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Women and the Vote

Women and the Vote

By Eleanor Roosevelt, An Article Originally published in It’s Up to the Women (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1933), pp. 189-204.Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt[View Image]
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Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt

There is one new activity which entered the life of women with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1918. With the right to vote, a whole new field of responsibility and direct power came into the hands of the women of the country. A few of our states had already given women the right to vote and in some communities they were allowed to vote in school elections, but they did not enjoy the full privileges of citizenship as the equals of men throughout the whole country until 1918.

Many fine men and women had worked for this change for many years and the stories of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Dr. Anna Shaw, Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt are inspiring reading, because of the unselfish devotion they brought to this cause, which they felt meant a just recognition of the rights of a big group of people. Looking even beyond the justice of the cause they felt this power given to women would herald great changes for the good of mankind.

Fourteen years have now gone by and everywhere people are asking, “What have the women done with the vote?” I often wonder why they don’t ask the men the same question, but I realize that it is a high compliment to women that evidently they were expected to bring about some marked change in political conditions and so I would like to look into the question of women as citizens and see just what we have done and are doing and then perhaps dream a little about what we may do in the future.

The vast majority of women, like the vast majority of men, have little time to give to anything but the earning of their daily bread either by actually working themselves or by caring for home and children and making other people’s earnings go as far as possible. Their good citizenship consists in leading their lives so as to make them as productive of good for all around them as they can be, and their public duty is expressed by using their vote as intelligently as possible.

A vote is never an intelligent vote when it is cast without knowledge. Just doing what someone else tells you to do without any effort to find out what the facts are for yourself is being a poor citizen. When women first had the vote, many of them did not know how to get information on questions of government. Others had seen the men for years go and vote, had heard them talk a little during the weeks just before election about this or that candidate or this or that party, but had never gathered that there was much concern for the things the parties stood for. You were a democrat or a republican because your family belonged to one or to the other party, because your people had been in the north or in the south at the time of the war between the states, or because it was easier to get advancement in business in your locality if you belonged to one or the other party. These reasons and some others like them did not greatly stir the patriotism of the women. A few women formed the League of Women Voters, a non-partisan organization which tries, as far as human agencies can do so, to control the prejudices of its members and have them look at both sides of political questions and to furnish unbiased information to any women asking to know about candidates or measures proposed by any political party. Other organizations sprang up for political study and long-established women’s clubs added departments of citizenship where their politically minded members could study such questions as interested them. The vast majority of women, however, remain as indifferent to the vote and how they use it as are the vast majority of men.

If we look about us in the world today or read past history, we will find that benevolent monarchs and good dictators have as a rule had contented, well-governed people. The reason, I fear, is that we are all glad to let someone do our thinking for us as long as we go on fairly comfortably and happily. It is only when bad rulers oppress their people for a long time that those people begin to think for themselves and eventually overthrow their rulers.

Those of us who live in democracies have known of such occurrences in the past but if our leaders have led us through fairly still waters we are as content as other peoples under other forms of government to let some people do our thinking for us, and it takes stern times to shake us out of our apathy.

Women are no different from men in this and though certain subjects may be of greater interest to them, they have been slow as a group to act because political thought and action were new and following women leaders was new. How many times have I heard older women say, “Well, I really feel safer with a man doctor and I take a man’s advice on certain questions because he’s been at it so much longer than we women!” The sex is still the basis of judgment; they don’t just say, “I like Henry as a doctor better than Susie,” or “I think James’ opinion on that question is more sensible than Jenny’s.” That day is just beginning to arrive and, strange coincidence, it is arriving just when stern necessity is driving many people in our country to think about questions which for years they have been willing to leave to their leaders.

For a number of years I, with many other women, have traveled our various states trying to arouse women to an interest in government, pointing out how it affected their homes, building and working conditions, the water they drank, the food they ate, their children, the schools, the public health, the recreations. We have used the World War to show how much, as women, we are concerned with governments in other lands and our relations with them. We have showed the necessity for women of different lands, whose fundamental interests are the same, to know and understand each other. We have tried to dramatize some of the lessons learned between 1914 and 1920 as to the waste and futility of war and frequently found a polite response, a temporary burst of interest and then the old apathy creeping back as the sense of present security and comfort spread around our women.

Now, there is for many people no sense of security and no comfort and no ease and no luxury, and even the right to work, not always looked upon as a blessing, has become a precious and sought-after right. Now you do not, either in men or women, have to arouse interest in their government; it is the one hope they have and they look to it for salvation. Political news in papers has become interesting; books on economics and on government are eagerly read; there is a revolution in thinking and that always presages a revolution in action. One can have a bloodless revolution if one can count on leaders of sufficient vision to grasp the goal for which the mass of people is often unconsciously striving, and courage enough in the nation as a whole to accept the necessary changes to achieve the desired ends.

Some women have been educating themselves in the past fourteen years; the mass of their sisters is now awake. Are there women ready to lead in these new paths? Will other women follow them? We do not know, but one thing is sure, the attitude of women towards changes in society is going to determine to a great extent our future in this country. Women in the past have never realized their political strength. Will they wake up to it now? Will they realize that politics in the old sense, a game played for selfish ends by a few politicians, is of no concern any longer to anyone and that recognition in the sense of receiving a political job is perhaps necessary but only important because of the opportunity it affords a woman or a man to show what they conceive to be the duty of a government servant? If our government offices are not held in the next few years by men and women with new conceptions of public service, then our revolution may not continue to be bloodless and changes may not come gradually as they are coming now, but violently and suddenly as they have come in the past in France and in Russia and we will go back before we gather up the pieces and move forward again.

So in reviewing the past fourteen years let us acknowledge that women have made a few changes in politics. It is quite safe for them to be at polling places on election day and very gradually the men are accepting them as part of the party machinery and today if a woman wants to work and can prove her ability and is not too anxious and insistent upon recognition and tangible reward, she can be part of almost any party activity except the inner circle where the really important decisions in city, county and state politics are made! She can get into this inner circle in national politics more easily than in state, county and city and I wonder if the reason might be that men in Washington are a little more formal with each other and therefore the presence of a woman does not “cramp their style” to the same degree that it would in the other conferences? Women have made no great changes in politics or government and that is all that can be said of the past and now for the present.

Women are thinking and that is the first step toward an increased and more intelligent use of the ballot. Then they will demand of their political parties clear statements of principles and they will scrutinize their party’s candidates, watch their records, listen to their promises and expect them to live up to them and to have their party’s backing, and occasionally when the need arises, women will reject their party and its candidates. This will not be disloyalty but will show that as members of a party they are loyal first to the fine things for which the party stands and when it rejects those things or forgets the legitimate objects for which political parties exist, then as a party it cannot command the honest loyalty of its members.

Next, I believe women will run for office and accept victory or defeat in a sporting spirit. The proportion of women holding elective office is small. There are two reasons for this: one is that many women have dreaded the give and take of a campaign, they have dreaded the public criticism, they have not learned to discount the attacks of the opposition; but business and professional life is paving the way and this reason will not deter them much longer.

The second reason is that as a rule nominations which are given women by any of the political parties are in districts where it is almost impossible for one holding their political beliefs to win; in other words, a woman who is willing to make a well-nigh hopeless fight is welcomed by a local leader trying to fill out his ticket. The changing attitude towards women in general may bring a change in this. We have good women in political office today and much depends on their success. They are blazing the new paths and what is far more important they are exemplifying what we mean by the new type of public servant. When Frances Perkins says, “I can’t go away because under the new industrial bill we have a chance to achieve for the workers of this country better conditions for which I have worked all my life,” she is not staying because she will gain anything materially, for herself or her friends, but because she sees an opportunity for government to render a permanent service to the general happiness of the working man and woman and their families. This is what we mean as I see it by the “new deal.” Look carefully, O people, at the record of some of your public servants in the past few years! Does this attitude strike you as new? If so, the women are in part responsible for it, and I think at present we can count on a more active interest from them and a constantly increasing willingness to bear their proper share of the burdens of government.

Now for the dreams of the future:

If women are really going to awake to their civic duties, if they are going to accept changes in social living and try to make of this country a real democracy, in which the best of opportunity is available to every child and where the compensations of life are not purely material ones, then we may indeed be seeing the realization of a really new deal for the people. If this is to come true, it seems to me that the women have got to learn to work together even before they work with men, and they have got to be realistic in facing the social problems that have to be solved. They cannot accept certain doctrines simply because they sound well. I have often thought that it sounded so well to talk about women being on an equal footing with men and sometimes when I have listened to the arguments of the National Woman’s Party and they have complained that they could not compete in the labor market because restrictions were laid upon women’s work which were not laid upon men’s, I have been almost inclined to agree with them that such restrictions were unjust, until I came to realize that when all is said and done women are different from men. They are equals in many ways, but they cannot refuse to acknowledge their differences. Not to acknowledge them weakens the case. Their physical functions in life are different and perhaps in the same way the contributions which they are to bring to the spiritual side of life are different. It may be that certain questions are waiting to be solved until women can bring their views to bear upon those questions.

I have a friend who wrote me the other day saying that because she and her husband lost all of their money, they have been obliged to go and live in a rural community in a small farmhouse. She and her daughters are doing all their own work and they have chosen the community in which they are living not because they found a house which they liked, but because they found a school for the children that they felt would give a real education. After the school was found, they found the house. She adds, “I do not regret the money— it has been a marvelous experience, giving my children a true sense of values, and I have learned what real people my country neighbors are. Because we have struggled together we know each other far better than do the average people who live in far easier circumstances.”

There are many people who may make this same discovery and it is not always necessary to lose everything in order to make it, but it is necessary to attain the vision of a new and different life.

I was reading lately a book which Ramsay MacDonald wrote about his wife who died in 1911 and who seems today to be alive as one reads the pages of the book. She was far ahead of her time in many ways, but her most striking characteristic, from youth up, was the feeling of not being able to live in comfort when so many others suffered. She felt that all human beings were her brothers and sisters and her work has lived after her. Many women in this country have been carrying on similar work and perhaps we are going to see evolved in the next few years not only a social order built by the ability and brains of our men, but a social order which also represents the understanding heart of the women.

Source:  Roosevelt, Eleanor, “Women and the Vote,” It’s Up to the Women ( (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1933), pp. 189-204), New Deal Network, (June 24, 2014).

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