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Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Laura Ingalls Wilder on women voting

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For having died fifty years ago, Laura Ingalls Wilder remains a best-selling author. In fact, her books continue to come out decades after she stopped writing. The latest compilation of her writings covers essays she wrote for the Missouri Ruralist, which are no longer under copyright. I will present excerpts here, interspersed with my comments (italics mine).

WOMEN'S DUTY AT THE POLLS April 20, 1919

"Now that women . . . have been given the right to vote . . . it will be interesting to observe how they will respond to the new duty laid upon them."

Note how a right, once conferred, immediately became a duty. Laura will explain why later on; for now she assumes it.

"That it is a duty for every self-respecting woman to discharge faithfully there can be no question; and as these women are not in the habit of failing in their duties, there is no danger that they will do so now that they understand the situation.

"We must get rid of the habit of classing all women together politically and thinking of "the woman's vote" as one and indivisible. . . . there are all kinds of women as well as of men, and . . . woman's vote will no more bring purity into politics . . . than . . . man's vote."

So Laura is setting forth the new situation: opening suffrage to women will not change the nature of the electorate, just the size. But something about that is of great concern to her:

"It is easy to forecast the effect of woman suffrage on politics if the home-loving, home-keeping women should refuse to use their voting privilege, for the rougher class of women will have no hesitancy in going to the polling places and casting their ballots. There must be votes enough from other women to offset these in order to keep the balance as it has been."

So, this is how a privilege becomes a duty. Because undesirable people will cast their votes (with no doubt an equally undesirable outcome), we of the nobler class must also vote to maintain the status quo.

But there is a fallacy or two behind this reasoning. One, which originally led to universal adult suffrage, is that it is a good thing to vote. Everyone who says this really believes deep down that it is not a good thing to vote undesirably. What the refined woman really wishes is that the rough woman would not exercise her right to vote, thus swinging things even more in the direction the refined woman wishes things would go. As an example of this, Laura earlier pointed out that female suffrage had not served to end the legal sale of whisky in Chicago, voting females of the rougher classes apparently having helped to decide the vote in favor of making their favorite drink more readily available.

What this mindset eventually leads to is clearly shown in elections where the entire electorate is encouraged to vote, but given no real choice as to the outcome of their vote. Saddam Hussein won his last election by 100%; it seems that the few who had voted against him in the previous election had been successfully encouraged to either change their minds or die in the interval. This, however, is the ideal election according to the mindset that every vote is good, but only if it leads to the desired outcome. The ideal election is 100% registration, 100% turnout, and 100% of the votes favoring the outcome already chosen by the ruling class. Or at the very least, to "keep things balanced" in favor of the same outcome.

Note how this mindset comes through as Laura struggles to make her point without ever stating the obvious:

"And so, as I said before, instead of being a privilege to be taken advantage of or neglected according to individual fancy, voting has now become, for the better class of women, a duty to be bravely and conscientiously done, even though it may be rather distasteful. It is up to them to see to it that the power of their ballot is behind their influence for good clean government; for an honest administration of public affairs; for justice for all and special privileges for none. In short, as they have stood behind their soldiers at home and abroad who were fighting for freedom and democracy, now [they should] stand shoulder to shoulder with them and keep up the fight."

Note what she didn't say: she never mentioned her desire or even the possibility that the lower class women would do their part by not voting. That they sneaked in under the new rules seems to bother her a bit, but as nothing can be done about that, she is determined to overrule the anticipated exercise of their electoral right as much as possible. Rougher women, she fears, will vote for a corrupt government; for crooked administration of public affairs; for special privileges for some and injustice for the rest. In fact, although Laura appears not to have foreseen it, for sending both themselves and their refined cousins to war along with the men they had previously only supported from home.

Well, Laura, guess what.

Whatever their station in life, these are the very outcomes the American electorate has chosen at the ballot box. Female Suffrage preceded the Social Security Administration, The New Deal, the Great Society, the Patriot Act, the Global War on Terror, and the re-election of convicted felon Marion Barry. To fund all these programs, the refined woman has now had to join her coarser cousin in the workplace, because the wages of her husband are barely sufficient to support his family--and all of her wages, along with a growing portion of his, must go to support the programs of the federal government.

Could Laura have foreseen all this? Should she have? Let us read on.

"I fear that we are not quite ready to use the ballot intelligently. Though there has been warning enough that the responsibility was coming to rest upon us, we have been careless about informing ourselves of the conditions which the people of the United States must handle and the questions they must answer.

"In this reconstruction period, the most serious time which our nation and the world has ever been called upon to face, we come into the responsibility of helping to decide the fate of the world for perhaps hundreds of years, without being prepared."

Having taken on such a solemn role, and even admitting that she is not up to it, Laura nonetheless charges into it, confident that she can do a better job of it from the get-go than the men who have attempted no more than the status quo for over a hundred years:

"Women can no longer hide behind their husbands . . . by saying, "I don't pay any attention to politics. That is the men's business," nor can they safely vote as the men folks do without any other reason for so doing. We women know in our hearts, though we would not admit it, that our men are not infallible. They do sometimes make mistakes and have the wrong ideas.

"Frankly now, is it not true? This being the case, now that the responsibility is ours, we shall be obliged to think things out for ourselves if we are honest and fair to them and ourselves."

This really is the idealism of the neophyte--the new guy who always thinks he can do it better than the old-timers. Men vote wrongly, therefore it is the women's responsibility to cancel out not only the votes of the rougher class of women, but even those of their ill-informed husbands. Really, she thinks to much of herself if she is to clean escape the tendency to wrong ideas in only six months preparation for the exercise of her franchise. Of course men get wrong ideas--but so do women, even women of the refined classes. Thus it was that women who did not then look forward to the prospect of having to support themselves in old age voted in a system by which they would, sixty years later, have to live at a much lower standard of poverty than their own mothers.

My grandmother serves as an excellent example, except that I do not know how she herself voted. But I do know that this mindset which Laura obviously picked up from elsewhere had also reached my grandmother, as both she and her mother went together to vote in the national elections of 1920, she having attained her majority at the same time her mother gained suffrage.

The mother lived out her days in the home of a first a husband, then a son, and eventually that very daughter, never having had to depend on her own devices for a livelihood from the time she got married at the age of twenty-three until she died, a widow of twenty-one years. The daughter, on the other hand, lived out the long decades of her widowhood dependent first upon her own income as a schoolteacher, and, once she was too old to continue working, a combination of three different government handouts to which she had become entitled. When she still had children at home, before her husband had even died, she suffered the additional humiliation of being put on public assistance. How little could she have foreseen these outcomes on that November day of 1920! Yet the one followed the other as night follows day, when women took upon themselves to decide the fate of the world for the next few hundred years, irrespective of their husbands' opinions--and incomes.

"In plain words, as the other women will vote, we must do so in order to keep things properly balanced, and though we may be unprepared at present, there is no reason why we should not be able to vote intelligently by the time we are called upon to exercise the privilege."

To carry this argument to its logical extreme, suffrage should be extended down to the youngest child in school, who, after nearly a semester of imbibing the political sentiments of the Weekly Reader, should be amply informed as to cast the right vote. Unless, I suppose, he belongs to one of the rougher classes, in which case it is all the more important for his more genteel classmates to "keep things properly balanced."

Moving the other way, the fewer segments of the population that can vote, the less need there is to mobilize the other segments to "keep things balanced." Eliminate schoolchildren from the electorate, and the right-thinking elementary scholar is relieved of the burden of outvoting his errant classmates. Eliminate college students, and the genteel coed is relieved of the burden of outvoting her uninformed fellow underclassmen. Eliminate women altogether, and the threat from the rougher class thereof is eliminated therewith. But why eliminate women just to exclude the rougher classes? Let only refined, educated people vote, and soon there will be no need to even put two choices on the ballot.

Right?

2 comments:

  1. Let only refined, educated people vote, and soon there will be no need to even put two choices on the ballot.

    Gave me a bit of a laugh with that. But, don't we only end up with the choices that the refined educated people want us to have anyway? Who was the last candidate that was part of the rougher classes?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Ulysses Grant--a puppet president if ever there was one.

    ReplyDelete

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