Women and Reform in Cincinnati: Responsible Citizenship and the Politics of “Good Government,” 1924–1955
- Ohio Valley History
- The Filson Historical Society and Cincinnati Museum Center
- Volume 13, Number 2, Summer 2013
- pp. 48-69
- View Citation
- Additional Information
48 OHIO VALLEY HISTORY Women and Reform in Cincinnati Responsible Citizenship and the Politics of “Good Government,” 1924-1955 Robert Burnham F ocusing on a municipal reform movement that transformed local government in Cincinnati, this study explores how different perceptions of social reality shaped the political participation of women during the second quarter of the twentieth century. In the 1920s, “good government” reformers in Cincinnati embraced a vision of the city and society advanced by contemporary urban experts and social scientists that encouraged an expanded public role for women in the name of civic responsibility. But that vision also rested on gender -based, cultural group perceptions that limited the possibilities for women’s individual political advancement. In the 1950s, however, social scientists began positing a new view of American society that considered individual autonomy and self-fulfillment as primary matters of concern. This new vision posed a significant challenge to the cultural group constraints of the past, helping to legitimize women’s individual political aspirations. Examining the political participation of women from the perspective of shifts in social thought yields an interpretive framework that departs from some of the norms of women’s history. The narrative does not focus on historical developments that advanced or impeded the cause of feminism, or on discerning particular “waves” of feminism. Nor does it identify some distinctly female vision, defined by women themselves, that espoused values not shared by men. Such concerns surely warrant scholarly attention , but they do not prescribe the basic approach taken here.1 The story begins in the 1910s, when urban experts and municipal reformers in the United States adopted a concept of responsible citizenship that derived from their tendency to see the city as a pluralistic entity composed of separate but equally legitimate and interdependent groups (racial, religious, ethnic), parts (neighborhoods, districts ), and systems (parks, schools, transportation). Imbued with this vision, urban progressives stressed that all of these components deserved consideration in order to provide for the welfare of the city as a whole. Responsible citizens, then, needed to take the entire city as their primary focus of concern, meaning they should recognize the legitimacy and interdependence of the city’s various groups, parts, and systems , while also supporting the development of comprehensive, city-wide solutions ROBERT BURNHAM SUMMER 2013 49 to urban problems. Their emphasis on the city as a whole led urban progressives to espouse the need for “cooperation,” calling upon all of the different racial, religious, and ethnic groups to work together for the general welfare. How to facilitate such cooperation became a special matter of concern because the perceived interdependence of the city’s various groups coexisted with the assumption of their inherent differences. Reformers believed that each group possessed its own distinct culture that shaped the character of its members. Progressives viewed these differences as an endemic source of conflict and disagreement that worked against efforts to secure the welfare of the city as a whole. Consequently, urban experts and reformers never expected inter-group cooperation to come easily or naturally. They believed it would require calculated, organized social effort and the creation of new structural mechanisms within the political system.2 Charter Party campaign leaflet, 1925. CINCINNATI MUSEUM CENTER WOMEN AND REFORM IN CINCINNATI 50 OHIO VALLEY HISTORY This approach to the city and its problems manifested itself in Cincinnati as part of a “good government” revolt against the local Republican machine, which had dominated city politics since the late nineteenth century. In 1924, reform-minded Republicans and Democrats won passage of a city charter amendment that provided for a city manager form of government and a nine-member council elected at large under proportional representation. The new city government guaranteed representation for any party or group capable of mustering one tenth plus one of the total vote. The coupling of the city manager plan with proportional representation stood as the latest advance in Progressive Era municipal reform. The promoters of the idea pitched it as the solution to a longstanding problem confronting municipal reformers: how to reconcile their desire for businesslike efficiency—which seemed to necessitate government by experts and a heightened degree of centralized control —with their commitment to participatory democracy...