A woman is nobody. A wife is everything. A pretty girl is equal to ten thousand men, and a mother is, next to God, all powerful.
Philadelphia Public Ledger and Daily Transcript, 1848
Quite as many false ideas prevail as to woman’s true position in the home as to her status elsewhere. Womanhood is the great fact in her life; wifehood and motherhood are but incidental relations.
History of Woman Suffrage, Volume 1, 1881
During the latter part of the woman suffrage campaign in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a vocal, sizeable counter-movement broke out, called “anti-suffragism.” Those who were against woman suffrage were nicknamed “antis.”
While within the suffragist camp there were both “radical” and “conservative” elements, the term “conservative” in the case of the woman suffrage movement is employed in a relative sense. The cause was radical. Antis, on the other hand, were conservative—they were interested in preserving society in the face of new ideas that threatened the stability, order and happiness of their lives.
It is not known whether or not many Americans supported woman suffrage even when the cause became more mainstream at the beginning of the 20th century. Paul Johnson, in A History of the American People, surmises that it took so long for women to get the vote [70 years] because “for the great majority of American women, voting came low in their order of priorities.”
What is clear is that suffragism met with a lot of resistance from women themselves.
“Anti” associations formed in many states in the last decades of the suffrage movement. In 1911 the state organizations joined to form a national group, the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, headquartered in New York. These associations, although to a much lesser degree than the suffragists, drew up petitions, lobbied the government, made speeches, distributed pamphlets, and published articles and their own magazine. The counter-movement was successful enough to cause problems for the suffragist campaign, but not successful enough to stop its eventual success.
Although woman suffrage is now taken for granted as an “inalienable right” and few if any would argue that women should not have the vote, the writings of the antis are instructive for anyone who is concerned about the problems feminism has wrought for women and society.
As Aileen Kraditor points out in her chapter on the antis in The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement, “it was the link of woman to the home that underlay the entire ideology [of the antis].” Further, “The antis regarded each woman’s vocation as determined not by her individual capacities or wishes but by her sex.”
The antis argued that both biology and religion (Christianity) marked men and women as different and complementary. From this complementariness comes a division of labour wherein man does the work that is most suited to his masculine nature, and woman to her feminine nature. Engaging in partisan politics meant leaving the sphere which nature and God had assigned to woman—a sphere which the antis felt women had considerable influence within and from which they gathered strength and certainty to influence issues and people outside of their sphere.
The idea of separate spheres for men and women has been used by feminist historians to portray women as being shackled to the home. This is not true. Women in the 19th century simply understood themselves to be wives and mothers first and took the duties associated with these roles seriously. Quite apart from the woman suffrage movement of the 19th and early 20th century, women who had the time and energy participated in philanthropic and “civic reform” work to their heart’s content. In fact, some of the greatest woman reformers of the time wanted nothing to do with suffrage.
In Gertrude Himmelfarb’s study of the Victorian era in England in The De-Moralization of Society she says of such women:
These were not Lady Bountifuls carrying bread baskets to the poor. They were women who prided themselves on being highly professional in the way they conducted themselves and discharged their duties—this in spite of their being unpaid volunteers. Florence Nightingale, Emily Davies, Octavia Hill, Helen Bosanquet, Josephine Butler, and scores of others were among those…who presided over important enterprises, lectured and wrote about social issues, conducted campaigns for one or another reform, served on local boards, and testified before government commissions.
Some of these women were anti-suffragists while others placed little importance on woman suffrage, believing that in their work they were not hindered by their sex—some actually saw their sex as beneficial to their work—and that they didn’t need political power to accomplish their goals.
Himmelfarb cites the example of housing reformer Octavia Hill who “was so adamantly opposed not only to suffrage but to any political role for women that she would not lend her name to an antisuffrage statement lest this too be seen as a political act. As late as 1910, she wrote to the Times protesting against suffrage: ‘I believe men and women help one another because they are different, have different gifts and different spheres, one is the complement of the other: and it is because they have different powers and qualities that they become one in marriage and one also in friendship and in fellow work.’”
The antis saw woman suffrage as profoundly altering these complementary spheres which worked so well for women. Women enjoyed their role and influence as it was and didn’t want it changed.
The motivation of the antis goes deeper, however, as this passage from Kraditor’s The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement shows:
The head of each family was its sole link to the outside world and its spokesman in the state. The family’s leader within each home was the wife and mother. To endow that wife and mother with the franchise, therefore, would dissolve society into a heterogeneous mass of separate persons, whose individual rather than family interests would thenceforth receive political representation. For this reason, the vote would not be merely a quantitative addition to all the other rights women had acquired in the preceding two generations. The franchise was not just another new right to add to higher education, equal guardianship of children, and ownership of one’s own earnings in the march of women toward full equality with men. Suffrage meant a qualitative change in the social and familial role of women, antis believed, and the demand for it consequently met with more determined resistance than did women’s struggles for other rights.
The antis, as Kraditor points out in Ideas, believed “that the unit of society was not the individual but the family.”
It is evident in the ideas of the antis as found in the multitude of articles, pamphlets and booklets they published that they were traditional and conservative. They were also fighting against more than woman suffrage. Antis were fighting the revolution they saw unfolding which was to change our understanding of woman’s nature and her role. They saw this revolution as having dramatic effects on woman’s relationship to the family and the home—with dire consequences for society. To the antis woman suffrage was one step—a major one—toward woman’s emancipation from the home, her children, her husband, and even from her own nature. Further, woman suffrage was a giant step toward an individualistic society where the focus is on the wants and rights of the individual rather than on the good of the family. This society is the one in which we now live!
The writings of the antis are a joy to read for the contemporary anti-feminist. They were written at a time when the debate about “women’s rights” was still lively, not silenced:
It is much to be deplored that the trend of some modern young women is more towards the commercial life in which her success is doubtful, rather than toward the home-keeping, child-bearing, social, religious, and philanthropic life for which she was physically and mentally designed. These latter duties women faithfully and successfully perform as their natural function, and through them they may rise to the greatest distinction. Femininity should be cherished by the woman whom circumstance or necessity drives into the wage-earning world, and she can cherish it by retaining her hold on social, religious, and charitable interests; but she cannot hope to do so if she attends political meetings, serves on political committees, canvasses districts for votes, watches at the polls, serves on juries, and debates political questions or records and promises of political candidates. We have seen the loss of femininity produced by the constant campaigning for suffrage. –Edith Melvin, A Business Woman’s View of Suffragism
With Christianity there came into the world a new example and a new thought. To woman’s whole nature appealed that life of self-sacrifice, of love, and of willing service that has created a new Heaven and a new earth. From the foot of the Cross there arose and went out into the world a womanhood that did not demand, or claim, or threaten, or arrogate; a womanhood renouncing, yielding, loving, and, therefore, conquering. For twenty centuries that has been the law of woman’s life. It is sneered at and rejected today by the clamorous, but it has made of woman what we now find her. You see it in your mothers, your daughters, your wives. Do you wish to have that ideal changed? Woman has become to man not only a companion, but an inspiration. Out of the crucible of the centuries has come what we not only love but adore; before which, in certain hours, we bow with a reverence that links us unconsciously with the Divine. It is Christian civilization that is in the balance. –Mrs. Thomas Allen, Woman Suffrage vs. Womanliness
There is more work waiting to be done than there are workers to do it. Ministers are constantly asking from the pulpit for workers. There are more offices open to women now than there are women to fill them, but they are the offices that mean hard work and no notoriety, and these are not what most of the feminist-suffrage leaders are looking for…To the observer it seems that the professional suffrage agitator is not out for service or the good of her town, state, and country, but for her own good. This is so obvious that her self-assertion is not convincing. It is through service and not by self-assertion that true women contribute their best work to their country. –Mrs. Augustine Parker, Are Suffragists Sincere Reformers?
…the suffragist (like the socialist) persists in regarding the individual as the unit of society, while the anti-suffragist insists that it is the family. Individualism is the all-important thing to the suffragist; to the anti-suffragist it is soundness of family relationships. Suffragism is founded upon a sex-conscious individualism and sex antagonism, which leads it to say that woman can only be represented by herself, and that women now are a great unrepresented class. As a matter of fact, women are not a class, but a sex, pretty evenly distributed throughout all the various classes of society.
Suffragism says that in order to attack existing evils women must organize for participation in law making. It stakes its faith on more government (a second resemblance to socialism), upon control by law. The anti-suffragist sees the evils of society as fundamentally resulting from the evil in individuals, and calls on women to check it at its source. They emphasize the power of individual homes to turn out men and women, who, trained to self-control, will not necessitate control by law. Knowing well that the great training school for private morality is family life, the anti-suffragist seeks to preserve conditions making for sound family life, the sum total of private morality being public morality, the conscience of the people…—Mrs. Herbert Lyman, The Anti-Suffrage Ideal
As Chesterton says: “The ideal house, the happy family, is now chiefly assailed by those who have never known it, or by those who have failed to fulfil it. Numberless modern women have rebelled against domesticity in theory, because they have never known it in practice…”
…A good mother of three or four children already has more than she can do well. If she takes up this whole new department of life and thought, I am convinced she will have to let something else go, and already under the influence of the feminist movement, that “something else” seems to be her home…
…So, in claiming for women the right to take a part in the man’s half of life, the suffragists, I think, lose sight of what the woman’s half is. In urging that they must have a hand in law-making and government and public life generally, they do not see that woman’s peculiar work is pretty independent of laws and of government, is rather in private life. For it is just where the law cannot reach that woman is supreme. It is just in the finer, more personal and intimate relationships of life, which government cannot include, that woman finds her work waiting for her, which she alone can do—what Octavia Hill calls “the out-of-sight, silent work.” —Mrs. Horace Davis, The True Function of the Normal Woman
…the women who rebel against the idea that home is the place for woman are largely those who misunderstand the duties of home, who think only of the drudgery, and forget to think of the happiness that comes with watching our families develop under our care. Although the mother must do all the work in the average family, it is not from these homes where in most cases the women are happily busy with their home duties that most of the agitation about abandoning the home comes, but from among those people who have too much leisure on their hands, and who, unfortunately, do not find sufficiently exciting the duties of training good citizens. Whatever our work in life, whatever our occupation, we cannot rid ourselves of drudgery. Is there not more deadening, unvarying monotony for the business woman, the shop girl, the factory hand, than for the woman in the home who is her own mistress and can in some degree regulate and vary her work to suit her own pleasure? It is only because such work is new and untried by them that many women think it preferable to home duties; but the fact that so many girls in industry marry young to get away from this uncongenial work proves that when tried it is not found either so exciting or so interesting as these advocates of woman in industry and out of the home imagine. –Mrs. Charles Burton Gulick, The Imperative Demand Upon Women in the Home
The strongest motive for anti-suffrage action is the deepening dread of woman suffrage as a menace to the home. The radical suffragists have little use for the home, and the radical suffragists are young and brilliant, and their following grows rapidly. It is they who are in the public eye; whom the reporters interview; who, far more than the conservatives, are really influencing the thought of the day. They claim to be the consistent thinkers, reasoning from the common premise to conclusions from which “older women” shrink. They welcome with whole-hearted enthusiasm the theory of “economic independence…”
…“To choose the work in which she finds the most pleasure”—there is the real individualistic note, sounded so often by the radical suffragists. It is struck still more clearly when to the reporter’s question: “What about the argument that the wife with a business career is apt to deprive her husband of the joys of fatherhood?” Mrs. Dorr replies: “No one but the individual woman herself has any right to decide whether or not she shall have children. That is a question which she alone is entitled to settle…” –Lily Rice Foxcroft, Suffrage A Step Toward Feminism
I have included the above lengthy quotes because I think there is much we can learn from the antis, whose writings are unencumbered by political correctness and the denial of the truth that now limits all discussions in the public square. Much of what the antis wrote about suffragists and feminists is applicable to today’s feminists, that is, to all women. Whether they call themselves feminists or not, most women today are living lives based on feminist ideology. Feminism has become so integrated into society that women are no longer self-conscious feminists, but their lives closely resemble the feminist dream of equality with and independence from men.
In Part 2 of this essay I will take a look at two prominent antis and what they thought and wrote.
Part 2 of this essay will be posted next week.