Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Nebraska Brings Conservative Views and Meltdowns

Original illustration of  Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz.
If the witch figure was captioned an anti-suffragist,
this could have been used in a suffrage campaign...
I want to pick up where I left off in the last blog and note that L. Frank Baum, the author of the Oz books, was a big suffrage supporter. He married Maud Gage, whose mother was noted radical feminist and suffrage activist Matilda Joslyn Gage, and he developed female leaders in many of his books- notably Dorothy, but others as well. So it wasn’t completely random to mention Oz, it turns out.

I’m pretty sure that Sara and the Swedes could have used some yellow brick roads around this time. Things got a little better through Nebraska, at least there’s no mention of bad roads, mud holes, snowstorms, or the car breaking down. Still, it was a slog and they were in the part of the country that was least enthusiastic about their message.

In her later oral history Sara recalled that the western states were very enthusiastic about their mission, but the Midwesterners were more skeptical.  “The attitude seemed to be, ‘Oh, women never get together on anything,’” she said. There was a lot of doubt that women would agree to the CU’s strategy of holding the political party in power accountable for failing to pass the federal suffrage amendment, especially if it went against their own party.

 Sara did recall, though, that “the more remote a settlement was, the more glad it was to see you.” While they filled the car with gas in some little town, the proprietors would bring them coffee or tea, and beg them to stay and visit. Sara always explained that they had to be in some larger city in time for an event, and so off they’d go in a shower of warm wishes. When they got to DC she told Alice Paul, "You know, I am a symbol and I want you to know that as a symbol the Women's Party has had more blessings heaped on it than I think it can possibly evade. I think it will always have to admit that it had a special blessing."

Maria and Ingeborg, being older and from another culture, thought Sara was a little too free and easy with the men at the service stations they stopped at. But if a little light flirting lifted the tedium of the long miles, and encouraged the men to finish the servicing a little faster when the envoys were behind schedule, what was the harm in that?

Still, that general disapproval, combined with her simmering resentment at not being allowed to speak at the rallies, sent Ingeborg over the edge. “She suddenly turned on me and said that I was grabbing all the limelight, that while she and her companion sat on the platform every time, I always described them as driving the car at a time when women seldom would have undertaken such a journey and of being able to take care of the car, as if they were just, she said, menials. ‘You make all the speeches.’”

Sara tried to soothe her, explaining as delicately as she could about their broken English, and her own knowledge of the West and past organizing experience. “But it didn't mollify her at all,” Sara recalled, “and finally she said to me, ‘I'm going to kill you before we get to the end of this journey.’ She said it with a fierceness and with a look in her eye that was a little terrifying…”

I could understand that the rigors of the trip and the schedule were such that they might have made anyone a little nutty, but Sara goes on to say that they later learned that Ingeborg was a former mental patient who had only recently been released from some sort of home. 

Image of Ingeborg's rage
Sara’s assertion that Ingeborg was mentally ill has been widely accepted, but I wonder. Labeling someone as “crazy” can be a convenient way to exert social control, and there are certainly stories, for example, of husbands putting their wives in an asylum when they got too uppity. Ingeborg was clearly outspoken and a radical, and seems to have had a bit of a temper, a combination which put her at odds with the prevailing image of ideal womanhood, and at risk of being labeled deviant. And it must have been irritating to have thought at the outset they were equal partners in this glorious venture, only to be shunted aside as the lowly chauffeur and “mechanician.” Even if they did get to sit on the platform and have their pictures in the paper, it was Sara who was extensively quoted and fussed over. Sara, who's constantly pining for Erskine and whinging about her bad heart. Sara, who sits in the back seat and does NOTHING except deliver a little speech now and then, while Maria drives and Ingeborg patches tires and crawls under the car in the mud and snow to fix it. I mean...

Though I will say that Ingeborg does appear to look progressively cranky and weird as the trip goes on… Still, we know so little about either of the Swedes that I feel like we need to resist the rush to judgement. I mean, haven’t you ever been terminally pissed off by a traveling companion?

I’m also surprised that the incident didn’t appear in Sara’s letters to Erskine, or in any communication with the Congressional Union’s DC headquarters. If Sara really felt threatened, wouldn’t she have flagged it for someone? Tell Mabel? Sara did make a push to have the errant Frances Joliffe replace her in Chicago, although her excuse was fatigue and illness, not a murder threat.

At any rate, the threesome in the little black car did make it through Nebraska, stopping in Lincoln and then Omaha. These days the roads are lined with eerily identical cornstalks drying in the fields, and huge grain silos spotted at regular distances. I’m not sure what their views were like- probably a lot more small farms, but still a lot of corn, wheat, and hay though perhaps of different varieties. It’s not just me- Nebraska has become sort of metaphor for bleakness and misery, and I wonder if that also contributed to Ingeborg’s meltdown.

From the Omaha Daily News.
Honestly, I think they almost all look a little
wiggy in this photo...
Evidence of their chillier reception can be seen from their stop in Omaha, Nebraska, where only a handful of local suffragists dared to come out and support them. I had a feeling that was going to happen when I was looking at some suffrage history in the Nebraska state archives. The Nebraska Woman Suffrage Association was firmly in the camp of the state-by-state approach to enfranchising women. The Omaha Daily News took note, reporting the low turnout even though the event had had widespread publicity.  It also correctly identified the issue.

 Despite this, Mayor Dahlman and County Commissioner Johnny Lynch were glad to sign; maybe they were Republicans and all too happy to stick a spoke in Democrats’ wheels. They both joked that they reserved the right to vote another way, suggesting that they really did have other reasons to sign.

From the Omaha Bee
This division over suffrage strategies and tactics would become increasingly bitter in the next few years, especially once the Congressional Union started picketing the President at the White House gates. The National American Woman Suffrage Association, even though it eventually did put a lot more muscle behind passing the federal amendment, was adamant that its members would be strictly “non-partisan.” Campaigning against the party in power, and generally letting their elbows fly in the rough and tumble world of politics, were not part of their image of how women should behave. This blog is titled “We Demand…” in part to capture this difference in philosophy.

With League members at the library in Lincoln, NE
I was in Omaha on the weekend so I wasn’t able to meet with anyone locally, but I had a great reception in Lincoln courtesy of the local League of Women Voters. President Sherry Miller organized a lunch with several League members, and then we went over to the local library and I did a little talk about the original trip and what I’m up to. There was a small but enthusiastic crowd and we had a great discussion. Nebraska is yet another state that hasn’t enacted the Medicaid Waiver, where voting rights are under threat, and where women’s access to safe and legal abortions is restricted. Incidentally, my sister Vicki set around a link this morning to an article which explained in part how the red states have gotten to be red- see Democrats in Deep Trouble. This is precisely the pattern I’ve seen in my travels so far.
Afterward, one woman told me her own voting story. Her husband was in the service and stationed in Nebraska. Newly married and just turned 21, she went off to register to vote and was told that she had to vote at her husband’s listed home address, which was his parent’s home in Kentucky! A state she had never lived in. She had the gumption to protest and they eventually, reluctantly, as a special exception, allowed her to vote where she was then living and working. While this was over 40 years ago, it illustrates how in the not-too-distant past women’s rights were still really subservient to their husband's. Weird. And a little scary.

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