DON’T give us the vote!

January 13, 2007 at 10:01 pm Leave a comment

Or, a brief history of the anti-suffrage movement

Last week, I was rummaging through my closet looking for I-forget-what, and I stumbled on a paper I wrote two years ago for a U.S. history class. It was about the women’s suffrage movement in the U.S.

Well, actually, it was about the rationale of the women who opposed extending the vote to their sex.

“What?” you say. “There were women who actively fought against suffrage for themselves?!”

Yep. And the movement wasn’t an insignificant one, either.

In fact, the Antis, as they were known, enjoyed a high rate of success up until 1917, when suffragists starting pushing for a federal amendment to the Constitution instead of working on a state-by-state basis.

suffragist.jpgI find the anti-suffragist movement interesting in light of the contemporary obsession in western culture with gender equality. From a modern vantage point, it’s hard to imagine women who would oppose the spread of equal rights to their sex—but oppose it they did.

The fact that we don’t hear about these sorts of movements shows the contemporary influence of feminism in historical studies. We are taught to think of women as being oppressed throughout most of western history, and we are also conditioned to believe that gender inequality is morally suspect.

But does this view of history tell the whole story? Consider the argument of the Antis:

What were they thinking?!

What, exactly, was the anti-suffragist rationale for opposing suffrage?

For one thing, the Antis rejected the relatively new individualistic mindset that had arisen in the wake of the industrial revolution. To them, “the unit of society was not the individual, but the family.” 1

In accordance with their family-centered view of life, most of the Antis perceived gender differences and “separate but equal” roles for men and women as a natural part of society. In their eyes, these separate roles were not restrictive, but were privileging to women and should be celebrated.

Accordingly, the Antis resented the suffragist implication that women needed to be on equal terms with men and have equal political rights. To them, this signaled divisiveness within the family.

But the Antis were not advocating that women be shut away in the house all day—far from it. In fact, they went to great lengths to “dissociate themselves from the image of sheltered domestic creatures foisted on them by their opponents.” 2

One Anti stated her case rather bluntly: “Do not mistake me. No woman should spend all her time at home. Public needs and social duties must be attended to.” 3

While they felt women should be involved in social work, the Antis felt they could better effect social change without the vote. After all, anti-suffragists were already highly organized—and effective—in active social work.

In fact, the Antis were concerned with the same set of problems that the suffragists sought to remedy—things like slums, poor conditions for the working class, and brutal atrocities associated with child labor.

But from the perspective of the Antis, the ballot was an encumbrance that would entangle reform efforts in governmental bureaucracy and partisan politics. (Hmm, now that’s an interesting thought!) These women felt that the task of reform was better accomplished by women working together in their own organizations, as opposed to trusting the welfare of the underprivileged to Washington.

What to conclude?

Ironically, the very presence of the anti-suffrage movement (and the movement’s near success in staving off suffrage) underscores the level of social and political effectiveness that women could achieve without the vote. Their presence is also some indication that a society without gender equality was not necessarily as oppressive as it appears to us today.

I certainly wouldn’t want to revert to a period of time when women didn’t have equal political rights, but I find this perspective interesting. The Antis’ rejection of the individualistic mindset and their acceptance of the unique role of women (both within the family and in the larger society) offer an enlightening critique of the case for gender equality.

References:

1 Aileen S. Kraditor, The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement, 1890-1920 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965), 24.

2. Manuela Thurner, “‘Better Citizens Without the Ballot’: American Anti-suffrage Women and Their Rationale During the Progressive Era,” One Woman, One Vote, ed. Marjorie Spruill Wheeler (Troutdale, OR: NewSage, 1995), 209.

3. Qtd. in Thurner, 209.

(Photo: Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-25338 DLC)

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Profile

profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

Email me: jamie.kiley@gmail.com

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