A little over a week has passed since the 2012 presidential election, and news coverage abounds with discussion on women’s involvement in politics in “The Year of the Woman,” so I thought it fitting that my first post should highlight Peck’s participation in the political arena. Headlines this past week read, “How Women Ruled the 2012 Election and Where the GOP Went Wrong” and “Women in Politics Break Records in 2012.” Interestingly, these banners mirror news article titles from the 1912 Presidential Election: “Women Leap Suddenly into Political Favor” (New York Herald, Aug. 11, 1912) and “Women in the Thick of PoliticalFight ” (New York Tribune, Aug. 14, 1912).
The Election of 1912 was one of the most momentous elections in our history – it involved five presidential candidates (Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson, Debs, and Chafin), and the combined ideals of suffrage and women’s sanctioned political participation inspired women to actively campaign on behalf of each candidate. Six states had already granted women the right to vote, the Progressive Party had begun to endorse women’s suffrage, and the Democratic National Committee officially requested women’s political participation for the first time in history. The New York Herald reported this new phenomenon: “With a suddenness and force that have left observers gasping, women have injected themselves into the national campaign this year in a manner never before dreamed of in American politics” (“Women Leap Suddenly into Political Favor”). One of those women was Annie Smith Peck. New York suffragists had begun to use Peck’s reputation as a popular figure for their fight, and political candidates sought out Peck to lend her support to their campaigns. Of course, Peck, an ardent suffragist, took the opportunity to show that women have a definite place in politics. “Wilson Women Wind Up” focuses on 1912 Peck’s speech, in favor of Woodrow Wilson, in which “She poked fun at Roosevelt and with keen satire pictured him as desiring to be the dictator of the country,” and was considered “the best thing of the campaign.”
By 1914, Peck was the president of the Joan of Arc Suffrage League in New York; she had begun to join with various other leagues to fight for women’s vote in the state of New York, and her image was that of a woman mountain climber and a political activist.
In 1915 Peck rebuked the popular notion of the time that if women were allowed to vote, then they would unite to kick men out of politics, which was one of the many reasons people cited for why women should not vote. Peck responded to this argument in a New York Times editorial, “Annie S. Peck’s Views: Too Many Men in Politics Better Qualified for Hoeing Corn or Selling Ribbons” noting,
“Personally, since the subject was first presented to me long years ago, I have believed in woman suffrage on the ground of justice, I desire to be regarded as an intelligent human being. When women have for a generation or two been counted equal before the law they will be so regarded, and not before. That women’s sphere should be prescribed by men, that men know better what is womanly and what we are capable than we do we ourselves, has not seemed to me logical or proper.” Annie S. Peck’s Views 1915
It’s remarkable that Peck’s quote, above, sounds as if it could have been used in the same campaign rhetoric leading up to our recent election, which included such phrases as “the War on Women,” “women’s right to decision-making over their own bodies,” and “equal pay for equal work.” Sadly, many of the arguments for women’s rights from the turn of the last century remain the same today.
Would Peck be happy with women’s new, “high” numbers of representation in Congress? Probably not. While women had won the right to vote by 1920, they had not earned the political power that should come with it. Women’s organizations that fought for suffrage dissipated once the consolidating issue of suffrage disappeared. While Peck still demanded equal treatment until she died, in the end, the numbers of successes that she was able to maintain were small because there were no cohesive women’s organizations left to push a progressive agenda. And, our political power is still lacking. In 2012, women hold 90 (or a measly 16.8%) of the 535 seats in the 112th U.S. Congress. The 113th Congress will include a record number of women: 20 senators and at least 81 representatives.
Maybe we can take a lesson from the women and men who fought for our right to vote in the past – women’s civil rights can only be achieved if we carry on working together, with the help of organizations who continue to push a progressive women’s agenda such as Emily’s List and Planned Parenthood Action Fund.