This article originally appeared in the September 23, 1944, issue.
The question about the so-called “women’s vote” is generally phrased: How will the women vote? The answer to that is too easy. Women vote just as men vote. Either they are thinking women who draw their own conclusions as to what vote is best for them and the economic group to which they and their masculine counterparts belong by right of inclination, or they are thoughtless women who vote as their husbands tell them to vote.
The question is not so much how women will vote as how many women will vote.
In 1940 the total population of the United States over twenty-one years of age was 79,863,452. Of that number of potential voters, an estimated ten million were disenfranchised by the poll tax. The total vote cast was 49,815,312. About twenty million, or about 30 per cent of those who might have voted, did not vote.
In 1944, with a population over twenty-one of about eighty-eight and a half million, with an estimated 70 per cent of soldiers disenfranchised in addition to the millions in the poll-tax states, if we assume that 3O per cent of those who can will not vote, we have about twenty-two million wilful non-voters. About half the votes in 1940 were cast by women. By a slight sleight-of-hand movement, one may logically determine that there are eleven million female votes to be picked up, and that this eleven million could swing an election–in a close year.
It is generally agreed that if everyone in the United States who could vote did vote, Mr. Roosevelt would unquestionably be elected by an overwhelming majority. On September 6 Gallup said that if the total vote were as low as 37,500,000 Dewey would be elected. He pointed out that when it goes above the 37,500,000 mark approximately 60 per cent of the doubtful votes would be for RooseveIt against 35 per cent for Dewey. We are justified in assuming, therefore, that the majority of the eleven million new female voters would be for Roosevelt.
Is there any special appeal which can get women to the polls? Are women’s interests different from men’s?
I’ll say there are special appeals to be made to women, and that women’s interests are different from men’s. I’ll say it on the basis of having talked personally with hundreds of women industrial workers, from Maine to California; on the basis of having corresponded with hundreds more who are housewives. Of course this is a personal opinion, and Mr. Gallup can go out and disprove it if he pleases.
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The majority of women in the United States, whether working inside or outside their homes, are the most self-sacrificing creatures living. They are 100 per cent Christian in the main, turning the other cheek if slapped, making miracles out of loaves and fishes; and to partake of the loaves and fishes is not their primary concern.
Surely, most housewives are afraid that they will lose their jobs as wives if they express opinions contrary to those of their husbands on any major issue. They do not even expect their husbands to talk politics to them. They expect to give all for the children. They fuss, yes, but about small things; they are adamant in protecting their right to choose the food and the curtains, to bring up the children. “It would be fine,” said one of them, “to have an outside job and a little independence. But don’t you think we might lose our husbands?” And so they go on doing their jobs–their hateful, confining jobs.
As for the women who work outside their homes, there were eighteen miIlion of them in the peak month of July, 1944. Even if we were not at war, there would be fourteen million, if we can judge by the steady flow of women into gainful employment since 1870. These women are as self-sacrificing, on the whole, as the average housewife. Perhaps more so.
“What right have women to seniority rights?” one of them will say. “Of course the men come first.” This with about 85 per cent of the women now employed knowing full well that they want jobs after the war. “Equal pay for equal work?” The women laugh if you ask them whether they get it. They laugh, but they don’t fight for it.
I am not speaking of the leaders, the women who are struggling in the many fields where discrimination against women is obvious. I’m speaking of what is called the rank and file of women workers. They, like the rank and file of housewives, don’t feel that anyone gives a damn about what happens to them. They were born into this world; they are trying to carry their responsibilities as best they can. It’s a man’s world, and as long as men don’t feel that progress is important, that’s that. As long as men don’t feel that allowing unequal pay to exist, allowing seniority rights to be broken down, allowing their wives to remain almost illiterate–certainly ignorant of things outside their narrow ken–is holding back a better world, so long will most of these women accept their fate. They may complain to one another, to any other woman if there are no men present, but they will continue to take it on the chin.
As a group, Negroes have made far more progress toward breaking down the discriminations against them than women have in the last years. Negroes have worked together and enlisted help not only from their government but from many white progressives. Women, despite the many discriminations against their sex, have thus far failed to form a united front which would cut across economic lines. They have failed to stand up for their rights, and no powerful outside agency or group of individuals has offered them a helping hand.
Of course no one wants to split the women off from the men. And heaven prevent a new rise of feminism, a middle-class and impotent form of uprising at best. But the women of the United States are no more dolts than are the men. Were I. Q. measured against I. Q. we’d probably come out even. The women will come out of their despondency, out of their silence, come out to the polls, only if they are offered an intelligent program of action.
It is not important to the mass of women to have the Republican or the Democratic Party openly indorse an equal-rights amendment (which actually would nullify good labor laws). The majority of women are much too smart to be fooled by good or bad sops to their feelings. It is not important to most women to have political parties put women on their committees, or even to have women hoisted into leadership in unions. These things are important only to a few women who seek personal prestige and to a few others who want to get into high places in order to present a case for their sisters.
What is important to housewives is that the conditions of their work be eased, that they obtain the assistance they need to carry out their responsibilities fully. They want nursery schools for their young children and recreational programs for their older children. They want mechanical housekeeping aids at prices they can afford. They want decent, modern houses in which they can easily clean and cook. Their government should help provide them with such things. Women cannot and will not be interested in generalities or vague promises.
The many thousands of New York State women who prodded Dewey into allocating over a million dollars for the care of children of working mothers, and who watched him save the state most of that money by enmeshing it in red tape, those women will never believe in Dewey or in a party that sponsors him. But is any party offering a program, or any part of a program, which specifically promises help to the housewives of America?
And what do the women in industry want today? A very great number of workingwomen for years have wanted a place to sit down when their work did not require them to stand. They have wanted a ten-minute rest period for every four-hour work period. That has been recommended by many experts as a spur to production; yet it is required by only four states. Women want clean rest rooms and enough time to eat decent food in adequate cafeterias. In comparatively few plants are all these things provided.
Women can and should fight for and obtain these benefits. But they don’t, because that is not the way they have been brought up. They are doing their best with life as it comes. Eighty-five per cent of workingwomen want jobs at decent wages after this war. But they know that if there aren’t enough jobs for everyone, they will, as always, be the first to go. They know that if a pay cut is necessary, they, as always, will bear the brunt. They know that most men think such a system perfectly fine. Heaven knows, these women don’t want any special privileges. And heaven knows they don’t expect anyone to give them a thought. I am certain that many more millions of women would embark upon the arduous road to a better life, would join unions, join in group action for improved housing and improved education, yes, I am sure that many more women would register and vote if they felt that they really had a chance of attaining their desires.
But suppose this is a close election, and suppose the votes of the eleven million women who normally do not vote can swing the election? Is the Democratic Party really going after the doubtful votes? Is either party promising to make an honest effort to bring to women, a suppressed portion of the electorate, the things about which they really care? This potential women’s vote can be won only by a party which honestly believes not only in equality of race, creed, color, and nationality, but in equality of sex. That, in 1944, is asking a great deal.
When some party, or the leader of some party, gives proof that steps will be taken to solve “women’s problems,” that party will win over not only the previously non-voting women but many from every party. When women have cause to feel that there are in fact to be no special women’s problems, that men and women will really have an equal chance at jobs, that they will actually share the burdens of housing, feeding, clothing, child care–and government–then only will the mass of women of the United States arouse themselves to their full responsibilities as citizens. For then they will be Iiving in a country where they are not treated as idiots or whores or goddesses or “little women,” or “Moms.”
The Republican Party isn’t even considerate of the majority of men, whereas the Democratic Party under the leadership of Franklin Roosevelt has gone a long way to iron out some of the common man’s problems. Why doesn’t it finish the job by giving real thought to the women?