What better way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage than by discussing the way it turned out to be a big flop?
The great champions of the 19th Amendment thought that when America’s women got the right to vote, they’d immediately start to change the nation. Promote women’s issues, like better health care and education. Refocus politics from special interests to the general good.
Then in 1920, for the first time, they went to polls across the nation with their husbands, brothers, fathers and sons and elected — President Warren Harding.
In 1921, Congress, with a wary eye on the newly enfranchised sex, passed the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Protection Act. It was a modest effort to improve health care for the poor by training nurses, licensing midwives and establishing clinics for young mothers and their babies.
The physicians’ associations saw it as government-subsidized competition — socialized medicine! — and hated it. During debate on the bill, one opponent claimed the sponsors were pandering to busybody old maids who were always pushing do-gooder causes.
“Old maids are voting now,” a colleague reminded him.
But the doctors kept complaining, and as time passed, politicians began to notice that they weren’t hearing much from the new female electorate. In 1929, the act was repealed.
The Sheppard-Towner debacle was one of the best examples of how the effects of women’s suffrage turned out to be more complicated than its champions had imagined. Everything worked great when it came to the title cause of giving women the right to vote. But the leaders of the movement had expected to use the ballot to transform the nation. For a very long time, nothing happened.
Well, except for Prohibition. Banning the sale of liquor was one cause that really did bring the women together. Most of them didn’t drink, but their husbands did. The upper-class men retired to the study or a club after dinner to sip some liquor and have fun talking among themselves. Poor men went off to a saloon to get soused, spending the family’s much-needed cash.
Many American girls grew up believing that virtually every social evil came from alcohol. Frances Perkins, the New Deal secretary of labor, recalled that she was raised to believe that poverty was just a result of drinking — and laziness.
Once Congress approved the 19th Amendment, the liquor lobbyists stampeded to the state legislatures to try to stop ratification. They won enough battles to leave suffragists one state short of victory and only Tennessee left to vote. All eyes turned to Nashville.
The State Senate voted yes while virtually everybody in the capitol was getting swacked on the lobbyists’ free samples. Then it all came down to the House of Representatives, where the “no” group had a one-man majority. On Aug. 18, 1920, a 24-year-old suffrage opponent named Harry Burn got up and reported to his colleagues that he’d gotten a letter from his mother telling him to “be a good boy” and help the women’s cause.
“I know that a mother’s advice is always the safest for a boy to follow,” he told his colleagues. And he switched his vote. Suffrage ruled.
That was a great culmination, and much more fun to report than the slog that preceded it. We will refrain from revisiting what suffragists counted as 480 campaigns to get state legislatures to submit the issue to the voters.
Some fights had been much, much easier than others. Lawmakers in Wyoming had eagerly voted for the franchise in 1869, hoping it might be a draw for a territory in which men outnumbered women six to one. “We now expect quite an immigration of ladies to Wyoming,” said The Cheyenne Leader hopefully after the legislature voted for women’s suffrage, as well as women’s property rights and equal pay for women schoolteachers.
(There was nothing like being a rare commodity to raise the bar on women’s opportunities. Back when the first male colonists were settling into the New World, they wrote back advertising for female émigrés, promising they would find a husband in a snap, as long as they were “but civil and under 50 years of age.”)
Wherever suffrage arrived, there were lots of women who resisted the idea of getting involved. Election Day was, in many neighborhoods, a rowdy time when political parties tried to encourage voter turnout with — yes! — free liquor. “Saloons, marching, drinking all day — voting was seen as a very masculine act,” says Debbie Walsh of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Theodore Roosevelt told a crowd of suffrage supporters he was the only person in his family who agreed with their agenda, and urged them to “go and convert my wife and daughters.” His young niece Eleanor was among the unenthusiastic.
I don’t have to tell you that things changed. Women went to the polls more and more with every generation. But politicians still presumed that they’d vote with their menfolk unless something very unusual cropped up.
When Woodrow Wilson was up for re-election in 1916 his handlers did worry about the “women’s vote” in the states where they already had the franchise. The president’s wife had died during his first term of office and Wilson rather quickly picked up with Edith Galt, the widow of a prominent Washington jeweler. They wanted to marry right away, but Wilson’s aides were afraid of how the news might affect the female electorate. In the end, the answer was: not much.
Perhaps voters didn’t hear the gossip in political circles about what was said to be a hot and heavy premarital affair. (The political columnist Murray Kempton told me he heard a joke when he was a boy in the 1920s, in which when the president proposed, Mrs. Galt was so excited she fell out of bed. “I think my sainted mother told me that one,” Kempton recalled.) After the Wilson engagement became official, The Washington Post printed a social note containing one of the most famous typos in American history: “The President gave himself up for the time being to entering his fiancée.”
OK, that’s just an interesting diversion. But Wilson won, and the conviction that women were mainly just duplicating the votes of their husbands or fathers held sway.
You have to wonder, as the years went on, how many husbands were actually reflecting their wives’ opinions when they went to the polls. The balance of power within families has shifted dramatically over the last 50 years, mainly because of money. The transformation began when the country’s post-World War II economic boom hit the killer recession of the 1970s, and everyone began to realize that a whole lot of the families of the future would not be able to afford a middle-class lifestyle unless the wives kept working.
The women’s movement combined with the hard facts of the economy created a world in which almost no one envisioned young women with a distinctly different wage-earning future from men. I’ll never forget a visit I made to a community college in Connecticut, back around 1980. I was invited for some reason to speak to a class of young men, and I asked them to describe for me their ideal mate. There were a few polite murmurs about a good sense of humor and fine moral character — then someone called out, “And a good earner!” I cannot tell you how enthusiastic the room became over the “good earner” qualification.
It took professional politicians quite a while to notice there was a change going on. Then in 1980, when Ronald Reagan defeated then-President Jimmy Carter, it became clear the country had moved on to a whole new political wave. Analysis of the final tallies showed that both sexes favored Reagan, but the women split very narrowly while the men went Republican 55 percent to 36 percent. The gender gap was born, and it really turned into a canyon in 1996, when Bill Clinton won the women’s vote by a wide margin, while men narrowly favored Bob Dole.
These days, women go to the polls more faithfully than men, and they are more likely to vote Democratic. That doesn’t mean they always win. In 2000, women favored Al Gore for president over George W. Bush, 54-44 percent, while the men went for Bush, 54-43. In 2016, the male voters gave us Donald Trump in an election where the gender gap yawned at 11 points.
But the power is there. Black women, who’ve fought dual battles against racism and sexism to exercise their right to vote, knocked the socks off Democratic organizers in Alabama in 2017 when they gave long-shot Senate candidate Doug Jones 98 percent of their vote and a victory over Republican former-judge-and-pursuer-of-teenage-girls Roy Moore.
If 1920s heroines like Susan B. Anthony and Ida B. Wells were around now, they’d be setting their targets way higher than the voting booth. We live in an era that’s beginning to find women running for office almost as normal as Mom having a job outside the home. Nearly a quarter of our current Congress is female, and the pace is picking up all the time. I still remember in 2001 when Hillary Clinton was sworn in to the Senate and my young niece innocently asked my sister if men were allowed to be in the Senate, too. Susan B. Anthony would have fainted with happiness.
Women who tearily discovered in 2016 that they weren’t going to be able to introduce their daughters to the first woman president have mostly gotten over it. If everything we think we know about the current presidential race is reasonably true — and nothing crazy happens over the rest of the campaign — next January the country will have a female vice president, a woman who the voters trusted as second in command to 78-year-old Joe Biden.
“Women’s issues” — like guaranteed quality health care for all and reproductive freedom — may still not have universal political support. But they’re now political goals for a vast swath of the voting public, both male and female. And maybe it won’t be too long before someone’s little niece in the future innocently asks her mother whether men are allowed to be president, too.
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