80. Finishing the Fight
In 1869, the Territory of Wyoming was the first part of the United States to grant full voting rights for female American citizens residing within the territory. (Episode 23) In honor of the 50th Anniversary of this historic event, the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) held a Golden Jubilee on March 24, 1919 in St Louis, Missouri.
NAWSA president Carrie Chapman Catt addressed the attendees with her famous speech: “The Nation Calls”. In this speech she proposes that all the suffrage fighters, both past and present, don’t need speeches or statues to honor them. The most impactful way to memorialize their legacy would be the creation of a league of women voters, something that would not only “finish the fight” for national suffrage but also carry on the work of expanding women’s access to politics and educating voters of all genders. In her own words: “a memorial whose benefits will bless our entire nation and bring happiness to the humblest of our citizens.”
Excerpt from the speech:
Let us raise up a League of Women Voters—the name and form of organization to be determined by the voters themselves; a League that shall be non-partisan and non-sectarian in character and that shall be consecrated to three chief aims:
To use its utmost influence to secure the final enfranchisement of the women of every state in our own Republic and to reach out across the seas in aid of the women's struggle for her own in every land.
To remove the remaining legal discriminations against women in the codes and constitutions of the several states in order that the feet of coming women may find these stumbling blocks removed.
To make our democracy so safe for the Nation and so safe for the world, that every citizen may feel secure and great men will acknowledge the worthiness of the American Republic to lead.
In this same speech, she laid out a list of proposals to ensure that the American voter was an educated voter. The proposals were things like compulsory education for children, education for adults, educational tests for citizenship, and even voter literacy tests. Many of the American soldiers in WWI, including white men, were illiterate (They could not read the orders posted, instruction manuals, or write letters home.) Asking that voters at least be able to read the ballot by passing a literacy test was a reasonable request for the time, but was corrupted and used to intentionally disenfranchise Blacks with ridiculously difficult and complex tests that the majority of white voters would not have been able to pass. (Poll officials had total discretion over who was required to take a test before voting and could even give an easy version to white voters.)
Proposal III asked that English be made the official national language. Catt noted that many rural schools in America still taught in German and not English. This was also shortly after the end of WWI; children being taught in German and speaking German at home was not looked upon favorably. Catt didn’t mention that many people in the South West and Texas were fighting to have bilingual English and Spanish education in order to both be good Americans but also continue with their regular life, familiar culture, and heritage.The United States had annexed these territories from Mexico and automatically changed the nationality of the people who had been living there when the border moved. Sections of Maine, Missouri, and Louisiana still spoke mostly French until the 1930s.
Fueled by anti-immigration sentiment,15 states had passed English-only laws for education by the end of 1919. During WWII, the lack of knowledge of foreign languages and shortage of American-born translators revealed itself to be a serious disadvantage for the military. However, Indigeneous languages proved to be invaluable during WWI and WWII; over 400 volunteers from many tribes served in the American military as code talkers providing a fast-transmitting unbreakable communication that could be safely sent over open radio channels. Recognizing that America would be at a military disadvantage as an English-only nation, the National Defense Education Act was passed in 1958 and provided federal money to support foreign language classes in schools.
(There is an oft-cited “fact” that German lost becoming the official language in America by one vote. This legend, which can be traced back to a single “history” book written in 1847, is actually a misrepresentation of historical events. The Constitution Center wrote an excellent article explaining what actually happened. See sources below.)
This week’s song pick:
“There Can Be Miracles” by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey from the movie “The Prince of Egypt” https://youtu.be/LKaXY4IdZ40
Episode 80 Sources:
Was German Almost the Official Language of the U.S.?
Bilingual Education in America
Literacy Voting Tests: