“Are Women People?” The Poetry of Alice Duer Miller
“Are women people?” It’s a question you may have seen floating around the Internet lately, an absurd line calling attention to patriarchy, sexism and the dehumanization of women.
But the line did not come out of nowhere. It has a very specific history that begins with Alice Duer Miller.
Miller was a Barnard College-graduate who made her mark as a writer for publications like Harper’s and Scribner’s. She also advised the New Yorker and wrote screenplays. Later in life, she wrote the story-poem “The White Cliffs,” a work published in 1940 that encouraged the U.S. to join England in World War II. It became her most famous work and was turned into a movie.
The line “Are women people?” is the title of a series of pieces she wrote for the New York Tribune, the newspaper owned by the Whig Party advocate Horace Greeley, from 1914-1917, the year New York voted to give women the right to vote.
Those columns featured Miller’s poetic, satirical send-ups of those who were anti-suffrage. For instance, here’s Miller’s poem “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.
The Hairpin has printed more of her columns here.
Miller’s “Are Women People” poems were collected and published in a book called Are Women People? A Book of Rhymes for Suffrage Times. You can read the entire book for free here on Project Gutenberg, a website featuring free books for download.
A pair not published in the book concern the abrupt resignation of Dudley Field Malone in September 1917 from his plum patronage post in the Woodrow Wilson administration, expressly to protest the president’s unwillingness to support the federal women’s suffrage amendment. Three years later, Malone would marry Doris Stevens, the suffrage leader and Alice Paul’s aide de camp. This is the poem that appeared in the Tribune on September 16, 1917:
Some men believe in suffrage
In a peculiar way,
They think that it is coming fast
But should not come to-day.
And others work and speak for it,
And yet you’ll sometimes find
Behind their little suffrage speech
A little axe to grind.
They put their Party interests first,
And suffrage well behind.
Of men who care supremely
That justice should be shown,
Who do not balk at sacrifice,
And make the cause their own,
I know, I think, of only one,
That’s Dudley Field Malone.
And, a month later, on October 14, 1917. she wrote of Byron Newton, Wilson’s choice for Malone’s successor at the port:
To Byron R. Newton
“Every true woman knows . . . Those things which God Almight and Nature designed them to do . . . ” Anti-suffrage interview of Mr. Newton
O, Mr. Newton, are you really sure
You know what each true woman knows and thinks?
No wonder that you go your way secure,
A wise young Oedipus to that old sphinx.
The woman question: it cannot perplex
Your intuition: many men are loath
To boast of understanding either sex,
But you, I gather, understand them both.
You, if I read you rightly, understand
Not only all that women know and hope,
But everything which God and Nature planned
In evolution. So, we cry with Pope:
‘Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night:
God said, ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was light.”
She ends her column with the following:
“The former Collector of the Port Dudley Field Malone resigned his post because the Administration was not taking a sufficiently active stand on woman suffrage. The new Collector is a violent anti-suffragist. If the Administration becomes more aggressive in its suffrage policy, will Mr. Newton show the same sincerity and courage that Mr. Malone showed—and resign?”
You can also read her columns in original newspaper form by utilizing the Fulton History website. Search “Alice Duer Miller” “Are Women People” for a list of her newspaper poems, which you can then read in PDF form. If you know the newspaper page and date of the column, you can also search by that.
If you have access to academic databases, you can read English scholar Mary Chapman’s analysis of Miller’s poetry and politics in this piece for the journal American Literary History. You can also search for that article on JStor.
The Journal of American Culture published this analysis of Miller’s humorous poetry.