July 28th in (Feminist) History

alice-duer-millerOn this day in 1874 was the birth of Alice Duer Miller, an American feminist writer known for her satirical works—most notably  the collection of poems titled Are Women People? and the novel Come Out of the Kitchen. Alice was born into a wealthy family in New York City. Among her ancestors included William Duer, her grand-great-grandfather, who was part of the convention that framed the NY Constitution, and also signed the U.S. Articles of Confederation, as well as William Alexander, her great-great-great grandfather, who was a Major-General during the Revolutionary War.

By the time she entered into society her family had lost almost all of it’s fortune, however. She paid for her attendance at Barnard College beginning in 1895 by selling short essays and novels, including a book of poems jointly published with her sister Caroline. At the college she studied astronomy and mathematics, and graduated in 1899. Shortly afterwards she married Henry Wise Miller, a graduate of Harvard University and the son of a Lt. Commander in the U.S. Navy. She moved with her husband to Costa Rica in a failed attempt to develop rubber cultivation, and returned in 1903 with her husband and their son.

It was after their return that she became known in her campaigning for women’s suffrage, especially after her series of satirical poems (later published as Are Women People?) was printed in the New York Tribune. It’s introduction began with these lines:

Father, what is a Legislature?
A representative body elected by the people of the state.
Are women people?
No, my son, criminals, lunatics and women are not people.
Do legislators legislate for nothing?
Oh, no; they are paid a salary.
By whom?
By the people.
Are women people?
Of course, my son, just as much as men are.

The title of the series became a catchphrase within the suffrage movement, and was followed by a sequel collection called Women Are People! Her novel Come Out of the Kitchen, published in 1916, was her first real big success; it was made into a play and later a film (Spring in Park Lane). It was followed by numerous other short novels that were often also developed on the stage or screen.

In 1940 she wrote a verse novel called The White Cliffs, about an American girl in London who marries an Englishman who later dies in WWI, leaving her alone with her son, and the eventual worry that her son will follow in his father’s footsteps and die in WW2. The poem ends with these well-known lines:

…I am American bred
I have seen much to hate here – much to forgive,
But in a world in which England is finished and dead,
I do not wish to live.

The poem was popular both in the U.S., and in England, eventually selling over a million copies, something no verse book had ever done before. In 1944 it was made into the film The White Cliffs of Dover in 1944, and is said to have been one of the influences that brought the U.S. into WWII—Sir Walter Layton (a member of the Ministries of Supply and Munitions) apparently even brought the work to the attention of Prime Minister Winston Churchill. 

Alice herself died in 1942, at the age of 68, and never lived to see the book made into a movie, nor the end of World War II.



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