The Lost Context of 'Women's Suffrage'

By Murphey, Dwight D. | The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies, Fall-Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

The Lost Context of 'Women's Suffrage'


Murphey, Dwight D., The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies


An Alzheimer's Society - that would be an unfortunate but suitable description of the United States today as its people experience a limited and skewed memory of their own past. The epidemic of Alzheimer's affliction per se is so tragic that we hesitate to invoke the analogy, even though it so aptly describes the inability of Americans to remember their past and to place it in appropriate context.

In this journal's Spring 2017 issue we discussed this loss of context with regard to the role race has played in American history. In 2017 there has been an enflamed agitation directed at the nation's memory of the Confederate South, and this has spilled over to include an excoriation of the Founding Fathers, including such long-honored heroes as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.1 It is important to notice that the agitation has been met by an intellectually and politically flaccid response. National and local politicians and others find within themselves no principled ground upon which to base a defense.2 There is confusion and emptiness in the minds and memories of those who might be expected to champion the country's history and traditions. This loss of roots itself has a history: it comes from what is now generations who have been taught in school that the history Americans once revered is morally debased; and this in turn has reflected the very salient fact about American intellectual history that the "alienation of the intellectual" has for many decades set the tone in the arts, literature and academia.3

In that earlier article, we surveyed the history of slavery to highlight the context in which the United States was founded. What we saw was that "two important truths stand out: first, that until the middle of the eighteenth century slavery existed, with only a few exceptions, throughout the world; and, second, that it was considered both normal and moral." This led to an essential insight, that "everything that was fine and high-minded [throughout history], as well as all that was destructive and venal, was done within that context." This had implications for our present attitudes: "If now we regard them [all prior peoples] as morally despicable for that reason, we arrive at a reductio ad absurdum through which we take an infantile view of human history. We stand on the shoulders of those prior generations, but without understanding, gratitude or appreciation." The point is that an awareness of context makes an enormous difference in how something is to be perceived. Without considering context, people's understanding suffers from something akin to dementia.

We have revisited the subject of race to illustrate the importance of historical context. The present article is prompted by this author's long-felt sense that a dropping of context has similarly truncated our understanding of the nineteenth and early twentieth century crusade for Woman's Suffrage. The memory of that crusade is cherished with virtually no appreciation of the fact that it was part of the much larger historical movement that carried civilization literally from the age of kings and landed aristocracies into the emergence of the modern democracies. A part of that movement was that males themselves came out of the shadows. Great masses of people of both sexes had been from time immemorial sunk in the involuntary servitude of serfdom, peonage or slavery. The anti-slavery crusade that just slightly preceded the women's rights movement was itself a part of that historic transition. Even the great majority of free men had not had a role in the political life of their time. Part of the massive democratization was for men to gain the right to vote - and this took place not long before women gained that right.

One can read the voluminous literature on Women's Suffrage as it is listed in hundreds of entries on the Internet search engine Google, or the speeches of the leading feminists during the past two centuries, without finding the slightest acknowledgment of this context. …

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