Academic journal article Boston University Law Review

The Rhetoric of Gender Upheaval during the Campaign for the Nineteenth Amendment

Academic journal article Boston University Law Review

The Rhetoric of Gender Upheaval during the Campaign for the Nineteenth Amendment

Article excerpt

[SJuffrage, if it means anything, means entering upon the field ofpolitical life, and politics is modified war. In politics there is struggle, strife, contention, bitterness, heart-burning, excitement, agitation, everything which is adverse to the true character of woman. Woman rules to-day by the sweet and noble influences of her character. Put woman into the arena of conflict and she abandons these great weapons which control the world, and she takes into her hands, feeble and nerveless for strife, weapons with which she is unfamiliar and which she is unable to wield. Woman in strife becomes hard, harsh, unlovable, repulsive; as far removed from that gentle creature to whom we all owe allegiance and to whom we confess submission ....

The true government is in the family. The true throne is in the household. The highest exercise of power is that which forms the conscience, influences the will, controls the impulses of men, and there to-day woman is supreme and woman rules the world.1

- Elihu Root

In his May 3, 1915, letter to Alice Hill Chittenden, President of the New York State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, former Senator Elihu Root succinctly described the core ideas of the opponents of woman suffrage.2 In the final decades of the suffrage campaign, the leading opponents of suffrage were based in the Eastern cities, especially Boston and New York. In addition to Root, an elite group of lawyers, corporate leaders, politicians, academics, and ministers opposed woman suffrage. Their wives and daughters took on leading roles in anti-suffrage organizations.3 These women focused much of their attention on the threats woman suffrage posed to the "true woman" and the traditional family.4 Their focus was generally not on men, except as the inextricably linked "other" in the dyad at the core of the gendered division of labor.5 Much of their rhetoric warned against the upheaval they predicted would follow the abandonment of the prescriptions of "true womanhood" idealizing women's domestic roles.6

These ideals, however, were under pressure during the final decade of the campaign for the Nineteenth Amendment. Historian Nancy Cott has shown that the word "feminism" came into wider use approximately a century ago.7 In 1913 the word appeared more widely in journals and newspapers,8 and the alternative vision of an independent "new woman" gained more prominence and respectability.9

Women's second-class citizenship had been justified by appealing to the sense of meaning and identity found in the traditional family and its status as the key unit in the polity.10 Husbands and fathers leading the family were considered to be the proper political representatives protecting the interests of women and children.11 In this way, women's civic membership was defined by their adherence to the tenets of true womanhood and their roles in the traditional family.12

Many suffragists exemplified the traits of the "new woman" and were ardent feminists, intent on overturning gendered prescriptions regarding marriage, family, and sexual propriety.13 Other suffragists - Alice Paul most prominent among them - preferred to avoid broader feminist claims in order to unify suffragists around a single goal: the pursuit of woman suffrage.14 Rather than promote feminist themes, Paul made effective, strategic use of conventional gender norms throughout her campaign - highlighting traditional female virtues and exceptional beauty in the Woman Suffrage Parade of 1913; sending valentines to members of Congress; featuring emotional tributes after the death of suffragist Inez Milholland; publicizing the injuries of vulnerable, suffering suffragist pickets; and the like.15 Yet at the same time, she sent out young and single paid female organizers to speak publicly throughout the country, employed paid female lobbyists to directly challenge politicians to support suffrage and to threaten them with organized reprisals, and projected to the public a sense of unyielding determination during the wartime picketing of the White House. …

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