The Once & Only 19th Amendment Centennial Course: A 2020 Blog: State-Level Woman Suffrage Campaigns across the Country

Week 6

First up on this week’s agenda was finishing the discussion from last week. The theme was women’s political activism throughout the period from roughly 1870 until the ratification of the 19th Amendment other than suffrage movement activism per se.  Different students had read articles focusing on different times, different groups of women, different types of activity, with different aims. The particulars this week included Ida B. Wells and the anti-lynching campaign, including her work in England; women in the Southern Farmers’ Alliance; the organization of women workers in the WTUL and its relationship to broader labor issues; a comparison of women’s and men’s club activities in Chicago at the turn into the 20th century; the women of Hull House; the work of Hull House women and the Children’s Bureau; the food protests of women in New York’s Lower East Side in 1917 and the relationship to socialist organizing; and the public work of Catholic sisters.

How could we discuss so many, such diverse groups and actions? That was the point. As the students picked out the highlights of the works they read (and those we discussed last week), we were able to see how deep, broad, and diverse was the activism of women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, even when they couldn’t vote. We considered the opportunities and constraints on different groups of women and the situations they faced.  We had a good discussion of the connections between “women’s roles” and popular conceptions of women and the work they did in public, most notably updating our earlier discussion of “Republican motherhood” with the concept of social housekeeping so important in the context of this period’s urbanization and urban problems. And we asked, again and again, why they hadn’t hear of most of this before, and what that meant.

Finally, on to the theme for this week: The state-by-state campaigns for suffrage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The discussion was based largely on their reading of Corrine M. McConnaughy, The Woman Suffrage Movement in America: A Reassessment (2013).

We began by reviewing an important question: Why/how did the efforts for constitutional change end around 1870? We once again tracked the fracturing of the equal right coalition due to many forces: (1) The increasing gender conservatism among male African American organizational leaders in and after the 1850s and the increasing association of citizenship with masculinity among white and African American men, as discussed by Laura Free (Suffrage Reconstructed: Gender, Race, and Voting Rights in the Civil War Era (2016). This made many equal rights advocates less inclined to support woman suffrage. (2) The disagreement over the likely impact of advocating for a more comprehensive agenda of universal suffrage, including women, in the pursuit of what became the 14th and 15th Amendments. (3) The activation of racism key segments of the woman suffrage movement (notably Stanton, Anthony) whereby they resisted the prioritization of African American men with some argument lodged in racist logic. (4) The growing strength of a party system and its relationship to the equal rights coalition whereby the terms of possibility were increasingly set by the parties. As a reaction to Republican leadership mostly turning its back on woman suffrage, some suffrage leaders resolved to coalesce with any party that supported them – and when they worked with Democrats, that appalled antislavery leaders who (a) remained Republican loyalists and (b) hated the association with the pro-slavery party.  By the time the dust had nearly settled on the 15th Amendment, an independent woman suffrage movement had arisen, but any opportunities for a 16th Amendment, or even coalition support for a 16th Amendment eliminating gender-based barriers to voting had evaporated.

So, what did the women’s rights/woman suffrage movements look like from 1870 to the end of the 19th century? Famously, the former coalition had fractured into two national organizations, the National and American Woman Suffrage Associations, and we discussed the differences between those. But as we have seen in discussions of women’s political activism in the late 19th/early 20th centuries, a broken coalition does not mean activism and organization disappears; rather, it unties or loosens the linkages. There was a multiplicity of organization aimed at expanding women’s roles and opportunities in society and politics. And as women became increasingly involved in many different aspects of political and social activity, more and more found the lack of the franchise a barrier. And as Corrine McConnaughy underscores, as woman suffrage organizing grew across the country in many states and locales, they were not necessarily connected at all, or to any serious degree with any of the national organizations. Thus there continued to be a woman suffrage movement, but it was less coordinated and connected across the country organizationally, less centrally led.

We briefly looked at the growth of legislative proposals for woman suffrage of various types (municipal, school, presidential, full) and the spread of successful legislation. Clearly the efforts and successes picked up speed at the end of the 19th century and especially after the turn of the century, so we turned our consideration to how to explain the instances and rates of success and failure, relying heavily on McConnaughy’s analysis and conclusions.

We outlined each of these major hypotheses, considered examples from woman suffrage history, but concluded that in the end, none of these actually explained why legislators – men with voting rights – extended or did not extend voting rights to women as a result of their deliberations and legislative processes:

  • Ideology: attitudes toward women’s rights; public cultures of support or rejection for gender equality.
  • Organizational capacity of women’s movements: How large were they? What were their resources?
  • Strength of opposition movements
  • Threats of violence or disorder

Each of these explanations plays a role, but they only get us to the door of the state legislature – not inside the deliberative process.  (Although we notes, there was not much threat of violence or disorder, unless one considered women voting disorderly – which some people did, in terms of the proper order of hearth and home.)

But considering the incentives and disincentives of legislators – their specific motivations – does offer more help, especially if we distinguish between the two forms McConnaughy discussed:

  • Strategic enfranchisement: would extending the vote to women specifically benefit a legislator’s party in terms of electoral support? Would women be expected to vote disproportionately for the dominant party?
  • Programmatic enfranchisement: Are key portions of the voting public, or third parties or other groups in coalition with the legislator’s party, possibly being a support to it or part of the opposition have as part of their platform of policy demands the enfranchisement of women?

Strategic enfranchisement depends on an assumption that women would be a voting bloc. Few legislators probably believed that in the first place, largely because of the stereotype that women would follow their husbands. But as states began to enfranchise women it became that women were every bit as diverse in their political views and partisan allegiances as men.

Therefore we pursued the details of programmatic enfranchisement through the data and evidence we read about, comparing the different states, and relating this back to the actions of Congress back in the old (1860s) days.

Slides from this week: PO59519AMENDStateCampaigns

To see the whole series of blogs: