Woman Suffrage in New York

Woman Suffrage in New York

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This article originally appeared in the June 1, 1918, issue. An asterisk after the headline referred to this footnote: In view of the fact that political and social conditions in New York are widely different from those prevailing in most States which have for a long period had woman suffrage, the question as to what use women in New York are likely to make of political power has more than local interest. The Nation is accordingly glad to present to its readers the following article, which summarizes briefly the work of the New York State Woman Suffrage Party during the first half-year of political enfranchisement in this State.

At the forty-ninth annual convention of the Suffrage Party, held in New York city just a few days after the great victory of November 6, it was decided that, as an organization, the New York State Woman Suffrage Party should remain a non-partisan group of voters; and that its members should inform themselves of the various problems of government in order to use the new power of citizenship to the greatest advantage of State and nation. It was realized that the fundamental work of the party as such is now to prepare the women of the State for good citizenship. To carry on this work effectively, committees on education, Americanization, legislation, Congressional work, labor, intelligence, rural problems, and war service were established. This article can do little more than touch on a few of the more striking activities.

The vital work of teaching women to use their vote wisely and to keep them from being exploited because of their inexperience is in the hands of the Education Committee. It has held schools for the training of teachers in political, social, and civic subjects; it is organizing groups of women all over the State for the study of citizenship, and is providing them with teachers; it has prepared and sent out correspondence courses in citizenship; and it keeps in circulation travelling libraries of recognized books on civics and government. It has made recommendations which have been accepted by the State Board of Regents: that the course in civics in the elementary schools be revised, that the study of civics in the high schools be made compulsory, and that public school buildings be used as civic centres.

The first training school for teachers of citizenship, held in New York city, was arranged for a period of intensive study covering two weeks in January. Three hundred students attended the sessions with an average attendance of 150 throughout. The lectures were given by experts, and at the close of the series an examination was held, 32 students winning the diploma of teacher of citizenship. Following this course, an extensive movement for the political education of women was inaugurated. In New York city during the month of March alone 312 citizenship classes were held. Women of all groups and classes, irrespective of suffrage affiliation, are continually turning to the suffrage teachers of citizenship to assist them in their first endeavors to gain a working knowledge of civics. There has been a succession of crowded classes at city headquarters. As soon as one series was completed, a new series had to begin, so great was the demand. During the two months before general enrolment day, May 25, all the city party’s teaching forces had to be concentrated on the educational work. One hundred and sixty thousand copies of four printed lessons in citizenship have been distributed to department stores, insurance companies, banks, trust companies, and many other industrial establishments of the city for the use of the women employees. Talks have also been given in these establishments, the employers generously cooperating by permitting the classes to be given in store or company time. In addition to such establishments, classes have also been held in parish houses, community centres, mothers’ meetings, settlements, public schools, Red Cross clubs, various women’s clubs, girls’ clubs, Y. W. C. A. (including the colored branches), Y. W. H. A., banks, lunch and tea rooms, ladies’ specialty shops and restaurants, the Hippodrome chorus, and soldiers’ and sailors’ clubs.

In 40 out of 57 up-State counties many efficient schooIs in citizenship were conducted during the first four months of 1918; and where snowbound roads prevented public gatherings, the correspondence lessons have penetrated, being sent to 1,500 up-State and rural subscribers every week. It is impossible to go into this work in detail, but it has been carried on with great vigor and success throughout the whole State.

A weekly information bulletin summarizes, without editorial comment, the most important proceedings and proposed bills in Congress and the various departments of the Federal Administration, the New York State Legislature, and the New York city governing boards. It is sent to a thousand “information centres,” local leaders and subscribers every week, and from the bulletin boards of hundreds of club centres makes its appeal to thousands of citizens.

There are at least 400,000 foreign-born women in New York State who by Federal law become citizens solely because of the citizenship of their fathers or husbands. It is of the greatest importance at this time that this vast group, with the traditions and languages of other countries, should understand the ideals and purposes of the American Government. For this purpose the Americanization Committee is organized in the industrial towns of the State and in each Assembly district in New York city. The chairman of each local committee has associated with her an advisory council composed of representatives of the various organizations doing Americanization work in the district, including libraries, schools, foreign-language societies, and priests.

In every district the methods are the same: (1.) The formation of classes in the English language and in civics in the public schools, in the afternoon or evening. (2.) The organization of such classes, conducted sometimes by public-school teachers and sometimes by voluntary teachers, in settlements and neighborhood houses. (3.) The founding of a corps of house-to-house workers, assisting the captain in each election district. (4.) The establishment of classes in factories, wherever this is possible, on employers’ time or directly after hours. (5.) The establishment of information centres in every immigrant neighborhood.

The committee has especially emphasized the importance of information centres, where immigrant women–and immigrant men, too, for that matter–may receive information concerning citizenship, naturalization, voting, and important war matters of all kinds, such as drafts, allotments, and food questions. The real purpose of the centres is to serve as places to which the women come informally, as they wish or need to do. With the centres as a basis, the organization of formal classes becomes far more easily possible. The Americanization Committee has also procured the passage of a bill providing for the training of teachers for adult illiterates. This bill carries an appropriation for the establishment of training institutes in the State normal schools and the various cities of the State.

Similar in purpose is the work of the Rural Problems Committee, which seeks to show rural women how, by the use of the vote, they may help solve some of their own vital problems. A series of conferences are being held, designed to reach rural women in particular, to give and receive information, and to exchange ideas on desirable legislation for rural districts. They are open to county officials, county welfare workers, chairmen of farm bureaus, county agents of the State Charities Aid Association, Y. M. C. A., Y. W. C. A., and similar organizations, as well as women. Informal speeches followed by discussion deal with such subjects as these: marking the ballot; a lesson in civics; women’s war work; food production and conservation; State and county legislation affecting rural districts; the Rural Nurses’ bill; information as to how representatives voted on questions of importance in each locality; what we get for our taxes; suggestions for new legislation. Specially notable has been the campaign for public-health nurses in rural counties, which will be steadily pushed.

The party is not limiting itself, however, to purely educational activities. The Intelligence Committee obtains and tabulates information about every candidate for public office and every public official, from the President of the smallest village to the Governor of the State. At election time it will put this information at the disposal of the people. Besides making better voters of the women by arousing their intelligent interest in those who control public affairs, it is laying up a mass of information that will insure a better class of candidates. Supporting the chairman of this committee there is in every county a chain of intelligence officers whose responsibility it is to obtain and report on the record of every man or woman candidate for election. The next step will be an intensive study of the merits of the respective candidates and principles.

Going a step farther, the Legislative Committee watches the activities of the State Legislature and keeps an experienced representative in Albany during the legislative session. It urges individuals and organizations to take action on important measures, and during the recent session frequently coöperated with other sympathetic organizations. A fortnightly legislative bulletin concerning measures of special interest which were pending before the Legislature was sent to more than 700 clubs as well as to Assembly district organizations throughout the State. Women and labor organizations working together prevented the laying aside of protective laws for the period of the war–no mean achievement. While the New York State Woman Suffrage Party does not further the candidacy of women for legislative office as representatives of any of the political parties, yet experience has demonstrated that women are badly needed in committees, especially on labor and industry and public health.

Special importance accordingly attaches to the work of the Labor Committee of the party. The war has brought many new problems in connection with the work of women and children. It is more necessary than ever before to maintain the health and therefore the productive ability of the nation at its fullest capacity. Profiting by the experience gained during the legislative session just closed, the committee has issued a call to a conference to decide on the programme for the next session of the Legislature. This programme will be presented to the convention of the State Federation of Labor for endorsement, and every candidate for Senate and Assembly will be put on record concerning it. This will obviate much of the uphill work of the recent session, when concentrated but unsuccessful efforts were made to get the Eight Hour bill and the Wagner Minimum Wage bill enacted into law in the special interest of the women workers of the State.

Directed along more purely political lines are the activities of the Congressional Committee, which coöperates with the National American Woman Suffrage Association and the suffrage organizations of other States in the attempt to pass the Federal amendment. In view of the present position of the amendment and the opposition to it of the senior Senator from New York, this work has great importance, and the New York State Party proposes to give its support to the National Woman Suffrage Association, with which it is affiliated, until three-fourths of the States have ratified.

No account of the work of the party would be complete which neglected the achievements of its War Service Committee. This committee, which acts as a clearing house for all kinds of war service, cooperates with existing agencies for war work. It gives service through the Statewide organization and cooperates actively with the committees for the Liberty Loans; it canvasses for the thrift and war stamps; it aids the Woman’s Land Army of America and assists the Council of National Defence in the Children’s Year campaign. Hospital aid service, food conservation according to Mr. Hoover’s plans, cooperation with the Government Employment Bureau, clerical work, housing surveys for war workers–all are included in the plan of work offered by the War Service Committee, the application of the plan necessarily varying in different parts of the State.

When all the public-spirited women of a district are united for service, it means very few houses for each member to visit to cover a whole district. The War Service Committee believes that the value to the State of having a large-minded woman in frequent touch with every woman neighbor of hers in the interest of good citizenship and patriotic service is inestimable. Education for citizenship in relation to war service forms an important part of the programme of the committee. Educational propaganda is needed to bring out the direct connection between the principles of government and the application of these principles to specific instances. The movement for the ranking of army nurses is an instance of this need. Equal pay, equal rank, and equal standing for the army nurse with her co-workers of the medical corps simply mean democracy in action.

This hasty review of the purpose and work of the New York State Suffrage Party by no means exhausts the list of its activities, nor does it do more than hint at the significance of the movement. To those who have doubted the wisdom of women’s enfranchisement under the conditions that prevail in the Eastern States, this story of a brief six months of women’s activity should offer some measure of reassurance. To those who have supported the movement for full political equality, the record should bring encouragement and confirmation in the faith. No informed person would maintain that women have remade or will remake the political life of the State, and yet perhaps it is not too much to assert that the women’s movement is the greatest civic and educational force in the State to-day.

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