It’s hard for us to imagine, in the modern world, that there were women who were aware of the suffrage movement in the 1800s and early 1900s and yet were not interested in gaining the right to vote. In fact, most of the leaders of anti-suffrage organizations were women. Most women’s clubs, whose members were intent on learning and self-improvement, refused to allow discussion of the controversial issue of suffrage at their meetings.
How do we understand the reluctance, or even opposition, of women to pursuing their own right to participate in the democratic process?
It’s important to recognize the prevailing attitudes about gender in the early years of the United States. At first, men’s and women’s spheres overlapped in rural life, where the labor of wives and daughters was essential to the success of a farm. As the 1800s progressed, the Industrial Revolution created a middle class in which men were drawn into the urban and small-town workforce, while women were confined to the role of homemaker. One writer, Mrs. John Sandford, described the ideal woman in an 1838 text on domesticity:
It is not to shine, but to please, that a woman should desire; and she will do so only when she is graceful and unaffected, when her wish is not so much to be admired as to contribute to the gratification of others.*
Women were socialized to conform to nurturing, homebound roles and shamed for moving outside them. When female study circles were formed in the mid-1800s, devoted to the relatively mild goal of “cultivation and improvement of the mind,” they had to contend with opposition, as evidenced by the inaugural address of the first president of the short-lived Edgeworthalean Society of Bloomington, Indiana, organized in 1841:
It is agreed by many that mental culture unfits a woman for the performance of those domestic employments which make a part of her daily duties. That this pursuit, like everything under the sun, may be abused, perverted, cannot be denied; but surely when properly directed it has no such tendency….*
By the turn of the century, when the women’s club movement was in full swing, “mental culture” had become widely accepted as a female endeavor. However, it was a big leap from writing a paper on Sophocles to insisting that women should have the vote.
Most of the leaders of the suffrage movement were wealthy, educated women, while the members of women’s clubs were largely middle-class and conventional. Among the reasons clubwomen resisted suffrage was a belief that their strengths lay in empathy and kindness, which made them unsuited to the rough, dirty world of politics. Some bought the contention that women were too emotional to make rational political decisions, or they simply didn’t want the responsibility. The suffragettes struck them as strident, mannish, and likely to give their gender a bad name.
But when clubs moved in the direction of social reform, as many of them did, women discovered the value of having the vote, as they found it challenging to make legislators heed their requests for such measures as universal kindergarten or citywide trash collection. In 1914, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs voted to endorse suffrage for the first time.
When the 19th amendment was finally adopted in 1920, more than six decades of club activities had surely contributed to the gradual change in attitudes that made legislators agree women should have the right to vote.
Violet Snow is writing a historical novel, To March or to Marry, about suffrage and the women’s club movement.
* The quotes cited above were found in two engaging studies on women’s clubs. The first is from The Clubwoman as Feminist by Karen J. Blair, published in 1980. The second is from The Sound of Our Own Voices: Women’s Study Clubs 1860-1910 by Theodora Penny Martin, from 1987.