April 30, 2008

Caroline O'Day, The Gentlewoman from New York

Caroline O'Day was one of the pioneering women of the last century- who invaded former male preserves and had a large impact. She was the first Congresswoman elected from a large state- New York and had influential ties to the White House, particularly to Eleanor Roosevelt. Her career though is interesting not merely as an exempla but also as a clue to what early 20th Century America was like, how its history interacted with the social change that was sweeping the continent and was symbolised by the growing industrial, cultural and political might of the nascent super power. O'Day was in a sense an emblem of an era- her political career allows us to abstract some characteristics of American society and get closer to the social movements that convulsed her country in her times. Based on a recent article in the New York History Journal by Paul DeForest HIcks, I think we can assess O'Day's career.

First amongst those is the degree of social change. We often forget that a single lifespan could easily bridge the America of Lincoln, the civil war, and the America of Nixon, let alone that of Roosevelt. A single lifespan did bridge those Americas- John Nance Garner 'Cactus Jack' was born when Grant was President and died when Johnson was. O'Day again was affected hugely by her upbringing- born in Georgia in the aftermath of civil war she was affected by a pacifist upbringing, stimulated by parents who had seen the horrors of the civil war, and consequently she was one of the isolationist Democrats who opposed the Second World War. She was associated with other leading Democrat women in New York, including Eleanor Roosevelt, in constructing a charitable foundation to stimulate rural manufacturing of furniture. There is something Arcadian about her description of The Cottage,

When politics is through with us we are retiring to this charming retreat that is now rearing its stone walls against the cedars of a Dutchess County hillside.

Of course that was not the America she lived in. She married the heir of a Standard Oil fortune- Daniel O'Day. His father Daniel O'Day senior was unscrupulous, even by the standards of the robber-barons- but the son was more interested in politics than oil and was a leading supporter of woman's suffrage, a cause which his wife inherited.

That brings me on to the second idea that I think Caroline O'Day's life embodies. America by the time she died was a vast place, stretching from ocean to ocean and holding within it every kind of life. But it was also a place of intimacy. In part that was cultivated intimacy- O'Day as a young woman had exhibited art in Paris and sought to add European sophistication to New World naivete. In part though that intimacy was the reality of any political world- what we constantly see through O'Day's life is that neccessarily politics is the business of intimacy. O'Day was part of a partnership with her husband, both interested in woman's suffrage- according to the New York Times it was he who stimulated her interest in the subject. But he died in 1916 and from then on the central relationship politically of O'Day's life was with the Roosevelts. Eleanor and her were colleagues in the charitable foundation I quoted above, they were also close and Eleanor campaigned for her in New York when she was first elected in 1934. O'Day's personality was a winning one- she increased her plurality in every election, save that of 1940 when she was running despite a debilitating illness. She had an important leglislative record on labour and immigration during the 1930s, through her ability to charm and persuade. In the world of intimate politics, O'Day was a supreme politician.

She is not a famous figure, though she left her mark on America. But she was notable both for her own acheivements and for the way she exemplified some of the important trends and facts about America of her time. Hicks has done a good job in describing her career- and she does not deserve the obscurity that she has found.


jmb said...

You have to admire women like her who could have lived the high society lives expected of them, but instead chose the route of service to others and making change for others and broke new ground for all women.

Kacy said...

I agree with jmb. However the woman that I greatly admired was that of Mother Theresa a marvel and deserving woman of praise.

Semaj Mahgih said...

Sorry to use the obvious but perhaps she nourished obscurity to an extent. Public figures can be shy.