The New Situation in Suffrage

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POLITICS NOVEMBER 24, 1916

The New Situation in Suffrage

The bland manner is extremely useful in some difficult situations, social and political, and it is as foolish to criticize a man for employing it as it would be to criticize a photographer for working in a dim light. The bland manner enables a physician to pursue his treatment without defining its object too clearly, often the condition of success. But there are other situations where the attempt to deal in sedatives is peculiarly unsuitable. There are demands that cannot justly or wisely be kept in abeyance, situations that ask for the utmost directness, clarity and candor, that require a meeting of wills. To fail to meet such situations is the temptation of all politicians and it is a capital political offense.

The two main parties were of one mind last June in regard to woman suffrage, if it can be called a mind. They thought they could dispose of the issue by administering a dose of sedative. It was characteristic of the politician's mind for Mr. Roosevelt to suggest Henry Cabot Lodge, an anti-suffragist, as the nominee of a Progressive convention that itself had just endorsed unqualified franchise. Mr. Roosevelt showed the respect in which he held that Progressive endorsement of suffrage. When it came to the action of the sureenough Republicans it was Senator Lodge himself who read the denatured Republican resolution on suffrage and read it with his tongue in his cheek. Later on there was to be pious testimony by Mr. Hughes, an appeal for salvation by faith without any assurance of good works, but the really graphic action was the action of the party as a whole. The convention whose nomination Mr. Hughes accepted threw a contemptuous sop to the woman suffragists. The Republican leaders knew that the women of one quarter of the states were to cast a vote for President, and they yielded to the urgency of a Westerner like Senator Borah up to the point of admitting the " principle." But it was cynically admitted, for the sake of placating voters, not for the sake of guaranteeing action. The suffrage plank was a shelf.

With a plank precisely similar Mr. Wilson equipped the Democratic convention, and during the campaign he took occasion to address the woman suffrage convention at Atlantic City in the spirit of this earlier tepid recommendation. It is not fair to make too much of Mr. Wilson's merely verbal tricks. He is the kind of man who can say, '" it is delightful to fight the things that are wrong," and yet be anything but a nerveless idealist. But it is undoubtedly true that he has the habit of blurring an indecisive position by a clever diffusion of words and of compelling his unhappy audience to grope after his uncertain figure in what amounts to a bright verbal fog. From the center of such a fog, as distinguished at any rate from a burning bush, he spoke to the suffragists on suffrage. He was with them, he told them, but he confessed to a " little impatience " as to their anxiety about method. He consolingly implied that all would be well in the end. This confession of " impatience " with the vital agitation of method was equivalent, of course, to an impatience with the vital agitation of woman suffrage. It showed with utter distinctness that his assent to woman suffrage was perfunctory, that he had decided to carry suffrage in stock as part of his duty as a practical political tradesman, but that he had at best a vague, benign feeling about it, and no conviction whatever that woman suffrage was creating a national situation which called for thorough sincerity, nerve and will.

Yet but for woman suffrage, to which he tepidly assents, Mr. Wilson would not have been continued in the White House. If the choice of Mr. Wilson was a wise choice, it was due to the women more particularly than the men. Mr. Wilson may privately consider that he would have imperiled his solid South if he had pushed the suffrage issue hard. Perhaps he would. But it should open his eyes to the consequences of the extension of the franchise that his election was determined by his margin in the doubtful suffrage states. Is the extension of the franchise a negligible, an unimportant consideration? Mr. Wilson can afford to be less impatient with the practical issue now.

Whether or not Mr. Wilson is to go on regarding woman suffrage as a foible, the election has revealed a new national situation in respect to it, one which professional politicians did not reckon on, which the standpatters of Georgia and South Carolina and Texas and the rest have never contemplated, which the leaders in Congress have hardly had time to grasp. The balance of power, so far as Congress is concerned and so far as the rival parties are concerned in national politics. Is conceivably in women's hands. The women in the suffrage states, that Is to say, can be expected and must be expected to turn the balance in 1918 and 1920, and the principal factor In their decision is likely to be the party record on the federal suffrage amendment.

To offer this as a threat is one way of playing politics. The deeper force of the argument lies in the probability of such a choice by the women, regardless of any direct appeal to them In validation of a threat. Other issues may intervene to distract the votes of women, to send one group In the Republican direction and another canceling group in the Democratic direction at the same time. But the issue of suffrage is absolutely certain to have more prominence now than ever. It is nearer the center of the arena of practical politics. The more prominence It has, the more the women who vote are likely to register their favor or disfavor in regard to a candidate's suffrage record and his party's suffrage policy. No party that refuses to meet the suffrage issue in the open can hope for victory in a pivotal quarter of the states in the Union.

In 1917 the Susan B. Anthony amendment comes up In Congress. Parties as well as candidates may expect to be put on record in this amendment campaign. No suffragist contends against getting parties on record but there are many arguments against attempting to punish any recalcitrant party by campaigning against It. The chief dispute relates to winning suffrage state by state. It turns on the danger of llning-up any given party against woman suffrage and also lays stress on the exigency of bringing into disfavor good suffragists who support woman suffrage in Congress, while still belonging to a party that refuses to adopt the Issue. There is point in all these arguments. For the suffragists to condense the opposition to their issue might prove singularly unfortunate, considering that a federal amendment requires the support of all of one party and a large proportion of the other, considering also that three-quarters of the states are still non-suffrage states. But the popular sentiment for woman suffrage in the United States is great enough to justify the espousal of the suffrage cause by one or other of the great parties, and the suffragists have a right to compel each party In turn to consider their claims to its support. The politicians of either party may hope to condense opposition against the other in case the federal amendment is made a party issue. But the wiser politicians fear the outspoken and whole-hearted adoption of suffrage by their rivals. They know the hope of condensing opposition Is vain. The suffrage leaders ought to revise their non-partisan policy sufficiently to avail of this party condition and make the rivals bid for their support. Each party now needs the suffragists, and each party knows it. There are enough men voters in both parties who believe in the justice of extending the franchise to keep opposition from solidifying, especially since one quarter of the states have such singular punitive power.

To force the punitive argument is not considered good-natured, and American politics pretends to be good-natured. But is it good-natured to exclude women from active citizenship ? The politicians who feel impatience with women for wishing to hasten their hour of grown-up participation in a grown-up world may decline to face this question. If they do decline to face it they should be compelled to measure the penalties of evasion; and practical penalties should be heavily attached to this feebleness of democratic will.  

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posted in: politics, midterm elections, atlantic city, borah, lodge, roosevelt, wilson, congress, white house

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