Anti-Suffrage: More Than a Socialite’s Movement

The women’s suffrage movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries marked a turning point for women’s rights across the nation resulting in the passing of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution. The narrative of women gathering in parlor rooms, protesting on street corners, and coming together in comradery for the sake of enfranchisement is lauded throughout history books and American culture, however, the Suffrage Movement did not have a fully committed gender in support of the cause as would be assumed. The Anti-Suffrage Movement was supported by both men and women and resulted in staunch opposition to those in favor of female suffrage. History paints this opposition in a feeble, self-obsessed, male dominated and influenced light, wrapping their mission and motivation into a narrative of repressed women too afraid or weak-willed to stand up for their rights. Under the banner of feminism, historians have lauded the feats of powerful women such as Margaret Sanger, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton while at the same time dismissing the arguments of Josephine Dodge and Helen Kendrick Johnson as simply the other side. To the extreme contrary, however, the women who made up the Anti-Suffrage Movement were highly educated, public serving, intelligent individuals who identified as agents of their own fate and to describe them as anything else is a grave disservice and injustice to their autonomy.
With so much focus directed on the victor of the nineteenth Amendment, it is difficult to truly appreciate what they were victorious over when, so little is logically discussed about the opposition. The Suffrage Movement was not an easily blazed trail, but rather a fight against sisters, mothers, husbands, fathers, and friends. There were political, financial, and domestic interests at risk due to this major shift in societal life lurking on the horizon. Ironically, historians who often stood upon feminist soap boxes, have proceeded to downplay the importance of the Anti-Suffragette linking her power to that of the invisible man standing behind her, pulling the strings like so many marionette puppets.[1]While male interest and support in the Anti-Suffrage Movement appears to be loudly prevalent, with common themes of argument directed at protecting interests in alcohol and domestic life it is the depiction of the women who fought against female enfranchisement that has been brutalized through dialogues of historic condescension. Descriptions of their motivations stripped down to foolish female weakness were only supported by leading members of the Suffrage Movement who described these women as disloyal, comfortably placed socialites more concerned that “… the privileges they enjoyed might be lost in the rights to be gained….”[2] The assumption that their base argument of “a woman’s place is in the home”[3]has carried forward from the early twentieth century into modern conversations, sweeping aside the true intelligence, forethought, concerns, and progressive ideologies which drove the women within the Anti-Suffrage Movement[4]resulting in a narrative that has stripped these protestors of their strengths and abilities, dismissing their identities and beliefs.
Rather, their mission was laid out in black and white through Anti-Suffrage newspapers, essays, pamphlets, and even speeches before Congress, all supported by established female associations and organizations, in which men played their part as distributors of these materials, but their movements were dictated by their female counterparts.[5]Their arguments against women’s enfranchisement were logical and rational and garnered much praise in the mainstream media for their “… complete and overwhelming refutation of the arguments of the suffragists”[6]according to a St. Louis periodical. Helen Kendrick Johnson’s 1897 book, Woman and the Republic sparked her own personal accolades from the Denver Timeswho exclaimed that she “possesses a wonderfully unfeminine capability for indulging in calm, logical discussion.”[7] The press further claimed that “if the woman suffrage movement is ever to be finally defeated, it will be by women themselves…”[8]These types of praise shine a light on the reality behind the characters of the women who urged men to vote against women’s enfranchisement plucking them out of the image of bored, emotional socialites and showing their potential as a formidable opponent.
Though many of the “Antis” did indeed come from wealthy families with notable names, they were not the only “butterflies of fashion,”[9]far removed from the reality of society beyond their “unimpeachable circle”[10]as the Suffragists had claimed. Instead, their approach to the Suffrage Movement and who could participate amongst their ranks was equally exclusive as the Suffragists who also denied the voices of women of color, immigrant status, and the working class.[11]The image of “lazy, comfortable, sheltered creatures, caring nothing for the miseries of the poor” that suffragette Florence Kelley so painfully painted was one that misrepresented a group of women who had long records of public service and education. They participated on school, historic, and health boards as well as were active members of community and national associations such as the Research Committee of the Education and Industrial Union, the Welfare Department of the National Civic Federation of the Woman’s Trade Union League, the American Society for Labor Legislation, and held connections with the State Commission on Economy and Efficiency.[12]They were educated in public and private schools such as Notre Dame, members of the Bar, cared for invalid family members as results of the Civil War, and were employed in medical arenas such as the Orthopedic Clinic for Children.[13]To cast off even a small sampling of the strong, socially active force behind the Anti-Suffrage Movement as selfish and uncaring is an execution of character to those who fought for what they felt was right. Though a small sampling of women, they were not. The Massachusetts Women’s Anti-Suffrage Association boasted 36,761 members alone.[14]Perhaps the most famous nationwide association was the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage (NAOWS) which was started in 1911 by a woman who spent much of her wealth and privilege petitioning for the creation of day care facilities for working mothers, Josephine Dodge.[15]This organization held branches throughout the United States, though held most of its popularity in the northeastern states.[16]
Each woman, on either side of the discussion, held within her motivations and a mission which spurned her decision to pick her battle. Their reasons for opposition varied with each individual and were laid out plainly in the NAOWS’s declaration of Some Reasons Why We Oppose Votes for Women published in 1894. Some felt that women could not be responsible voters as they were disallowed the opportunity to be agents of the government through the military or law enforcement.[17]Others had a fundamental disagreement against the idea that those in support of Women’s Suffrage merely wanted to double the voting capacity of the major cities acting as an additional vote to their husband, or even nullifying his vote should she disagree.[18]Elaborating on that same line of objection, many felt that the system was already broken with male participation and that adding women to the mess would only hurt the cause rather than contribute to its repair.[19]Then there was the ethical dilemma that women already had enough to do in their daily lives that adding one more responsibility of educated voting would render the right an obligation, “our appreciation of their importance requires us to protest against all efforts to infringe upon our rights by imposing upon us those obligations which cannot be separated from suffrage…”[20]The NAOWS concluded their manifesto by stating that their male counterparts “…represent us at the ballot box. Our fathers and our brothers love us; our husbands are our choice; and one with us; our sons are what WE MAKE THEM.”[21]Further defending their willingness to abdicate their right to vote by stating, “We are content that they represent US in the corn-field, on the battle-field, and at the ballot-box, and we THEM in the school-room, at the fireside, and at the cradle.”[22] Moral arguments also breeched the surface including a severe concern against the Suffrage Movement’s support of Margaret Sanger and her ideals about birth control and planned parenting, placing the right of reproduction in the hands of the woman rather than the right of the family.[23]
Their arguments were deliberate and willful, each standing in defense of their beliefs and perceived contentment with their roles and responsibilities as a wife and mother. Their sphere of influence was felt on a local level through their civil works, employment, and participation in committees and unions rather than at the ballot-box. However, when the tide turned and the 19th Amendment was passed, many approached the new shift in responsibility with a sense of progressive acceptance. Elizabeth Lowell Putnam, a staunch Anti-Suffragist and leader of the Education and Organizing Committee of the Women’s Anti-Suffrage Association of Massachusetts “was elected president of the electoral college of Massachusetts, becoming the first woman to preside over a state electoral college”[24]in 1920. The discussion of Women’s Suffrage must continue to be a complete one which includes both sides of the argument under the purview of logical examination. Without honest consideration of the formidable force that the Anti-Suffrage Movement was and the resilient women who stood behind it the conversation of women’s equality will continue to be lost in the ashes of time.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Lange, Allison, PhD. “National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage.” History of U.S. Woman’s Suffrage. 2015. Accessed April 27, 2019. http://www.crusadeforthevote.org/naows-opposition.
“Margaret Sanger and the Women’s Suffrage Movement.” CSUN Oviatt Library. September 18, 2018. Accessed April 24, 2019. https://library.csun.edu/SCA/Peek-in-the-Stacks/sanger.
Massachusetts Women. Anti-Suffrage Essays. Boston, MA: Forum Publications of Boston, 1916.
National Association Opposed To Woman Suffrage. Some reasons why we oppose votes for women … National association opposed to woman suffrage. New York City. New York, 1894. Pdf. https://www.loc.gov/item/rbpe.1300130c/.
Thurner, Manuela. “Better Citizens Without the Ballot”: American AntiSuffrage Women and Their Rationale During the Progressive Era.” Journal of Women’s History 5, no. 1 (1993): 33-60. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed April 28, 2019).
“Women’s Suffrage: Anti-Suffrage.” Research Guides Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. Accessed April 27, 2019. https://guides.library.harvard.edu/c.php?g=512561&p=3562671.


FOOT NOTES

[1] Manuela Thurner. “”Better Citizens Without the Ballot”: American AntiSuffrage Women and Their Rationale During the Progressive Era.” Journal of Women’s History 5, no. 1 (1993): 33-60. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed April 28, 2019).
[2] Ibid, 34
[3] Ibid, 35
[4] Ibid, 35
[5] Ibid, 36
[6] Ibid, 36
[7] Ibid, 36
[8] Ibid, 36
[9] Ibid 37
[10] Ibid 37
[11] Ibid, 37
[12] Massachusetts Women. Anti-Suffrage Essays. Boston, MA: Forum Publications of Boston, 1916.
[13] Ibid
[14] Ibid
[15] Allison Lange, PhD. “National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage.” History of U.S. Woman’s Suffrage. 2015. Accessed April 28, 2019. http://www.crusadeforthevote.org/naows-opposition.
[16] Ibid 1
[17] National Association Opposed To Woman Suffrage. Some reasons why we oppose votes for women … National association opposed to woman suffrage. New York City. New York, 1894. Pdf. https://www.loc.gov/item/rbpe.1300130c/.
[18] Ibid 1
[19] Ibid 1
[20] Ibid 1
[21] Ibid 1
[22] Ibid 1
[23] “Margaret Sanger and the Women’s Suffrage Movement.” CSUN Oviatt Library. September 18, 2018. Accessed April 28, 2019. https://library.csun.edu/SCA/Peek-in-the-Stacks/sanger.
[24] “Women’s Suffrage: Anti-Suffrage.” Research Guides Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. Accessed April 28, 2019. https://guides.library.harvard.edu/c.php?g=512561&p=3562671.
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