Helen Kendrick Johnson was a wife, mother, and author of children’s books. She became interested in the suffrage movement while working as an editor for the suffragist publication the “American Woman’s Journal” from 1894 to 1896.
However, she started to feel that the suffragists were too radical, that they cared more about just getting the vote than the quality of women who would be able to vote, and threatened family values. Her religious beliefs came into direct opposition with the idea of suffrage. She felt that a woman's role was ordained by God and that role meant home and family. She viewed the suffragists as deliberately disobeying God. Johnson believed if it was God’s will for women to make progress that it would happen naturally over time and not be forced upon society.
In 1897, Johnson joined the newly formed New York State Association Opposed to the Extension of the Suffrage to Women (1895) which later became the equally long-named New York State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage in 1908. The NYSAOWS was one of the most active anti-suffrage groups in the state. They frequently promoted that suffrage would lead to socialism and cause the downfall of the country.
Johnson became a prominent and vocal anti-suffragist. Ironically, while Johnson was espousing the Divine Order of women staying within the private domestic sphere, she personally led a very public life as a writer, editor, and political activist. She wrote a series of articles in “Women and the Republic” rejecting the fight for equality because she felt that women were already superior. (Link to full series of articles in sources) She characterized the suffrage movement as Anti-American and leading to communism. (This is in 1897, decades before McCarthyism.) The final conclusion of her article series emphasises her disagreement with women having the right to vote. “...The greatest danger with which this land is threatened comes from the ignorant and persistent zeal of some of its women. They abuse the freedom under which they live, and to gain an impossible power would fain destroy the Government that alone can protect them. The majority of women have no sympathy with this movement; and in their enlightenment, and in the consistent wisdom of our men, lies our hope of defeating this unpatriotic, unintelligent, and unjustifiable assault upon the integrity of the American Republic.”
Oddly enough, women-led anti-suffrage organizations debated if men should be allowed to join. Helen Kendrick Johnson was in favor of allowing men either as full members or on advisory committees. Her husband Rossiter Johnson wrote anti-suffrage pamphlets including “Why Women Do Not Want the Ballot” and “Blank Cartridge Ballot.” However most anti-suffrage men just created their own male-only organizations.
Bonus: The graphic has an excerpt from the 1883 speech “Daughters in Boxes” by Toshiko Kishida (Otsu, Japan). She was the most popular female rights advocate of her time. While the speech may seem couched in apologies and mildness, this was a bold step. She was arrested on the charges of talking politics in an academic speech. Kishida is the first woman in Japan to have been put on trial for making a political speech. Here is part of the introduction explaining the title of the speech.
“...the expression "daughters in boxes" is a popular one, heard with frequency in the regions of Kyoto and Osaka. It is the daughters of middle-class families and above who are often referred to as such. Why such an expression? Because these girls are like creatures kept in a box. They may have hands and feet and a voice--but all to no avail, because their freedom is restricted. Unable to move, their hands and feet are useless. Unable to speak, their voice has no purpose. Hence the expression. It is only for daughters that such boxes are constructed. Parents who make these boxes do not mean to restrict their daughters' freedom. Rather, they hope to guide their daughters along the correct path toward acquiring womanly virtues. Therefore it is out of love for their daughters that these parents construct these boxes. Or so we are told, but, if we look at the situation more closely, we cannot help questioning whether it is truly love that these parents have for their daughters.”
Perhaps this same sentiment applies to the anti-suffrage women who believed that restricting enfranchisement helped keep women out of the nastiness of politics and in the respectable “boxes” of hearth and home.
This week’s song pick:
“Lost in the Woods” by Gaelynn Lea https://youtu.be/Pk9lgimztD4
Episode 47 Sources:
Full Series of “Women and the Republic” Articles
“Daughters in Boxes” Full Speech
(The website www.speakingwhilefemale.co is a bank of speeches by women searchable by subject, title, or speaker.)
More about Toshiko Kishida