Suffrage Not Needed: Notes on the anti-suffrage movement
By: Sarah Boonie
Collections Education and Outreach Intern
While voting rights for women are today seen as fundamental rights, there was a time when groups were actively campaigning against the passing of the 19th Amendment. The organized movement against women’s suffrage is often a forgotten chapter, but one that needs to be told in the overall narrative of the history of women’s rights. Keeping with our recent trivia theme, here is some information you may not know about the anti-suffrage movement.
Organizing Against (the vote)
The National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage was founded in 1911 in order to bring a unity to the state organizations that were already well established and making moves against the passing of women’s suffrage in the United States. One of the founders of the organization, and the first president, was a woman by the name of Josephine Dodge. Dodge was a prominent woman involved in the day nursery program, which set up, ran, and funded city nurseries where working mothers could take their children. Though she was educated at Vassar and well connected through her family, Dodge did not believe in the cause of women’s suffrage because she believed it would take women away from the non-political reforms that needed to be seen to. Josephine remained president of NAOWS until 1917 when the organization was moved away from New York, but she remained dedicated to the cause until the end.
The Association was founded and headquartered out of New York, later; they would also open an office in Washington DC followed, in 1918, by a movement of headquarters in the city. In early 1913, whether planned or by sheer chance, a Washington DC office of the NAOWS was located at 1307 F Street only a block away from the 1420 F Street office where Alice Paul and Lucy Burns were heading the Congressional Committee of NAWSA. F Street, in downtown Washington DC became, for a while, the grounds where the two organizations initiated some of their most intense campaigning.
One Idea, Two Sides
In addition to physical proximity, these two organizations also shared many of the same campaign tactics. Many of the pamphlets, post-cards, objects, and rhetoric that either side used were in direct response to what was coming out of the opposing field. Many of the main arguments used by both sides related to the status and responsibilities of women in society. The anti-suffrage movement maintained, and promoted, the idea that if women were given the right to vote, family and home lives would suffer. In addition to this, very often they used the argument that women were meant to accomplish other things with their lives, and that if they were forced to also participate in politics; their other responsibilities would suffer under the pressure.
Women of Progress Not Politics
The anti-suffrage movement had only one specific goal, and that was to stop the enfranchisement of women. To achieve their goal, NAOWS built on the opposition already in place, and supported new ideas about why women were unfit for inclusion in politics. An easy way to accomplish this feat was to discredit the women who were working on the suffrage campaigns, especially those involved in the more militant aspects of the movement. Common negative representations that the anti-movement used were related to those women who did not fit the feminine ideal of the time. The common tropes used were of angry spinsters, unattractive women, older widowed women, and over-idealistic young women.
In the Museum
The museum is lucky to have on loan to the galleries several items from the Ann Lewis Women’s Suffrage Collection, among them materials from the anti-suffrage movement. The items featured in the exhibit are from both the suffrage and anti-suffrage movement both in the US and in the UK. The anti-suffrage items are a unique element because they show the opposition that groups like the NWP were up against in terms of achieving their goal of a constitutional amendment for suffrage. The Ann Lewis items also highlight the broad range of materials and tactics used to encourage people to choose a side. A favorite item, and one not many people are familiar with, is a set of hand-bells that the buyer could choose to display with the pro or anti side depending on their own beliefs. Other materials on loan from the Lewis collection include an anti-suffrage pledge card and even a manual that explains the anti-suffrage movement. These items have only been on display for a brief time, so if this display sounds unfamiliar, it is time for a trip in to see them.