The Presidency, Social Movements, and Contentious Change: Lessons from the Woman's Suffrage and Labor Movements.


No less than other specialized research fields in political science and history, presidency scholarship can exemplify many conceits regarding the causal power and transformative effects that its primary subject, the executive office, bestows on American politics. Studies old and new portray the institution of the presidency as perhaps the most crucial engine of contentious change in U.S. political development. "In presidential government, Americans have established one of the most powerful political institutions in the free world," James MacGregor Burns asserted in 1965. "They have fashioned, sometimes unwittingly, a weapon that has served them well in the long struggle for freedom and equality at home."(1) In one of the most important recent works on the presidency, The Politics Presidents Make, Stephen Skowronek similarly depicts the executive office as a "blunt disruptive force" whose "deep-seated impulse to reorder things routinely jolts order and routine elsewhere." Although Skowronek does not embrace Burns's vision of a heroic presidency, he does find that the institution "routinely disrupts established power arrangements and continually opens new avenues of political activity for others."(2) These studies place the presidency at the vanguard of change in American politics, a governing institution whose occupants are compelled to persistently challenge and remake the existing political order.

A growing literature on the executive office and racial politics contests this portrait of a transformative presidency. Far from being agents of contentious change, presidents are depicted in this scholarly work as staunch guardians of prevailing economic, social, and political arrangements. In a sweeping study of the presidency and race, Kenneth O'Reilly argues that the imperatives of elections and majoritarian politics in the United States made incumbents reactionary opponents of civil rights reform. "At root, it is nothing more than a belief that presidential elections can be won only by following the doctrines and rituals of white over black," he notes. "The pecking order has stayed that way through the death of slavery and Jim Crow, and notwithstanding Lincoln and Johnson, our presidents have in nearly every other case made it their job to keep that order."(3) According to scholars such as Russell Riley and Thomas Langston, executive caution and resistance on questions of racial justice also reflect the presidency's role as a "nation-maintaining institution" whose occupants "portray themselves ... as the embodiment of the whole nation."(4) For most of our presidents, they argue, social movement challenges to prevailing racial structures do not fit comfortably with executive imperatives to secure domestic tranquility and national unity. In contrast to the transformative model of the American presidency, Riley concludes that the presidency "is fundamentally a change-resistant institution."(5)

These contrasting portraits of the American presidency raise enormously important theoretical questions. Most obvious, does executive power and leadership propel or frustrate major change in American politics? In particular, what is the relationship between the American presidency and efforts to secure greater freedom and equality of democratic citizens in the United States? Finally, if the presidency is in fact a cautious institution resistant to contentious change, then how do we account for episodic bursts of presidential activism on behalf of controversial reforms that enhance the freedom and equality of citizens?

This article begins to answer these daunting questions by investigating two illuminating cases of presidential activism that helped produce major social and political breakthroughs, episodes that capture profound tensions between the presidency and social movements for greater democratic equality. The first case examines the uneven relationship between the Woodrow Wilson administration and the woman's suffrage movement, and the second case focuses on the labor movement and its engagement with the Franklin D. Roosevelt presidency. As we shall see, even presidents as strong and reform-minded as Wilson and Roosevelt were deeply reluctant about, and often resistant to, polarizing crusades for democratic equality. Circumspect presidential activism on behalf of woman's suffrage and labor union rights would rely on truly exceptional circumstances: historical moments when domestic or international crises gave presidents greater flexibility and power to address the demands of social movements. Both cases also exemplify the capacity of social movements and their leaders to realign existing social, economic, and political structures. Far from being passive recipients of either executive benevolence or resistance, the woman's suffrage and labor movements we examine actively courted and provoked a modernizing presidency to serve as their institutional champion within American government. The prominent roles of movement leaders such as Alice Paul, Carrie Chapman Catt, and John L. Lewis in securing favorable presidential action highlight the influence that dissenting leaders who do not possess formal political power or occupy high political office may have on the achievement or demise of transformative ends. Both episodes of reluctant presidential activism capture an uneasy yet pivotal partnership between the presidency and social movements in the production of contentious change for women and unskilled laborers in America. It is to these movements that we now turn.

Wilson, Paul, Catt, and Woman's Suffrage

At the time of the 1912 presidential campaign, the woman's suffrage movement was at a crossroads. Efforts to secure voting rights in the individual states were stymied in one contest after another. Among younger suffragists, the notion of concentrating the movement's energies on a national amendment seemed a far more promising political strategy. And whereas federal constitutional amendments traditionally were crafted in Congress and the separate states, with presidential incumbents playing a marginal role, younger suffragists believed that the White House was crucial to achieving their goals. "The transformation of the modern presidency," two historians recently noted, "... which had its genesis in Theodore Roosevelt's concept of the office as a `bully pulpit,' gradually led suffragists to rethink their position." Paul, eventual leader of the militant wing of the suffrage movement, later recalled, "We knew that [the American presidency], and perhaps it alone, would ensure our success."(6) The movement soon would discover, however, that gaining the support of the president was an arduous enterprise.

Of all the presidential aspirants in 1912, Wilson, the Democratic candidate, was perhaps the most elusive on the suffrage issue. Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive party embraced woman's suffrage and invited Jane Addams and other prominent women to hold important positions in the party.(7) Wilson, by contrast, evaded questions from journalists and delegations of women activists about the contentious suffrage issue by asserting that it was not a matter for either presidential candidates or incumbents to discuss. "Suffrage is not a national issue," he insisted. "It is a local issue for each state to settle for itself."(8) Although he vigorously lobbied the Democratic platform committee behind the scenes not to endorse a controversial pro-suffrage plank, Wilson told suffragist groups during the campaign that his hands were tied by a Democratic platform opposing their goals.(9)

Paul, who was schooled in militant activism by English suffragists until she returned to the United States in 1910, won support in 1912 from the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) to initiate a national amendment campaign in Washington, D.C. Reflecting the importance that Paul accorded to the twentieth-century presidency, her new Washington office organized a massive suffrage parade in the nation's capital on the day of Wilson's first inauguration. Crowds that assembled for the inauguration reacted violently to the parade, and federal troops eventually were called in to restore order. The incident was an ominous sign for Wilson, foreshadowing the unceasing suffragist efforts to hound the president throughout his two terms in office. As much as Abraham Lincoln was beleaguered by a steady stream of abolitionist delegations during his...

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