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“The Burden of the Ballot”
The Woman’s Anti-Suffrage Movement
December 1978 | Volume 30, Issue 1
According to the Antis, femininity was a tangle of contradictions, and despite woman’s noble role as mother, she had a darker side producing nervousness and irrationality. Antis feared “those among our sex who are ignorant, vicious, and depraved”; but depravity lurked not only in certain women, it was latent in all women, ready to emerge in politics. Professor Edward Cope, the famous naturalist, writing for the New York Association, asserted that with suffrage “the lower instincts would remain, the flowers which blossom on that stem would wither. No matter what their intellectuality might be, such women would produce a race of moral barbarians. …”
While such analyses might be controversial, no one could dispute woman’s comparative physical weakness. From this weakness, two unique arguments against woman suffrage developed. First, of course, woman’s physique exempted her from military duty—and only those bound to fight for their country deserved voting rights as reward. More often, though, the argument of the “bullet-backed ballot” was made, a notion first articulated by Horace Greeley in response to remarks of Susan B. Anthony’s. The ability to make law must be backed by the ability to enforce the law. A Boston woman explained, “If all the women in the state voted in one way, and all the men in the opposite one, the women, even if in the majority, would not carry the day….”
Other issues, seemingly unrelated, often became entangled in the anti-suffragist web. The anti-feminists frequently cited the influx of European immigrants as a reason for opposition to woman suffrage, which would increase the power of “vicious people” through the immigrant voters, “the low-class foreigners, the drudges of the slums,” as Mrs. Schuyler Van Rensselaer called them. Foreign-born women, it was said, could j oin the rolls of citizen voters even more rapidly than foreign-born men, since they might become citizens by marrying Americans.
But perhaps the most effective anti-suffrage argument was that of States’ rights, adopted as suffragists moved out of state legislatures and into Washington in the World War I period. The argument proved an effective weapon since suffragists themselves were divided over the issue. The more conservative NAWSA lobbied for individual state constitutional changes, but in 1913 Alice Paul, heading the Congressional Union and later the Woman’s Party, demanded of President Wilson and his Congress a federal amendment, affording the anti-suffragists the chance to charge the militants with disloyalty during the war. As pressure for a federal amendment increased, the Antis argued less against the principle of suffrage and more against federal encroachment upon the state’s domain.
One of the strongest attacks suffragists made on the Antis, though, was to claim that liquor interests funded much of their campaign. Since the first effect of woman suffrage was expected to be prohibition, the assumption was logical. Antis countered these slanders by stressing their own temperance efforts. They enjoyed demonstrating that woman-suffrage states like California were still filled with saloons.
The anti-suffragists feared enfranchisement and the equality it promised. But despite their misogynist rhetoric, while suffragists preached sexual equality, some Antis secretly harbored visions of female superiority, which, said one Anti, the woman’s movement threatened to end: “It is a movement backwards toward men and mastodon, the miocène hipparion and eocene anchitherium—instead of forward, in the direction of woman, and the spiritual universe, and everlasting light- and there is not a man… who would not tell you so if he were only woman enough to know what I am talking about!”