“Why I Want Woman Suffrage” in Collier’s Magazine, 16 March 1912

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As the woman suffrage movement, slowly but inexorably, advanced across the United States securing women the right to vote in local and state elections, momentum grew for an amendment to the Constitution that would enshrine the franchise for federal elections, a dream finally realized with the passage of the 19th Amendment, which took effect in time for the 1920 general election.

In California, woman suffrage was achieved in 1911, the same year Progressive-era lobbying led to the introduction of the initiative, referendum, and recall—all four of which made for significant changes in the Golden State’s electoral politics, though not always as backers of these elements intended. The year after, Collier’s, one of the most prominent national magazines, ran a feature article, “Why I Want Woman Suffrage” by Frederic C. Howe in its issue of 16 March 1912, this being tonight’s highlighted artifact from the museum’s holdings.

Howe (1867-1940) was born in Pennsylvania and, wanting to be a journalist, earned a PhD, a rare achievement in the late 19th century, at Johns Hopkins University hoping to find a position with a major paper. This failing, however, he became a lawyer in Cleveland, joining a firm run by the sons of the late President James Garfield, but his real passion became Progressive politics and, while he served a single term as a Republican on the city council from 1901-1903, he became an independent and then a Democrat, He served one term in the Ohio state senate from 1906-1908, but found that unsatisfying.

Howe’s enthusiasm for woman suffrage was largely due to the influence of his wife, Marie Jenney Howe, a minister, though he was also involved in trying to get the initiative, recall and referendum applied to the Buckeye State and was also a dedicated single-tax proponent, as proposed by the influential Henry George. In 1911, however, he and his wife, who became a prominent suffrage proponent and feminist, moved to New York City, where he ran the People’s Institute, a prominent Progressive forum.

Under President Woodrow Wilson, who taught Howe at Johns Hopkins, Howe served as the commissioner at Ellis Island, overseeing immigration at the famous gateway to America. After the end of World War I, Howe traveled with the president to France as an adviser in the tortuous Treaty of Versailles negotiations. He continued to advocate for progressive politics and seamlessly transitioned into a New Deal proponent during the Great Depression and worked as counsel for one of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s many New Deal programs before his death.

In his article, Howe began simply by asserting that women getting the vote because they were taxpayers was irrelevant; rather, he said, “I want women to vote because they are women just I want men to vote because they are men.” To him, the franchise would mean that “when we double the suffrage in America, we will double the self-respect of America, and self-respect is the most valuable thing in the world.”

With this in mind, Howe added, “I want woman suffrage because it will free woman. It will also free man.” Drawing an interesting parallel to slavery, in which the master was degraded by it, he offered that “to-day man suffers from the disability of the woman. He loses almost as much as does she.” Whatever one makes of these statements, Howe added that women had more free time than in the past, so “she is free from many age-long prejudices that cripple man’s political intelligence.”

He then moved into discussions about poverty, hunger, poor food, monopolies, unsafe working conditions and observed that it was men who made the laws that allowed for these terrible issues to ferment and noted “men do not think of these things as will women” because they were focused on labor or on money. But, he continued, “long habit has made women think in terms of husbands, children, and unborn babes” and so Howe proclaimed “I want a civilization in which one-half the people will vote in terms of humanity rather than in terms of property.”

The list of desires continued with a litany that mainly sounds contemporary in 2021:

I want to live in a world that is free from the law-made privileges that beget the poverty from which we all suffer; free from the terror of hard times, of lost jobs, of periods of sickness and accident almost as fearful as death. . .

I want to live in a city where the daily wages of women and girls will support life; where the lost job means somethng other than the street or starvation. I want to live in a country where prostitution will not be the price we pay for our bargain-counter economies; in a country where the doors of the prison will open outward for those who have become tangled in the machinery of the modern industrial world.

I want to live in a world that hates these things, hates them so thoroughly that it will abolish them.

I want to live in a world that thinks of its people rather than of business, of consumers rather than producers, of users rather than makers, of tenants rather than owners; in a world where life is more important than property, and human labor more valuable than privilege.

As women are consumers, users and tenants rather than producers, makers and owners, I have hopes for a society in which woman have and use the ballot.

I want woman suffrage because I believe women will correct many of these law-made wrongs that man has made. For women will vote in terms of human life rather than in terms of special privilege.

Howe observed that women would be very aware of the economic effects of tariff-affected prices on sugar, as well as the cost of blankets and clothes for children because of monopolies and, while they may not know much of stock market manipulations, they “may get hysterical over dirty streets, inadequate schools, crowded street cars, and monopoly prices.” As to that ignorance of the financial world, “they may vote in ignorance, but, at least, they won’t think themselves wise when they merely vote the opinions of those who control the agencies for making false public opinion.” Put simply, “women will have to be shown.”

Taking another tack, Howe delved into prehistory by stating that “woman could protect herself and her brood by the same weapons that man employed. She had the same rude club.” Later, though, “she worked by the side of her husband in the home or the field.” In early 20th century America, “woman is still the guardian of the brood,” but she faced formidable foes in machines and disease and illness, as well as having to protect her family against “assailants [who] are social, industrial, legal.” In the modern world, “the dangers that beset us are industrial . . . [and] are the product of laws or the absence of laws,” corrected only at the ballot box and then in the halls of legislatures.

In concluding, Howe proclaimed that “society must put an end to thse conditions if it would live; it must check the chaos, cruelties, and human waste that industrial life involves.” While men could correct these by their votes, “their correction will be hastened, it will come more surely, more wisely, by the cooperation of those who suffer most from the costs of the present system—by the votes of women.”

Howe’s extraordinary essay evoked an enthusiasm for woman suffrage in the context of a Progressive view of the many needs to be addressed in a grossly inequitable society attendant with so many dangers to so many Americans. His view that women were particularly attuned to the human dimension of society and could be powerful forces in helping to alleviate the worst effects of industrialization, monopoly and other elements in the nation’s economic, political and social sphere is also notable.

Elsewhere, there is an editorial concerning “Working Hours For Women,” specifically dealing with an amendment to an Illinois law that would limit women in certain jobs from working more than ten hours a day. More particularized is the focus in the piece on young Polish women who “are under twenty-five years of age, strong, large, and somewhat slow of movement.” In cities like Chicago, the goal, it was stated, was “that these new citizens become industrially more skillful, keep their health, remain morally sound, acquire the English language, and successfully learn American habits.”

Moreover, it was asserted, overwork meant the there was no leisure or recreation so that,

When Saturday night comes, the demand for some sort of excitement is almost too strong to resist; and physical and nervous exhaustion leads to a demand for acute stimulation of the senses. The neighboring saloon keeper is alert to attract the change-needing girl to the dance halls.

This, then, seemed to be a preeminent justification for limiting hours of work in most places (factories, stores, hotels, restaurants, telegraph and telephone offices, and others) to ten hours.

There are other items of interest in the issue, including a second part of “The Modern Fairyland,” which took a critical look at stock sellers and promoters manipulating the gullible; a pictorial section with images of Chinese women voluntering into a Red Cross corps under the new Republican regime, the frantic escape from Mexico, embroiled in revolution, of the daughter of Woodrow Wilson, who won the presidential election that fall, as well as insurrectionists at Juarez in Mexico; and “The Girls Behind the Counter,” whic examined women working in stores and the lack of protections for them against “starvation wages,” a term we hear a lot today.

As always, it is also interesting to peruse advertisements, quite a few of which are for automobiles, which were rapidly growing in use in America, and the onset of the mass-produced and affordable Ford vehicles would make the car even more common in ensuing years. One ad that stands out is for the Baker Electric car, with cars using this power source fairly common in those days.

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