A Look Back on Women’s Suffrage Before the Midterms

One (sort of) silver lining of the last election was that it convinced millions that democracy isn’t a spectator sport. Formerly disinterested citizens are now making phone calls and knocking on doors, urging people to vote in the midterms, having realized that the biggest problem with our election system isn’t voter fraud, but rather voter no-show. In fact, if “No Show” had been a candidate in the last presidential election, it would have won in a landslide.

Over 230 million people were eligible to vote in 2016, but almost half didn’t, leaving more than 100 million votes on the table. Low turnout among minority groups has been attributed to the fact that this was the first election since 2013 when the Supreme Court ruled against section 5 the Voting Rights Act in the Shelby Country v. Holder case. The ruling meant that states with a history of voter discrimination no longer had to get federal permission to change their voting laws. This resulted in the closing of over 800 polling locations and stricter ID requirements across the country that disproportionately affected people of color.

Reflecting on the obstacles many eligible citizens in our country face when trying to vote, I thought about how thankful I was for the 19th amendment — the amendment that granted my right as a woman to vote. I went to high school in upstate New York where the suffrage movement got its start and learned about leading suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton. I knew how hard women had to fight to convince the men in power that they deserved the right to vote. What I didn’t know was that they also had to convince women.

Recently, while conducting research for a historical novel, I came across a 1915 diary of a 14-year-old girl named Harriet who grew up in Connecticut. She recorded a trip to Hartford with her parents to attend a hearing on women’s suffrage. To my surprise, she was skeptical of the cause:

March 3, 1915—

Although I have lately said I was on the fence, I believe I am back on the “anti” side…

At first, I thought I’d misread the passage — sometimes her fountain ink penmanship was hard to decipher.

I was not able to get in on the “anti” side and so I was forced to go in on the suffrage side. I sat very near Mrs. Hepburn. Once when I was clapping, she turned to me and said, “You aren’t against it, are you?”

I said, “Indeed I am.”

And Harriet wasn’t alone in her views.

There are a lot more ‘anti-s’ than suffragists in my school, she observed when she returned to class proudly wearing her red rose. (Roses were emblems in the fight for suffrage; yellow meant you were for it, red meant against. Some microfiche headlines referred to the suffrage fight as the “War of the Roses.”)

Valuing my own right to vote, I couldn’t help but wonder what could account for these girls being against their own rights?

I discovered it had to do with the prevailing views of a woman’s place in society. “Nice” women weren’t supposed to be a part of the public discourse in Harriet’s day. Their femininity was supposed to elevate them above the combative political fray. In fact, the term “public woman” referred to a prostitute.

Such views were promoted through propaganda via penny postcards called “postals.” Cards were saturated with colorful symbols and catchy slogans that suggested a panoply of evils that would befall the nation if women got the vote: women pulling men on leashes, girls stealing boys’ pants, children crying for their mothers who’d abandoned them for the cause. By contrast, most suffragette postals were dull communiques, featuring earnest portraits of movement leaders holding flags.

Perhaps the most specious argument against suffrage was that it would make men “unchivalrous.” According to a popular anti-suffrage tract, if men were relieved of their duty to protect and provide for women, they couldn’t be blamed for their displays of selfish (and, it was suggested, savage) natures.

Some women thought supporting suffrage meant men would be mad at them, which was, incidentally, the same reason a woman gave me for not voting in 2016. Anti-suffragettes claimed that men already voted in the best interests of women, and that suggesting otherwise was an insult to them.

“We believe men capable of conducting the government for the benefit of both men and women,” declared Mrs. Arthur Dodge, the woman who founded The National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage in 1911. Mrs. Dodge came from a prominent family and organized many groups against female suffrage — from wealthy women and Southern congressmen to Catholic clergy and corporate titans. She even organized distillers and brewers as the liquor lobby was one of the strongest opponents of suffrage. They feared that women would use their vote to prohibit the sale of liquor. (As it turned out, they were right — many who fought for women’s enfranchisement also fought against the sale of alcohol because it led to men’s irresponsible behavior and unemployment.)

At Dodge’s annual anti-suffrage benefit in 1915, where specially cultivated roses named the Mrs. Dodge graced Astor Ballroom tables, she claimed that most women were loath to assume the duty of civic participation in addition to other duties expected of them. She pointed out that the referendums for woman’s suffrage had been defeated that year in all but a few states. (Thank you, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and Idaho, for being first to give citizens of my gender a say in our governance.)

Dodge referred to suffrage as the “attempt of a minority to force its will on the majority” — a subtle dog whistle meant for those who feared that giving black women the vote would “endanger our way of life.” Those receptive to this argument also believed that suffrage would interfere with women’s philanthropic roles in their communities and that “more enduring good can be accomplished by molding a child’s future.”

“Who’s minding your children?” men had catcalled to the marchers in the inaugural 1913 women’s march on Washington.

Ironically though, it was a mother’s influence that won women the vote.

By the summer of 1920, 35 states had voted to ratify the 19th amendment. Only one more was needed before it would become law.

Tennessee was the deciding vote.

August 18, 1920 was a blistering day in Nashville, and discussion grew so heated in the state Capitol’s unairconditioned room that a motion was made to table the amendment until the following year. But one representative switched sides during roll call and the vote moved forward.

A call for ayes or nays went around — the vote on the floor was dead even. The tie-breaker was Harry Burns, the youngest legislator at 24, who came from a conservative district. The red rose on his lapel suggested his vote was certain, but he firmly declared “aye.” According to some accounts, his vote caused such pandemonium that he bolted upstairs to hide in an attic until vengeful anti-suffrage crowds left the Capitol.

Later, Burns explained that he’d reversed his vote because of a note from his mother.

“Hurrah and vote for suffrage,” she’d written, “I noticed some of the speeches against. They were bitter.”

She’d convinced him, Burns said, to “appreciate the opportunity such as seldom comes to a mortal man to free 17 million women from political slavery.”

The first presidential election that Harriet might have voted in was 1924. I wish her diaries had continued, so I’d know if she cast a ballot or if, like a majority of eligible women that year (including my own grandmother) she declined to exercise her newly acquired right.

A century later, when the role of women in society is again being determined, the ballots of 115 million women eligible to vote on November 6 have never been more important. As our mothers in the battle for suffrage knew, women’s votes have the potential to change the course of American politics.

 

Image via the Women’s History Museum
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