RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Bring Back Discord

From all reports, the Democratic convention was a fully-orchestrated bigwigs-only citizen lockout. Photo ops with a pre-fab platform, pretty much like we'd expect from the Republicans, as if we needed any more similarities.

A shame. Until now, the Democratic convention has been a place where grassroots groups get a listen. So they show up. The protesters disrupt, demand, and often go home with a plank in the platform. Not this year.

During the August 1968 "Dump Johnson" convention in Chicago, I was a student at Northwestern University, close enough to ride the Elevated downtown. The voting age was 21, so we were too young to vote but not too young to be drafted. That ain't right. Kids were getting killed in a war that had nothing to do with US defense. That ain't right.

Day after day, our student groups marched, rallied, listened, and made our demands, mostly to each other. We hitchhiked and walked from Lincoln Park to the Grant Park bandshell to the Hilton to Old Town, following rumors that one place, then the other was the epicenter of the action.

We'd march and speak and resist and be teargassed at one epicenter after another. But within an hour, there'd be a new epicenter -- and we'd start in a new direction. So it went for days. Raggedy groups wandering all over Chicago, meeting, flashing peace signs, whooping a bit in favor of our youth, our numbers, and our newfound power, and going off, usually in different directions.

A few people were arrested. Hugh Hefner said later he was stopped by police and questioned on the street near the Playboy Mansion. Everyone else just went home at nightfall.

But we had been heard. The reporters published things our leaders said. After years of hearing the casualties announced like football scores on the nightly news -- like the casualties in Iraq today -- we had the beginnings of a plank in the Democratic platform.

The student groups didn't know it, but we were following in the footsteps of earlier protesters at earlier Democratic conventions.

Perhaps the best protest demonstration came out of the 1916 convention in St. Louis. That year, "The Golden Lane" put woman suffrage on the Democratic platform.

Women had been asking for the vote, in the US and England, since the 1850s. They had robust coalitions on both sides of the pond. They had marched, written, argued, orated. And, after 60 years of struggle, they had three generations of experience.

The American Civil War had given suffrage to African-American men, but not to women of any race. But women were not going to fight a war. Women were, after all, in charge of households and care for the youngest citizens. They were duty-bound and needed other strategies. They knew there was no reason women shouldn't have input about matters such as how industry provides health care and insures food quality.

Still, in order to gain suffrage, women had to convince men to give up some of their power. Further, the majority of men had to vote to give up their power.

Missouri had powerful female leaders and a powerful organization. Emily Newell Blair was one such leader. Born in Joplin in 1877, she wrote articles like "Confessions of a Happy Wife" for popular women's magazines like Cosmopolitan and Harper's Bazaar, and had worked for suffrage much of her adult life. Beginning in 1914, Blair edited a magazine, The Missouri Woman, which carried news about school organizations and women's clubs along with recipes, fashion tips, jokes and household hints. As editor of Missouri Woman, Blair was also committed to letting women know their rights and included articles on property rights and inheritance in the journal.

When the convention came to St. Louis, she was among the inner circle making strategy with Carrie Chapman Catt to add women's suffrage to the Democratic platform. They needed a strategy that would unite women from many backgrounds: Tenement dwellers, suburbanites, farm women. In the melting pot that was 1916 America, immigrant groups became defensive at the words of established Americans and vice versa. Religions vied for power. The demonstration needed to focus on one issue and that issue only.

Blair later wrote about her idea: "Why not line the way to the Coliseum with women holding out their hands in mute appeal?" Catt immediately adopted the idea and within a few hours had a list of states and how many women each state was to bring to line both sides of the street for ten blocks.

The women carried parasols and wore yellow sashes declaring "Votes for Women." In this era of exaggerated Victorian femininity, the lacy demonstrators lined up in tight rows, blocking the delegates' escape. The women stayed six hours, silently. Blair remembered later that the men came out, were shocked for a moment, then nodded approval or sneered disgust, according to their opinion.

On the convention floor, sympathetic delegates presented reports on the women's behalf. Predictably, the western states favored the plank and the southern states did not. Woodrow Wilson, the sitting president, did not favor suffrage but was eventually convinced that he could not win without it.

We've heard it a million times: The 2004 election will be one of the most important ever. How sad that it begins by ignoring citizen voices.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

Home Page

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2004 The Progressive Populist