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American Literary History 18.1 (2006) 59-85
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"Are Women People?":
Alice Duer Miller's Poetry and Politics
FATHER, what is a Legislature?
A representative body elected by the people of the state.
Are women people?
No, my son, criminals, lunatics and women are not people.
Do legislators legislate for nothing?
Oh, no; they are paid a salary.
By the people.
Are women people?
Of course, my son, just as much as men are.
On 1 February 1914, a witty new column, featuring news, quotations, poems, fictionalized conversations, statistics, and cartoons about gender inequalities appeared in the Sunday New York Tribune. Authored by suffragist writer Alice Duer Miller, the column was inspired by contradictions between America's foundational rhetoric of democracy and the federal government's official policy of disenfranchising women; more specifically, it responded to President Woodrow Wilson's hollow rhetoric of "bring[ing] the government back to the people" (Wilson 57). Throughout his successful 1912 presidential campaign to oust Republican incumbent William Taft, Democratic leader Wilson, building on a long-standing Progressive concern, had railed against big government run by corporate interests or, as he himself described it, "a smug lot of experts [sitting] behind closed doors in Washington" (49) instead of the "people." "Only the emancipation, the freeing and heartening of the vital energies of all the people will redeem us," Wilson insisted (166). Wilson's rhetoric of the "people" prompted Miller to title her column as a [End Page 59] question—"Are Women People?"—and to interrogate Wilson directly in several of her earliest installments. The inaugural column, for example, opened with a sub-head in all caps, "ARE WOMEN PEOPLE, MR. PRESIDENT?" above a quotation from Wilson's The New Freedom, a collection of campaign speeches: "I tell you the men I am interested in are the men who, under the conditions we have had, never had their voices heard, who never got a line in the newspapers, who never had access to the ears of Governors or Presidents or anybody else who was responsible for the conduct of public affairs, but who went silently and patiently to their work every day, carrying the burden of the world. That is what I mean when I say 'Bring the government back to the people' " (1 Feb 1914, sec. 3: 10).1 Using synecdoches of democratic participation as "voices," public opinion as a "line in the newspapers," and legislative representatives as listening "ears," this passage defines a properly functioning democracy as a government responsive to its constituents and contrasts this ideal with its opposite: an unresponsive government whose ignored constituents are rendered politically voiceless.
Like Wilson's The New Freedom, Miller's column is also concerned with the government's responsiveness to the people. Wilson's synecdoches of "voices," "lines," and "ears" resonated with Miller who, like many American women campaigning for suffrage, understood the vote in terms of voice: in terms of who can speak, for whom, and for what purpose. In many ways, Miller and other Progressive-Era suffragists supported Wilson's plan to bring the government back to the people; however, they saw in his gendered definitions of people, manifest in the almost imperceptible shift from the noun "men" at the beginning of the passage quoted above to "people" at the end, a willful ignorance of and disregard for the millions of American women (not to mention African-American, Chinese-American, and Native American men) who had no voice in government, not even the limited voice a vote would represent.2
For these reasons, Miller used The New Freedom as the primary intertext for her column. Indeed, over the course of the following three and a half years, Miller repeatedly quoted Wilson, as well as other legislators and public figures explicitly or implicitly allied with the anti-suffrage campaign, foregrounding the gap between boasts about the extensiveness of American democracy and the practice of exclusion that refused to acknowledge half of its citizens as people at the polls: Miller quoted Wilson's criticisms of...