With the new movie about the British suffrage movement, Suffragette, scheduled to be released this week, recollections of protest and debate concerning a woman’s right to vote in the U.S. are inevitable.
As the 19th century ended and the 20th began, the American wave of women pushing for access to the ballot box gathered momentum. But it wasn’t until the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1920 that voting rights were guaranteed for all women.
Hard as it is to imagine today, there were certain women — mostly forgotten — during that period of duress who did not believe that women deserved the right to vote. Some called these naysayers “anti-suffragettes” or “anti-suffragists.” Some called them “remonstrants” or “governmentalists.” Some called them just plain “antis.”
Who were these women who actively spoke out against a woman’s right to vote?
The female leaders of the U.S. anti-suffrage campaign “were generally women of wealth, privilege, social status and even political power,” NPR learns from Corrine McConnaughy, who teaches political science at George Washington University and is author of the 2013 The Woman Suffrage Movement in America: A Reassessment. “In short, they were women who were doing, comparatively, quite well under the existing system, with incentives to hang onto a system that privileged them.”
Anti-suffrage leaders in the North, she says, “were generally urban, often the daughters and-or wives of well-to-do men of business, banking or politics. They were also quite likely to be involved in philanthropic or ‘reform’ work that hewed to traditional gender norms.”
Southern anti-suffrage leaders, she says, “were generally planter class, and so their resistance was also tied more explicitly to worries about disruption of the racial order.”
Anti-suffragists everywhere were concerned with societal disruptions. “What women anti-suffragists produced to appeal to ‘ordinary’ women more broadly,” McConnaughy adds, “was a logic of suffrage as a threat to femininity … to the protection of the value of domestic life — most notably to the vocation of motherhood, and to a loss of the privileges of womanhood.”
To attempt to understand the type of person who rallied against her own rights, it might be beneficial to remember some of the opponents — and revisit their reasoning.
- Mrs. William Force Scott. When the opposing sides squared off at the Woman’s University Club in New York City in the spring of 1909, the New York Times reported the story on April 24 under the headline: “SUFFRAGETTES MEET THE ANTIS IN DEBATE.” Speaking for the anti-suffragists, Mrs. Scott — referred to only by her married name in the Times — explained to the crowd that an “inherent right to vote” does not exist and that it was all a matter of expediency. “If women should vote,” Mrs. Scott told the gathering, “they must join one of the existing political parties or form a new party of their own — a Woman’s Party — and that would be women against men, and more dangerous than labor against capital.”
- Josephine Jewell Dodge. For a while, she was the president of the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage. According to a biography compiled by her alma mater, Vassar College, she was the daughter of Marshall Jewell, the U.S. minister to Russia and then the U.S. postmaster general in the 1870s. In 1875, she married Arthur Dodge, who was from a prominent New York family. “Mrs. Dodge was both an outspoken anti-suffragist and a central actor in the reform campaign that worked toward the establishment of child care programs — ‘day nurseries’ — for the children of poor and working-class women who worked because of financial necessity,” McConnaughy says. “Her message really was about the damage to the reform potential of women that she believed woman suffrage would bring — through women’s integration into the ‘corrupt’ world of party politics.”
- Kate Douglas Wiggin. An internationally known author of children’s books, she told a group of anti-suffragists in Washington in April of 1912 that she would have “woman strong enough to keep just a trifle in the background, for the limelight never makes anything grow.” The Western Sentinel of Winston-Salem, N.C., reported that she believed “it was more difficult to be an inspiring woman than a good citizen and an honest voter.”
Women in the upper echelons of society “saw ‘status’ as a result of their particular gender experience,” McConnaughy says. “They were particularly capable of reform work or philanthropy exactly because of their upper-class version of womanhood. And they had an interest in continuing their gendered influence.”
Serving The State
Author Kate Douglas Wiggin, for example, founded the Free Kindergarten system in California and was the first vice president of the Kindergarten Association in New York, according to the Louisville, Ky., Courier-Journal on March 2, 1913.
Also featured in the story about high-profile anti-suffragists who were involved in civic and charity work were Josephine Jewell Dodge; Annie Nathan Meyer, one of the founders of Barnard College; Anna C. Maxwell, superintendent of the Presbyterian Hospital Training School for Nurses; and Eleanor G. Hewitt, who was active at Cooper Union, which offered free education classes.
Women “should serve the state in every way possible without jeopardizing the home by entrance into active politics,” Dodge told the Courier-Journal.
The opportunity for all American women to participate in “active politics” did come, a few years later. “We know further,” Corrine McConnaughy adds, “that the right to vote did not quickly translate into actual voting on the part of many women. A gender gap in voting — with women much less likely to vote than men — endured for decades after women’s enfranchisement.”