Capitol Kaleidoscope : Washington

Harry’s new political position as a U.S. Senator gave Keyes a rare access to the capital’s vibrant political and social life but it was her ability to write political journalism that balanced meticulous reporting with passionate opinion that secured her place among progressive women and men and advanced her writing career. It was an exciting time to be in Washington. The war was over and the country was debating President Wilson’s proposal to join the League of Nations. The presidential campaign season was heating up. Prohibition was no longer an issue but a reality. And the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate had, after a half-century of hearings, passed the woman suffrage bill and the proposed constitutional amendment went to the states for ratification.

It was in this period – between the passage of the suffrage bill in Congress and its final ratification by the states – that the Atlantic Monthly published a second article by Keyes. “On the Fence” is a thoughtful enquiry into the possible impact of woman suffrage. Keyes is skeptical about claims that votes for women would purify politics but she is convinced that it will help women’s economic independence. She argues that women had proven themselves during World War I and their experiences had made them more self-respecting but her research showed that, overall, women’s lot was not as positive as many might think. She claims that most women are burdened by the drudgery of housework, that over 20,000 women died in childbirth each year due to lack of medical care, and isolated farmers’ wives had the highest incident of insanity in the country. She also sees a problem looming for the country. Women “need economic independence very much indeed,” she argues, “but we need mothers much more.” She was “on the fence” about woman suffrage because she feared that if women rushed “headlong into the busy world” their course of action might bring about “many empty nurseries.” “Motherhood,” she concludes, “always has been, and always will be, the greatest factor in civilization. It has never needed to be recognized as such more than it does now.” [1]

“On the Fence,” and good reviews of The Old Gray Homestead in publications such as the New York Times, brought Keyes to the attention of Washington’s progressive women. [2] She was invited to join the League of Women Voters  (LWV), founded in February 1920, and the League of American Pen Women, founded in 1897; in May 1920 she was elected a vice president of the Pen Women. [3]  She continued to write but much of her time during her early days in Washington involved learning about the rituals of social calling, the hierarchical rules of political entertaining, and how to gauge who had power and why. Keyes, who spoke French and German, became a welcome guest at embassy dinners and the luncheons given by diplomatic wives. [4] Stories about this era of Keyes’s life formed the basis for her 1937 book, Capital Kaleidoscope, which one reviewer stated was written with “frankness and journalistic ease on topics of sure interest.” [5]

The Keyes first lived in the Chevy Chase neighborhood of Washington but soon settled into a building Keyes called the “Senatorial Beehive,” where Frances met and became good friends with other Senate wives and, as in the case of Genevieve Walsh Gudger, daughters; Gudger was the daughter of and official hostess for Democratic Montana Senator Thomas Walsh. [6] Keyes’s short story “Meridian Hill,” one of a series she wrote for the Delineator, describes the apprenticeship days of a politician’s wife. [7] Keyes also became good friends with Harriet Towner, the wife of Republican Representative Horace Towner of Iowa. These friendships were not only about providing support and instruction about the ways of Washington and helping mothers who had young children, although these were important to the women in the Beehive. They show one of the key elements that made up women’s political culture in this era. Washington women were political activists who worked in bi-partisan, or what earlier suffragists called “all partisan,” ways to forward their political goals. Keyes, who was married to a Republican Senator, worked alongside both Republican and Democratic women to forward a broad political agenda. Despite their careful arguments about how the agenda was not a set of “women’s bills” but would “benefit the social body as a whole,” the press called it the “Woman’s Platform.” [8]


1) “On the Fence,” Atlantic Monthly, February 1920, reprinted in Ralph Philip Boas, ed., Youth and the New World: Essays from the Atlantic Monthly (Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1921), 253-269.
2) New York Times, May 25, 1919.
3) See “History: Pen Women Then and Now,” National League of American Pen Women, All Flags Flying, 134.
4) All Flags Flying, 152-153.
5) Robert Van Gelder, “Books of the Times,” New York Times, June 17, 1937.)
6) All Flags Flying, 142-146, 177.
7) FPK, “Meridian Hill,” Delineator, September 1922.
8) Jan Doolittle Wilson, The Women's Joint Congressional Committee and the Politics of Maternalism, 1920-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 24.