Women’s Rights

Debs and Women’s Rights–A Lifetime Commitment

In 1920 Eugene V. Debs ran for the office of President of the United States. For the fifth time Debs placed himself, his ideas, and his ideals before the voters of America.

This election included for the first time a whole new class of voters–women. The Nineteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution was adopted in August of that year. The suffrage amendment was the culmination of a long and arduous struggle begun in 1848 at the first Women’s Rights Convention. This historic meeting was held in Seneca Falls, New York, a town resembling in size and development, Terre Haute, Indiana, Debs’s 1855 birthplace. From that time and place, women and their male allies marched, agitated, and sacrificed for the cause they knew to be right and good. Is it a surprise that Debs was a life long supporter of this movement?

Debs poses with supporters on the campaign trail.
Debs poses with supporters on the campaign trail.

The other unusual thing about the election of 1920 is that Debs conducted his campaign from the Atlanta Federal Prison. He was famously, “federal prisoner 9653,” incarcerated for violating the Espionage Act of 1917. He had chosen to speak out against war at a time when the U. S. government was pursuing a “total war” policy. The Espionage Act along with a relentless pro-war propaganda effort by the government succeeded in creating a climate in the country one historian has characterized as “mad, patriotic conformity.”

In Toledo, Ohio, during the last month of the campaign, leaflets dropped by four airplanes brought to that city an early snowfall of socialist literature supporting Debs. Convict No. 9653 was probably sitting in his cell in Atlanta at the time. Perhaps these leaflets included “To the Woman Voter.” Perhaps he was thinking of the women suffragists who went to jail for picketing the White House in the early stages of World War I–Alice Paul, Doris Stevens, Dorthy Day, and many others were among the first victims of the war hysteria which sent Debs to the penitentiary. The voting right for women in 1920 was partly credited to Debs and The Socialist Party, due to their advocacy of women’s rights since 1900. It had come to the attention of the leadership of the major parties how much vigor and excitement women had been adding to the Socialist campaigns.

The 1920 “To the Woman Voter” campaign leaflet seeks to establish Debs’s long time commitment to women’s rights. In this it is on solid historical ground. Throughout his life and in his varied political careers, Debs always spoke and acted in support of bringing full equality into the lives of women. His support of votes for women, equal pay in the workplace, a stance against the criminalization of prostitution, all demonstrate again Debs’s vision and, it should be added, a willingness to suffer for his advanced views.

An example of this, one which stayed with Debs throughout his eventful life, took place in 1879. A club which the young Debs had been instrumental in organizing served the community of Terre Haute by inviting in speakers on literary, political and philosophical subjects. But the club and Terre Haute revolted at the idea of bringing Susan B. Anthony to a local podium. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton headed the radical wing of the women’s movement of the day. She was reviled by many and her ideas were feared. Debs took it upon himself to secure a hall, meet the speaker, and generally treat the indomitable Anthony with a courtesy and open-mindedness missing in the community. Anthony spoke on “Woman Wants Bread Not Ballot” (actually demonstrating the relationship between the two) and Debs remembered the lecture as being “replete with well-stated facts in support of her argument.” He admired Anthony for her courage and intellect and often included her name in speeches as a radical to be honored, a person equal in stature and spirit two such fearless abolitionists of the past, as Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison.

Debs was aided in his support of Anthony by a neighbor and friend, the pioneer feminist journalist, Ida Husted Harper. When Debs served as editor of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen’s Magazine, he invited Harper to conduct a “Ladies Department” column. For nearly twelve years, 1883-1894, Harper peppered the Magazine with material crafted specifically for lodge members’ wives, mothers, and daughters. She applied her feminist consciousness to subjects as wide ranging as the efficient organization of housework to the value of reading newspapers rather than novels. She got personal in her discussions of family size and indignant in regard to the treatment of women who chose not to marry. And many columns encouraged women to press for financial independence, improve public education, and work for the establishment of libraries. Needless to say, support for woman suffrage was aired regularly.

The fact that Harper could write on all subjects with intelligence and biting humor meant that editor Debs often heard complaints about Harper’s offerings from some quarters of the Magazine’s readership. He never faltered in his support of Harper.

Harper left Terre Haute in 1890 and went on to become a force in the National American Woman Suffrage Association. She became a close confidante of Susan B. Anthony, writing a three volume biography of her. When Debs last saw Susan B. Anthony, Harper could have been on the scene. It was 1905 and Debs had a speaking engagement in Rochester, where Anthony’s home was located. He called on the aging crusader and Anthony reportedly took Debs’s hand and asked: “You remember me?” A shocked and moved Debs is said to have replied: “Remember you! How could anyone ever forget Susan B. Anthony.” And then a long and cordial argument between these two giants was engaged: “Give us suffrage,” Anthony said with good humor, “and we’ll give you socialism.” Debs’s good natured reply was: “Give us socialism and we’ll give you the vote.”

Both of these champions of humanity knew that political and economic justice was not theirs to “give.” And both knew full well that each of these causes was well worth a lifetime of effort.

Some Print Sources and Web Sites

Among Debs’s specific writings on women and women’s rights which have been anthologized are: “Fantine In Our Day” and “Woman–Comrade and Equal.” These are available in Arthur Schlesinger, Jr (ed.), Writings and Speeches of Eugene V. Debs (1948). Debs’s moving final meeting with Susan B. Anthony is described in Ray Ginger, The Bending Cross: A Biography of Eugene Victor Debs (1949). This work includes a valuable bibliography of Debs’s articles,leaflets and pamphlets. Some examples.: Debs’s tribute to Anthony: “Susan B. Anthony: A Reminiscence,” is in Socialist Woman, January 1909, 3. His “Woman’s Day Is Dawning,” appeared in Justice, February 1911 and “Woman’s Vote,” in Minnesota Union Advocate, August 30, 1901. Nick Salvatore, Eugene Debs: Citizen and Socialist (1982) is strong on the Terre Haute background and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen’s Magazine years.

Not to be missed, is J. Robert Constantine (ed.) The Letters of Eugene V. Debs (3 volumes 1990). Buy these books for your local and school libraries. Here you will find correspondence from such women as Margaret Sanger, Emma Goldman, Helen Keller and many other important women working, in their own ways, for Debsian ideals. And if the price or weight of three volumes is too much for your wallet or shelves, all lovers of Debs and supporters of his vision, should have: J. Robert Constantine (ed.), Gentle Rebel: Letters of Eugene Debs (1995), a work which admirably fulfills the editor’s objective “to illuminate EVD’s public career and his private life, the variety of interests, issues, and movements in which he was engaged, and his relationship with the many prominent and obscure men and women (and children) of his time.”

Publications on women in U. S. history have grown at a staggering rate ove the past fifteen years. Many wonderful books, specialized and general in nature, are now available in most libraries and book stores. In recent years a number of very helpful web sites have become part of this recovery of women’s past. Below are a few of these:

National Archives and Records Administration
“Woman Suffrage and the 19th Amendment”
Click here to visit the site

American Memory–Library of Congress
“Votes for Women–Selections from the National American Woman Suffrage Association–1848-1920”
Click here to visit the site

“Not for Ourselves Alone”–The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony
Click here to visit the site

Women and Social Movements in the United States
Click here to visit the site

Special thanks to Gary Daily for contributing information to the Women’s Rights page.
If you have any questions or comments please feel free to email Gary Daily at gdaily@indstate.eduhttp://isu.indstate.edu/gdaily/gdaily.html