Updated: Jul 7
This text comes from our book, The American Venture.
Since at least the 1850s, women associated with the Temperance movement had been pushing another reform—women’s suffrage. Indeed, advocacy for a woman’s right to vote so overlapped with the Temperance movement that liquor companies opposed women’s suffrage, in part it seems because they feared voting women would support prohibition.
Yet, prohibition was not the only issue that interested members of the women’s suffrage movement. “Suffragettes” called for full equality for women and men in society. All professions held then by men alone (including law, political office, and the ministry) should be open to women, they said. The way to achieve this equality was by giving women the vote. Indeed, according to the early feminist leader, Susan B. Anthony, depriving women of the vote is an act of tyranny that should be resisted. And Anthony had acted on this conviction in 1872 when she attempted to vote for President Grant. She was arrested and tried in court for the attempt.
That the right to vote is inalienable to women was not obvious to everyone, even at the beginning of the 20th century. The National Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage, formed in 1911 by Josephine Jewell Dodge, said the suffrage would harm women by taking them from their proper place in the home. That wives should be allowed to vote alongside their husbands assumed, the National Association argued, that a wife had interests opposed to those of her husband. The National Association feared this setting of wives against husbands could threaten family unity.
Opposition to women’s suffrage attracted very different sorts of people—for instance, James Cardinal Gibbons, the Catholic archbishop of Baltimore, and the labor activist, Mary “Mother” Jones. A member of the National Association, Gibbons declared that female suffrage violated a woman’s dignity by jeopardizing “those peerless prerogatives inherent in her sex, those charms and graces which exalt womanhood and make her the ornament and coveted companion of man. Woman is queen indeed,” said the cardinal, “but her empire is the domestic kingdom.” Mother Jones made a similar appeal. She thought women “are out of place in political work”; their proper task is “that of rearing rising generations.” Rather, women could show their usefulness, said Mother Jones, by studying “economic problems and helping toward industrial peace.
“I have never had a vote and I have raised hell all over this country!” Mother Jones said. “You don’t need a vote to raise hell! You need convictions and a voice!”
Yet, despite all opposition, the women’s suffrage movement was gaining momentum. As early as 1869, Wyoming Territory had given women the suffrage. Women continued to vote there when Wyoming became a state in 1890. In 1917, New York state gave women the right to vote—only two years before the United States Congress approved the 19th Amendment, which declared that “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 sex.” On August 26, 1920, having met the requirement for ratification, the 19th Amendment became part of the Constitution.
As both opponents and advocates of women’s suffrage foresaw, the 19th amendment only encouraged the movement for women’s rights started by the likes of Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone in the 1850s. In 1923, the National Woman’s Party (NWP) introduced into Congress the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which would, if ratified, forbid all discrimination on the basis of sex. In line with their devotion to women’s equality, the NWP opposed legislation directed at protecting women workers because such legislation did not treat them as equals to men. The capitalist, laissez-faire National Association of Manufacturers joined in the NWP’s advocacy and endorsed the ERA because it would overturn national and state laws protecting women in the workplace. Yet, despite such powerful support, the ERA failed ratification both in the 1920s and in the decades that followed.
A Song for Women’s Suffrage
Like other causes, the movement for women’s suffrage had its songs to inspire and unite its activists. Interestingly enough, one such song, “The Suffrage Flag,” is a parody of “The Bonny Blue Flag,” a ditty that rebel soldiers sang and marched to during the American Civil War. In listening to “The Suffrage Flag,” notice how it alters the original, pro-Confederate refrain, which goes like this: “Hurrah! Hurrah! For southern rights, hurrah!/Hurrah for the Bonny Blue Flag that bears a single star!”