“The Burden of the Ballot”

PrintPrintEmailEmail

At stake, they alleged, were democracy, women’s hard-earned privileges, States’ rights, the American family, and the inalienable right to separate men’s and women’s sleeping cars on trains. These questions roused quiet women unaccustomed to the dust of politics to fight for nearly three decades against their own right to vote. They organized several state societies, most notably in New York, Massachusetts, and Illinois, and in 1912 these merged to create the exclusively female National Association Opposed to the Extension of Suffrage to Women. To counter the threat of woman suffrage, the National Association testified in legislatures, supported the war effort while accusing suffragists of treason, published pamphlets and their own journals, wore anti-suffrage American Beauty roses, and generally tried to represent the best of what they thought to be “true womanhood.”

The anti-suffragists continually labeled turn-of-the-century feminists a “minority,” whereas their own group represented, they said, “the many millions of women who have hitherto proved the ‘silent majority.’ ” Let the suffragists stoop to noisy parading, picketing, and public speaking; instead, “Antis” held teas and set up booths at county fairs.

Opposition among women to suffrage was probably more widespread than now might be imagined. Homemakers were often opposed to voting rights, as Good Housekeeping discovered when its readers complained about a serialized autobiography of Emmeline Pankhurst, the suffragist leader. The Antis, as matronly social-standard-bearers, played on fears natural to women in a nation experiencing the social upheavals of those decades. Woman suffrage apparently threatened both to topple women’s pedestals, carefully ensconced in the home, and to end chivalry. Moreover, anti-suffragists were concerned that working women might well be stripped of protective labor laws ensuring limited working hours, the six-day work week, maternity dispensations, and sparing women nightwork. Other privileges the Antis cherished against the suffrage threat included the retention of certain property and inheritance rights, and the right to support by their husbands; there was also exemption from military service, from certain taxes, and from supporting their husbands or paying alimony.

But such concerns merely skirted the real issue of the nature of womanhood and the family. The very foundation of American life risked destruction should women gain the vote—or so the anti-suffragists believed. Thus, when Dr. Anna Shaw, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), derisively termed anti-suffragists “the home, hearth, and mother crowd,” they adopted the epithets with pride. American society was viewed not as a collection of individuals but as a collection of families, and since most families were sure to contain at least one male, each family was represented in the electorate. Of such strategic importance was the family that, writing for the Massachusetts Association, Mary M’lntire radically asserted that “the state would be more than justified in denying women even an inherent right which might prove thus disastrous [to the family].”

Families held the nation together, and mothers held families together. In motherhood resided the essence of femininity and feminine power, for here women acquired indirect but real political influence through husbands, male relatives, and especially future voters, their sons. As the author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm , Kate Wiggin, explained, women should “be a helpful, stimulating, inspiring force in the world rather than a useful and influential factor in politics.” But could mothers be expected to tend to their responsibilities from a voting booth? Writer Caroline Corbin warned, “When political rewards are offered [to women] … do you not believe that many, and those not of the weak and ignorant, but of the more gifted and intellectual, will be tempted to forgo marriage and motherhood for the sake of winning them? Woe betide the land which thus offers its political trusts as premiums for childless women!” Even women who might still consent to bear children might be inclined, as some suffragists proposed, to leave their children’s care to institutions, or husbands might be asked to share in child-care duties.

For anti-suffragists, however, the greatest flaw in woman suffrage was woman herself: her nature emotionally, spiritually, and physically was decidedly unsuited to “the burden of the ballot.” She would “vote on the side of pure moral issues” rather than the side of practicality, because she was essentially illogical. Inevitably, it was claimed, put to the test, the emotional weakness in woman would betray her, perhaps in a fainting spell at a polling place or, more likely, in the jury box. Women serving on juries became a favorite object of anti-suffrage ridicule in the last few years of the campaign. For women to hear “indelicate” cases and to be sequestered for long periods with male jurors would be unseemly. Furthermore, no less an authority than a Harvard professor “proved” that a majority of men would reach a “correct” verdict given sufficient evidence, but women would not.