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Are Women People? Alice Duer Miller’s message still rings true 100 years on

Miller achieved a public voice even before she had the vote. Vladimir Pustovit

Are Women People? Alice Duer Miller’s message still rings true 100 years on

In issues as diverse as domestic violence to media representation, women have made themselves heard in 2015.

So if you read a bitingly satirical feminist-friendly poem floating around the internet, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was contemporary:

“Mother, what is a Feminist?”
“A Feminist, my daughter,
Is any woman now who cares
To think about her own affairs
As men don’t think she oughter.”

It actually comes from a book celebrating its hundredth birthday: Are Women People? A Book of Rhymes for Suffrage Times (1915), written by Alice Duer Miller _ the funniest and most influential feminist you’ve never heard of.

Are Women People, Mr President?

Are Women People? drew its materials from Miller’s popular weekly New York Tribune column of the same name, which ran from February 1914 until the New York State suffrage referendum succeeded in November 1917.

Alice Duer Miller. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The column’s title was inspired by the tension between Democratic President Woodrow Wilson’s democratic rhetoric and his insistent refusal to support woman suffrage.

Miller’s first column framed an excerpt from a campaign speech in which Wilson had promised to bring the “Government back to the people” under a bold headline that posed the question Miller asked repeatedly over the next three years: Are Women People, Mr. President?

Miller’s column quickly went viral and was moved from its somewhat marginalised position on the Woman’s Page to a more privileged place beside the newspaper’s editorials.

Just as young people today get their political news through comedy shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, 1910’s New Yorkers turned to Miller’s column for witty analysis of the news.

Her funny, rhyming commentaries were catchy and memorable. The question she posed became a campaign slogan. Her analysis of contemporary politics not only made anti-suffragist politicians look stupid. It also made her (and women like her) look completely capable of participating in the political sphere.

When Vice President Thomas Riley Marshall defended his anti-suffragist position by saying “My wife is against suffrage, and that settles me,” for example, Miller penned this comic poem in Marshall’s voice:

My wife dislikes the income tax,
And so I cannot pay it;
She thinks that golf all interest lacks,  
So now I never play it;
She is opposed to tolls repeal
(Though why I cannot say),
But woman’s duty is to feel, 
And man’s is to obey.

Are Women People? also collected a regular feature, Campaign Material from Both Sides: humorous lists that assembled apparently waterproof arguments about ridiculous topics.

“Campaign Material” used quotation in order to expose the structural illogic of some of the most frequently used arguments in the anti-suffrage campaign. For example, Why We Oppose Pockets for Women, lists eight reasons:

  1. Because pockets are not a natural right.

  2. Because the great majority of women do not want pockets. If they did they would have them.

  3. Because whenever women have had pockets they have not used them.

  4. Because women are required to carry enough things as it is, without the additional burden of pockets.

  5. Because it would make dissension between husband and wife as to whose pockets were to be filled.

  6. Because it would destroy man’s chivalry toward woman, if he did not have to carry all her things in his pockets.

  7. Because men are men, and women are women. We must not fly in the face of nature.

  8. Because pockets have been used by men to carry tobacco, pipes, whisky flasks, chewing gum and compromising letters. We see no reason to suppose that women would use them more wisely.

The poet laureate of the suffrage cause

Suffragette statue, Mile End Park. Loz Pycock/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Miller, a member of the legendary Algonquin Round Table, was best friends with Harpo Marx, Clarence Day and Alexander Woollcott and the founder of the Women’s City Club.

Her work ranged from political commentary to middlebrow novels that were routinely serialised, then made into Broadway plays, then used as the basis for Hollywood films starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Miller’s central preoccupation in her suffrage poetry was the politics of voice: who speaks and for whom in the gendered public sphere, as titles of poems such as What Every Woman Must Not Say, If They Meant All They Said, and On Not Believing All You Hear suggest.

Quotation and ventriloquism were her primary tactics, but she occasionally wrote sincerely, as with the poem Chivalry:

It’s treating a woman politely
As long as she isn’t a fright:
It’s guarding the girls who act rightly,
If you can be judge of what’s right;
It’s being–not just, but so pleasant;
It’s tipping while wages are low;
It’s making a beautiful present,
And failing to pay what you owe.

Throughout the 1910s, Miller wrote more than 300 sonnets, odes, elegies, quatrains, limericks, and nursery rhymes about suffrage, many of which were collected in Are Women People? and its companion volume Women Are People! (1917).

Voice of the president

President Woodrow Wilson. By Frank Graham Cootes, via Wikimedia Commons

It was perhaps fitting that after years of quoting and ventriloquising anti-suffragists such as Woodrow Wilson, Miller was given a rare opportunity to express her political views through the voice of her political representative.

In 1918, when the White House desperately needed a ghostwriter to write speeches for Wilson, they hired – you guessed it – Alice Duer Miller!

That the writer who had spent years critically quoting what the President had said and ventriloquising what the President should have said would find herself ghostwriting his speeches shows the hand Miller had in bringing the government back to “the people” through her campaigning for woman suffrage.

Through her witty books and the popular column they were based on, Miller achieved a public voice even before she had the vote; among other things, her public voice revealed women’s fitness for full participation in the public sphere, as both citizens and poets.

Are Women People? a Book of Rhymes for Suffrage Times is available via the Gutenberg Project here.