The War on Suffrage
“Nine little Suffergets,
Finding boys to hate,
One kisses Willie Jones,
And then there are Eight.”
Ten Little Suffergets tells the sad tale of ten little girls who lose their pro-suffrage leanings when they spy shiny objects like toys, men, and the Sandman. The 1915 picture book ends with the final baby suffragette cracking her baby doll’s head open. “And then there were none!” ends the book on a gleeful note.
The suffrage movement, both in America and England, involved angry debates about the ideals of womanhood, the power and purpose of government, and how much beer everyone should be drinking. The debate continued until the passing of the 1918 Representation of the People Act in Britain, and in the U.S. with the 19th Amendment in 1920. While often overlooked today, the anti-suffrage movement attacked the power-hungry, unnatural women (as they saw the suffragettes) with word and policy and pen and ink. Below are some of their biggest complaints about the suffragettes, and how they articulated their point of view.
Suffrage Isn’t Sexy
The suffrage movement was part of the larger debate known as “The Woman Question” in Victorian and Edwardian times, when people were discussing what a real woman looked like. Lisa Tickner, in The Spectacle of Women, explained how the sexual ideals of the time period in Britain affected the political policy.
“Anti-suffragists drew heavily on the Victorian ideology of ‘separate spheres’… Their use of it led to the claim that female enfranchisement would sexualize politics and unsex women, confusing the proper boundaries of masculine and feminine, public and private, domestic and political, by which the natural complementarity of a harmonious social order was maintained.”
In other words, letting women get a chance at the polls would destroy the society.
This attitude was reflected in the suffragette caricatures drawn in newspapers and magazines. According to Tickner, depictions of spinster suffragettes were normally slender in a time when curves were celebrated; their faces likewise were severe and gaunt, “the lines of disappointment etched deep by the illustrator’s pen.” The spinster suffragette’s clothes and physical appearance emphasize that she is a failed woman and wannabe man. The lady wants to vote because she couldn’t get a date.
I Am Woman Voter, Hear Me Roar!
Political participation didn't just make women unattractive, anti-suffragettes argued. It wasn’t natural behavior for women to get their hands dirty in politics. “The nature of most women is not attracted by the contentious spirit in which political warfare is conducted,” declared Dr. Ernest Bernbaum of Harvard in 1916.
Another Massachusetts woman, writing in 1916, expressed concerns on the effect of the suffrage movement on women’s character. Suffragism appeared overtly aggressive to many critics. “It is surely not making them any more lovely, or pleasant in their lives. They grow bitter, aggressive, and antagonistic, liking the excitement of campaigning and finding their natural, proper duties ‘flat, stale, and unprofitable.’"
Suffragism made women mean-spirited, many opponents believed, and the cartoons and caricatures they produced reflected this.
Babes and Booze
Beer divided and united the anti-suffragettes in the United States. In her book A Dangerous Class, Betty Stevens tells the story of beer-sellers who feared that women would vote for the prohibition of alcohol. They went and warned the husbands of suffragettes to get their wives off the campaign trail before the husbands lost their jobs.
Other anti-suffragettes, who were pro-temperance, published materials trying to prove that states with women voters sold more mugs of beer. “The only two states in the Union that adopted woman suffrage last year are known as the ‘wettest’ states in the country, Montana and Nevada,” stated one 1915 pamphlet from the Women’s Anti-Suffrage Association. “These two states have more saloons to their population than any other state in the forty-eight.”
The government officially prohibited the sale of alcohol with the 18th amendment in January 1920. American women received the right to vote with the 19th amendment in August of the same year.
Women of the World, Don’t Unite
Still other anti-suffragettes believed woman’s suffrage didn’t make political sense, both for women and the nation as a whole. Grace Duffield Goodwin wrote Anti-Suffrage: Ten Good Reasons in 1912. She points out that women are exempted from political and legal responsibilities like serving in the army or sitting on juries. Many heavy responsibilities, like “providing for family,” paying debts and going to jail for minor crimes are spared the female sex. If a wife “engages in illegal business the law holds [the husband] responsible, and not her.” Why would women want to give up that kind of legal protection for equal voting rights?
Moreover, politically it didn’t make sense for women to vote when they wouldn’t be able to fulfill the voting requirements. Molly Seawell, writing in her 1913 treatise The Ladies’ Battle, said, “No electorate has ever existed, or ever can exist, which cannot execute its own laws.” Women were physically incapable of fighting their way to the polls, and could not serve in law enforcement. Seawell believed that if half the electorate was unable to enforce the laws, the government would become unstable in an unprecedented fashion.
A small minority believed that woman’s suffrage wouldn’t make government unstable enough. Emma Goldman, a famous anarchist in the early 20th century, thought that the established political systems were so oppressive that women should focus their energies on finding true liberation from the oppression of government, Church and societal expectations. “Are we to assume that the poison already inherent in politics will be decreased, if women were to enter the political arena?”
The Singing Defense
While the suffrage movement certainly inspired protest songs (left), the suffragettes were not mute in defending themselves and their beliefs. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, known for her short story “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” wrote many songs for the suffrage movement. In “Females,” she compared the females of other animal species and finds that they were all equal to the male members. That is, except for one particular: homo sapiens.
“One female in the world we find
Telling a different tale.
It is the female of our race,
Who holds a parasitic place
Dependent on the male.”
Comic poetry was another outlet for suffragette retaliation. In Are Women People?: A Book of Rhymes for Suffrage Times, Alice Duer Miller listed 12 common reasons for anti-suffragette belief. On the next page, she writes, “Reasons Women Should Not Have Pockets.” These reasons include:
1. Because pockets are not a natural right.
2. Because the great majority of women do not want pockets. If they did, they would have them.
3. Because whenever women have had pockets they have not used them.
4. Because women are required to carry a great number of things without pockets as it is.
Responding to the claim that women would be placed in danger while visiting the polls, the author mimics an equal-opportunity anti-suffragist.
“You must not go to the polls, Willie,
Never go to the polls,
They’re dark and dreadful places
Where people lose their souls.”
* * * * *
"Well now, thank goodness that is over...," wrote Mary Ward, a member of the British anti-suffrage coalition writing after the movement failed in 1918. "Now the question is what the women will do with the vote."
Today there are 143 women elected to House of Commons, the greatest number in the history of the institution, and 90 women currently serving in the U.S. Congress. Some might argue those numbers are too low, but it turns out women weren't distracted by the puckered lips of Willie Jones after all.
Image Credits: CORBIS, Bryn Mawr College Library, Michael Nicholson/Corbis, CORBIS, Rykoff Collection/CORBIS, CORBIS, David J. & Janice L. Frent Collection/Corbis