The Paradox of Change: American Women in the 20th Century

By William H. Chafe | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
Woman Suffrage and Women's
Political Power: The Consequences
of the Nineteenth Amendment

IN MANY WAYS, the mood of women activists at the end of the suffrage battle was like that of young idealists forty years later, at the beginning of the 1960s.A new era appeared to be dawning, and nothing seemed beyond the reach of the bold and brilliant reformers who were about to take over. Describing one group of women activists, the intellectual Randolph Bourne wrote: "They have an amazing combination of wisdom and youthfulness, of humor and ability, and innocence and self-reliance.... They are of course all self-supporting and independent, and they enjoy the adventure of life; the full, reliant, audacious way in which they go about makes you wonder if the new woman isn't to be very splendid sort of person."

Yet like the idealists of the early 1960s, women activists found the realities of their new world more complicated than they had expected. The right to vote had proven such a transcendent symbol of women's rights that it had successfully muted many of the differences of class, race, and ideology that might otherwise have caused supporters of the suffrage to fragment into factions. But once the Nineteenth Amendment had been ratified, there was no equally dramatic or powerful goal to take its place or to serve the same function of obscuring internal conflict.From Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Carrie Chapman Catt, leaders of the woman's movement had argued for the suffrage on the contradictory grounds that women should both be treated the same as men and have the opportunity to act on the values and principles that made them different from men.Now, with no transcendent goals uniting them, the same leaders could no longer avoid the conflict between sameness and difference, separatism and integration; they had to face these choices within the context of either joining or remaining distinct from the existing political

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