AUGUST 17, 2020
IN THE ESSAY “WHAT is the USE OF LANGUAGE? WHY STUDY LITERATURE?” in his 1934 book ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound made his famous claim that “[l]iterature is news that STAYS news.” But is it? Because it seems as though political — or to put a finer point on it, cause-oriented — literature need not share the same aims and qualities as art for art’s sake. When one is writing verse to agitate for the transformation of society as it presently exists, one doesn’t necessarily want deathless musings. The ideal outcome might be that the verse dies away because the target of its criticism has at last been vanquished.
In other words, political art may be trying to render itself obsolete. I’ve been thinking about this recently since February 22 when Will Hansen, director of Reader Services and curator of Americana at Chicago’s Newberry Library, tweeted, “I’m frankly stunned that no enterprising publisher appears to be publishing a new edition of Alice Duer Miller’s hilarious 1915 book of poems, ‘Are Women People?’, for the 19th Amendment centennial.”
I had never heard of Miller or her poetry but was struck by the question her title poses — one apparently unresolved in a lot of minds today. The 19th Amendment passed on June 4, 1919, and was ratified on August 18, 1920: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” But the United States has yet to elect a woman president, and only 25 out of 100 senators are women, while only 101 out of 435 members of the House of Representatives are. And there’s hardly enough space on the internet to deliver the litany of de facto sexism that continues to frame existence under the current patriarchal system of male supremacy from the fact that women still do an average of two more hours of housework daily than their male partners to the ongoing presidential election pitting two senescent white men with sexual assault allegations against them against each other.
When I looked Miller up, I found that she was born into wealth in New York City, and that she lived from 1874 to 1942. By the time she was a young adult, her family had lost most of their fortune. She attended Barnard College in the 1890s, where she studied math and astronomy, using money earned from the publication of her literary work to help pay for her education. She was an advisory editor to The New Yorker early in its existence, and in addition to her poetry, she published novels and short stories, many of which were adapted into stage plays and films.
When I looked up Miller’s collection Are Women People?, I found, as Hansen promised, that “it’s a book tailor-made for today & for Twitter, & it single-handedly blows up the myth of the dour, humorless feminist.” Take the poem “Feminism,” for instance:
“Mother, what is a Feminist?”
“A Feminist, my daughter,
Is any woman now who cares
To think about her own affairs
As men don’t think she oughter.”
Originally published in 1915, the book uses wit, satire, and rhyme to promote women’s suffrage in particular and equality in general. Many of the poems appeared individually in the New York Tribune, where Miller had an intensely popular weekly column called “Are Women People, Mr. President?”
Miller took pleasure in chiding the reactionary opinion writers of rival newspaper The New York Times, as is still the rage in leftist circles today. Citing a 1915 article in the Gray Lady which claimed, “The grant of suffrage to women is repugnant to instincts that strike their roots deep in the order of nature. It runs counter to human reason, it flouts the teachings of experience and the admonitions of common sense,” she wrote the response “Oh, That ‘Twere Possible!”
Oh, that ‘twere possible
After those words inane
For me to read The Times
When I was wont to read it
In the early morning hours,
In a mood ’twixt wrath and mirth,
I exclaimed: “Alas, Ye Powers,
These ideas are fainter, quainter
Than anything on earth!”
A paper’s laid before me.
Not thou, not like to thee.
Dear me, if it were possible
The Times should ever see
How very far the times have moved
(Spelt with a little “t”).
The query of her book’s title became a suffragist catchphrase. Its question could just as pertinently be put to the current nightmare White House occupant, but the executive Miller was addressing was Woodrow Wilson — an elitist, a racist, and a consummate hypocrite, who espoused democratic ideals while resolutely opposing the participation of women in that democracy.
At the time of his election in 1912, Wilson was on the record to his own fiancée that women who spoke in public gave him “a chilled, scandalized feeling” and to his staff that he was “definitely and irreconcilably opposed to woman suffrage,” because “a woman’s place was in the home and the type of woman who took an active part in the suffrage agitation was totally abhorrent.” Yet in the fall of 1918, at the height of the United States’s participation in World War I, he made a stirring speech on the Senate floor in favor of granting women the right to vote. “We have made partners of the women in this war,” he said, acknowledging the demands of having husbands and sons overseas. “Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?”
So what took place to bring about this change? A lot of stuff, actually, including ceaseless protest and civil disobedience in the form of massive parades, lectures, lobbying, brutal hunger strikes, pickets, and arrests. By 1915 — using the coward’s classic technique of leaving an issue for the states to decide — Wilson voted in his home state of New Jersey to grant women the right to vote there, even as he cravenly resisted the federal amendment so as not to risk estranging himself from Southern Democrats who feared a surge of Black voters.
And then there were the years and years of Miller’s column, its barbs poking holes in not only the president’s own classist, racist, and sexist resolve, but also in resistance within public opinion. A member of the Algonquin Round Table, Miller applied her progressive values, political insight, and vibrant sense of humor to her political climate in a way not dissimilar to Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, or Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. In the opening piece titled “Introduction,” she presents a simple dialogue pointing out the absurdity of the fact that women existed, among other things, under a system of taxation without representation:
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.
As a contemporary write-up in the aforementioned New York Times said of the book, it combines “serious purpose with frivolous expression,” which is a decent summation of how much of the best and most effective political humor continues to function to this day.
Divided into five parts, the first of the book’s sections, “Treacherous Texts,” consists of answer poems — pieces written in direct response to statements by public officials against the rights of women. To a congressman appealing with flattery to female beauty, she retorts:
Say if you like that women have no sense,
No self-control, no power of concentration;
Say that hysterics is our one defence
Our virtue but an absence of temptation;
These I can bear, but, oh, I own it rankles
To hear you maundering on about our ankles.
To Vice President Thomas Riley Marshall’s declaration that “[m]y wife is against suffrage, and that settles me,” she replies:
My wife dislikes the income tax,
And so I cannot pay it;
She thinks that golf all interest lacks,
So now I never play it;
She is opposed to tolls repeal
(Though why I cannot say),
But woman’s duty is to feel,
And man’s is to obey.
Quick and vicious, Miller is a master of the clapback avant la lettre — dry, and droll, and Dorothy Parker–esque.
The book’s second section, “Campaign Material (For Both Sides),” is made up of brief prose pieces and lists, including the hilarious eight-item catalog “Why We Oppose Pockets for Women”:
1. Because pockets are not a natural right.
2. Because the great majority of women do not want pockets. If they did they would have them.
3. Because whenever women have had pockets they have not used them.
4. Because women are required to carry enough things as it is, without the additional burden of pockets.
5. Because it would make dissension between husband and wife as to whose pockets were to be filled.
6. Because it would destroy man’s chivalry toward woman, if he did not have to carry all her things in his pockets.
7. Because men are men, and women are women. We must not fly in the face of nature.
8. Because pockets have been used by men to carry tobacco, pipes, whiskey flasks, chewing gum and compromising letters. We see no reason to suppose that women would use them more wisely.
Acute and argumentative, the contents of this section would not be out of place in a venue like McSweeney’s, Reductress, or even Buzzfeed.
The third section, “Women’s Sphere,” features more short poems in support of women’s rights, but not, as in “Treacherous Texts,” in response to official utterances. Rather, here, she takes on the ever-present atmosphere of misogyny and double standards more generally, as in “Chivalry,” wherein she writes:
It’s treating a woman politely
As long as she isn’t a fright:
It’s guarding the girls who act rightly,
If you can be judge of what’s right;
It’s being — not just, but so pleasant;
It’s tipping while wages are low;
It’s making a beautiful present,
And failing to pay what you owe.
It took 72 long years from Seneca Falls in 1848 when abolitionist feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton delivered her “Declaration of Rights and Sentiments” all the way to August 1920 when the male electorate finally consented to permit women to vote. The absurdity and humiliation of essentially begging their oppressors for decades to grant them enfranchisement was difficult and dispiriting to the suffragists to say the least, but Miller, in the midst of that struggle, found a way to use humor as both a tool to advance the cause and a means by which to stay afloat.
Take her parody in “Women” (“with insincere apologies to Mr. Rudyard Kipling”):
For it’s women this and women that, and home’s the place for you,
But it’s patriotic angels when there’s outside work to do,
There’s outside work to do, my dears, there’s outside work to do,
It’s patriotic angels when there’s outside work to do.
We are not really senseless, and we are not angels, too,
But very human beings, human just as much as you.
It’s hard upon occasions to be forceful and sublime
When you’re treated as incompetents three-quarters of the time.
In the preface to her 1974 book Woman Hating, radical feminist Andrea Dworkin writes:
As a writer with a revolutionary commitment, I am particularly pained by the kinds of books writers are writing, and the reasons why. I want writers to write books because they are committed to the content of those books. I want writers to write books as actions. I want writers to write books that can make a difference in how, and even why, people live. I want writers to write books that are worth being jailed for, worth fighting for, and should it come to that in this country, worth dying for.
Are Women People? is that kind of book. Its fourth section, “A Masque of Teachers,” contains the one-act verse play The Ideal Candidates in which three would-be teachers have to persuade the New York State Board of Education that despite their married statuses, they need to pursue gainful employment.
“The Unconscious Suffragists,” the book’s fifth section, presents a collage of found texts, made up of declarations made by male political leaders which appear — despite their speaker’s intentions — to argue in favor of egalitarianism. Here and throughout the book, what’s remarkable is the way that, even though she is bluntly repeating the drumbeat of the cause of equality, Miller is able to do so with a captivating blend of irony and sincerity, breaking down the specious binary between the two modes, pointing out and lampooning absurdity with simultaneous glee and earnestness.
“They who have no voice nor vote in the electing of representatives do not enjoy liberty, but are absolutely enslaved to those who have votes,” she quotes Founding Father and foundational sexist Benjamin Franklin. To see his words reframed in Miller’s context presents both an unassailable argument in favor of women’s suffrage in her era, and also one that’s impossible to ignore in our own era of racist, classist, Republican-led voter suppression all over the country.
Subtitled “A Book of Rhymes for Suffrage Times,” the book feels alive with snark, indignance, sarcasm, and righteousness. Admittedly, the rhyme in the title attests to the quality of the verse itself, which is light, but Miller had no illusions about writing eternal art. Doggerel — comic verse composed in an irregular rhythm — gets a bad rap these days, but Miller used hers to dog social change. She’s not a bad poet; she’s doing burlesque: caricaturing the manner or spirit of serious works, and deliberately mocking the ludicrous hypocrisy of the sanctimonious tenets of the anti-suffragists.
To put it another way, news that stays news is not the kind of literature that Miller was aiming at and she knew it.
In the less quoted follow-up to his oft-quoted aphorism, Pound continued: “These things are matters of degree. Your communication can be more or less exact. The INTEREST in a statement can be more or less durable.” If anything, the durability of her poetic output to this very day would probably be dismaying to Miller.
Also troubling about reading the book today is the extent to which the poems do not seem dated. If the suffragist cause of full equality for women had been achieved, then we shouldn’t need or even be able to read her book anymore. The verse would have served its use. We would not be able to take in poems like this one and find them resonant with the persistent toxicity of male fragility and entitlement:
The Protected Sex
With apologies to James Whitcomb Riley.
(“The result of taking second place to girls at school is that the boy feels a sense of inferiority that he is never afterward able entirely to shake off.” — Editorial in London Globe against co-education.)
There, little girl, don’t read,
You’re fond of your books, I know,
But Brother might mope
If he had no hope
Of getting ahead of you.
It’s dull for a boy who cannot lead.
There, little girl, don’t read.
It remains too easy to imagine Duer, were she alive today, cranking out barbed commentary on issues of rights and equality similar to those she was critiquing over 100 years ago. But that’s not to say she was a failure, not at all. Women can vote. That’s not nothing. And along with progress there comes reaction, as history has proven time and again; the advancement and expansion of rights comes with an attendant need to remain vigilant against their prospective erosion.
In her 1988 book Letters from a War Zone, Dworkin found it necessary to make Duer’s same point. In “I Want a Twenty-Four-Hour Truce During Which There Is No Rape” from a speech given at the Midwest Regional Conference of the National Organization for Changing Men in the fall of 1983 in St. Paul, Minnesota, Dworkin said: “Why are you so slow to understand the simplest things; not the complicated ideological things. You understand those. The simple things. The clichés. Simply that women are human to precisely the degree and quality that you are.”
Even in 2020, a pervasive anti-woman bias remains marbled through the meat of daily domestic, political, economic, and cultural life. So yes, it’s a considerable buzzkill that Miller’s work — and the work of countless other suffragists and feminists from her era to the present — remains so absolutely under threat, so very life and death.
But as any reader can see (really, the full text of Are Women People? is available for free at Project Gutenberg) it’s possible to take the struggle — for dignity, for freedom, for justice — seriously without dignifying your oppressor. To point out his absurdity and pomposity, hypocrisy and bad faith and show how much fun you’re having while doing so. And maybe, in the end, the side that has the most fun wins. Because change is possible. Movements work.
Miller published a sequel called Women Are People! in 1917 — the definitive answer to her own urgent question, completed with an unapologetic exclamation point. Women are people! Shout it. Until every last person understands that it’s true.
A founding editor of Rose Metal Press and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, Kathleen Rooney is the author, most recently, of the novels Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (St Martin’s Press, 2017) and The Listening Room: A Novel of Georgette & Loulou Magritte (Spork Press, 2018). Her new novel, Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, comes out this month from Penguin.