation of the old familiar strife and it is just this: women must persuade men to respect and to have confidence in the capacities of women just as we have been doing for sixty odd years; and on the other hand, they must stimulate other women to forward movement and encourage them to increased self-respect. This is the same old struggle but in a new field. Because women have the vote, it doesn’t follow that every man who is an election district ward or a county chairman has suddenly become convinced that women can do things as well as men. Many must be converted to that conclusion and converted to the actual political work of women.
Men will say that it is right for women to vote, but when it comes to administrative work within the party, that is still the exclusive man’s business. The mass of women will be hesitant and timid and doubtful of themselves; they will be content to stand back and not use the power and the brains and the conscience that they have. They will be inclined to think that everything they find ready made to their hands is all right, no matter how wrong it may be. Women must not be content until they are as independent within the party as men are, which isn’t saying much.
That struggle cannot be carried on from the outside. Success can only be found on the inside. For thirty years and a little more, I have worked with you in the first lap of this struggle toward woman’s emancipation. I cannot lead or follow in the next lap. I do not wish to advise where I cannot follow. Younger and fresher women must do that work, and because I cannot advise and cannot follow, I only point to the fact that the battle is there, and that I hope you are not going to be such quitters as to stay on the outside and let all the reactionaries have their way on the inside.
Within every party and indeed within every state group and probably in every family there is a constant struggle between progressive and reactionary influences. It registers itself fin the platform and the conduct of the party. The candidates usually represent a compromise between these two extremes. Sometimes the progressives get the best of it; sometimes the reactionaries do.
Now, when you go into those parties, you will find progressive elements there an you should make your connections with them (provided you are a progressive), and you will not find it altogether easy sailing. You will be disillusioned. You will discover that having the vote isn’t bringing the millennium in one election.
Probably when you enter the party of your choice you will find yourself in a sort of political penumbra where most of the men are. These men will be glad to see you and you will be flattered by their warm welcome and will think how nice it is to be free at last. Perhaps if you stay there long enough, going to dinners and going to the big political meetings, where evidence will be offered eloquently to prove that all virtue and wisdom is strictly confined to that party, you will think how charming it is to be a partisan; but if you stay still longer and move around enough, keeping your eyes wide open, you will discover a little denser group, which we might call the numbers of the political party. You won’t be so welcome there.
Those are the people who are planning the platforms and picking out the candidates, and doing the work which you and the men voters are expected to sanction at the polls. You won’t be welcome there, but that is the place to be. And if you stay there long enough and are active enough, you will see something else — the real thing in the center, with the door locked tight, and you will have a hard, long fight before you get behind that door, for there is the engine that moves the wheels of your party machinery. Nevertheless, it will be an interesting and thrilling struggle and well worth while. If you really want women’s vote to count, make your way there.
There is one thing I want to warn you about. It is the only thing I fear about the League of Women Voters. You must go into those parties. They are going to carry your legislation into law and you must be a part of those parties. You must move right up to the center of things and get your influence there, but there is one terrible, terrible enemy across your track lying in wait for all the weak ones. I don’t know what else to call it but an incubus. It is a nice word. (I don’t know what it means.) It is what we ordinarily call partisanship.
There are two kinds of partisanship. One is the kind that reasons out that a certain platform has more things in it that you indorse than any other and that his party ahs more possibilities of putting those things into practice than any other. Therefore, you say, “I will enroll with that party.” That is one kind. “That is the kind of partisanship that has led the world onward ever since there were political parties.
But there is another kind ant that is the kind to b afraid of, a kind of partisanship which makes you a Republican or a Democrat because you were brought up in those parties and your grandfather and your father were in them. You don’t know the antecedents of your party, but you know they were right. You don’t know what is your platform or what your party stands for, but you are for it.
Partisanship is a brand-new emotion to some of our women and and they are working it pretty hard and I find within our own body that women who have worked side by side, who never knew what the political affiliations of each other were, now are beginning to look a little askance at each other as if they other had some kind of contagious epidemic that they never suspected before.
In the League of Women Voters we have this anomaly: We are going to be a semi-political organization. We want to do political things. We want legislation. We are going to educate for citizenship. In that body we must be no-partisan and all partisan. Democrats from Alabama and Republicans from New Hampshire must be friends and work together for the same things and without doubt of each other’s sincerity.
Yet these Republicans of New Hampshire must get inside the Republican party in New Hampshire and the Democrats of Alabama, in spite of some recent events, must get inside of the Democratic party.
They must convert their respective parties to have confidence in women, confidence in our platform and confidence in the League of Women Voters, but I must further warn you that only about one man in twenty-five will be big enough to understand hat you, a Republican, can work with you, a Democrat, in a non-partisan organization and be loyal to your respective parties at the same time. Men haven’t’ done it; therefore women cannot! But what ought to be done, can be done, and you must do it. They are going to criticize you. They are going to discourage you, and if you are timid, you may give way and begin to be suspicious of yourself and then of others and thus lose the chance to be of value to your generation. I want to tell you that the suffragists of this country, in the last half century, more than any other group of people in this land, have kept the flag flying which stood for the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. They have held them constantly before the people of this country. Let us not stop now, just
When our nation needs more than ever before a re-baptism I American ideals.
Thought it won’t be in our constitution nor in our by-laws — nevertheless, I hope that the League of women Voters will so do its work that it will teach this nation that there is something higher than the kind of partisanship that “stands pat’ no matter what happens.
Be a partisan, but be an honest and an independent one. Important and compelling as is the power of the party, the power of principle is even greater. Those who have struggled in a sixty years’ old battle for political freedom should not voluntarily surrender to political slavery — and one kind of partisanship is little more than that. It is possible even though unusual, to be a partisan and an independent.
More, there may be another danger. You know we suffragists have had a very ingrowing time these last five our six years. The controversy was virtually over long ago. There was a thrill in our campaign when we could go out and challenge the real doubts of the people. But of late our opponents have been been calling us names. That environment may have made us too timid and too conservative. If we are going to trail behind the Democratic and Republican parties about five years, and our program is going to be about that much behind that of the dominant political parties, we might as well quite before we begin.
If the League of women Voters hasn’t the vision to see what is coming and what ought to come, and be five years ahead of the political parties, I doubt if it is worth the trouble to go on.
Traveling in the rear of the procession is too dusty and germ laden for the comfort of the self-respecting; raveling in the midst of the procession is too crowded. The place where the spaces are broad and the air clear and bracing is ahead of the procession, in the lead. Let us travel there.
To sail between the Scylla of narrow-minded partisanship on the let and the Charybdis of ultraconservatism on the right, in the appointed task of the League of women Voters; through that narrow and uncomfortable passage it must said to wreck upon the rocks or go glorious victory.
I have confidence that the conscientious purpose and the high noble outlook of this body will furnish an unconquerable morale, and that its new and splendid Board of Directors will prove clear-eyed pilots who will guide us all to the glorious promise which our hopes and aims inspire. Yet let no one of us lose sight of the fact that power to build a higher welfare for all lies within the parties and not without.
Whether our Nation attains that welfare depends upon the conduct of the voters who compose the parties. Independent, intelligent, lofty principled voters make great parties and great parties make great nations.
Source: Modern Eloquence, A Library of the World’s Best Spoken Thoughts, Vol. VIII, ed. Ashley H. Thorndike, (New York: P.F. Collier and Sons Corp.) 1925, pp. 70-77.