Arguments for and Against Suffrage2020-11-06T17:24:33-05:00

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Arguments for and Against Suffrage

A pair of documents that present competing arguments for and against women gaining the right to vote.

A broadside produced by the New York State Woman Suffrage Association titled “Women in the Home” that advocates for suffrage.
Women in the Home

New York State Woman Suffrage Association, Women in the Home, n.d. New-York Historical Society Library.

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An image of an anti-suffrage essay written by Alice Hill Chittenden, the president of the New York State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage. Her essay is titled “Ballot Not a Panacea For Existing Evils.”
Ballot not a Panacea for Existing Evil

Alice Hill Chittenden, Ballot not a Panacea for Existing Evil, 1913. New-York Historical Society Library.

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Document Text

Summary

BALLOT NOT A PANACEA FOR EXISTING EVILS
By Alice Hill Chittenden.
President of the New York State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage.
The right to vote is not a cure all for society.
There can be no doubt that many earnest, sincere women declare they want to vote because they wish to take a hand in what they call municipal housecleaning. More schools are needed, more parks and playgrounds; better tenements and cleaner streets. Give us the ballot, they argue, and all these things shall come to pass. But these enthusiastic would-be housecleaners fail to take one point into consideration, which is, that the ballot does not clean streets, nor provide more seats in schoolhouses, nor lighten dark tenements, nor furnish pure milk, nor stop child labor, nor administer justice. Women claim they want the vote so they can make society better. But the vote does not clean streets, expand schools, improve tenements, or ensure healthy food.
The advocates of woman suffrage who cling to this idea, which was prevalent at the time of the French Revolution, and even half a century ago, that the ballot in itself is a panacea for all existing evils and a short cut to the solution of government problems, are not progressive, but are in reality behind the times as students of government. Suffrage isn’t a remedial agent in government, but is merely a means of keeping the wheels of government in motion.  Suffragists support an old-fashioned belief that the vote will solve everything.
Men who are interested in social reforms—and their number is legion—have found they could not bring about these essential reforms by merely voting on Election Day, and that is the reason they have organized all kinds of commissions and committees to consider the question of child labor, the care of dependent children and kindred subjects, from an economic and humanitarian point of view in order to educate and stimulate public opinion to a more intelligent and comprehensive understanding of these questions. Even men, who can vote, know that they cannot make changes through voting. Instead, they have created organizations and committees to address society’s problems.
They realize that public opinion must first create a demand for a law, and afterwards enforce it in order to make the law effective. In this task of moulding and stimulating public opinion woman plays a great and important part—never greater than at the present day. She is not excluded from any conferences for the discussion of special problems because she hasn’t a vote, neither is her influence lessened for that reason as a member of any committee where men and women are working together. In appointive positions, as members of educational, philanthropic and reformatory boards, which deal directly with the needs of the unfortunate of both sexes, individual women of judgment and ability who are free from other obligations can render valuable service to the city or state. Men and women who organize outside of politics can influence lawmakers. Women can work with men and hold appointed positions that make a difference.
Mayor Gaynor has appointed several women as members of the Board of Education, and the borough presidents have also appointed women on most of the local school boards. Women are also members of various state boards and receive such appointments from the Governor. Two women were members of the Massachusetts Commission appointed to consider the question of establishing minimum wage boards in that state. Two women also served on the Connecticut Industrial Commission to investigate the conditions of wage earning women and minors, which has just made its report to the Connecticut General Assembly. Women sit on many important boards and committees in state and local government.
Any one who has closely followed the remedial legislation of the past few years must realize that such organizations as the Consumer’s League, the Woman’s Municipal League and kindred organizations, as well as individual women who are members of these organizations, have been influential in securing such legislation. Volunteer organizations and leagues have been very influential in making changes in society.
The State Charities Aid Association, which was established in 1872, is responsible for much legislation along the lines of social welfare. The first training school for nurses in this country was established through the efforts of this association. It also initiated tenement house reform and the working girl’s club movement. During recent years it has secured the establishment of tuberculosis dispensaries all through the state, as well as agencies for the care of dependent children. The State Charities Aid Association is an example of an organization that helped in the areas of public health and childcare.
The women who are opposed to woman suffrage are in hearty sympathy with all lines of constructive social reform, and they are confident that they can do their work better along these lines because they are outside of politics. As non-partisan citizens, untrammeled by party affiliations or obligations, they can go before any legislative committee or municipal organization and ask for the passage of any measure, and their request will be listened to on the merits of the case, and not because they have any political axe to grind or because they voted with this or that party at the last election. Women who are opposed to woman suffrage believe in social reform. However, they believe that they can accomplish more through organizing outside the official political system.
I believe we would lose immeasurably if this power were taken from us for we would then become but another spoke in the wheel of political machinery. Women would lose power if they gained the right to vote. They are better off outside of politics.

Alice Hill Chittenden, Ballot not a Panacea for Existing Evil, 1913. New-York Historical Society Library.

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Background

By 1900, the fight over woman suffrage had persisted for over half a century, and a new momentum was building as women activists rallied on both sides of the debate. But suffragists and anti-suffragists had more in common than they wished to admit. Most women actively involved in the fight were white, educated, and financially stable. Even the arguments they used were similar. Both suffragists and anti-suffragists tended to favor a traditional view of womanhood that embraced women in the home. It was the power and importance of the vote that created the difference between these opposing views.

Instead of promoting a vision of gender equality, suffragists usually argued that the vote would enable women to be better wives and mothers. Women voters, they said, would bring their moral superiority and domestic expertise to issues of public concern. Anti-suffragists argued that the vote directly threatened domestic life. They believed that women could more effectively promote change outside of the corrupt voting booth.

For more about the arguments against suffrage, watch the video below.

This video is from “Women Have Always Worked,” a free massive open online course produced in collaboration with Columbia University.

About the Document

Both documents exemplify the types of materials created by suffragists and anti-suffragists to share their beliefs with a wider audience. Articles and broadsides were distributed at meetings, rallies, and parades, and displayed in meeting rooms, coffee shops, and other public places.

The first document is a pro-suffrage broadside created by the New York State Woman Suffrage Association in New York City. The second document is an anti-suffrage essay written by Alice Hill Chittenden, president of the New York State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage.

Vocabulary

  • broadside: A single-sided printed piece of paper; often used as a flyer or poster.
  • municipal: Connected to a city, town, or local government.
  • non-partisan: Neither supporting nor representing a political party.
  • panacea: A solution that will cure all problems or symptoms.
  • suffrage: The right of voting; in this era, suffrage often referred specifically to woman suffrage, or the right of women to vote.
  • suffragists / anti-suffragists: People who fought for or against the expansion of suffrage.
  • tuberculosis: A highly contagious and deadly disease.
  • unwholesome: Unhealthy.

Discussion Questions

  • What are the key arguments in each of these documents? Why do suffragists want the vote? Why do anti-suffragists want to prevent the vote?
  • To what extent do these documents offer a similar view of women’s roles? What does this tell you about the differences between suffragists and anti-suffragists?
  • Who is the audience for these materials? What did the authors hope to accomplish?
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Suggested Activities

Themes

ACTIVISM, LAWS & LEGAL STATUS, MARRIAGE & DOMESTICITY, MOTHERHOOD, POLITICS & GOVERNMENT, PUBLIC & PERSONAL HEALTH, SOCIAL REFORM, SUFFRAGE

New-York Historical Society Curriculum Library Connections

  • For more resources relating to women, suffrage, and modern life in the early twentieth century, see The Armory Show at 100.
Source Notes
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