Suffragists protest in 1916
Suffragists protest in 1916 against President Woodrow Wilson’s opposition to women’s right to vote. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

“Suffrage is not a right. It is a privilege that may or may not be granted. Politics is no place for a woman, consequently the privilege should not be granted to her.”

So wrote California State Sen. J.B. Sanford in June 1911, objecting to the proposal that the state Constitution should be amended to allow women to vote. By a slim margin, California voters rejected his arguments and approved women’s suffrage that year.

Nine years later, national suffrage (the right to vote in political elections) was given to women on Aug. 18, 1920.

As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, it’s worth a look back at some of Sanford’s arguments opposing women’s suffrage — because, sadly, many of these antiquated beliefs are still espoused today:

  • “The mother’s influence is needed in the home. She can do little good by gadding the streets and neglecting her children. Let her teach her daughters that modesty, patience, and gentleness are the charms of a woman.”
  • “The men are able to run the government and take care of the women. Do women have to vote in order to receive the protection of man?”

Sanford said society should “keep woman where she belongs in order that she may retain the respect of all mankind.”

He called women’s suffrage a “disease,” “political hysteria” and a “backward step in the progress of civilization.”

He wrote that those who advocated for women’s suffrage were “the mannish female politician and the little effeminate, sissy man, and the woman who is dissatisfied with her lot and sorry that she was born a woman.”

Although Sanford’s comments represent, arguably, the most outrageous, there were others.

Several editorials in the Los Angeles Times in 1911 argued forcefully against women’s suffrage, one reading that the Times “opposes woman suffrage because it does not believe in either the justice or the expediency of burdening the women of California with the duty of voting.”

Read another: “Possession of the ballot will not help woman, socially or industrially. It will make exactions upon her time and strength. It will invade the home and destroy its charm. It will not result in wiser laws or better government.”

Pseudo-Science

A 2019 article in The Atlantic discussed the pseudo-science behind some of the objections at that time, many proposed by leading doctors and scientists who claimed that mental exertion could jeopardize reproductive health and women could become infertile if they did too much thinking.

Cheryl Jorgensen-Earp, a professor at the University of Lynchburg, said in the article that mainstream science at the time believed that “Women simply had inferior brains, which made them unsuited to the rigors of voting … 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.”

Doctors seriously argued that women’s ovaries would atrophy if women became active in politics and engaged in, uh, thinking.

Physical strength was considered critical to politics, which implied that only men had the capacity to participate actively in the political process.

“Having a uterus seemed to be a lifelong disqualification,” the article concluded.

It wasn’t only men who spoke against women’s suffrage.

Headed by Josephine Dodge, the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage formed in 1911 to oppose passage of the 19th Amendment. The organization argued that women didn’t have time to vote because they were occupied taking care of the home and the children.

They said women didn’t want to vote, couldn’t stay updated on current events or politics, and lacked the mental capacity to fully understand the issues.

Equal Rights Amendment

The first women’s rights convention, held in 1848 in Seneca Falls, NY, is considered the start of the women’s suffrage movement.

Suffragists (not suffragettes) labored for years to educate the public that women deserved the right to vote.

In 1869, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton formed one of the first organizations to support women’s suffrage. In 1916 Alice Paul formed a more militant group, the National Women’s Party.

Suffragists endured years of arrests and violence, until at last, more than 70 years after that first Seneca Falls convention, women’s suffrage culminated in 1920 with passage of the 19th Amendment.

Today, 100 years after its ratification, it’s clear that passage has not ensured equality.

After adoption in 1920 of the 19th Amendment into law, the Equal Rights Amendment was proposed in 1923 by Alice Paul.

But it wasn’t until 1972, nearly 50 years later, when the U.S. Senate voted to approve the ERA, which would have been the 27th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The ERA fell short of ratification when only 35 of the required 38 states supported the amendment, which was thought destined to pass until anti-ERA activist Phyllis Schlafly became involved.

Many of the same arguments against women’s suffrage were used 60 years later by those opposed to the ERA.

“What I am defending is the real rights of women,” Schlafly said at the time, according to history.com. “A woman should have the right to be in the home as a wife and mother.”

The ERA was not just unnecessary, she believed, but was actually undesirable because it would force women to change and move away from traditional roles that held the family together.

Schlafly’s grassroots campaign gained traction among conservatives who bought into her contention that gender equality would lead to moral decline and that women currently held a privileged place in society.

Schlafly is blamed by some, credited by others, for the ultimate defeat of the ERA. Yet the ERA has seen a recent revival, so perhaps it still has legs.

Gender Inequality

Although many of the arguments against the 19th Amendment sound ridiculous today, The Atlantic article pointed out that one century after its ratification, people “continue to consider womanhood a handicap.”

“Last year, a male physicist said at a conference that men outnumber women in physics because women are just worse at it,” The Atlantic pointed out. “In 2017, Google fired a male software engineer who posted a memo to an internal message board arguing that women’s under-representation in the technology industry could be explained by biological differences between the sexes.”

These views are commonly held by many men in positions of power today.

Survey results from the Pew Research Center, published July 7 this year, indicated that about half of Americans consider gaining the right to vote “the most important milestone in advancing the position of women in this country.” Yet a majority believes equal rights between men and women have not been achieved.

Major obstacles include sexual harassment, unequal legal rights, different societal expectations for women and men, and too few women in positions of power.

True gender equality would see equal pay for equal work and no discrimination in hiring, promotion or educational opportunities, the survey found.

One other interesting finding: “About four-in-ten Republican men think women’s gains have come at the expense of men.” About 25 percent of Republican women believe this, compared to 19 percent of Democratic men and 12 percent of Democratic women.

A majority of all adults surveyed — 57 percent — said America has not gone far enough to guarantee gender equality, while 32 percent said it’s about right and 10 percent said the country has gone too far in giving women equal rights.

Conditions Today

Sen. Sanford was right about one thing when he wrote, “Suffrage is not a right. It is a privilege that may or may not be granted.”

As with all privileges, the right to vote can be restricted or suppressed.

Jim Crow laws in the south in the first half of the 20th century restricted Black suffrage even though the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, stated, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.”

And yet conditions were set to deny Black citizens from exercising their constitutional right to vote. These included: literacy tests, property ownership and poll taxes. Violence against Black voters was common.

The election this year has all the telltale signs of a system ripe for voter suppression. The legitimacy of mail-in ballots is already being questioned, some worry about foreign interference, and the threat of delays in mail delivery is concerning.

In many states, it is intentionally difficult to vote. We still battle against voter ID laws, modern-day poll taxes that require fines and fees to be paid before allowing someone to vote, limited opportunities for voter registration (particularly on college campuses), and the reduction in the number of polling places which have resulted in long lines and hours of waiting.

A general sense of foreboding exists today among many citizens who believe our democracy is under threat. This year’s election may be the most consequential in living memory.

The Pew Research Center estimates that young people, ages 18 to 25, represent 10 percent of the electorate. Yet historically this demographic is least likely to vote.

Voter registration groups are working with a sense of urgency this year to encourage more young people to vote.

Women have much at stake in the election this year, on national as well as local fronts. Young women in particular have been called an untapped political force whose votes could make a real difference in the direction of our country.

One may not like the choice of candidates, but that is no reason not to participate in the political process or be relieved of the obligation to vote.

As someone recently told me, “You’re not voting for your best pal. There’s no perfect candidate.” The message is: Focus on the issues, not the person.

It has been said often that democracy is not a spectator sport. Voting is indeed a privilege which can be taken away by people in power, unless each of us exercises this incontrovertible (so far) right.

As the ad says, “Your vote is your voice.” We all need to take the duty to vote seriously.

A constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote was hard-fought by pioneers like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul.

In honor of the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, say a silent thank-you to those who so long ago fought so bravely to give women this awesome power.

Voting is the foundation of a democracy. We need to vote, all of us, to ensure that we get to vote another day.

Marsha Sutton is a local education journalist and opinion columnist and can be reached at suttonmarsha@gmail.com.   

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