Turn-of-the-Century Thinkers Weren’t Sure If Women Could Vote and Be Mothers at the Same Time

In the years leading up to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, Atlantic writers often pitted political participation against domestic duty.

A postcard from the turn of the 20th century that reads: "My wife's joined the Suffrage Movement, (I've suffered ever since!)" (Rykoff Collection / CORBIS / Getty)

Editor's Note: Read more stories in our series about women and political power.

Charles Worcester Clark’s “Woman Suffrage, Pro and Con,” an essay published in the March 1890 issue of The Atlantic, does not read like the kind of thing the author ever expected a woman to see.

Over the course of nearly 7,000 words, Clark asserted that women in the United States didn’t know the difference between the roles of the state and federal legislative bodies that governed them, so busy were they with the demands of motherhood and household maintenance. “The average man understands the difference in functions of national and state governments, and knows what part the candidate for whom he votes will have to play if elected. The average woman knows nothing of this,” Clark wrote. “Neither has she any idea what the tariff is, though she may applaud or denounce it with all the vehemence of the party newspaper she occasionally reads. This ignorance is not discreditable to her, for she has enough to do already, but it exists.”

Just one major irony of Clark’s statements about women is that it would not be long before women themselves wrote for The Atlantic about women’s suffrage: As my colleague Annika Neklason notes, in the years leading up to the time women’s suffrage became law in 1919, The Atlantic published a number of essays about the topic by female writers, starting with Elizabeth McCracken in 1905. (As I write this, it strikes me as unlikely that Clark ever guessed his essay would be revisited more than a century later by a female Atlantic writer, who would file her commentary on it to a female Atlantic editor, who would then pass it along to four other women who would handle its copy-editing, visual production, and executive sign-off. And yet, here we are.)

Ultimately, writers of both genders came down on both sides of the suffrage question. But a look back into the archive also reveals a popular, now amusingly quaint line of reasoning among the thinkers of the time: that women’s voting rights and their inherent duties as mothers and homemakers simply couldn’t peacefully coexist. Women’s sphere of influence was in the realm of the home and family, rather than in public affairs, many argued. Extending voting rights to—or, as these authors described it,  imposing voting duties on—women could upset the delicate balance of the separate powers of the sexes.

Clark argued that women’s role as mothers already gave them more power than the vote could ever promise them. “Her power in the State begins at the cradle of the future citizen; and if she fulfill her womanly duty, use well her womanly opportunities, she has more than her share of public importance already,” he wrote. “Her position in the State is superior to that of man in so far as it is a higher office to inculcate the guiding principles on which the commonwealth depends than it is, weighing pros and cons, to attempt the application of those principles to particular questions.”

In 1903, the theologian and author Lyman Abbott made a similar argument in The Atlantic with “Why Women Do Not Wish the Suffrage.” Abbott equated womanhood with the duties of family maintenance even more explicitly than Clark had, and posited that because women knew they did more to shape society by raising children than they ever could by voting, there was no way they could truly want to bother with voting. As Abbott put it,

The affirmative reason [why woman does not wish the ballot] is that she has other, and in some sense, more important work to do. It is more important than the work of government because it is the work for the protection of which governments are organized among men. Woman does not wish to turn aside from this higher work, which is itself the end of life, to devote herself to government, which exists only that this higher work may be done.

Just a few years later, two women would present their arguments for the incompatibility of voting rights and womanly duties in the pages of The Atlantic. In 1908, Anna A. Rogers wrote “Why American Mothers Fail,” an essay about the importance of motherhood. In it, she echoed Clark and Abbott’s assertions that women would exert their influence through good and devoted parenting, not by casting ballots. “American women constantly cry out against the smallness of their lives, the limitations that encompass them. If they would but do wisely and thoroughly their apportioned tasks, they would have need of every power possible to humanity, such are the potentialities of true motherhood,” she wrote. “Women fret themselves and others for the right to vote, and they do not see that their son’s vote, their brother’s, their friend’s, is verily their own.”

In 1905, Elizabeth McCracken recounted in “Woman Suffrage in the Tenements” the experience of helping women in a tenement district register to vote in a school-committee election—what she called “a prolonged, arduous, and futile endeavor.” She discovered that poor women, who worked and didn’t have hired help taking care of their home or children, lacked even the time to vote, let alone the resources to become familiar enough with the issues to vote informedly. Whether or not women more generally were ready to vote in larger political elections, McCracken believed these particular women were not: “They must do so many other things first. 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?”

Old-fashioned as these arguments might seem today, the question of how women ought to split their time—between the public sphere and the home—has echoes in today’s discourse about the balance between parenting and work. Some argue even now, for example, that the United States’ lack of legislation requiring companies to offer paid maternity leave, coupled with underwhelming attempts to enact such legislation, sends the message that the work world is no place for women.

In the years leading up to and immediately following the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, a handful of other women, such as Ellis Meredith, Mary Johnston, Matilda Hall Gardner, and Frances Parkinson Keyes, also wrote about women’s suffrage in The Atlantic, and all of the women writers but Keyes, McCracken, and Rogers argued in full-throated support of it. Most of these women built their cases for suffrage on women’s equality as human beings and their capability and potential as political participants. Only Keyes substantively addressed the effects, both positive and negative, that women’s voting rights might have on the American family, noting in “On the Fence,” her essay about the complexities of the voting-rights issue, that the “average” woman in the United States was a poor and overworked housewife who lacked adequate medical care, especially in childbirth. “The average woman is exactly the one who [needs] help,” she wrote, “and to whom suffrage will undoubtedly bring help.”

Another popular argument that pitted voting rights against women’s domestic roles focused on the disparity between women’s alleged gentle, mothering temperaments and the decisive act of voting. According to Clark, the same qualities that made women good at maintaining the home and raising children—sentimentality and compassion—would also make them unreliable, overly tenderhearted voters. “The very qualities which do such good in moulding character would be ill applied to public action,” he wrote.  “Our votes are determined by two forces, sentiment and reason: the former quality preëminently woman’s, the latter man’s; the former a quality of the heart, the latter of the head. Now it is generally admitted that the heart of the people is right, and that the mistakes of a democracy are mistakes of the head; right purpose, but not right judgment. Thus, though our government has been that of men exclusively, we have still had too much of the womanly quality.” (In other words, Clark asserted that voters had already been voting with their feelings rather than logic too often; adding women and all their feelings to the mix would make it worse.)

Abbott similarly argued that voting was, quite simply, an act more forceful than most women were comfortable with, and that women preferred to benignly wield their influence over their sons, husbands, and brothers instead. A woman shrinks away from politics, he wrote,

exactly as she shrinks from the encounter of opposing wills on a battlefield, and for the same reason. She is glad to counsel; she is loath to command. She does not wish to arm herself, and, as police or soldier, enforce her will on the community. Nor does she wish to register her will, and leave her son, her brother, or her husband to enforce it. If she can persuade them by womanly influence she will; but just in the measure in which she is womanly, she is unwilling to say to her son, to her brother, or to her husband, “I have decreed this; you must see that my decree is enforced on the reluctant or the resisting.” She does not wish that he should act on her judgment against his own in obedience to her will; still less that he shall, in obedience to her will, compel others to act in violation both of their judgment and of his. And yet this is just what suffrage always may and sometimes must involve.

(Today, the belief that the perceived innate traits of women make them better suited for roles different from men’s is often called “benevolent sexism.”)

In the years just before women’s suffrage became federal law through the Nineteenth Amendment, one Atlantic writer argued that it was the realities of family life that would eventually turn the tide in favor of women’s voting rights. In January of 1914, Edward S. Martin wrote an essay commenting on “Feminist Intentions,” a fiery piece written by W. L. George, a male feminist leader from the U.K. Martin’s essay, titled “Much Ado About Women,” considered the suffrage question not through the lens of whether husbands would extend voting rights to their wives but rather whether fathers would extend voting rights to their daughters. George had described contemporary feminists’ core argument as the belief that women held an inferior place in society not because they were born inferior but, as Martin put it, “because they have never had a fair chance to be otherwise.” Feminists believed that suffrage should be just a single step in ensuring that women have a fair shot at all the education, all the employment, and all the money “that is in process of distribution,” as Martin wrote. Martin continued:

To some minds, that may sound ambitious, but it is only what any good and really earnest father wants for his daughters. The habits of a lifetime … may make him less than fair perhaps in dividing his acquisitions with his wife; but when it comes to the daughters whom he is going to leave in the world when he quits it, he is all for securing to them as far as he can a full share of all that is worth having.

Martin went on to predict that the “sex wars” of which W. L. George warned readers, should they even come to pass, wouldn’t be what changed the minds of men about women’s roles as voters or participants in public life. Rather, “what a husband sees in forty years, maybe, of the good and bad of life for a woman; what a father sees in his daughters and in the conditions of modern life as they affect girls,” Martin wrote, “those are the things which count in forming or changing the convictions of men about woman’s errand in this current world.”

Fatherhood as a catalyst for feminist thought, of course, remains a common phenomenon to this day. The popular usage of the phrase “as the father of a daughter” when a man speaks out against the marginalization or mistreatment of women, for example, illustrates an uncomfortable truth: Many men are still awakened to everyday injustices toward women only as a result of their own personal relationships with women.

Martin went on to note that the world was now safer for women to pursue their own endeavors outside the home than it had been in the past; that women were in a much better position to “strike out, if they choose, for themselves.” In saying so, Martin, like Clark and Abbott, also tacitly endorsed the notion that a woman’s duties in the home and her ambitions in voting and beyond were at odds. But he gently suggested that perhaps the worldly and ambitious woman would supplant the quiet homemaking mother as the female ideal of the future. “The tradition that was based on the woman’s need of protection,” he wrote, “seems to have outlasted somewhat the facts on which it rested.”