People with limited political power often turn to creative forms and public platforms to participate in debate over public issues. Women seeking the right to vote during the early twentieth century were doing so from a marginalized position, and they devised innovative tactics – including music, art, and poetry – to convey their messages, catch people’s attention, and advance their cause.
Alice Duer Miller wrote a regular column in the New York Tribune, called “Are Women People?” featuring short satirical poems and commentary responding to current events about the rights of women. The title question responds to Woodrow Wilson’s speech “The New Freedom,” which concluded by declaring: “Bring the government back to the people.”
Many of the poems are conversational, including the introductory poem, imagining an exchange between a father and son, in which the son twice asks the title question and each time the father answers differently. In 1915, a selection of the poems were published in a book of the same name. The book is divided into five sections:
- Treacherous Texts;
- Campaign Material;
- Women’s Sphere;
- A Masque of Teachers; and
- The Unconscious Suffragists.
The poems in the section “Treacherous Texts” respond directly to anti-suffrage speeches or legislative decisions, and each one begins with a quotation from the original text of the speech or decision. Many of those original texts are hard to track down, but they’re recorded and preserved in Miller’s book.
By quoting laws and anti-suffrage speeches, and then writing satirical poems in response, Miller demonstrated her awareness of both current events and opponents’ arguments in the struggle for voting rights. For example, Miller wrote a 24-line poem in response to a New York Supreme Court decision regarding partnership property in marriage: “In this most important of all partnerships there is no partnership property.” The poem, “Partners,” imagines a man inviting a woman to share his cares, compliments, and toil. The poem concludes that they can be: “Partners in the highest sense… For, the savings that we make, / I shall take.” The poem concisely and incisively underscores the irony in the Court decision about the expectations and boundaries of the partnership of marriage under the law.
To extend learning, teachers might:
- Ask students to memorize a poem and then perform it, either live or in a recording, using inflection, gestures, and visual elements to convey their interpretation.
- Ask students to select a poem and write a response from another perspective, such as that of an anti-suffragist.
- Ask students to research and learn more about Alice Duer Miller.
- Direct students to locate and read additional poems from Miller’s column in the New York Tribune and share favorites with the class. To deepen thinking, ask them to identify into which section of the book the poem would best fit, or to devise their own categories.
- Support students in researching other suffragist tactics using music or art.
Miller’s poems represent one strategy that suffragists used in their long fight for the vote. Can your students identify similar strategies being used by activists today?
While the poet may have been responding directly to President Wilson’s speech, I’m reminded of an earlier speech that I dare say may have had equal influence on Miller.
To my mind “Are Women People?” harkens back to the now famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech by Sojourner Truth in 1851. Truth posited that she–a black woman–should have all the same rights and privileges afforded to white women. It is ironic, then, to note that even over half a century later, the underlying premise that women should be equal in privilege to men remained very much unanswered–let alone the corresponding matter of racial equality.
America–the land of freedom for all…. It is now 2021; alas, I wonder if we’ve come so far after all.
Sue, Thanks for pointing out that connection! There is, indeed, an echo.
Here are a few resources about Sojourner Truth, should one want to learn more: My colleague Danna Bell wrote a post about Truth’s speech: //blogs.loc.gov/teachers/2019/02/aint-i-a-woman-a-suffrage-story-for-black-history-month/ and our reference colleagues have compiled a research guide: //guides.loc.gov/sojourner-truth/introduction.