April 1923 — Presidential Address, Fourth Annual Convention, League of Women Voters, Des Moines IO
“The most powerful factors in the world today are clear ideas in the minds of energetic men and women of good will.”
The Convention as a Mirror
I believe the chief use of the president’s address is to hold up a mirror in which the larger aspects of the work are sharply outlined. What have we been doing this past year? How far have we gone toward carrying out our purpose to aid women in making intelligent and helpful use of their votes? What do we need to do more or differently? These are the questions that the Convention must answer.
Essentials of Useful Citizenship
As a standard of measurement, I propose to take the words on the cover of your programs, “The most powerful factors in the world today are clear ideas in the minds of energetic men and women of good will.” This quotation is really a summary of the essentials of useful citizenship, which are good will, clear ideas, and energy; and it is quite worth our while with these ends in view to take reckoning once more of ourselves and our activities as an organization.
To begin with, I believe that we may take the element of good will for granted. Otherwise it would be hard to explain why the organization has members at all, since the only inducement it offers is the opportunity for hard work, not for personal ends, but for public service. In respect to good will I doubt that we differ much from the great majority of our fellow citizens. Men and women everywhere and in great numbers mean well. The trouble is that most of us never get beyond that point in our relation to government, or to any other set of duties that life thrusts upon us. Good will is an excellent starting point but no more.
What we chiefly need to concern ourselves with is, first, the clearness of our ideas and, second, the energy with which we carry them out.
Three Definite Ideas
I think that if we analyze our work we shall find it grouped around three perfectly definite ideas. The first, briefly stated, is this: if government by the people is to mean efficient government, the average citizen must be interested enough to vote at all elections in accordance with the best information that he or she can get. The second recognizes that women, in addition to their general duties as voters, have special responsibilities in regard to public provision for the welfare of children and the home and for adequate protection for women in industry, together with fair opportunity for all women under the law. The third affirms that since peace is essential to the orderly progress of civilization, the establishment of some international means of preventing war is a fundamental concern of the United States and all other nations.
When I wrote that sentence, not so long ago, I thought that was a very moderate statement. Within the last few days I have come to believe that it is almost a revolutionary remark, because of the curious propaganda that has been going across this country form one end to the other, tending to confuse the mind and seeming to prove, in its extraordinary manifestations, that anybody who believes in sane and reasonable methods of preventing war is trying to leave our country defenseless against force, and thus to undermine the Republic.
We want no revolutionary government. We have no desire to proceed along the path of progress by any except evolutionary methods, but we do claim the right that every American citizen has — we should claim it for ourselves and for other organizations— we claim the right to spread our opinions under the American guarantee of free speech.
We do not expect to be called traitors when we say that we believe if civilization has any sense at all, it will use its best resources against another breakdown of civilization such as the World War was.
All the other ideas in the League’s plans and programs are but corollaries of the three just mentioned, or expansions of them. Take, for example, the thousands of citizenship schools which the League has arranged, some of them in great universities, others at crossroads — the courses of study in the principles and practices of government, national, state or city, the institutes on efficiency in government arranged for the discussion of admitted defects in governmental machinery and proposed remedies, the digests of state election laws, the handbooks and manuals of state and city affairs, the questionnaires to candidates for public office which the state and local Leagues have sent out, the all partisan pre-election meetings which they have carried on, together with the efforts made to give practical details about time and place and qualifications for registration and voting and the proper legal marking and folding of a ballot — all these are but details to meet the requirements of that idea of ours about the primary duties of citizenship.
Our belief in regard to the special responsibility of women is illustrated in every one of the programs of our standing committees which were established as far back as the St. Louis convention before the League was an independent body. The idea is illustrated, too, in the bulk of our legislative work in state and nation, and in all the efforts that our members make to have a reasonable number of properly qualified women in party and public positions of trust.
In a similar way the efforts of the League to strengthen and make articulate public opinion in support of the Conference for the Reduction of Armaments, our study courses, the Pan-American Conference of Women at Baltimore, the round table discussions and the public meetings which the League has arranged in order to bring about a general understanding of international problems and through that better understanding to help in developing effective means of international cooperation to prevent war — these are all corollaries of our idea about the importance of international friendliness.
No one should suppose that we think our fundamental ideas are in any way novel or the exclusive possession of the League. The only novelty is that the League tries to carry them out. That is the reason why I consider energy the most important of the three essentials named in our convention motto and why I want to speak in detail of ways in which we may further develop that energy in well doing, directed by common sense which is one of the rarest and most valuable qualifications of human beings.
Special Work at Special Times
If energy is to be wisely used it must be directed to special work at special times. During the coming year, for example, the work should be planned with reference to the facts that legislatures will be meeting in only a few states, that the Congress will not convene until December unless an extraordinary session is called, that the presidential election is ahead, and that many local elections are to be held. For these reason it is a year in which local affairs should be particularly stressed.
I therefore urge that special attention be given to intelligent preparation for local elections and that study should be made of the local enforcement of laws for which the League has worked. These include six federal measures and many state laws. Together they make an impressive number of legislative achievements, but if they prove to be like many other laws, forgotten almost as soon as they are entered in the statute books, the list might better be called a list of failures. Unless the League is willing to make sure that the laws which it has mothered are carried out, we shall have done harm rather than good in our legislative work because every neglected statute is one more contribution to a widespread menace in the United States today — the lawlessness of individuals and of mobs. Whether this lawlessness be the result of self indulgence on the part of average citizens, or of inefficiency or venality on the part of officials, whether it be flippant or deliberately ferocious, it means the breakdown of orderly government. That any citizen of the United States should tolerate in this day the rule of masked mobs, much less join in their iniquitous proceedings, seems incredible. Yet the facts show that considerable numbers of citizens in various parts of the country are upholding this grim menace. If, therefore, the most terrifying manifestations of American tendency to lawlessness are to be stopped, we shall need to foster much more responsibility for law as law than we now have. Efficient citizenship demands the average citizen’s obedience of the law whether he likes it or not, and I might add that the obligation to obey is not lessened even in the case of laws which he is doing his best to have repealed.
There is no better way in which the League of Women Voters can help to establish respect for law than by taking thought of the way ill which laws that the League has worked for are being carried out. I therefore hope most earnestly that the program of every state League will emphasize this duty and I suggest that three measures be chosen for special watchfulness in this community: first, the local administration of the Sheppard-Towner Act; second, a state law, educational, industrial, or sanitary, which the state league has sponsored; and, third, a city or town ordinance of importance to the well being of the community.
The advantages of such a plan will be two-fold. It will establish the connection between legislation and law enforcement and it will turn the attention of the League members to local conditions, in regard to which I believe that women have special aptitude for effective service. Furthermore, it will unify our activities throughout the county and thus give the added strength that comes from combined effort.
International Cooperation to Prevent War
The coming year is also one in which important decisions in regard to our relations with other countries are likely to be made. The close of the 67thCongress left without action the proposal for the entrance of the United States into the Permanent Court of International Justice, and also resolutions for an economic conference, and for the complete outlawry of war. The kind of international cooperation needed to prevent war is a fundamental concern of the United States and all other countries, and the members of the League of Women Voters should take great pains to inform themselves upon these important issues in order intelligently to support the methods that seem wisest. I shall not go into the plans that are proposed for this purpose. They have special emphasis in the program of the Convention, but I cannot express to earnestly my own conviction that the coming year is the time for extraordinary effort toward the establishment of abiding peace.
Another proposal, which will come up in the next Congress, is the constitutional amendment to permit the Congress to make laws in regard to child labor. This subject also is a timely one for present study as a basis for future action.
Campaign for Efficient Citizenship
For our further work, a work which will require all the energy we can muster, all the clear ideas we can bring to bear upon it and all the good will we can feel and foster, I urge a campaign for efficient citizenship in its primary phase, the performance of the duty of voting in all elections in accordance with the best information which an be obtained . . .
Suppose that we were to seek the irreducible minimum of the successful working out of democracy. It would certainly be the requirement that at least a majority of persons eligible should care enough about the government to vote when they have an opportunity. Judged by that standard the United States today is still unsuccessful as a government by the people, for in the last presidential election less than one-half the citizens of voting age took the trouble to vote.
That fact alone is a serious one, but when it is remembered that the presidential election brings out a considerably larger percentage of the potential vote than state or local elections, the situation is notably worse . . .
If we are to be really a democracy, it is high time that we were about it, and the League of Women Voters can do no more important piece of work between now and the next election than to set a goal of reasonable increase in the percentage of votes cast, make a definite and carefully thought-out plan for attaining that goal, and enlist the help of public-spirited men and women from one end of the United States to the other in carryout the plan.
Suppose we set 75 per cent of the vote that could have been cast in 1920 as our goal in the presidential election of 1924. That means a gain of about 25 per cent. What must we do to reach that goal?
First of all, we must begin in time. That is why I am bringing up the subject a year and a half in advance of the election. If plan were left until the League’s next convention, there would be no chance to get them under way in many states before the presidential primaries, and in states in which early payment of the poll tax is a prerequisite for voting, all efforts to increase the vote would be futile.
Second, we must make it plain that our campaign is not in the interest of any person or party, but is a straightforward effort to have all opinions counted.
Third, we must be ready with accurate figures, precinct by precinct, election district by election district, to show what the vote was in 1920 and what it should be in 1924 if at least 25 per cent is to be gained.
Fourth, we must enlist the help of the press, the churches, and as many other groups of publicly-spirited citizens as possible.
Fifth, we must urge them as well as ourselves to compare membership lists with lists of registered voters, and point out to members who have not registered the importance of doing so. I suspect that we shall have a good many surprises even in our own circles if we do the work thoroughly.
Sixth, we must continue to collect and give out in brief and simple form information about the qualifications of voters and the places and dates for registering and voting.
Seventh, we must gather and disseminate, as many of the Leagues have done in the past, unpartisan information about candidates themselves and their stand upon important issues, including candidates for the national party conventions.
Eighth, we must hold pre-election meetings, at which candidates of all parties can address voters of all parties and of no party.
Ninth, we must call attention, through press and pulpit, to the importance of election day and the need of kindly urging of neighbors and friends not to overlook the privilege which it offers.
Tenth, we must organize our forces precinct by precinct, street by street, and in crowded districts, block by block.
In other words, we must organize a campaign for active citizenship such as this country has never before known. We must “sell” the idea of voting to every possible voter. We must get out the vote . . .
Don’t be skeptical because what we are asking of the average citizen appears to be a small thing. If everybody did that much — or that little — we should have no occasion for worry over our national future. The success of democracy doesn’t’ depend on a few persons who do great things, but upon many persons who do small thing faithfully.
And don’t be discouraged, because this campaign for efficient citizenship is really a very large undertaking. Nothing that I know of seems to bewilder men in public life more than the hard work that women are willing to do without any personal ends in mind. Again and again I am asked in Washington how it happens that so many women’s organizations are interested in this, that, or the other public measure. Those men in whom public spirit is completely lacking, are always certain that the organization has a secret sinister motive, or that the individual woman are paid huge salaries to enlist the support of other women, or else that they are in pursuit of public office. The newest explanation that I have heard is that of a senator who, having been obliged reluctantly to admit that no one of these previous statements was true, burst forth with the charge, “Well, they must all be neurotic. That is the only way you can account for them.” The simple fact that he overlooked is the inspiration of working together for something that is bigger and more important than our personal interests.
The Vote and Human Relationships
The most thrilling thing about the League of Women Voters is that it helps its members to be useful in the largest series of human relationships to which women have been admitted, their relationship with their fellow citizens. Heretofore, women have known the intimate affection of family and friends, the pleasant intercourse of social groups, the comradeship of fellow workers in trade and profession, the fervor of religious faith shared with the members of their church, but important as all these are, no one of them reaches so wide or so far as the relationship to our fellow citizens which the vote brings and which extends through our fellow citizens in this nation to other lands and other peoples. That is why this League of ours is worth making big sacrifices for so long as it kindles in the hearts and minds of women the warmth and light and good cheer of conscious kinship in the common weal. . .
An Every Woman’s Organization
In that belief, I hope, for the future of the League of Women Voters — not that it will become a body of expert persons who do remarkable things brilliantly — but that it will continue to be in fact what one of our wisest members once called it, “an every woman’s organization.” There can never be any organization of citizens in this great country of ours worth to continue unless that organization combines the experience and the wisdom and the practical common sense of women and men in every walk of life. For this reason we are now “an every woman’s organization,” and our future is assured so long as we hold to that fundamental purpose.
Source: LWV Papers on film, II. A.5. 0857-64.
Also: For the Public Record: A Documentary History of the League of Women Voters, Ed. Barbara Stuhler, pp. 88-93.