By Sharon Levy, Intern
In June of 1878 a young woman graduated as valedictorian from East Side High. Her name was Lizzie Black. She’s more commonly known in the Milwaukee Jewish community by her married name—Lizzie Kander, the founder of The Settlement House and the creator of The Settlement House Cookbook.
Lizzie’s speech was titled “When I’m President” and took a satirical look at the social issues of the day. Quoting Henry Clay, “I’d rather be president than be right,” she proceeded to spout rhetoric evocative of today’s political climate. She joked that the underpaid congressmen were too busy taking bribes to be able to get their work done so the best way to increase their productivity was to raise their salaries. Also, despite graduating as valedictorian of her class, she accused education of creating an economic drain on American society and changing people’s ideals.
“The Earth will scarcely have moved fifty times around its orbit before the sun will look down on a deserted country, unless a change takes place in the government, and we have at is head, an honest, reliable person, one who shall be a friend to the rich, and the poor, alike.”
Lizzie combined the hyperbole of all politicians trying to get a rise out of the voters in order to bring a larger turnout—political tactics have not changed significantly since then. Big issues like immigration, climate change, and women’s reproductive rights are often used to move crowds to vote.
While climate change wasn’t a big issue in the 1870s, immigration and especially commerce were important topics.
“Commerce, on which the very life of our nation depends, is almost entirely destroyed, and if we allow this state of affairs to go on much longer, we shall soon be isolated from the rest of the world, like China. The wealth of the nation is in the hands of a few individuals, who are accumulating more every day, while the poor are becoming more miserable. Our men are forgetting that truth, honesty, virtue, and love are far more valuable to the happiness of mankind than extravagant modes of living… Would you have these sorrows removed? Then elect me as your president and I will…[establish] free trade.”
Lizzie’s reasons for wanting economic change are based on the principles of helping the poor but she never exactly explains how her economic plans could benefit anyone other than the rich, competing for buyers and profits on a controlled market. Instead of outlining any legitimate plans, she simply makes her claims that one will equal the other, similarly to today’s political tactics.
Even though politicians have always been paid well and are generally on the wealthier side, they are always in control of salaries and insurance for working people.
“We cannot blame the congressmen for taking bribes. If we would give enough reward for their services, they would be tempted to forget that they are in a position of a great responsibility, and that they are working for the benefit of the masses, and not for the sake of a few rich individuals; and so, if we would have to give out a few thousand dollars more, yearly, work would be done more cheerfully and better.”
The average congressman’s salary in 1874 was $5,000—about $100,000 dollars today with inflation rates. That’s double the “average person’s” salary today!
By the end of this speech, the parody is clear. But at the beginning of the speech, some of Lizzie’s concerns are legitimate problems in the community around her, which she tends to her in her later life and career.
One part of her satire, however, was the very fact that she was a woman announcing her presidential platform. Lizzie was a progressive reformer and a very liberal-minded individual for the time she lived in. Despite her jokes about forays into politics, she wasn’t a believer in women’s suffrage. She chose to use her time helping women in the settlement house integrate into American life, calling suffrage an “unnecessary distraction.”
What would she think of Hillary Clinton today, even closer today to the office of president than she was in the 2008 election? Hillary definitely doesn’t meet Lizzie’s ideals for a woman—but those were also based around the 1890s standards. Would she be able to accept a woman’s more pronounced role as it is today and deny it all and push things back into the past?
In 2016, for the past two elections, the US has finally had its first viable bids for a female president. However, women have been running consistently since the 1970s. But these women weren’t the first to run either. Lizzie Kander’s speech came six years after Victoria Woodhull ran for president—and almost 50 years before women’s suffrage!