In 1871, the most popular women’s periodical, “Godey’s Lady’s Book”, best known for its fashion and literary arts, published an anti-suffrage petition signed by 19 prominent ladies. It is one of the earliest documents of the growing women’s anti-suffrage movement.
Most books teach that the struggle was and still is women vs men, but it’s not that simple. Not all women wanted the vote. These were not foolish, uneducated, oppressed women; they were often civic-minded, active, strong-willed, and informed. They started anti-suffrage groups to oppose the vote. Both sides wanted better things for the next generation but disagreed on how to achieve them. Having the vote would mean working inside the existing system which was filled with red tape and corruption. Not having the vote would mean working on changing the system from the outside through civic works and charities. By staying out of politics, women would be able to operate with fewer moral compromises.
It was damaging to the cause to admit that not all women wanted the vote and that plenty of men supported suffrage. These uncomfortable facts were downplayed. Today these women-led anti-suffrage groups and pro-suffrage men are still glossed over in suffrage histories or not mentioned at all. Stereotypical misogynistic men who opposed suffrage and women’s rights made better villains in a black and white world instead of dealing with grey characters. Since Seneca Falls, small pockets of anti-suffrage groups led by equally capable women started showing up. These small groups will eventually form one national group in 1911 (episode 47).
The biggest argument in favor of the anti-suffrage groups was that of the “uninformed voter”. There were already thousands of male voters who were illiterate, uninformed, or worse yet, sold their votes for money. Why compound the problem by adding in more eligible voters? In response, Elizabeth Cady Stanton actually proposed an education requirement for all voters—which her own daughter, Harriot Stanton Blanch, debated her on.
It is often surprising to learn that women like Annie Nathan Meyers, founder of Bernard College for Women; Annie Oakley, legendary sharp shooter; and Ida Tarbell, daring journalist whose work lead to the break up of Standard Oil; were all anti-suffrage.
Even when the 19th Amendment was going through the final ratification process, suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt estimated that about 1/3 of women in America wanted the vote, 1/3 were against it, and 1/3 didn’t care.
Bonus: If the name Alice Stone Blackwell sounds familiar, it’s because she is the daughter of Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell (Episode 14). She will grow up to become a suffrage leader for the next generation (more on her in a later post).
This week’s song pick:
“Harper Valley PTA” by Jeannie C. Reilly (Fan Compilation of the made for tv movie based on the song—starring Barbara Eden!) https://youtu.be/R2_eAF5ev4s
Episode 27 Sourceshttp://www.societyforhistoryeducation.org/pdfs/M15_Miller.pdf
Ida Tarbell's anti-suffrage speech from 1905