The Job of Citizenship

Genevieve Earle - Brooklyn, New York
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, February 19, 2010
Genevieve Earle
La Guardia and Wagner Archives photo

New York City councilwoman Genevieve B. Earle believes in the benefits of a strong government to promote laws and provide for its citizens. But she says that can only happen when the people are engaged as active, equal partners in the work of a city.

Age Group: 65+

My early and unforgettable experience of city life occurred more than fifty years ago when, as a young country-bred girl, I rode with my mother on the Third Avenue elevated in New York City. As the train clattered along that dirty thoroughfare, I gazed into the interiors of those dark, untidy, and crowded flats with a profound sense of shock. I asked my mother why people had to live that way. She explained that they were poor and could afford no better homes.

I do not recall that I made any conscious pledge to find out why such things had to be, but many years later when I studied the social sciences and economics, the remembrance of this preventable squalor returned with a renewed awareness. Still later, having undertaken private social and community work as a career, I began to realize that splendid and essential as these efforts may have been, I was trying to bail out an ocean of misery with a teacup. I became convinced that the city itself was our greatest social worker because it was spending greater sums for related or similar work than all the private welfare agencies combined. I saw city government as a focal point of an ever-increasing program of service, a partnership which its citizens shared equally, designed to promote those things that are good and to combat those things that are evil.

Archimedes explained the principle of fulcrum by saying, “Show me the place to stand and I can move the world.” To me, this place is city government; touch that and you touch the whole community. Thus the weight of a finger at the right place can set in motion forces that can create a wholesome, decent environment for all people and mold our way of living a little nearer to our heart’s desire.

The fight for good government, while a winning one, is never permanently won. It must be waged afresh each day. To keep eternally at this job is an act of faith and courage. To those who are fainthearted or faltering, may I end by quoting from the oath of the young men of Athens. “We will never bring disgrace to this our city by any act of dishonesty or cowardice. We will fight for our ideals and sacred things of the city, both alone and with many. We will revere and obey the city’s laws and do our best to incite a like respect in those above us who are prone to annul, and set them at naught. We will strive unceasingly to quicken the public sense of civic duty. Thus in all these ways we will transmit this city, not only not less, but far greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.”

The job of being an alert active citizen is exciting, relatively easy, and wholly rewarding. My many years of civic work—as a citizen and as a public official—convinced me that if each one of us did his or her share and lived up to the spirit of this oath, that his town, his nation, and the world would be a happier and a very better place to live in. In this I believe.

Genevieve B. Earle was a social worker and the head of the Brooklyn branch of the League of Women Voters. In 1937, she became the first woman to be elected to the New York City Council, where she served as minority leader of the body.