Adulterous Individualism, Socialism, and Free Love in Nineteenth-Century Anti-Suffrage Writing

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In an 1872 anti-suffrage essay for the Overland Monthly entitled "Woman Suffrage--Cui Bono?" (who benefits?), Mrs. Sarah Cooper, like other anti-suffrage writers of the period, contends that only women of the worst sort would deign to vote, making public elections inappropriate for true women: "Womanhood--cultured, sensitive, and refined--would instinctively shrink from encountering such an element in the body-politic; and thus the dissolute, the depraved, and the vicious, 'emballoted' and bold, would dominate the weak, the timid, and the vacillating, and thus occupy the field" (160). (1) The author implies that enfranchisement would inappropriately sexualize women, creating a promiscuous mingling of male and female bodies in the "body-politic." Although Cooper believes that women of the "depraved" sort mostly come from the lower, immigrant classes, she claims to be even more concerned with "a lamentable increase of the Mrs. Potiphar-type of womanhood" that has women lobbying for the vote within the more "refined" classes (160).

Cooper's allusion aligns women's rights advocates with Potiphar's wife, the biblical woman who failed to seduce Joseph, her husband's most trusted slave. Much as Cooper fears the electoral influence of lower-class immigrant women--warning that they will be no more patriotic than their male counterparts who "sell their votes to the highest bidder" and "vote early and often" (158, 162)--she focuses her attention on the "female-lobbyist": a woman who, like Mrs. Potiphar, may appear cultured but is actually driven by impure sexual desires (160). Still, the author takes a sympathetic tone in regard to lower-class women, arguing that fallen women "starving for bread ... can not resist the temptation to sin" (161). However, there are no excuses for the existence of the suffragist: "We have no just reason to suppose that Mrs. Potiphar was hungry for bread; carnal appetite held sway, and there are not a few, to-day, cursed with the same inherent tendency to 'moral vertigo'" (161).

Cooper was far from alone in her fear that the right to vote would trigger the "carnal appetite" of women like Mrs. Potiphar and lead to the "moral vertigo" of America. As I contend in this essay, few realize how shrewdly anti-suffragists used the specter of female adultery to argue against what to them was a startling--and threatening--new form of female individualism. To many anti-suffragists, a woman who cast a ballot was not rising up to grasp democracy's most essential right; she was abandoning her natural role as the central pillar of domestic life. Her brash entrance into the public sphere could only undermine the nation's most important institution, the family, and open a Pandora's box of other, even more selfish desires.

Read more than a century later, this strain of anti-suffrage literature can seem alarmist and even comical; however, it was not so at the time. The anti-suffragists exploited serious anxieties concerning women's roles and the preservation of gender, race, and class hierarchies in an expanding nation. Through the rhetorical use of female adultery within the suffrage debate, conservative writers negatively associated woman's vote with some of the most controversial "foreign" movements of the period, including Fourierism, Socialism, and Free Love.

As I argue, reading anti-suffrage literature provides insight into the complexity of both the suffrage debate and current debates over women's rights. While the tendency today may be to assume that women in the past were simply for or against women's rights, the actual situation was much more complex, leading me to suggest that among the varying perspectives were three major camps of political thought in regard to woman's suffrage in the nineteenth century: Traditionalism, Domestic Feminism, and Public Feminism. In addition, while the suffrage debate is long over, many of the anti-suffrage rhetorical strategies live on. Similar arguments continue to be employed in the anti-feminism of today. …