According to the mainstream science of the time, “Women simply had inferior brains, which made them unsuited to the rigors of voting,” says Cheryl Jorgensen-Earp, a professor at the University of Lynchburg who studies rhetoric in science and the British women’s-suffrage movement. “Anti-suffrage cartoons poked fun at women’s reasoning ability … which showed the interior of a woman’s head filled only with letters, puppies, hats, chocolates, and the faces of admiring young men.”
And if women overexerted their already inferior brains, the thinking went, their health could suffer. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, before studies of exercise and metabolism suggested otherwise, many people believed that the human body contained a finite amount of energy. This perception proved more inconvenient for women than for men, as it implied that women needed to channel their energy toward their reproductive system rather than their mind. If women were out voting and participating in politics and thinking, their ovaries would atrophy.
Such activity was especially dangerous while a woman was pregnant. “We must not forget pregnancy and lactation, both of which are a great strain on a mother’s vitality,” Sedgwick said. “Any further strain, like the responsibilities of the suffrage, is bound to be harmful to both mother and child.”
The effects of mental exertion only worsened during menstruation, which further destabilized women on its own. Periods, anti-suffragists argued, produced a temperament unfit for politics.
“For man the physiological psychology of woman is full of difficulties,” wrote the British immunologist Almroth Wright in a 1912 letter to The Times of London, which Sedgwick would later quote. “He is not a little mystified when he encounters in her periodically recurring phases of hypersensitiveness, unreasonableness, and loss of the sense of proportion.” Even menopause made women ineligible to participate in elections, Wright said, because it gave rise to “serious and long-continued mental disorders developing in connexion with the approaching extinction of a woman’s reproductive faculty.” Having a uterus seemed to be a lifelong disqualification.
There was also the matter of physical strength, which anti-suffragists believed was essential to political participation. “The object of government is the protection of person, property, and reputation from the foes which assail them,” Lyman Abbott, an American pastor, wrote in The Atlantic in 1903. “Nothing is law which has not authority behind it; and there is no real authority where there is not power to compel obedience.” If women couldn’t defend the nation through physical force, Abbott wrote, they shouldn’t be allowed to determine its policies with the ballot. Jorgensen-Earp says this argument was especially persuasive in the early 20th century, as the threat of war hung over the nation and Americans feared appearing weak to foreign powers.