The Working Woman and the Ballot, April 1908

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By Jane Addams, of Hull House

In the earlier stages of the movement for woman suffrage great stress was laid upon two points: that the woman of property should have the power to protect her interests, and that the woman of education could be entrusted with the vote with benefit to the nation.

We are beginning to realize that in asking for the ballot for women, neither of these limitations can be considered.

The woman of property has, indeed, just claims to the suffrage, that she may have a voice in those public measures which depend upon and imply an increase in taxes.

The woman of education, already a power for good in the community, needs the franchise, so that when she asks for pure-food laws, for the protection of infant life, for child-labor restrictions, she shall not be treated as a mere powerless theorist, whose requests may quite reasonably be set aside in favor of the more urgent demands of vote-endowed electors, who may determine the term of office of the legislators with whom they are pleading.

But if, both for their own sakes and for the good of the republic, women of property and women of education should be enfranchised, far more is the power of the ballot needed by the working woman, whose stake in the country is represented by her life, her health, her virtue, and the safety and happiness of her children. The ballot is not demanded for her because she is good or wise, or because she will make no mistakes in its use. Neither goodness nor wisdom is the sole possession of one class, and freedom from mistakes is the privilege of none. Working women need the ballot because they must possess some control over the conditions of their lives and those of their children; and, in this twentieth-century world, the ballot box offers the only channel through which they can give expression to such legitimate control.

Nations are no longer what they once were, essentially military organizations. As long as a state of preparedness against the ever-present danger of attack from outside foes formed the only stable foundation for national existence, it was quite fitting that military prowess should be regarded as the first of virtues, and the ability to bear arms the test of citizenship. But the entire structure of the modern world is built upon a groundwork of industry, and the problems that concern it are in the main those of industrial well-being, and of national, state and city housekeeping.

The advantage of [cooperation], the strength of union, was admitted in war long before combination was thought of in the peaceful realm of industry. All that side of life remained an individual affair, and the home an individual home; and so they continued until quite recent times. As long as the individual worker, man or woman, could possess his own tools, work his own hours, bargain for his own pay, he largely controlled his own life and made a bargain on terms at least approximately on an equality with his employer. It is only our dull wits that fail to see that such a balance of power in bargaining is no longer possible. As our methods of baking our bread, of weaving our cloth and sewing our garments have altered, so have the relations of employer and employed altered.

Woman has always had a large share in the industrial arts, and she has still. But while woman has been carried along with the stream of industrial development from its source in home work up to the present specialization involved in factory methods, she has parted with her old normal power of controlling the conditions of her life industrially to a much greater extent than has the working man, who has become equipped with the ballot.

This has also been the case in her other sphere, the activities of the home. The modern city offers an extreme instance of the powerlessness of the most conscientious housekeeper, especially if the household income be small, to decide the freshness of the air her family shall breathe, the kind of food they shall eat or the clothes they shall wear.

In city life without proper building regulations, and proper inspection of fire escapes, and the means of ventilation, the house will neither be a safe nor a healthy house. No one woman can make it so, toil she ever so hard. The streets used by street railways, automobiles, carriages, express wagons, and an endless army of pedestrians, have to be paved by engineers and cleaned by professional street cleaners. The industrious housekeeper's individual broom, which was well enough in early times, would make but a poor showing here. One woman trying to get pure milk for her children is helpless. She has to buy whatever the dealer, or the city or state who should control the dealer, chooses to say she shall have; and thousands of babies die every year because anxious mothers have no way of controlling responsible authorities.

And still the great primitive needs of humanity are the same: food, clothing, shelter and the rearing of the next generation. To feed and to clothe the family, to bear and to train children has been woman's immemorial business. It is her business still, and that it is sometimes performed with indifference and is not always her joy and her pride is often the result of our imperfect adjustment of these old functions to altered conditions. It was easy to see and to acknowledge the ruler of the home in the mother, the housekeeper, the bread giver, when all her duties were performed within her own four walls -- her baking, her brewing, her weaving, her mixing of simples, her nursing of the sick. Her importance to the community was then self-evident.

Yet the possessor of historical insight and of a quickened imagination can recognize [today], under all our altered forms of living, that woman is still performing the same functions. She has not laid them aside because the forms of her work have altered. The girl who packs crackers in the modern factory is the veritable descendant of her early foremother grinding the wheat and roasting the cake in the ashes. The tens of thousands of girl votaries who tend the power sewing machine are but the daughters of ancestral woman whose fingers fashioned rough garments out of skins. The teachers who fill our public schools almost to the exclusion of men are partners in the mother work of training the child to fill his place in the world when his time shall come, and, in a sense, the modern representatives of the savage woman when she instructed the baby hunter in the art of setting snares or sharpening his stone axes.

There is little doubt that women in industry at the present moment afford a striking example of maladjustment, owing to the factory surroundings of the work they are performing, along with their lack of power to control those surroundings.

No one in close touch with the lives of our American working people can be satisfied with existing conditions, either industrial or domestic, and very much of this undesirable state of affairs has come about through the fact that industrial and domestic activities have so largely slipped out of the control of woman with her home-building instincts, her love for order and her passion for details.

The old division of labor, which defined man's work as that lying outside the home and woman's inside, had much to recommend it. The trouble with us is that we have enlarged the boundaries of the home and have not enlarged the home maker's powers with it. For what is the modern factory, from the cotton mill to the steam laundry, from the flour mill to the canning works, but a place where an assemblage of workers do on a large scale for the whole community what each individual housekeeper used to do on a small scale for her own household? What are all these new social efforts -- our public-school system, our municipal playgrounds, our public baths and libraries, our systems of street cleaning and transportation, our hospitals and asylums -- but modern efforts to meet in modern ways the old needs of humanity? Are women to have no direction in these matters because the innate desire to help others, to feed, to clothe, to nurse, to teach and to train the race has taken on new forms?

Of recent years many attempts have been made to remedy this. Public officials, dimly feeling that something was wrong, have sought women's [cooperation], by consulting with women's clubs, by increasing the number of women upon the boards of charitable institutions, and even by appointing them to executive official positions. But all women who have tried to work through methods so indirect will acknowledge how wasteful of energy and ineffective are such round-about plans, compared with the simple and easy method of expressing opinion through the vote.

Is it quite by accident that those states where women enjoy partial or complete suffrage make also the best showing as regards the administration of schools, the restriction of child labor, and the protection of young girls? There is probably no country in the world where the interests of children, taking them from every point of view, are so carefully guarded as in Colorado, where the women have full suffrage. Colorado was likewise the first state to raise the age of protection for girls to eighteen.

But it is not only the interests of children which the women of a community are especially fitted to guard. They are also the natural protectors of those of their own sex, who, though past childhood, are still young, inexperienced and, in the industrial contest, utterly helpless. The average age of working women in the United States is surprisingly low, and the majority of them are much too young and inexperienced to secure for themselves reasonable hours of work, or to estimate the risks from unguarded machinery or dangerous processes, from foul air, from indecent or immoral surroundings.

A seasonal trade means slack work and long periods of unemployment alternated with such rushes that half-grown girls are driven to the limits of physical endurance, so that fainting and nervous collapses are not uncommon. The effects of factory and store life upon a young growing creature are seen in a lowered physical standard which must tell in the future in a weakened constitution for herself and her children. Injuries from revolving rollers, laundry machines, and so forth, spinal troubles and varicose veins from long standing, and the frequent occurrence of consumption -- sure index of fagging vitality -- are other results of our short-sighted industrial methods.

The extremely low wages paid to young women workers doubtless serve to recruit the ranks of prostitution, the wages paid in many trades being utterly insufficient to support a girl respectably, to give her decent food, clothing and lodging, not to speak of satisfying her perfectly innocent desire for amusement and youthful society. And yet all industrial legislation affecting these girls is decided without consultation with their mothers or with other adult women of the community.

A voice in the management of schools and playgrounds, and water supplies, and street cleaning, may come to women through school and municipal suffrage, but this by no means covers all the ground. Child-labor laws are state affairs. Pure-food laws are state made and state administered. Even national legislation may come very close to the most intimate concerns of a woman's life, such, for instance, as the proposed national divorce bill, or the regulations which admit immigrants or deny them admittance.

For woman's voice to be effective in all our enlarged housekeeping she needs full suffrage; and, if she needed it for nothing else, she has a claim to share the fullest social civic life for the sake of her own mental development. Take the foreign-born woman. True education in citizenship is not conferred by a naturalization paper, but by the accumulated experiences of life in the new country. Our school laws, our sanitary and labor regulations, whose very existence the immigrant woman often learns only when she comes up against them, as it were, form her first introduction to the sense of a large complex civic life.

For the results of conferring the ballot upon working women we can now look across the States to Australia and New Zealand, where the legislation in which women have borne their share is beginning to attract the attention of thoughtful men and women in all civilized lands. The women voters in those countries have asked for the protection of women and children on lines very similar to those on which our women have so long worked. But they have the ballot, their representatives sit in the legislatures. Our sponsors rarely penetrate further than some outside lobby. Therefore, it is not strange that the legislation of those countries on matters involving the care of infant life, the wages and the hours of women factory workers, the limitation of the work of children, and juvenile-court legislation, is in many respects in advance of anything we in America can yet boast. Yet the women of Australia, we are told, spent but little of their energy in pleading for these reforms, but bent all their efforts in winning for themselves the ballot, in forging for themselves the labor-saving tool, which should do their work for them, and do it quickly and efficiently.

EDITOR'S NOTE -- The editors of the Companion have their own ideas about the working woman and the ballot. In many respects they differ from the views expressed by Miss Addams. In the main, however, her presentation of facts is so convincing, her arguments so plausible, and her knowledge of conditions so complete, that we know our readers will welcome an opportunity to read in her own words the conclusions she has drawn from her rich experience. As usual, we would welcome a discussion by our readers of the important questions raised by Miss Addams' article.

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