Thursday, October 15, 2015

Wait, How many Signatures?

“Wish this trip were over it is no joke…” Sara wired Erskine from Pueblo.[1] It was grueling beyond what she and the Swedes ever could have imagined before leaving San Francisco. But as time went on she could see the positive energy and momentum the trip was building, and she became more confident of her speaking abilities.  In and out of mud pits, dealing with hostile men, losing and finding their way; these setbacks and more Sara and the Swedes overcame. And it made for great press.

“Oh, these men…” Sara said to a Kansas City Star reporter. “Will they ever get rid of the idea that men and women are made of two different kinds of clay? We didn’t need any men to help us drive across the country, through all kinds of hardships and into situations that would have tried any man.”[2]

The truth was, there was great symbolic value to the vision of women doing a car trip across the country unaccompanied by men, even if it wasn’t the first one that had ever been done. Alice Ramsey had done this in 1911. But it was still rare enough that many people hadn’t seen it, or perhaps even heard of it. Still, it wasn’t entirely true that the envoys had no help from men along the way. Maria and Ingeborg had hired a man to drive them over the Sierras, and while he got them lost they’d hired another male driver to get them through the desert and into Salt Lake City.

From Topeka Capital, 10.24.15
From Topeka Capital, 10.24.15
I’ve been amused, though, at the way the accounts in the newspapers appear to be getting more exaggerated. I don’t know if Sara was just getting punch drunk, or if the reporters flat out got it wrong. Both are possible, I suppose. But the Emporia Gazette says they’d collected one million names on the petition, and a Kansas City MO paper quotes Sara as saying they had 1.5 million signatures. News articles refer to the “mammoth petition” or “monster petition.” They left San Francisco with 500,000 names, supposedly, and there’s no way they’d collected even half a million more in just a few weeks.  And when they arrived in DC some accounts say they still only had 500,000 signatures, though they must have picked some up along the way.

The truth is, I’m starting to have my doubts about this petition. One news article claims that when they left San Francisco the petition was already 18,000 feet long. Hmmm, that’s equivalent in length to 50 football fields; you can also think of it as almost 3.5 miles. That’s one hell of a petition, even if they wrote it on the flimsiest toilet paper. And check out this front-page photo in the Congressional Union newspaper showing Sara with the petitions under her arm. She wasn’t a big person, and she doesn’t seem as if she’s struggling to hold them up. Does that look like 500,000 signatures to you? And would something that big have even fit in the car? Where did they put it? How did they protect it from the sun, wind and rain?
From 10.16.15 The Suffragist

It’s a mystery. None of the accounts I’ve seen of this trip have ever questioned the petition story. I’ll have to look into this some more…

I enjoyed my tour through Kansas, trying to ferret out some new information about the original trip and the effect it had and talking with some amazing women about women’s interests and issues in 2015, including Anita Epps and Mariana from the LWV of Topeka. The League is doing great work around protecting voting rights for everyone, not just women.

One of the people I met with was Sylvia Stevenson, who’s the founder and president of the KC chapter of the National Congress of BlackWomen. Since she’s about 20 years younger than I am I was curious about Sylvia’s thoughts on why women don’t get more involved in politics. She thought it was a lot about our DNA. “Women don’t wake up in the morning and say ‘I’m ready for conflict,” said Sylvia. “By nature we’re nurturers, and it’s hard for us to give up what we hold most dear- our children and families.”
Sylvia Stevenson

Women carry the majority of responsibility on the home front; we’re more likely to be the lead cooks and child care providers, point people for school and the doctor, and caretakers for aging parents. While men do help out, the Family Caregiving Alliance estimates that women provide two-thirds of the care for families, and will spend up to 50% more time providing care than men do.

I’m not sure what we do about the DNA issue. But Sylvia also thought that it was hard for women to run because they can’t afford it. Here’s where things like getting paid less than men, and being more likely to work part-time (in order to care for their families) works against women’s political careers. They make less money, they’re less likely to rise to influential positions within their companies, and honestly it’s hard to be out there networking when you’re home changing diapers or taking Dad to his third doctor appointment this week. So better pay and more supports for families providing care to their aging parents would be a huge help.

A hundred years ago Alice Paul would get frustrated with women who weren’t willing to concentrate exclusively on suffrage. But even she had to disappear from DC to take care of her family’s New Jersey farm when someone got ill, and so did many of her most faithful organizers. It just seemed to be understood that when someone in your family got really ill, it was the women who gave up everything they were doing and came back to help. Men can also be nurturers and there are lots of examples of them providing great support, but it still feels like the sex roles haven’t changed an awful lot in the last 100 years.

Some of this was echoed in a phone interview I did with Robert Barrientos, from Latinos of Tomorrow in KCMO. When I asked him “why don’t women run?” he also cited home responsibilities. “Women are the first to volunteer,” he told me, and they make the greatest volunteers.” But they’re often busy at home raising kids, and so they aren’t able to establish a broad network which makes it hard for them to get elected.

Rick in front of the Oz Mueum
Darn. What do we do about that? Maybe having more high-quality, affordable child care would help…But to get that we’d probably need to have more women in office, and oops we’re back to the same old problem. Meanwhile, take a peek at this sobering look at what happens when you photoshop men out of important moments- kind of alarming, isn’t it?

Maybe we just need to go to Oz…Dorothy and the witches were pretty powerful there. We came through Wamego KS today and discovered the OZ Museum. We were short on time so we didn’t go in, but here’s a photo of Rick.

'Bye Kansas. On to Lincoln, Nebraska tomorrow, and a date with the Lincoln League of Women Voters.

[1] Sara Bard Field to CES Wood, October 15, 1915, WD Box 276, C.E.S. Wood Papers, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California
[2] “The Suffrage Car Gets In,” Kansas City Star, 10.21.15.

1 comment:

  1. I've wondered about the petition too. I wonder if you might be able to find out from Laura Ackley who just published San Francisco's Jewel City (Heyday Books) this year. I'd contacted her with a question regarding the research for my novel and she is extremely knowledgable. I heard her speak in Santa Rosa to their historical society and she was so impressive in both her knowledge and love of the subject. Her email was also not hard to find. She has a collection of ephemera that far exceeds what she could share in her book. Maybe she would have information on the petition. Best of luck.