Sunday, January 6, 2008

Woman Suffrage in Idaho by Governor Frank Steunenberg

I will perhaps comment more later but I just found this excellent article written by Governor Steunenberg on the status of women suffrage in Idaho during his administration. I had not seen it before. It was nice to find a formal paper written by the governor that I think provides quite a bit of insight into his views of the suffrage movement and the progressive changes that took place in Idaho now well over 100 years ago.

I have converted to text from a jpeg document. Sometimes a few errors occur in the conversion process but I believe I caught all or most of them. The text was otherwise left just as written by Governor Steunenberg.

Harper's Bazaar. 33: 220-1. May 26, 1900.
Woman Suffrage in Idaho. Frank Steunenberg.
"I have been asked to give some practical observations on the system in Idaho by which women vote and hold office, and I comply willingly, feeling that it may serve to overcome to some extent misapprehensions which have arisen as to the results of woman's participation in public affairs. In doing this there is no purpose to discuss the theory or justice of woman suffrage, but to present the practical aspect of the subject because of actual experience with the system in Idaho.

The state of Idaho adopted woman suffrage in 1896, by means of a constitutional amendment, first passed in the Legislature in 1895, and then submitted to the people (male electors) for final determination. The origin of the movement in the Legislature was spontaneous, and was not, so far as I am aware, the result of any particular or prolonged outside propaganda by persons eager to spread the doctrine and practice of suffrage for women. In a community of liberal and progressive ideas the time seemed ripe for giving to women an equal share with men in the conduct of public affairs; without special effort, and with practically no opposition, the Legislature adopted the Joint Resolution submitting the question to the people. Once this had been done, the women throughout the state were stimulated to exertion; systematic organization was perfected in the state and counties, and an active campaign inaugurated. Attention was first directed to the various party conventions, and one after another the Democratic, Republican, Populist, Silver-Republican, and Prohibition party conventions endorsed the suffrage amendment. With all parties united and endorsing, there was no organized opposition, and the opponents of the measure confined their activities to voting against it. The vote occurred in November, 1896, at the same time that presidential electors were chosen, and the result was overwhelmingly favorable to the suffrage amendment. About 30,000 votes were polled at that election, the amendment vote being somewhat below that on other issues; the ratio of votes on the amendment was approximately two to one in its favor.

This placed in our constitution and in our statute-books a suffrage law of the most absolute and sweeping character. It placed both sexes on an exact equality, not only so far as voting is concerned, but also in holding office. There is no limitation of the suffrage to school and certain other public functions in which women are specially concerned, as is the case in some states, but the right to vote is universal, for municipal and county officers, state officers, senators and representatives in Congress, state legislators, and for presidential electors. The same equal privilege is open to hold office under the state, county, or municipality government.

The first general election to come after the adoption of the amendment was held in 1898. and at that time one woman, Miss Permeal French, was elected on the Democratic ticket to the office of State Superintendent of Public Instruction, and three women, a Democrat, a Populist, and a Republican, were elected to the Legislature. Miss French is a woman of superior ability and intelligence, and it is conceded by all that she is the best officer in that capacity the state .has ever had. The place she occupies is one of unusual importance with us, as the state superintendent of instruction prepares the course of study for all the schools of the state. administers the liberal and advanced system by which every school in the state has the same course of study and the same text-books, furnished free by the state, directs the general execution of the compulsory school law, under which every child of school age-between five and eighteen years-must attend school at least six months in every year; and, in addition to these educational duties, has general charge of the education of the deaf, dumb, and blind children. To carry on these various branches of public work, Miss French has an office at the state capitol, with a staff of assistants, and the business is performed in the most systematic and satisfactory manner. Of the three women in the Legislature it may also be said that they made most acceptable public officers, serving with ability and success.

In every case the women were regularly nominated at conventions of the several parties to which they belonged. A number of others were nominated and elected to county offices. In some cases the women placed in nomination were defeated at the polls, showing that they took the same chances of success or failure as the men. The fact that a candidate was a woman made no difference for or against her, the support being given with regard to the fitness of candidates rather than on any sentimental or emotional grounds. In theory it had been asserted that the gallantry of men would lead them to vote for women candidates, just as they would yield to women the seats of a crowded car, but in practice it was found that there was no such departure from the usual healthy rivalry between candidates. The only vital questions at the polls were those of merit and party.

Our experience has been similarly satisfactory in the orderly conduct at polling-booths, and the entire absence of those unseemly scenes and incidents which it had been feared might attend the presence of women at the voting-places. The women not only go to the polls to deposit their ballots, but they are there to electioneer, just as are men ; they work in behalf of candidates they consider best fitted for the public service, run carriages to bring in the voters, men and women, exactly like citizens older in suffrage rights. All this, however, is carried on in a most orderly and proper manner, and excites no more comment in the case of the women than it does in that of the men. We are fortunate in having the Australian ballot law, and this, together with a law closing all saloons on election day, insures an orderly procedure, without crowding about the booths, and with very little drunkenness.

The suggestion may be made that this activity of women in public affairs has operated to draw them away from their homes and from the usual domestic avocations, a suggestion that our experience amply disproves. In Idaho women are to-day the same loving wives, kind mothers, and capable home-managers that they have always been. Nor has there been the least belittling of the sex in the eyes of the men, nor any falling off in that tenderness and respect which men universally accord to women. There is not the slightest interruption of family ties. Husband and wife may vote the same way, or the husband may vote one way and the wife another. Whether they vote together or oppositely excites no interest and no animosity, although naturally families have the same party affiliations. As the system has not operated to take women from their homes, so too it has not tended to make them in any way masculine.

Concerning the extent to which women in Idaho exercise the rights given them by the law, it has been found to be very general. In 1898, with women voting, the total vote was about 40,000, and of this fully forty per cent, was cast by women. There is every reason to believe this percentage will increase, until, in my judgment, the percentage of women voting will be as large as that of men. As to the character of the vote. It does not appear to come from any particular classes or places; the cities and the country districts alike give their quota of women votes, although the tendency of women in the cities towards voting is rather greater than that of the country places.
 
In a general sense, there can be no doubt that the participation of women in our public affairs has had a most elevating influence. All parties see the necessity of nominating the best individuals of their parties. The natural aim of women is towards the best good of the community and to secure the highest social conditions. Instead of seeking extremes of reform, as had been predicted, they are interested in stable and conservative administration, for the benefit of the homes and the children, and they avoid radical and excessive reforms. In short, the objections which, in theory, have been urged against woman's participation in public affairs have been overcome by the actual application of the system in Idaho, and with this has come to us that elevating and ennobling influence which a woman always exerts upon the affairs in which she has a part."

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