Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Women Advanced Despite Progressivism

The progressivist views which flourished in certain circles around the turn of the century, and which were embodied in Woodrow Wilson, claim as their fruit the advent of women's suffrage, and the entry of women into full participation in the governing process. In short, the progressivist movement would have all women thank it, and consider themselves indebted to it, as it claims to have given them full civil rights.

But how true is this claim?

While it must be acknowledged that the first woman elected to congress, Jeannette Rankin, embraced progressivist policies, it must be pointed out that she ran for office with the sponsorship of the Republican party, and was elected by the voters of Montana in November 1916, a state not normally associated with the progressivist movement.

Beyond this, however, we note that the first five women elected to congress were Republicans, during an era in which that party was moving further away from progressivism. Eight of the first ten women elected to the House of Representatives were Republicans. During these years, the 1920's and 1930's, the party was moving away from the progressivism with which it had flirted during the years of Teddy Roosevelt. Yet it is during these years that it, and not the other party, moved women decisively into participation in government.

Even a progressive like Jeannette Rankin was nudged into active participation through her acquaintance with Jane Addams, who represented within progressivism a strand of that movement which sought to take action in the private sector - charities which were not funded by taxpayer dollars, but rather by donations - and a strand which was fueled by religious thought rather than political fervor.

The emergence of women into government is more accurately symbolized by Alice Mary Robertson, elected in 1921 from Oklahoma to the House of Representatives. She was not only the second woman, after Rankin, to be elected to Congress, but was also the first woman to preside over the House of Representatives.

"I came to Congress to represent my district," Alice Mary Robertson declared, "not women." Distancing herself from progressivist agendas, she took a common-sense view to legislation. Arguing against progressivist programs for pregnant women, she saw through the apparently benign benefits of offering instructions on parenting, and perceived instead "an autocratic, undefined, practically uncontrolled yet Federally authorized center of propaganda." She understood the dangers of a government telling parents how they should care for their children.

Congresswoman Alice Mary Robertson, and the women elected to Congress after her, had little use for progressivist ideas, and instead worked to secure individual liberty and personal freedom. Progressivist goals were certainly noble, but also were certainly better served by private sector funding and non-governmental organizations.