Home  »  The Americanization of Edward Bok  »  Women’s Clubs and Woman Suffrage

Edward William Bok (1863–1930). The Americanization of Edward Bok. 1921.


Women’s Clubs and Woman Suffrage

EDWARD BOK was now jumping from one sizzling frying-pan into another. He had become vitally interested in the growth of women’s clubs as a power for good, and began to follow their work and study their methods. He attended meetings; he had his editors attend others and give him reports; he collected and read the year-books of scores of clubs, and he secured and read a number of the papers that had been presented by members at these meetings. He saw at once that what might prove a wonderful power in the civic life of the nation was being misdirected into gatherings of pseudo-culture, where papers ill-digested and mostly copied from books were read and superficially discussed.Apparently the average club thought nothing of disposing of the works of the Victorian poets in one afternoon; the Italian Renaissance was “fully treated and most ably discussed,” according to one programme, at a single meeting; Rembrandt and his school were likewise disposed of in one afternoon, and German literature was “adequately treated” at one session “in able papers.”Bok gathered a mass of this material, and then paid his respects to it in the magazine. He recited his evidence and then expressed his opinion of it. He realized that his arraignment of the clubs would cost the magazine hundreds of friends; but, convinced of the great power of the woman’s club with its activities rightly directed, he concluded that he could afford to risk incurring displeasure if he might point the way to more effective work. The one was worth the other.The displeasure was not slow in making itself manifest. It came to maturity overnight, as it were, and expressed itself in no uncertain terms. Every club flew to arms, and Bok was intensely interested to note that the clubs whose work he had taken as “horrible examples,” although he had not mentioned their names, were the most strenuous in their denials of the methods outlined in the magazine, and that the members of those clubs were particularly heated in their attacks upon him.He soon found that he had stirred up quite as active a hornet’s nest as he had anticipated. Letters by the hundred poured in attacking and reviling him. In nearly every case the writers fell back upon personal abuse, ignoring his arguments altogether. He became the subject of heated debates at club meetings, at conventions, in the public press; and soon long petitions demanding his removal as editor began to come to Mr. Curtis. These petitions were signed by hundreds of names. Bok read them with absorbed interest, and bided his time for action. Meanwhile he continued his articles of criticism in the magazine, and these, of course, added fuel to the conflagration.Former President Cleveland now came to Bok’s side, and in an article in the magazine went even further than Bok had ever thought of going in his criticism of women’s clubs. This article deflected the criticism from Bok momentarily, and Mr. Cleveland received a grilling to which his experiences in the White House were “as child’s play,” as he expressed it. The two men, the editor and the former President, were now bracketed as copartners in crime in the eyes of the club-women, and nothing too harsh could be found to say or write of either.Meanwhile Bok had been watching the petitions for his removal which kept coming in. He was looking for an opening, and soon found it. One of the most prominent women’s clubs sent a protest condemning his attitude and advising him by resolutions, which were enclosed, that unless he ceased his attacks, the members of the —— Woman’s Club had resolved “to unitedly and unanimously boycott The Ladies’ Home Journal and had already put the plan into effect with the current issue.”Bok immediately engaged counsel in the city where the club was situated, and instructed his lawyer to begin proceedings, for violation of the Sherman Act, against the president and the secretary of the club, and three other members; counsel to take particular pains to choose, if possible, the wives of three lawyers.Within forty-eight hours Bok heard from the husbands of the five wives, who pointed out to him that the women had acted in entire ignorance of the law, and suggested a reconsideration of his action. Bok replied by quoting from the petition which set forth that it was signed “by the most intelligent women of —— who were thoroughly versed in civic and national affairs”; and if this were true, Bok argued, it naturally followed that they must have been cognizant of a legislative measure so well known and so widely discussed as the Sherman Act. He was basing his action, he said, merely on their declaration.Bok could easily picture to himself the chagrin and wrath of the women, with the husbands laughing up their sleeves at the turn of affairs. “My wife never could see the humor in the situation,” said one of these husbands to Bok, when he met him years later. Bok capitulated, and then apparently with great reluctance, only when the club sent him an official withdrawal of the protest and an apology for “its ill-considered action.” It was years after that one of the members of the club, upon meeting Bok, said to him: “Your action did not increase the club’s love for you, but you taught it a much-needed lesson which it never forgot.”Up to this time, Bok had purposely been destructive in his criticism. Now, he pointed out a constructive plan whereby the woman’s club could make itself a power in every community. He advocated less of the cultural and more of the civic interest, and urged that the clubs study the numerous questions dealing with the life of their communities. This seems strange, in view of the enormous amount of civic work done by women’s clubs to-day. But at that time, when the woman’s club movement was unformed, these civic matters found but a small part in the majority of programmes; in a number of cases none at all.Of course, the clubs refused to accept or even to consider his suggestions; they were quite competent to decide for themselves the particular subjects for their meetings, they argued; they did not care to be tutored or guided, particularly by Bok. They were much too angry with him even to admit that his suggestions were practical and in order. But he knew, of course, that they would adopt them of their own volition—under cover, perhaps, but that made no difference, so long as the end was accomplished. One club after another, during the following years, changed its programme, and soon the supposed cultural interest had yielded first place to the needful civic questions.For years, however, the clubwomen of America did not forgive Bok. They refused to buy or countenance his magazine, and periodically they attacked it or made light of it. But he knew he had made his point, and was content to leave it to time to heal the wounds. This came years afterward, when Mrs. Pennypacker became president of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs and Mrs. Rudolph Blankenburg, vice-president.Those two far-seeing women and Bok arranged that an official department of the Federation should find a place in The Ladies’ Home Journal, with Mrs. Pennypacker as editor and Mrs. Blankenburg, who lived in Philadelphia, as the resident consulting editor. The idea was arranged agreeably to all three; the Federation officially endorsed its president’s suggestion, and for several years the department was one of the most successful in the magazine.The breach had been healed; two powerful forces were working together, as they should, for the mutual good of the American woman. No relations could have been pleasanter than those between the editor-in-chief of the magazine and the two departmental editors. The report was purposely set afloat that Bok had withdrawn from his position of antagonism (?) toward women’s clubs, and this gave great satisfaction to thousands of women club-members and made everybody happy!At this time the question of suffrage for women was fast becoming a prominent issue, and naturally Bok was asked to take a stand on the question in his magazine. No man sat at a larger gateway to learn the sentiments of numbers of women on any subject. He read his vast correspondence carefully. He consulted women of every grade of intelligence and in every station in life. Then he caused a straw-vote to be taken among a selected list of thousands of his subscribers in large cities and in small towns. The result of all these inquiries was most emphatic and clear: by far the overwhelming majority of the women approached either were opposed to the ballot or were indifferent to it. Those who desired to try the experiment were negligible in number. So far as the sentiment of any wide public can be secured on any given topic, this seemed to be the dominant opinion.Bok then instituted a systematic investigation of conditions in those states where women had voted for years; but he could not see, from a thoughtful study of his investigations, that much had been accomplished. The results certainly did not measure up to the prophecies constantly advanced by the advocates of a nation-wide equal suffrage.The editor now carefully looked into the speeches of the suffragists, examined the platform of the National body in favor of woman suffrage, and talked at length with such leaders in the movement as Susan B. Anthony, Julia Ward Howe, Anna Howard Shaw, and Jane Addams.All this time Bok had kept his own mind open. He was ready to have the magazine, for whose editorial policy he was responsible, advocate that side of the issue which seemed for the best interests of the American woman.The arguments that a woman should not have a vote because she was a woman; that it would interfere with her work in the home; that it would make her more masculine; that it would take her out of her own home; that it was a blow at domesticity and an actual menace to the home life of America—these did not weight with him. There was only one question for him to settle: Was the ballot something which, in its demonstrated value or in its potentiality, would serve the best interests of American womanhood?After all his investigations of both sides of the question, Bok decided upon a negative answer. He felt that American women were not ready to exercise the privilege intelligently and that their mental attitude was against it.Forthwith he said so in his magazine. And the storm broke. The denunciations brought down upon him by his attitude toward woman’s clubs was as nothing compared to what was now let loose. The attacks were bitter. His arguments were ignored; and the suffragists evidently decided to concentrate their criticisms upon the youthful years of the editor. They regarded this as a most vulnerable point of attack, and reams of paper were used to prove that the opinion of a man so young in years and so necessarily unformed in his judgment was of no value.Unfortunately, the suffragists did not know, when they advanced this argument, that it would be overthrown by the endorsement of Bok’s point of view by such men and women of years and ripe judgment as Doctor Eliot, then president of Harvard University, former President Cleveland, Lyman Abbott, Margaret Deland, and others. When articles by these opponents to suffrage appeared, the argument of youth hardly held good; and the attacks of the suffragists were quickly shifted to the ground of “narrow-mindedness and old-fashioned fogyism.”The article by former President Cleveland particularly stirred the ire of the attacking suffragists, and Miss Anthony hurled a broadside at the former President in a newspaper interview. Unfortunately for her best judgment, and the strength of her argument, the attack became intensely personal; and of course, nullified its force. But it irritated Mr. Cleveland, who called Bok to his Princeton home and read him a draft of a proposed answer for publication in Bok’s magazine.Those who knew Mr. Cleveland were well aware of the force that he could put into his pen when he chose, and in this proposed article he certainly chose! It would have made very unpleasant reading for Miss Anthony in particular, as well as for her friends. Bok argued strongly against the article. He reminded Mr. Cleveland that it would be undignified to make such an answer; that it was always an unpopular thing to attack a woman in public, especially a woman who was old and ill; that she would again strive for the last word; that there would be no point to the controversy and nothing gained by it. He pleaded with Mr. Cleveland to meet Miss Anthony’s attack by a dignified silence.These arguments happily prevailed. In reality, Mr. Cleveland was not keen to attack Miss Anthony or any other woman; such a thought was foreign to his nature. He summed up his feeling to Bok when he tore up the draft of his article and smilingly said: “Well, I’ve got if off my chest, that is the main thing. I wanted to get it out of my system, and talking it over has driven it out. It is better in the fire,” and he threw the torn paper into the open grate.As events turned out, it was indeed fortunate that the matter had been so decided; for the article would have appeared in the number of Bok’s magazine published on the day that Miss Anthony passed away. It would have been a most unfortunate moment, to say the least, for the appearance of an attack such as Mr. Cleveland had in mind.This incident, like so many instances that might be adduced, points with singular force to the value of that editorial discrimination which the editor often makes between what is wise or unwise for him to publish. Bok realized that had he encouraged Mr. Cleveland to publish the article, he could have exhausted any edition he might have chosen to print. Times without number, editors make such decisions directly against what would be of temporary advantage to their publications. The public never hears of these incidents.More often than not the editor hears “stories” that, if printed, would be a “scoop” which would cause his publication to be talked about from one end of the country to the other. The public does not give credit to the editor, particularly of the modern newspaper, for the high code of honor which constantly actuates him in his work. The prevailing notion is that an editor prints all that he knows, and much that he does not know. Outside of those in the inner government circles, no group of men, during the Great War, had more information of a confidential nature constantly given or brought to them, and more zealously guarded it, than the editors of the newspapers of America. Among no other set of professional men is the code of honor so high; and woe betide the journalist who, in the eyes of his fellow-workers, violates, even in the slightest degree, that code of editorial ethics. Public men know how true is this statement; the public at large, however, has not the first conception of it. If it had, it would have a much higher opinion of its periodicals and newspapers.At this juncture, Rudyard Kipling unconsciously came into the very centre of the suffragists’ maelstrom of attack when he sent Bok his famous poem: “The Female of the Species.” The suffragists at once took the argument in the poem as personal to themselves, and now Kipling got the full benefit of their vitriolic abuse. Bok sent a handful of these criticisms to Kipling, who was very gleeful about them. “I owe you a good laugh over the clippings,” he wrote. “They were delightful. But what a quantity of spare time some people in this world have to burn!”It was a merry time; and the longer it continued the more heated were the attacks. The suffragists now had a number of targets, and they took each in turn and proceeded to riddle it. That Bok was publishing articles explaining both sides of the question, presenting arguments by the leading suffragists as well as known anti-suffragists, did not matter in the least. These were either conveniently overlooked, or, when referred to at all, were considered in the light of “sops” to the offended women.At last Bok reached the stage where he had exhausted all the arguments worth printing, on both sides of the question, and soon the storm calmed down.It was always a matter of gratification to him that the woman who had most bitterly assailed him during the suffrage controversy, Anna Howard Shaw, became in later years one of his stanchest friends, and was an editor on his pay-roll. When the United States entered the Great War, Bok saw that Doctor Shaw had undertaken a gigantic task in promising, as chairman, to direct the activities of the National Council for Women. He went to see her in Washington, and offered his help and that of the magazine. Doctor Shaw, kindliest of women in her nature, at once accepted the offer; Bok placed the entire resources of the magazine and of its Washington editorial force at her disposal; and all through America’s participation in the war, she successfully conducted a monthly department in The Ladies’ Home Journal.“Such help,” she wrote at the close, “as you and your associates have extended me and my co-workers; such unstinted co-operation and such practical guidance I never should have dreamed possible. You made your magazine a living force in our work; we do not see now how we would have done without it. You came into our activities at the psychological moment, when we most needed what you could give us, and none could have given with more open hands and fuller hearts.”So the contending forces in a bitter word-war came together and worked together, and a mutual regard sprang up between the woman and the man who had once so radically differed.