Sunday, November 27, 2011

Frances Kellor, Citizenship, and Me

I just finished writing my newest book, Founding Mother: Frances Kellor and the Quest for Progressive Democracy.  And the end of this book has occasioned some personal philosophical reflecting. You see, Frances Kellor argued that citizenship required political participation.  Personally, she dedicated her life to designing and implementing social reform.  And, I have lived by these precepts too. But my friends just want to have fun.  Is that okay?

In some ways circumstances call me to action.  If your neighbor’s house were on fire, would you not feel compelled to act?  Well, I believe the nation is going up in flames.  Therefore, I am compelled to act.  Kellor’s impoverished upbringing likely led to her making her first two books about defending exploited women.  My sense of emergency and her despair over injustice provide legitimate motives to social action.

Kellor implicitly denigrated domestic life.  She did not overtly say that women should leave their homes.  But she did descry domestic values that focused more on rumors of fidelity than those of tainted milk and immigrant exploitation.  She sought to shake women out of their private worlds via engaging them in basketball.  Women particularly needed to switch from the private to a public orientations to reach their potential and help America reach its.  

Kellor’s private life is partially obscured.  She lived with her girlfriend Mary Dreier for 47 years.  And they took vacations together.  But her private letters rarely mention activism and her activism only implicitly addressed her lesbian romance. Kellor founded the National Urban League and international arbitration, ran the Americanization program, two Presidential campaigns and more. She had no children as she dedicated her life to public service. And for that she deserves our respect.

But people in my life watch T.V. and never mention politics.  And, without engagement I personally feel useless and unimportant.  Perhaps my constant striving for a cause has a touch of insecurity attached to it; I want to matter.  Writing Founding Mother, and so sharing Frances Kellor, gave me a sense of doing something important for the public. With its completion questions about public life and identity come to the fore.

At what point do we, Kellor and I, let people rest and live as private citizens?  Television is passive. But do I consider all who watch it worthless? How much public activism must one mix with their meaningless private consumerism and family raising to be considered a good citizen? 

John Kenneth Press, Ph.D. is the author of Founding Mother: Frances Kellor and the Quest for Participatory Democracy. has more information.