Document 28: Ellis Meredith, “What It Means to Be an Enfranchised Woman,” Atlantic Monthly, 102 (August 1908), pp. 196-202.
After victory, Colorado suffrage leader and journalist Ellis Meredith pursued a political career and became a national spokeswoman for Colorado’s success with woman suffrage. Known as “the Susan B. Anthony of Colorado,” Meredith (1865-1955) began her public suffrage career when she joined the staff of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver in 1889. The daughter of suffragist Emily R. Meredith, she edited a daily column, “Woman’s World,” in the newspaper, advocated both woman suffrage and temperance, held the position of Vice President of the Colorado Non-Partisan Equal Suffrage League in 1890, and supervised the 1893 referendum campaign.
In various writings, including this essay, in the years following 1893, Meredith reflected on the political and personal experience and meaning of woman suffrage for the State of Colorado, herself, and other women.
WHAT IT MEANS TO BE AN ENFRANCHISED
BY ELLIS MEREDITH
It is not a truism to say that nobody but the enfranchised woman knows what it means to be an enfranchised woman. . . .
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What does the possession of the ballot mean to women? Much or little, according to the woman, just as it means much or little to the individual man. Duty is always largely a matter of personal equation. Many men and women carry their obligations lightly. They pay their debts when they get ready, or are compelled by process of law, and curfew ordinances are enacted for the benefit of their children.
And right at this point may be found one of the fundamental differences between men and women in politics. The man whose boy is brought home by the policeman or truancy officer may be intensely interested in politics, -national politics. He may be rabid on the subject of the tariff and hardly know the name of his alderman. The woman who is interested in politics begins at home, and has a vital interest in the quantity and purity of the water supply. She wants to know why the streets are not kept clean, and she is willing to help. It was the women of Denver who prevailed on the authorities to part Twenty-third Avenue, put up anti-expectoration signs, and provide garbage-cans and drinking fountains at the street corners. Denver’s politics are unquestionably dirty, but Denver itself is a clean city.
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The first query put by the looker-on in Vienna who hopes to find out what the ballot means to woman is nearly always, “Do the women vote?” Now, that is a very significant question, for under it lies that latent distrust, that growing doubt of our form of government that can no longer be denied. Those who ask it doubtless know how many men fail to vote. Not long ago the returns showed that forty thousand men in the city of Boston had failed to avail themselves of their privilege to do so. No wonder we are asked if the women vote.
And they do. Let it be firmly fixed in the mind that women form but forty-two per cent of the population of Colorado, and they cast forty-eight per cent of the vote, and the thoughtful individual will perceive that practically all the women vote. What is more, they vote just about the same in “off” years as they do in presidential elections. Statistics have been gathered several times, and the figures remain relatively the same. At one municipal election in Colorado Springs, the wealthiest and most exclusive town in the state and a Republican stronghold, the women cast fifty-two per cent of the vote, and elected a Democratic mayor on a law-enforcement platform.
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On the question of temperance it has meant a great deal to the women to be enfranchised, though this is not evident in the large cities of the state. In Pueblo and Denver they are practically powerless. In Colorado Springs the sale of liquor is prohibited, and there is a more or less continuous warfare against its illicit sale by drugstores, and in so-called “clubs.” Greeley is also, by virtue of its charter, a “dry” town, but in the mining camps it is almost impossible to make much headway. All over the state, however, when the returns come in, the only question involved is usually “wet” or “dry,”[A] and the temperance “arid belt” seems to be growing.
One incident will suffice. Ten years ago there was a little town of less than a hundred inhabitants about twenty-five miles from Denver. It was a very tiny town, but it managed to support two saloons with the aid of the surrounding territory. A woman active in Women’s Christian Temperance Union work moved into the neighborhood shortly before the spring election, and learning that the sole question was the issuance of licenses to these saloons, she organized the women, who had only lacked a leader, and they defeated the license ticket, and have kept the saloon out of that town ever since. The town has more than quadrupled in size, and several important industries are now carried on there.
* * *
There have been individual campaigns and candidates that have shown something of the power of women when they have worked together. The reelection by the Civic Federation, of Mr. MacMurray as the mayor of Denver, when he had broken with the Republican machine; the election of Mrs. Helen L. Grenfell three times to the state superintendency of public instruction; the election of Judge Ben B. Linds[e]y[B] when both party machines had an understanding that he was to be shelved, -these are significant instances; but after all, the real meaning of government lies deeper than the choice of a few eminently fit candidates for office and the exclusion of unfit individuals. If the franchise were important only on the occasion of Colorado’s biennial elections, it would mean no more to women than it-apparently-does to men. As Senator Peffer said of Kansas, that it was not a place but a condition, so one might say of the suffrage, that it is not the ballot itself, or the polls, but a general and well-understood, even if undefined, attitude of mind.
The ballot has brought with it an intangible something that no one can understand who has not had to deal with public officials first as a humble suppliant and then as a constituent.
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There are certain things that all women want. The first law they asked for after their enfranchisement was one making them co-equal guardians of their children, with the father, and it passed practically without a dissenting voice. They had not secured it before, and such a law does not obtain in a third of the states of the Union to-day, though everywhere women have sought to obtain it. The next thing they did was to establish a State Home for Dependent Children, and from that time on they have passed first one and then another law for the protection of childhood, until no children in the world are better cared for than those of Colorado. Other states have similar laws, and some of them claim to possess better ones, but the peculiarity of the Colorado laws is that they are enforced. This is largely because the Colorado Humane Society is a part of the state administration, though its management remains in the society. This bureau has over seven hundred volunteer officers, scattered all over the state: this means that in the vast territory of one hundred and three thousand odd square miles there is no place so remote, on lonely prairie or in deserted mountain glen, that the law cannot hear “an infant crying in the night . . . and with no language but a cry.”
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What does it mean to be an enfranchised woman? It is easier to tell what it doesn’t mean. It does not mean the pleasing discovery that “politics is the science of government;” it does not mean attending a few political meetings and reading a few bits of campaign literature; it does not even mean going to the polls and voting as conscientiously as one knows how. All of that is but a small portion of it. The vital part of being enfranchised is not to be found in its political aspects at all, but in its effect in teaching us our relationship with the life around us. The real significance lies in getting in touch with what newspaper people call “the human interest” of daily life, and finding one’s own place in the great scheme of the universe.
And to be enfranchised means to make mistakes? Yes, dozens of them. And failures? Yes, scores, and some of the worst of them come in the guise of successes. That’s what it means to be alive.
* * *
A. Does the town allow (is it “wet”?) or prohibit (is it “dry”?) the sale of alcohol?
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B. Ben Lindsey, juvenile court judge, had been a long-time advocate of women’s rights and agreed with Meredith’s assessment: that his own success was due to women voters.
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