Skip to main content

“The Burden of the Ballot”

July 2024
5min read

The Woman’s Anti-Suffrage Movement

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.

These questions roused quiet women unaccustomed to the dust of politics to fight for nearly three decades against their own right to vote

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.

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. …”

According to the Antis, femininity was a tangle of contradictions.

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!”


Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.