Battle for the Ballot

Thousands of women fought against the right to vote. Their reasons still resonate today.

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Men look at material posted in the window of the National Anti-Suffrage Association headquarters. (Harris & Ewing/Library of Congress)

Susan B. Anthony stood on a stage in Upstate New York, asking a crowd to support the suffragist cause, when someone in the audience asked a question: Do women actually want the right to vote?

Her answer was hardly unequivocal.

“They do not oppose it,” Anthony replied vaguely.

She had little reason to believe otherwise, as recounted in Susan Goodier’s book, “No Votes for Women: The New York State Anti-Suffrage Movement.” It was 1893, and suffragists were traveling across New York to build support ahead of a constitutional convention, when lawmakers would decide if the word “male” should be removed from the wording of the state constitution. Until then, most of the opposition to women’s suffrage had been dominated by men.

But as the suffragists would soon learn, women would play a crucial role in attempting to prevent women from gaining the right to vote. As the suffragist movement gained momentum, women mobilized committees, circulated petitions, and created associations to oppose women’s suffrage in New York and Massachusetts. Thousands of women would eventually join their fight.

“They said, ‘We’ve got to do something,'" Goodier said, “or else we’re going to be stuck with the vote.'”

Their efforts would ultimately fail with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in August 1920. But the anti-suffragist women would become a nationwide force that would influence later generations of conservative women. And today, a century after women gained the right to vote, echoes of their message remain.

Granting women the right to vote, the anti-suffragists argued, would lead to a disruption of the family unit, of a woman’s role as a wife and mother, and of what they considered a privileged place in society — themes that would parallel those of Phyllis Schlafly, the conservative activist who would successfully campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s.

But their reasons for opposing suffrage were often more complex, focusing on the idea that women already had their own form of power. Many of the women in the anti-suffrage movement felt that the political system was a corrupt space, and if women joined it, they would inevitably become just as corrupt as the men, said Anya Jabour, a history professor at the University of Montana.

They felt women could better achieve their aims through influencing others — particularly their husbands and sons — using their supposed moral superiority to persuade men to do what they wanted.

“The argument was if they traded that for raw political power, they would lose female influence, and that would be a bad trade,” Jabour said.

The National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, founded in 1911, distributed a pamphlet explaining why women shouldn’t be allowed to vote:

“Because it means competition of women with men instead of co-operation. Because 80% of the women eligible to vote are married and can only double or annul their husbands’ votes. … Because in some States more voting women than voting men will place the government under petticoat rule.”

The pamphlet then offered a few tips to housewives, among them: “You do not need a ballot to clean out your sink spout. … Control of the temper makes a happier home than control of elections.”

Leaders in the movement distributed postcards illustrating the gender role reversals they feared would happen if women became enfranchised. Images showed men holding grocery baskets, pushing baby strollers and washing clothes. Others suggested that if women began doing the work of men, they would become uglier, less feminine, less desirable to men.

“They were quite successful in demonizing suffragists and feminists and depicting them as being un-attractive man-haters,” Jabour said, drawing comparisons with modern-day attacks on feminists.

Others argued that women couldn’t possibly get involved with politics while also caring for their children and their home. One postcard, titled “Hugging a Delusion,” showed an image of a woman sulking while cradling a ballot like a baby. Another showed a woman trying to juggle a baby, a pan, a broom and a paper with the word “suffrage.” “Can she do it?” the cartoon read.

Image: The New York State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage distributed this cartoon by Laura Foster.

Suffragists were forced to counter these arguments by making the case that yes, “women will still do everything that they’re supposed to do in the women’s sphere, but also vote,” Jabour said.

“I think we’re still dealing with exactly these messages,” said Allison Lange, an associate professor of history at the Wentworth Institute of Technology. “Even a century later, women’s rights activists, female leaders are still faced with exactly the same criticism.”

But understanding their arguments requires understanding who these women were. Since many in the anti-suffrage movement were ideologically opposed to women being public figures, they often identified themselves only using their husbands’ names or issuing statements on behalf of an organization, rather than an individual, Jabour said.

The anti-suffragist women generally came from elite, White families on the East Coast, and tended to be married to, or related to, men in politics or law. But they were also often influential leaders in social activism and philanthropy. In many ways, anti-suffragist women were similar in status to suffragist leaders, Goodier said. “They would move in a lot of the same circles.”

One of the most famous anti-suffragists, Annie Nathan Meyer, was a writer, philanthropist and founder of New York City’s first liberal arts college for women, Barnard College. Her sister, Maud Nathan, publicly supported women’s suffrage. Ida Tarbell, who is credited with pioneering what is today known as investigative journalism, publicly opposed women’s suffrage, arguing that a woman’s place is in the home and not in the man’s world — even though her groundbreaking career was an exception to that rule.

Image: Many anti-suffragists were White women with powerful positions. Journalist Ida Tarbell's career ran counter to her arguments about women's roles.

One of the most important anti-suffragist activists was Josephine Jewell Dodge, a founder and president of the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage. She came from a wealthy and influential New England family; her father, Marshall Jewell, served as a governor of Connecticut and U.S. postmaster general. Dodge was also an early leader in the movement to establish day-care centers for working and immigrant mothers in New York City.

But she considered suffrage unnecessary, given that state legislatures had already passed laws protecting certain civil rights for women.

“The suffrage disturbance is, in plain words, a sex disturbance … just as the impulse of some other women to take up foolish fancies and unnecessary movements is the result of that uneasiness and straining after artificial happiness and unnatural enjoyment which indicates an unsettled and an unsatisfactory state of mind,” she wrote in a newspaper article in 1913.

Ballot box
(Hamilton Henry Dobbin/California State Library)
A tragic pandemic helped the cause
The 1918 flu spread easily among soldiers in the last stages of World War I, creating a sudden shortage of men. As women surged into the U.S. workforce, they blew apart the arguments that they were delicate and intellectually inferior — and unequal pay and poor working conditions galvanized their drive for equal rights and protections.

Dodge’s great-granddaughter, Andrea Dodge, grew up knowing about Josephine Jewell Dodge as a family matriarch and icon. But it wasn’t until she was in graduate school, pursuing her master’s in early-childhood education, that she learned about Jewell Dodge’s role in both the day-care movement and the anti-suffrage movement, she said in an interview.

“I turned to my professor and said, ‘That’s my great-grandmother in this book,’ ” Andrea Dodge said. When she later saw a headline about her position on the woman’s right to vote, Andrea Dodge was initially ashamed and disappointed. But as she read on, she grew to understand her great-grandmother’s position, she said.

“It’s very clear that she wasn’t degrading or demeaning of women,” Andrea Dodge said. “It was that women were so important to bringing up moral children that they needed to be doing it full time, and needed to be strong and educated and that was going to keep the backbone of society strong.”

But while her great-grandmother led a campaign that sought to keep women as mothers and homemakers, Andrea Dodge chose not to have children. She focused on her career instead, working as a teacher in the Head Start program and ultimately working her way to a job as a federal auditor for the program.

“I think that the issues she brought up in contesting the issue of women voting, and what it represented,” Andrea Dodge said, “I don’t think we have ever resolved that. We live with it.”

Image: Anti-suffrage leaders spread their message to 1,200 people as part of a tour on the Hudson River in May 1913.

Once women were granted the right to vote, many anti-suffragist leaders faced a dilemma over what to do next, said Sunu Kodumthara, associate professor of history at Southwestern Oklahoma State University. After New York state passed a suffrage amendment, a New York Times article in September 1919 captured the contradicting messages in the office of the national anti-suffrage association.

On one wall, a sign read: “Politics are bad for women and women are bad for politics.” On the other side of the room was a sign urging members to register to vote.

Across the country, many anti-suffragists had resolved to use their newly granted voting power to push for their conservative views, Kodumthara said.

In fact, just two years after Oklahoma granted women the right to vote, the vice president of the state’s anti-suffrage association, Alice Robertson, decided to run for office. She became the first woman from Oklahoma elected to Congress.

About this story

Illustrations by Bárbara Malagoli for The Washington Post. Editing by Lynda Robinson. Art direction by Amanda Soto. Design and development by Madison Walls. Design editing by Suzette Moyer. Copy editing by Anne Kenderdine. Photo editing and research by Mark Miller.

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Samantha Schmidt is a reporter covering gender and family issues. FollowFollow
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