The Suffragettes Take on Washington

Library of Congress
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

On March 3, 1913, over 5,000 women—some on horseback—marched throughout the streets of the nation’s capital to demand the right to vote. (Alan has a selection of historic photos.) That march, organized by Alice Paul, marked a very public push for women’s suffrage, but the debate over women’s voting rights wasn’t a new one. In the early 20th century, The Atlantic published essays both for and against the right to vote for women. Lyman Abbott claimed in September 1903 that women simply didn’t want that right:

IN 1895 the women of Massachusetts were asked by the state whether they wished the suffrage. Of the 575,000 voting women in the state, only 22,204 cared for it enough to deposit in a ballot box an affirmative answer to this question. That is, in round numbers, less than four per cent wished to vote; about ninety-six per cent were opposed to woman suffrage or indifferent to it.

He traces his argument back to the state of nature and the purpose of government. Here’s Abbott on why women have to pick between housework or state-crafting:

If she were to go into politics, she would leave undone the work for which alone government exists, or she would distract her energies from that work, which she knows full well requires them all. Can she not do both? No! no more than man can. He cannot be at the same time in the market winning the bread, in the forum shaping the public policies, and in the home ministering to life. Nor can she. She must choose. She may give her time and thought and energy to building a state, and engaging in that warfare of wills which politics involves; or she may give her time and thought to the building of men, on whose education and training, church, state, industry, society, all depend. She has made her choice and made it wisely.

Ten years later—and a year after the suffragettes’s march—The Atlantic published a piece from pastor Samuel McChord Crothers called “Meditations on Votes for Women”:

Heretofore this has been a man’s world arranged for his convenience. Now Woman has appeared, open-eyed and armed, and all things are to be changed. Religion, the State, the Family, are to be reorganized according to a strictly feministic plan. If the ultimatum is not at once accepted we may look for that dreadful catastrophe, a sex war. [...]

If the home-loving citizen would sit down and think about it, he would realize that this is a false alarm. The entrance of woman into the sphere of human action is no new thing. She has always been here, and has always been influential. Such civilization as we have is largely of her making. If civilization itself is a crime she has been accessory both before and after the fact.

We cannot treat half the human race as an altogether unknown quantity. That women can fight is no new discovery.

In the seventh section of his essay, Crothers makes a counter-argument for why allowing women to vote won’t disrupt their role in the home:

That a voter does not vote all the time, but is allowed a number of days off in order to attend to his private business.

This is a consideration that seems to be overlooked by those who insist that if a woman exercises the right of suffrage she must neglect her duties in home. There is a certain force in this argument. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, and we are told that if the conscientious citizen would outwit the machine politician and make good government to prevail he must always be “on the job.”

But this counsel of perfection must be interpreted in the light of actual circumstances. The citizen who desires good government must also make his living, and to do this honestly requires considerable effort. There must be a reasonable compromise between public and private duty. The citizen cannot spend all his time voting on every question that comes up, for if he did there would be no one to earn money for taxes. So he makes use of various labor-saving devices, and selects persons to do most of his voting for him. This is the very essence of representative government. [...]

The home-keeping woman’s business may make great demands upon her, but the demands are not greater or more insistent than those which come in other businesses in which public-spirited citizens are engaged. Housekeeping is not an absolutely continuous performance, and neither is voting.

Read the whole essay here. The 19th Amendment, which grants women the right to vote, was ratified six years later on August 18, 1920.