Women's route to convention power

With the selection of Rep. Geraldine Ferraro of New York as Walter Mondale's vice-presidential running mate, women delegates to the Democratic National Convention have seen an enormous step forward for women in the world of politics.

They might also reflect on the fact that it was 60 years ago that their predecessors began the quest for a say-so in the party's nominating process. The scene was the old Madison Square Garden in New York City where the Democrats had first assembled in 1868. By late June, 1924 the 19th Amendment providing women with the vote was not quite four years old, but the increase in women delegates from 1920 was significant: from 93 to 199, with 732 votes required for the nomination.

Many divisive issues confronted the out-of-power Democrats in 1924 - from the Ku Klux Klan to Prohibition - and their convention would confirm the assertion that ''all Democrats would rather fight than eat.'' No convention was longer (17 days) and none would take more ballots (103) to nominate a presidential candidate. Delegates had to contend with a heat wave and bad odors as well, since Barnum & Bailey's wild animals held center stage in the Garden until the Democrats arrived.

The most frustrating aspect of the convention for women delegates was their disagreement on a course of action. For example, for the first time in the party's history, a woman, Mrs. Carroll Miller of Pittsburgh, got a half-vote for the presidential nomination on the 21st ballot. In another first, Mrs. Leroy Springs of Lancaster, S.C., was nominated for the vice-presidency, receiving a handful of votes.

If women were lukewarm in supporting one of their own for the nominations, they were also divided as to whether they were given any significant responsibility at the convention. Mrs. Springs, who was head of the credentials committee, made a brief report on the lack of work for her group, and another delegate after the convention noted that ''women have but laid hold of the hem of the garment; they have not altered the fabric or the fashioning of the robe.''

On the other hand, there were women delegates who cared less about their duties and more about running out of funds for lodging and food as a result of the lengthy convention. And there were women who hoped for an end to the convention for still other reasons, as illustrated by a national committeewoman from Ohio:

''Every good housekeeper knows that these days are the best in all the year to make currant jelly. We women shouldn't be wasting all this time dangling at the heels of political leaders who are trying to manipulate things for candidates. We should be at home making our currant jelly.''

Adopting a middle position on the matter of women's issues was Mrs. Emily Newell Blair, vice-president of the National Committee: ''Of course, it has always been my contention that women's interests in politics are not essentially different from men's. . . . At the same time there are, I suppose, some differences in point of view between the two sexes, and if the people will insist on them I suppose we can meet them.''

Perhaps the most rancorous incident involving women occurred in the wake of a July 6 meeting of Democratic officials trying to break the deadlock in nominating a presidential candidate. No women delegates had been invited to the meeting, which led Mrs. Florence M. Sterling, a delegate who was also actively involved in the nomination of a vice-presidential hopeful, to go public with her discontent. Not only did Mrs. Sterling identify eight leading women delegates who should have been invited to the meeting, but she issued a statement at once startling and prophetic, inasmuch as the party's eventual nominee, John W. Davis of West Virginia, lost in a landslide to Republican Calvin Coolidge:

''Political parties were created before we had the vote and they represent only the men's point of view. Solidarity would compel the parties to give us a square deal. Selfish politicians do not desire this, naturally. They want to caucus without us - to scare us into taking a seat in the corner and being quiet until the signal is given to save our country, as was done during the World War, when we were called upon for all kinds of patriotic service, all of which we performed with ardor. Woman was the inspiration that won the war. Without her there is no hope for Democratic success in November.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.