Why Suffrage for American Women Was Not Enough

By Perry, Elisabeth | History Today, September 1993 | Go to article overview

Why Suffrage for American Women Was Not Enough


Perry, Elisabeth, History Today


As a result of the autumn elections in 1992, a year the American media billed as |The Year of the Woman', the numbers of women holding elective office in the United States rose to unprecedented heights. The percentage of women office holders at state level climbed to 22.2 per cent for state-wide elected executives and 20.4 per cent for legislators. At the national level, the number of female US Senators tripled (from two to six), while the number in the House of Representatives rose from twenty-eight to forty-seven (there is a forty-eighth, who represents the District of Columbia, but she has no vote). Even with this impressive progress, however, women's share of elective office in the United States remains relatively small.

It is not hard to explain why. Deeply ingrained global traditions have long kept women out of public, authoritative roles. But why have these traditions remained so entrenched in the United States, ostensibly one of the most advanced, modernised countries of the world? A close look at American women's political history in the immediate post-suffrage era might provide a few clues.

American women won the vote in 1920 with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the federal Constitution. Women had worked for this goal since 1848, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a reformer active in the campaigns to abolish slavery and also a temperance advocate, organised a public meeting in Seneca Falls, New York, to discuss women's rights. Many observers ridiculed her demand for the vote. By the turn of the century, this demand had become the focal point of the entire women's movement. Suffrage for women was eventually won in a number of the states, and then nationwide in August, 1920.

By the time this event occurred, women were no longer political novices. For decades they had been organising conventions, giving public speeches, writing editorials, campaigning door-to-door, petitioning and marching. These activities gave them vast political expertise, as well as access to wide networks of other women activists and of male political leaders. This combination of expertise and contacts ought to have placed them at the centre of American political life. It did not.

The winning of female suffrage did not mark the end of prejudice and

discrimination against women in public life. Women still lacked equal access with men to those professions, especially the law, which provide the chief routes to political power. Further, when women ran for office - and many did in the immediate post-suffrage era - they often lacked major party backing, hard to come by for any newcomer but for women almost impossible unless she belonged to a prominent political family. Even if successful in winning backing, when women ran for office they usually had to oppose incumbents. When, as was often the case, they lost their first attempts, their reputation as |losers' made re-endorsement impossible.

American political parties did try to integrate women into their power structures after suffrage. They courted women's votes, especially in the early 1920s, when a |woman's voting bloc' seemed real. In addition, the parties formed |women's divisions' or created a committee system of equal numbers of committee women and committee men (with the latter usually choosing the former). But when party leaders sought a candidate for preferment, they tended to look for |a good man', seldom imagining that a woman might qualify. In short, in the years immediately after suffrage most party leaders confined women to auxiliary, service roles. They expected women to help elect men but not seek office themselves. That party men in the early 1920s held to such an expectation is hardly surprising. That many of the most politically |savvy' American women went along with them is more difficult to understand.

In the post-suffrage United States, although there were many strong, executive-type women with considerable political expertise, none of them became the vanguard of a new, office-seeking female political leadership. …

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