Editor’s Note: Read more stories in our series about women and political power.
When The Atlantic was founded in 1857, the U.S. comprised 31 states and eight territories. Women didn’t have the right to vote in any of them. But they were already fighting to change that: Suffrage had been adopted, over protest, as a tenet of the women’s-rights movement at the Seneca Falls Convention nine years earlier and thereafter became the focus of annual national conventions, public addresses, petition campaigns, and a slate of newly formed organizations in the lead-up to the Civil War. Those efforts went unmentioned in The Atlantic’s early issues, however; the magazine’s coverage of American politics was dominated by the issues of slavery and industrial-labor conditions.
Only around the turn of the 20th century, after national suffrage organizations had been formed and the movement had won victories in a smattering of states and territories, did the debate over women’s suffrage take hold in The Atlantic. Contributors—half of them men—detailed how the fight for the vote fit into the broader women’s-rights movement and considered how suffrage would affect roles in the home and family, what impact it would have on the nation’s politics, how many women would actually make use of the right to vote if they won it, and even whether women really wanted the right at all.
When the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, in 1920, after decades of debate, protest, and legal struggle, it was mentioned in the magazine only as a cynical afterthought in a January 1921 article reviewing the events of the previous year. “The Prohibition Amendment became effective in January, and the Woman Suffrage Amendment in August,” a male contributor wrote. “The tail promises to wag the dog.”
“Woman Suffrage, Pro and Con,” by Charles Worcester Clark
Clark framed the fight for suffrage within gender roles in American life. “For self-evident physical reasons,” he argued, men belonged in the public sphere and women in the private one. He presented the suffrage movement as “largely the result of an unnatural, and it is to be hoped temporary, state of human society,” in which women worked outside of the “peculiar offices” of the home and enter the public sphere. He believed that the decision to grant women the right to vote should be made with that broader context in mind; not “to establish her equality, not to satisfy the importunity of any special class, not to carry any particular legislation,” but only out of the belief that women’s “active participation in government” would benefit “society as a whole.”
“Why Women Do Not Wish the Suffrage,” by Lyman Abbott
Abbott, too, considered women’s suffrage in relation to their traditional roles in the home—what he called their “higher work.” He described family as the center around which all questions of gender and governance turned; it was, he wrote, the source of men’s and women’s “inherent, temperamental, functional” differences, “the basis of society,” and “the end of life.” He asserted that men served the family by doing “that battling with the elements which wrests livelihood from a reluctant or resisting Nature”—working—and “that battling with the enemies of society”: participating in the military and in public life. Voting fit into that role. Women, by contrast, served the family by caring for it directly. Voting, he wrote, would detract from that role by redirecting women’s energies to the public pursuits of men. For that reason, he argued, women “do not wish to have the ballot thrust upon them.”
“Woman Suffrage in the Tenements,” by Elizabeth McCracken
McCracken was the first woman to write about women’s suffrage for The Atlantic, and the first to engage with the issue in more than hypothetical terms. She detailed her own experiences helping register women to vote for a school-committee election in a Boston tenement district. One of McCracken’s co-workers, she recalled, had asked her to help teach women about the process and encourage them to cast their votes, saying that it would be a simple task. But McCracken wrote that it was not simple at all. She recounted how her efforts to register and educate the district’s women drew her into their complicated and overburdened lives and, ultimately, led her to conclude that they “are not ready” for the ballot. “They must do so many other things first,” she wrote. “Before we put the suffrage question to them before we hold out the ballot, either as a theory or as a fact, shall we not help them with those things?”
“Why American Mothers Fail,” by Anna A. Rogers
Rogers focused her case against suffrage entirely on the value of motherhood and the argument that granting women the right to vote would compromise that value. The work of mothers, she contended, was both removed from the realm of politics and essential to it. “A successful mother … is a more important factor in a municipality than any merely successful man in it,” she wrote, because mothers were responsible for raising and educating all the municipality’s citizens. In that way, she argued, mothers shaped the votes of the sons, brothers, and friends they cared for. If they strayed from their roles as caretakers by searching for some other pursuit or purpose, they could contribute to the very social ills they imagined their votes would correct.
“What It Means to Be an Enfranchised Woman,” by Ellis Meredith
In a rebuke to the arguments against suffrage that preceded her, Meredith laid out a stirring case for women’s right to vote. She observed that critics held enfranchised women to an impossible standard, saying they were neglectful of their families when they engaged in politics and “unfit for the ballot” when they didn’t. “Nobody,” she pointed out, “questions the fitness of those who, having voted for a hundred and twenty-five years, have made reforms necessary in every state of the Union.” She argued that the only difference between men and women that was relevant to the discussion of suffrage was that men had been able to vote for much longer.
Two years after this article was published, Meredith became the first woman elected into political office in Denver, Colorado.
“The Woman’s War,” by Mary Johnston
“The Woman’s Movement did not begin to-day, or last night, or yesterday, or the day before yesterday,” Johnston wrote. “It began an uncertain number of millions of years ago. It began when first a primitive, asexual organism slipped almost unawares into a sexual method of reproduction.” The fight for women’s rights, in other words, was as old as women themselves. In an impassioned style reminiscent of her best-selling historical novels, Johnston made the case for female equality and laid out counterarguments for some of the common criticisms of the movement. She pointed out that women had made “able sovereigns” in the past, from Aspasia to Queen Elizabeth I to Catherine the Great, so “there is really no reason to suppose that in a democracy a woman would not do well as a town-councilor, as a member of the board of health, or even, at a pinch, as a mayor.” The “Woman’s War,” she wrote, would be long and difficult—but the ballot, and the political power that came with it, would be a valuable weapon.
“Feminist Intentions,” by W. L. George
“The following article was written in response to a request made by the Atlantic to Mr. George, a prominent spokesman of the Feminist movement in England, its storm-centre,” the magazine’s editors said in introducing this article in 1913, “to state quite clearly the terms upon which leaders of his party will be willing to negotiate for a lasting peace.” That framing, which presented feminists as combatants whom governments would have to reach a settlement with, echoed the tone of George’s own thoughts on “his party.” George described feminists as “promoters of a sex war” trying to fundamentally change attitudes toward women through a revolution. “While the Suffragists are content to attain immediate ends,” he wrote, “the Feminists are aiming at ultimate ends. They contend that it is unhealthy for the race that man should not recognize woman as his equal; that this makes him intolerant, brutal, selfish, and sentimentally insincere.” They would continue to appear before men as a “rival and a foe,” he wrote, until men stopped insisting that “women are inherently inferior to them” and started granting them equal opportunities “in every field of human activity.”
“Much Ado About Women,” by Edward S. Martin
Martin responded to George’s article with a more inevitable view of feminist progress. He wrote that the feminist goals George described—the desire for a world where women “have a fair chance” and “a full, even share of all the education, all the power, all the good employments, and all the money that is in process of distribution”—was “only what any good and really earnest father wants for his daughters.” Gender dynamics, he argued, could not be “smashed” through “sex-wars,” nor could they be transformed more quickly than they were already being transformed by developing economic and social dynamics. He believed attitudes about women would be changed not by feminists but by “daily study in the ordinary course of domestic life.”
“Meditations on Votes for Women,” by Samuel McChord Crothers
Instead of tackling the question of suffrage directly, Crothers began his article by criticizing the nature of the debate that surrounded the issue. “There is a great amount of serious—and less serious—discussion,” he wrote, “but there seems to be a lack of meditation.” He suggested that, rather than immediately taking hard positions and defending them with exaggerations, strident cries, and ungentle voices, people should take the time to consider the issue fully and with an open mind. To encourage that kind of deeper meditation, he explored a series of considerations that he felt were often overlooked: “that equal suffrage is not the first step in an impending revolution, but only a necessary adjustment to a revolution that has already happened,” for one, and “that the lawless acts of certain English militants only prove that some women are wiser than some men.”
“The Jelly-Fish and Equal Suffrage,” by C. William Beebe
Beebe brought his expertise as a marine biologist to the issue of suffrage in a detailed exploration of gender dynamics in the animal kingdom. “If a democracy would survive there must be unity and coöperation in all its parts,” he wrote. “A false distribution of power produces an imperfect coöperation,—a superiority and a corresponding inferiority which promote a chaotic division of interest and a total and widespread inefficiency.” He argued that jellyfish, a species “close to the true centre which marks the divergence” of male and female traits, exemplified how different gendered traits proved valuable in different situations. The “specialization” of sex could be combined with a “thoughtful, respectful coöperation between the sexes” to create real equality, he wrote—just the sort of balance he thought essential to the survival of democracy.
“The Gentle Female and the Astute Statesman,” by Matilda Hall Gardner
Months after joining the executive committee of the National Women’s Party, Gardner wrote for The Atlantic about the frustrating work that went into advocating for suffrage, recalling her own experiences lobbying congressmen for the vote. “A majority … of the legislators have given little or no thought to the subject,” she observed, and responded to questions about their position with prevarication and promises to honor the desires of their female constituents, trying to evade deeper discussion. The job of lobbyists, Gardner wrote, was to disarm them—to “be gentle and persistent; don’t be clever!” In this way they hoped to appeal to men who had been taught to be courteous to women, and to underestimate them. But under the courtesy and the evasions, Gardner recalled, the women often encountered an unwavering dedication to traditional gender roles, even as they forced the congressmen to see them as political actors.
“Do Women Want the Vote?,” by William M. Bray
Bray, a Wisconsin state senator, brought the magazine back to the question of whether women truly wanted to vote—this time with evidence, recounted secondhand. He described a “test” conducted by an unnamed “would-be statesman” who confronted the issue of suffrage while campaigning for a state-Senate seat. To determine whether the women in his district supported the movement, the politician canvassed a selection of residents who “he thought would be most representative.” His results, Bray wrote, were unambiguous: “Not a single ward, city, or village in his district had returned a majority for suffrage.” The politician’s mother, a supporter of suffrage, wrote to urge him to “help women secure the ballot,” but he stood firm by the results of his canvass: In his time in office, Bray reported, he didn’t vote for equal suffrage once.
“On the Fence,” by Frances Parkinson Keyes
The Nineteenth Amendment had been passed by Congress months earlier and was in the process of being ratified by the states, but Keyes, the wife of a U.S. senator who had voted for it, couldn’t decide whether she supported women’s suffrage or not. Women “are certainly ‘equal’ to men,” she observed; they had the time to vote, they could “acquire experience” in politics, and they were no more or less flawed as a group then male voters. She also argued that allowing women to vote would improve their economic independence and in that way help “average women” struggling with housework, child care, and medical troubles. But while she believed that “women can do—if they have to—everything that men can do,” she did not feel that the reverse was true, and she believed “the things women only can do” were “the greatest and most important in the whole world.” So, she said, she had been an “anti-suffragist my entire life”—but hoped, and maybe even expected, that newly enfranchised “average women” would prove her wrong.
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