Last Friday was the official publication date for my new book, but like everything else in our brave new world of global pandemic, it was – as the country song says -- "not exactly what I had in mind." I wanted a big launch in DC, preferably at the Belmont-Paul House. It's named for Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, who gave millions of dollars to win the vote for women, as well as Woman's Party leader Alice Paul. She lived there during the campaign for the 19th Amendment that fully enfranchised all American women for all elections, no matter in which state they lived.
The book, "Victory for the Vote: The Fight for Women's Suffrage and the Century that Followed," has an introduction by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Because the Belmont-Paul House is just across the street from the Capitol, I hoped she could honor Women's History Month by attending. I am so glad now that my desires didn't work out! Anything that we planned would have been cancelled because of the coronavirus.
On the Virginia side of the Potomac, the people who run the Women's Memorial in Arlington Cemetery are experiencing similar problems. They planned a big celebration for the 90th birthday of its founder, Brigadier General Wilma Vaught, and that now is a no-go. I sent General Vaught an autographed copy of the new book, though, as I greatly admire the work she has done to include women in history. She was kind enough to offer to drive me to Seneca Falls, New York, in 1998, when we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the first call for women's enfranchisement.
Women's history is being taken much more seriously these days. Seneca Falls, for instance, has transformed itself from the time when it allowed the church in which these brave women met to become a laundromat. All over the nation, the centennial of women's right to vote is being celebrated – and maybe by the actual date of August 26, life will be back to normal. And we all may be better people for this scary international experience. We may come away from it with a greatly increased awareness that what connects us on this lonely planet is more important than what divides us.
This strange month of March also served to remind me that feminists faced a similar difficulty during the final stages of the campaign for the vote. You've no doubt heard about the Spanish Influenza that followed the First World War. I wrote about that several weeks ago, but I didn't point out that this devastating epidemic occurred during the same period as congressional passage and state ratification of the 19th Amendment. Adding an amendment to the US Constitution is a huge hurdle in any case, requiring 2/3 of both houses of Congress and ¾ of state legislatures, and the flu epidemic hampered that immense political task. Several states banned meetings of more than a dozen, and in an era before most people had telephones, this inability to rally one's lobbying troops was a serious problem. Still, they overcame.
On a personal level, I was reminded that marine biologist Rachel Carson had the bad luck to have her first book published shortly before Pearl Harbor. Reviews and articles that would have been written were not, and she continued to be employed by the federal government. This gifted author instead wrote pamphlets encouraging people to eat more fish and less meat during the war. Almost two decades passed before Silent Spring made her reputation as the most prominent pioneer of environmentalism. She died just two years after her famous warning of a spring without songbirds, her prescient voice silenced by bone cancer.
As it happened, my first agent was the agent for Carson's books. They continue to sell even decades after her 1964 death -- and that was one reason why the agent, Fran Collin, took on an unpublished author of women's history. Both Fran and I are older now than Carson was when she died, and I don't expect a repetition of that sort of literary success. Still, it's nice to think that an unfortunate pub date doesn't really matter much. Certainly not compared with cancer.
As long as I'm reminiscing, I may as well tell you that I lived through the polio epidemic that followed the Korean War. I was a schoolchild in Minnesota, in a class of about twenty-five kids. Four were permanently crippled by infantile paralysis, the official name for this disease that targeted the young. Swimming pools were thought to be a culprit, and they closed. My mother and others were hesitant about letting us play with anyone who might have come into contact with the disease, and it was hard on friendships.
We had moved to Arkansas by the time a vaccine was developed, and I remember the massive public health campaign to inoculate everyone. Realizing that parents had to work during weekdays and that most in that era considered Sundays to be a day of rest, our local doctors set up clinics in public places on Sunday afternoon. Whole families got their polio shots at the school cafeteria on their way home from church.
THE ARC OF HISTORY BENDS…
Now that I think about it, those vaccinations doubtless were paid for by the federal government: poor Arkansas farmers wouldn't have spent money on preventative medicine, nor would have our conservative state and local governments. With hindsight, I see that polio was a big (but largely unrecognized) factor in expanding the role of the federal government. It also was something of a factor in the feminism of the 1960s, as the epidemic was during the 1950s, when Houston's Oveta Culp Hobby already was close to being a household name.
A brilliant woman, she led the Women's Army Corps during World War II. Congress never revised its limitations on women's ability to serve, so she never rose to general -- even though she quickly created the corps from scratch and commanded many more troops than all but a handful of male officers. General Dwight D. Eisenhower greatly valued the WACs that Hobby sent to North Africa and Europe, and when Congress created the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) in 1953, President Eisenhower appointed Hobby to run the new and controversial agency.
She immediately was thrown into the polio epidemic, which was similar to today in terms of uncertainty and contradictory information about the disease. Probably inadvertently, Eisenhower added to that confusion. The Army had provided him and his family with free health care all of his life, and that sense of personal security led him to tell the nation that every child would be vaccinated free of cost – while he also reassured physicians and his friends in the pharmaceutical industry that there would be no federal control over a privately manufactured vaccine.
These guys – and they were almost all guys – already were angry about HEW, which they viewed as the first step towards the bogeyman of "socialized medicine." Hobby had to use great skill to clarify the mess, but the medical research that HEW funded would end polio as a daily threat. Although most people did not connect the dots, this public health emergency led to a change of political mindsets, and Medicare began a decade later. I was working in a hospital by then and clearly remember the nightmare visions of socialized medicine wrought by the hospital's physicians and administration.
Those scare words caused many impoverished people to vote against Lyndon Johnson, who wanted a War on Poverty and was Medicare's chief cheerleader. Like Oveta Hobby, Johnson was a Democrat who had honed his political skills in Texas. Congress passed the Medicare bill in 1965, and now, more than a half-century later, everyone -- physicians and pharmacists included -- is glad to know that the elderly can reap the benefit of the money that we pay into this non-profit, government-run system of health care.
Despite continued Republican diatribes against Medicare and the earlier Social Security system that Democrats adopted in the 1930s, neither ever will be repealed. The next historical step is obvious, isn't it? This epidemic will do more to bring about Medicare for All than any number of Bernie's speeches.
Like "Star Trek" bolding going, I'm going to take the risk of trying to see the future. Not only will we get through this pandemic, we will be better people because of it. It likely will bring us Americans – at long last -- a non-profit health care system akin to those in Europe. We certainly will be much more supportive of WHO and other United Nations agencies. I trust that we will come to see – at long last – that the Earth is fragile and interdependent. Deadly, invisible germs have shown us that we have to give up on American exceptionalism: no longer can we believe that God has chosen to favor only us among his billions of children. Among other positives:
· Voting by mail will become routine. Why risk not only health, but also election-day chaos when we can simply put a ballot in the mail? Rural Australia, where distances were great handicaps to getting to the polls, began voting by mail in the 1870s. Oregon pioneered it in the US, and now five states conduct all of their elections exclusively by mail. This gives election officials more time for accurate counts, and we don't have to endure long lines at polls – nor pay rent to churches and other institutions for the use of facilities. The post office delivers to everyone, no matter where they live, and we will get a more inclusive result with ballots sent to homes. Fraud will be harder. There simply are no good arguments against a process that is slower and more accurate with less chance of discrimination.
· So why did we vote at one place and one time at all? Literacy. Until fairly recently, most Americans could barely read or write, and party bosses wanted these men – yes, they were entirely men in most states – to be under their visible control. That's why they developed the donkey and the elephant, so that guys who couldn't read could figure out the "right" slate of candidates. And go across the street to the saloon for a reward. Until the League of Women Voters changed all that.
· Educators will have a stronger hand in dealing with legislatures that thought everything should be based on standardized test scores. This is a good thing, and I'll speak to it more next week.
· Finally, this has nothing to do with corona, but I have to say it just once to my leftist friends: Can you imagine Gwen Graham being found dead drunk on a hotel floor? Please stop voting for a guy – and again, they usually are guys – whose best attribute is being cool. Give the moms a chance!