Women's Club and Public Policies, June 10, 1914

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When I recall the first meeting of the General Federation of Women's Clubs held in Chicago in 1892, it stands out through two vivid personalities, one of them the president, Charlotte Emerson Brown, whom I had known from my college days, the other a charming page, Jenny Dow Harvey, who attended the ladies sitting upon the platform in Central Music Hall. That building has been torn down, and both my friends, the president and the page, have died. Twenty-two years have elapsed with their inevitable changes, and yet this meeting so reproduces the other that I catch again the purple vision of women united in a gigantic quest for the essential elements of culture which in my shortsightedness I supposed belonged to the irrevocable season of beginnings. The Settlements were also young in those days, and we too anticipated through a social regrouping and the liberation of energies hitherto unused, a notable enrichment of the pattern of human culture.

In that first meeting in Chicago, on the eve of the World's Fair, we were made freshly conscious of the subtle and [page 2] impalpable filaments that secretly bind our thoughts and moods into cosmopolitan relations, we were filled with a new happiness analogous to the simple joy that comes to little children when they are first taught to join hands together in ordered play.

Twenty-five years ago American women were only beginning to recognize the fundamental difference between individual and social, between what a child inherits from its parents and what he derives from a social group; what he shares with his blood relations and what he has in common with the men of his own generation. As housewives, women had taken little interest in the life of industry and business because it was their sole and only aim to bring together the products in order to transmute and harmonize them into a home, so when women first responded to social claims, in the same spirit they merely selected from the methods of educationalists, from the foresight of statesmen, what they considered needful for the social environment of their children, and felt no responsibility beyond [page 3] that of a wise selection.

The earliest Clubs were chiefly valuable because they revealed to women the use of that great tool, human intercourse, and the marvel that the solitary joy of individual effort may be supplemented by its due social sequence of communication. In the decade following the Chicago meeting, the newly organized Clubs, between them all, attempted nothing less than to apprehend and to harmonize our common spiritual heritage as enshrined in poetry, in history, in science, in art, in drama, in music, that it might become a great apparatus for the evocation of cultural life. It is easy to treat lightly this period of Club development, but certainly the constant [coordination] of these ever multiplying specialized studies reacted on the life and character of each community more deeply and intimately than anything less fructifying could. Women learned to study and observe, to make use of the accumulated experience of mankind, to follow life through all its bewildering changes, to rejoice in its variety and richness, to understand it as a vital process. [page 4] Perhaps nothing less universal than those first programs could have made the women's clubs conscious of the tendencies which mark each age for what it is -- that summary of its experiences, knowledge, and affections found at the very root of social existence, which is called "the trend of the times". The early biennial meetings held by the Federation were gigantic reviews, as it were, of the forces engaged in the struggle to assert the strength and beauty of human nature in the teeth of a material civilization which inevitably tends to separate art from industry, intellectual from social life, business from morals.

It is always easy for a democracy which insists upon writing its own program, to shut out imagination, to distrust sentiment, and to make short work of the past. It takes something like a united faith and a collective energy to insist upon their value and to make them operative upon public opinion. Was it the great function of the women's clubs throughout those earlier years to create community of feeling and thought about the world and the way it works -- what Professor James [page 5] used to call the "like-mindedness" which is so essential in any effort toward concerted action? Certainly when the time for action came it was found that the soil had been prepared in which a sound public opinion might be nurtured, and that women's clubs were eagerly ready to discuss matters of public policy, one after another, as they came before the country. Their name is legion, but to select them with some reference to their historic order would be to instance the kindergarten and domestic science for the public schools, prohibition of child labor, civil service reform, immigration, forestry, pure foods, protective legislation for women, conservation of water and mineral resources, vocational training, preservation of birds, [traveling] libraries and art galleries, the suppression of commercialized vice, and many another. And if the Woman's Club occasionally ran up the flag of a new cause for the pure pleasure of seeing it float in "the sunshine of sentimentalism", little harm was done, -- in the words of the politician, "it did the country good".

Many of these subjects remained mere themes for [page 6] discussion for years, but society has a curious trick of suddenly regarding as a living issue, vital and unappeasable, some old outworn theme which has been kicked about for years as mere controversial material. The newly moralized issue, almost as if by accident, suddenly takes fire and sets whole communities in a blaze, lighting up human relationships and public duty with new meaning, and transforms abstract social idealism into violent practical demands, although still entangled with the widest human aspiration. When that blaze actually starts, when the theme is heated, molten as it were with human passion and desire, it can best be used as a weapon in that marvelous kulturkampf in which the women's clubs are engaged. When that wave of civic emotion surged into the focus of attention and is now high through the length and breadth of the nation, which had for its watchword "The City Beautiful", it was most important that there had long been Municipal Art Committees, that public schools had been supplied with good pictures, that trees had been planted in barren towns, that club women had been instrumental in saving the Palisades on [page 7] the Hudson River and in establishing a National Park, it all gave reality and background to the movement. When the new social imperative entitled "Know your City" gathered momentum and won acceptance far and wide, so that under its impulse and sanction there is inquiry into the facts and tendencies of city life, it was again important that women everywhere had been taught the value of inspecting milk and foods, the needlessness of tuberculosis, the necessity for good factory conditions, the possibilities of garden cities. Women's Clubs were prepared for these social surveys, whether the maps exhibited sewers and water pipes, or showed the need for reorganization of the railway terminals, or whether they demonstrated that because of a lack of recreational and cultural resources young people are led astray through sheer vacuity of mind. What a difference it made in the discussion and understanding of all these public policies that a million women all over the nation were already conversant with them and constantly disseminating information! Of course it sometimes became the business of Women's Clubs to demonstrate that knowledge [page 8] gives power and that emotional impulses may be controlled as well as created by the possession of an ideal; but it was quite within the first decade of the Federation that public spirited women discovered that the cultural outlook on life must not only become as aggressive as the commercial, if it hopes to be effective, but as widespread and as deeply rooted in conviction. They found that it was necessary to command a public opinion not only in the city or state in which the reform was needed, but throughout the country; that any organization less widespread than the Federation of Women's Clubs, with interests less universal, would have availed but little.

We are not without proofs that some such results have already been achieved. To illustrate by examples of protective legislation for working women: -- within thirty days during February and March of this current year the Supreme Court of Oregon, by a unanimous decision, sustained the Minimum Wage law; the Supreme Court of the United States, in an Ohio case, sustained the fifty-four-hour week, the ten-hour day, and the six-day week; and by the vote of Congress eight hours for women workers was established [page 9] in the District of Columbia.

It would be interesting to know the number of letters to legislators written by club women, the exact hundreds of papers read and discussions held in women's club meetings, upon the themes involved in these three notable decisions. The Federation of Women's Clubs has been an important factor in creating and disseminating the new social sympathy. Shall it hesitate to go on with the beneficent work because it is afraid to use political tools so long monopolized by [self-seeking] men?

Twenty-five years ago the prosperous American woman was peculiarly subjected to the temptations of falling into idleness and [self-absorption], and to her credit be it said that she evolved and utilized the woman's club not only as a safeguard to herself, but made it a tremendous force for democratic and beneficent action. Do the clubs themselves now face the certain temptations? There is always danger that organized [cooperation] will fetter initiative and simple action, will place unnecessary limitations upon individual liberty. Ellen Key has recently [page 10] called our attention to the fact that present day parliamentarianism and administration by committees often [result] in suppressing the personality of every member of an association for the sake of "the [illegible] good of the whole."

All these efforts to give effective expression to new demands, demonstrating as they do the dependence of the political machine for its driving force upon many varieties of social fuel, make clear woman's need for a larger political participation. Without the franchise, woman is suddenly shut out of the game -- the game played all over the world by statesmen who at this moment are attempting to translate the new social sympathy into political action.

Fourteen years ago the Federation passed a resolution urging the members to help enforce Child Labor laws in every state where such laws had been enacted; at the next Biennial a Child Labor Committee was established, and ever since it <this cause> has been an accepted obligation of woman's clubs. Next winter, however, the subject comes up for legislative enactment or amendment in thirty [page 11] states. Public sentiment is still necessary, but the stage of definite law making has been reached, unless we would permit one million seven hundred and fifty-two thousand children to continue to work in the mines and factories of America.

The Woman's Club movement is but one manifestation of that larger effort for liberty and culture found in great women's souls all over the world. Among the pioneers were the women who held the famous drawing-rooms of the 18th century. At first they laid great stress on human intercourse as the individual's best means of culture, contending that it even surpassed books or travel. Later they gave as a raison d'etre for even the most brilliant salon that people must come together in order to reason or to exercise justice, and they became enormously proud of the fact that by the end of the century all Europe was thrown into a state of agitation "if an injustice were committed in any corner of it." Have the woman's clubs also learned to enlarge their definition of culture until at last it includes the abolition of all social injustices? [page 12]

The clubs of this Federation early learned through their philanthropies that in loving-kindness there is a great salvation; through their study of [literature] poesy and art, that in beauty there is truth; Are they not now adding the third dictum, that in understanding of life lies the path to social progress?