Harbinger: Betty Smith And Election '16

Betty Smith's semi-autobiographical novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn features both the 1912 and 1916 presidential elections. We see not only the polling places, but also the important social interactions that help form an individual's political identity. The novel's retelling of these elections reminds us that a hundred years ago, women were not only denied the right to vote; it was inappropriate for them to play any role in the political world.

There are two passages in particular in which women's participation in elections is discussed. The first is a domestic scene in 1912 in which Johnny Nolan, a loyal Democrat, and his wife Katie, a cynic about both parties, discuss the election. There is an interesting focus on the local elections, and the local party headquarters are a place for community members to go for assistance and support. The famed Tammany Hall is inspiration for songs, and Johnny Nolan speaks highly of the resourcefulness of the party in helping its constituents. Katie is not as enamored and expresses doubts about the intentions of the politicians.

"You wait until us women vote."
Johnny's laugh interrupted her.
"You don't believe we will? That day will come. Mark my words. We'll put all those crooked politicians where they belong - behind iron bars."
"If that day ever comes when women vote, you'll go along to the polls with me - arm in arm - and vote the way I do." He put his arm around her and gave her a quick hug.

If you're like me, you expect Katie, a strong and confident woman, to slap Johnny's arm away and tell him a thing or two. But she doesn't. Instead she "smiled up at him." Whether Katie agrees with Johnny or not, she doesn't assert her right to a vote independent of his. On Election Day, when Katie insightfully points out how the party is keeping track of who votes for whom, Johnny responds dismissively, "Women don't know anything about politics."

Johnny is merely going along with a political system that openly excluded and belittled women. Not only were women unable to vote, they weren't even allowed in the Democratic Headquarters, except on one day, "Ladies' Day," when the party opened its doors to receive them. Despite her doubts about the political system, Katie agrees to attend. Upon her return she notes that all the women had "new clothes," and "the prostitutes were the best dressed...and like always, they outnumbered the decent women two to one." She has little faith in the politicians or their motives. Unlike her husband, she is not taken in by the rhetoric and pomp; she chooses instead to note the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of the political system. She does not believe in the party's avowals of dedication to people like her, and we can understand her cynicism.

The second scene occurs four years later, in 1916, when young Francie Nolan overhears men talking while they drink at McGarrity's saloon. The men at the bar begin on the topic of Prohibition, but quickly shift to the troubling issue of women and their desire to participate in the political process.

G'wan! They'll never give wimmen the vote.
Don't lay any bets on it
If that comes, my wife votes like I do, otherwise I'll break her neck.
My old woman wouldn't go to the polls and mix in with a bunch of bums and rummies.
...a woman president. That might be.
They'll never let a woman run the government.

We may experience a bit of joy as a result of the dramatic irony in this scene portraying anonymous men of the past as they drink and make proclamations we know will be proven false one day (perhaps even this very Tuesday!). In a hundred years the role women play in American politics has changed dramatically. And yet, it would not be hard to find people make many of the same claims today.

It is interesting to note that even the local polling place is considered an inappropriate environment for a woman because she would have to "mix" with "bums and rummies." The assumption is not only that women must vote with their husbands (or face physical injury if they do not!), but also that they must be kept separate from others, as if their delicate sensibilities would be overwhelmed by the common man going to cast his vote. Such assumptions further the notion that women are incapable of handling the responsibilities of political life or civic duties. They are kept from developing their own political identity.

The location of these conversations is itself significant. The discussions take place in the local bar in an impoverished Brooklyn neighborhood. The topics describe the dramatic shifts occurring during the early twentieth century: airplanes and affordable automobiles, movie theaters, painless births, machines that will replace workers, voting rights, war, and the incumbent President Woodrow Wilson. Smith writes, "Great changes were taking place in the country, and...Americans everywhere, had to get together to talk things over. The corner saloon was their only gathering place, the poor man's club." Smith is perceptive in understanding the anxiety people felt in a time of change. It was important that the men, particularly those poorest ones, immigrants, and their families who resided in that neighborhood, had a place to go, to exchange ideas, to share, and to reflect.

Betty Smith published A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in 1943, after two world wars and the Great Depression had changed the United States into a dramatically different place. Today, a hundred years later, we experience another era of change and uncertainty.

Perhaps it is no surprise that in addition to gathering in person for protests and parties, we take to the virtual world, flooding social media and message boards with our questions, theories, and ideas. This time, anyone with access to the Internet can participate in discussions, regardless of race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, or gender. For better or for worse, more people are involved in our political world. While we may lament the more trollish and belligerent tendencies the internet allows, there are some real gems of political activism and engagement out there thanks to the accessibility of social media.

Smith's novel is infused with an air of nostalgia but also trepidation as she writes of 1916 and the years that preceded it. She knows how much the world will change by the mid-twentieth century. I can't help but wonder how authors who look back on the tumult of the early 21st century will reflect on 2016, its fierce exchange of ideas and voices, and the dynamic shifts in the world that will doubtless follow.