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Organizing for Social Change After Suffrage | The Nation

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Organizing for Social Change After Suffrage

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Everett CollectionAnti-Wilson billboard urging opposition to the Democratic Party. Denver, Colorado 1916

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Now that women have the vote, what will they do with it?

One of the most important results of the long suffrage fight just ended is the education in the fundamentals of American social life that thousands of women have received. We have learned as much, perhaps more, in seeking the vote as we shall learn for a long time in using it. For nothing has brought so many women of different classes together on a common working basis as suffrage. True, the women who work long hours and the poor with large families have had little time for the active suffrage work done by those with some margin of leisure; but in the campaigns, with their widely conducted house-to-house canvass, we have come to know each other as we could not otherwise, and have had our eyes opened to the economic struggle in these United States. We have learned to throw to the winds the things we have been told and to reason first hand from our own observations. It is likely, therefore, that a large share of the energy formerly in suffrage work will be redirected into the channels of the labor movement. This is particularly true of the younger suffrage worker. Not so long ago, after her feminist baptism of fire, she was convinced that the ills chiefly afflicting the community were the gross inequalities of women. These adjusted, she believed, with women having a voice in government, that wars would be avoided, social evils remedied and the world generally a fitter place to live in.

But after campaigning in cities, small towns, and outlying rural districts, she begins to have grave doubts about the feminist program as a panacea for social ills, or even for the ills of women. She begins to see that perhaps the feminist program of readjustment should be but a part of a larger, more embracing program of economic readjustment. Just "Votes for Women" may not amount to much, but the votes of women cast intelligently in the struggle against the present sick economic order may make considerable difference.

Perhaps this same young woman has worked for suffrage in a mill town. Most mill towns are much alike. Here is one with a population of thirteen or fourteen thousand and, per capita, a very rich town, but the suffrage worker learns that most of the wealth is in the hands of a score of the town's families, while the vast majority of the folks, who do most of the work to produce this wealth, live in poverty and dirt. Sometimes this majority, who--according to the stated rules of democracy as the suffrage worker learned them in school and the Declaration of Independence--should have some say as to how things should be in their town, has protested against insufficient wages and unsanitary housing; but ugly things have been done to them when they have spoken for themselves, though their protests have all been of a peaceful sort; and at present the Mayor, usually one of the large manufacturers and millionaires of the town, will not even allow the workingmen to parade. It might "lead to trouble," "trouble," really meaning changing the status quo in the little town which is very comfortable for the handful of its first families.

When the suffrage worker watches the several thousand of women mill workers come out of the mills at night, the older ones withered and bent, the younger ones with some of the bloom, that the mill will soon steal, still on their cheeks; when she reflects that virtually all of these women are working for a wage far below the minimum of decent living, she realizes that perhaps mere votes will not help so materially in their lives after all. Something more is needed. In her suffrage canvass this ardent young worker comes across the wife of a mill worker, mother of seven children, five of them unwanted, bending over a wash tub in a grimy house, and cheerily gives this hopeless woman a "Better Babies" leaflet as an argument for suffrage, but the woman, unbending from the wash tub, says querulously: "Babies--aw, babies ! 'Cunnin' babies,' ye say! I've had seven o' them cunnin' things and I'm sick and tired of 'em. I'd like to know some way of not havin' any more and how to feed them I've got!" Again the suffrage worker begins to doubt whether mere votes will help. She goes home from her day's work discouraged and at sea. She has been face to face that day with the bare and ugly struggle for existence in a world that the majority of women in America face; and votes do not seem of such great moment.

In the larger cities where she has done organization work in the "Polish section," the "Italian section," and the "Jewish section," she realizes, from her intimate contact with the women folk of these would-be good Americans, something of the cant of so-called "Americanization work." She feels that true Americanization work would be the Golden Rule applied to those men and women of other countries who come to our shores, not the exploitation of their labor that usually takes place. She learns from the tired women with whom she has spent her day that "teaching foreigners American ways" should begin with paying them wages that will allow them to cultivate American ways.

And the campaigner in country districts has gained a sympathetic understanding of her rural sister whom she may have regarded with impatience heretofore. She knows she, too, would be "dumb," inarticulate and sometimes hopeless if she started the day at four o'clock, took care of six children, four hired hands, ten cows, and seventy-five chickens, all with her two hands.

Or perhaps campaigning in the South the suffrage worker is brought face to face with the grave national problem of gross injustice and cruelty to the Negro. She is told that it is all right to talk of suffrage for white women, but she must pretend that Negro women will be kept from the vote as have the Negro men. She may have even witnessed the orgy of a lynching. She realizes that asking for votes for women on the ground of democracy is a farce if, in the same breath, that democracy is denied the fellow American with a darker skin.

It is likely that many suffrage workers will turn the energies, reIeased from suffrage work, into reform work of a mild sort; but among the younger ones many of marked ability, genius for organization, and political acumen, especially in the "militant group," will plunge deeply into the economic movement. Many of them, in the States where suffrage exists, have done so already and more will follow, Most of them are by nature rebels. And the influence they may wield with their large following of new voters, will be considerable.

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