History of Women's Suffrage Debate in The United States

The Sunni minority in Iraq tried to prevent the Shiite populace from voting in Iraq’s democratic election last year (Shadid). With the recent voting troubles in Iraq, the issue of who gets to vote is an important one. Although the United States solved the issue many years ago, the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the United States caused much controversy among men and women alike while it was being discussed.

Suffrage is simply the right to vote (Suffrage). Women’s rights activists believed that in order to be seen as equal to men, they needed to get suffrage. Women’s Suffrage was a very visible issue, and as such it created heated debate.

On one side of the issue were women’s groups such as the North American Women’s Suffrage Association. NAWSA came to represent millions of women in the suffrage debate (National). The arguments used by NAWSA and other suffragists were that granting women the right to vote would be just, would be expedient, would improve the lives of women, and had been successful where it has been implemented elsewhere (Phelps xi-xiv).

Suffragists believed that the right to vote was granted to them by the United States Constitution. They believed that every adult in the country should have an equal say in the running of the government. They argued that equal opinion is a fundamental tenant in democracy, thus one-half of the population was being denied their rights (Phillips).

In fact, they wrote up an article called The Declaration of Sentiments written very similarly to its namesake, The Declaration of Independence, stating that they were not fairly represented. The Declaration of Sentiments assert that women are men’s equal, that it is unjust for them to be prevented from being equal, and that it is their right to improve their situation (Declaration).

Suffragists believed that giving women the right to vote would make the political system work better. They quote statistics that women are more educated and that there are less female drunkards and petty criminals then men (Eastman). They also argued that women are a needed element in the voting block. One of the major beliefs of feminism is that the world needs more feminine influence. Because women are more sentimental and more in tune with the character of a candidate, they would be a better judge on who should be elected (Howard).

They believed that the right to vote would improve the lives of women. Women would desire the knowledge they needed to vote, and would then go out and gain that knowledge and improve the quality of their lives. Suffrage would create “a woman interested in current events and ready to discuss the general questions of the day” (Blackwell).

The final argument for women’s suffrage is that it is working where it has already been implemented. By the time of the national movement in the United States, suffrage had already been granted to women inNew Zealand, Australia, and some states like Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah (Gains). When suffrage was granted to women in New Zealand, it was instituted as a kind of political experiment, to see if it would work. It was almost universally agreed that better child-care laws were passed and better officials were elected (Family).

NAWSA and other organizations used effective means to promote their causes. They printed many newspapers, pamphlets, and other publications, as well as wrote articles to local newspapers (Phelps 2). However, the most visible action of women’s suffrage organizations was holding meetings. Gatherings such as the Seneca Falls Convention probably got more nationwide attention than all the publications being produced. These meetings basically just passed resolutions, but nonetheless were very effective in that they made the country aware of the issue (National).

Anti-suffragists were less organized. There were many separate groups opposed to giving women the right to vote, but they were mostly broken down by state. Especially prominent groups included the New York State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, and the Illinois Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage (Phelps 2).

Still, almost all of the groups used the same reasoning to protest women’s suffrage. Their major arguments were that female suffrage was unconstitutional, it would cause needless problems, it would not be in the best interest of women, it would be unnecessary, it was unwanted, and that previous examples have not worked (Phelps xiv-xvi).

The United States was founded on the principle that ‘all men are created equal.’ The anti-suffragists pointed out that that phrase does not include women, therefore it is not guaranteed to women to be equal to men. It was decided by the United States Supreme Court that citizenship did not guarantee the ability to vote; therefore female citizens did not require suffrage (Jones).

They argued that since women are physically unable to enforce the laws, they should not be able to make them. They cannot be called to serve in an executive position to enforce the laws for which they voted (Cope). The responsibility that is demanded when voting is the duty to go to war if the country should call upon the voter. Because women were not allowed in the military at the time, female voters would not be able to go to war to defend their votes (Jones).

They also believed that women were too emotional, and would quickly be swayed by sentiment. This would decrease the influence of the voting pool, not to mention electing poorer officials (Cope). Also, they believed that if women were to have a different opinion than their husbands it would create a rift in the home and lead to an increase in divorce. Not only that, but women would feel more independent, and would have less reason to become married (Cope).

Anti-suffragists believed that women would be better off themselves by not voting. They believed that because women would lose respect from men they would actually thereby lose power (Chittenden). Also, if women became more like men in this matter they would become corrupted by politics and thereby lose the grace and dignity that they currently possessed (Brown).

Anti-suffragists stated that it was unnecessary to give women the vote. They stated that the Women’s Rights Movement had already accomplished incredible gains. Women had had unprecedented improvement in the areas of economic power and civic influence. This showed that they didn’t need the right to vote in order to gain equal status with men (Jones).

They also argued that very few women actually wanted to vote. In Massachusetts in 1885, the women were asked to come to the polls and put themselves on record as wanting to vote. A scant four percent of all the women in the state came to express their desire to vote (Jones).

Their final argument was that women’s suffrage has done more harm than good where it was already implemented in states like Colorado and Idaho. The pay gap among the sexes in Colorado was one of the highest in the country. In Idaho, the husband had control of property and can even seize it from their wives. It seemed that giving women the right to vote did not imply that their social and economic status would improve (Chittenden).

The anti-suffrage arguments were not promoted as well as the suffrage movement arguments. Anti-suffrage groups held no major conventions, and produced fewer publications. Most debate occurred when anti-suffragists were invited to conventions held by women’s rights supporters (Phelps 2).

Anti-suffragists obviously had a very stereotypical view of women by today’s standards. They thought of women as inferior, and therefore not worthy of the vote. They believed women should stay in the home, and that it was not their place to be involved in politics (History).

Many of the anti-suffrage arguments are now quite outdated. Men and women now vote in equal numbers, the voting pool has not lost power, and it is widely agreed that women and children now have much better rights. This shows that their arguments were incorrect.

On the other hand, the pro-women’s suffrage arguments were quite valid and hold true still today. Almost everyone agrees that women have every capability that men do, and should have the same rights as men. Women’s rights have improved greatly since they have been granted suffrage. Women today are much more educated than their counterparts 80 years ago.

The anti-suffragists had selfish reasons to prevent granting women suffrage, and they used poor arguments to back up their debate. I think that giving women the right to vote was the right thing to do. The women just wanted to have equal rights as men, and that is what they got with the passage of the 19th constitutional amendment (United).

Blackwell, Alice S., ed. "Suffrage Helps Homes." Comp. Edith M. Phelps. Woman's Journal 8 June 1912: 179.
Brown, Henry B. Woman Suffrage. Comp. Edith M. Phelps. Boston: Mass. Association Opposed to the Further Extension of Suffrage to Women.
Chittenden, Alice H. "Inexpediency of Granting the Suffrage to American Women." General Federation of Women's Clubs. Cincinnati. 14 May 1910.
Cope, Edward D. Relation of the Sexes to Government. Comp. Phelps M. Edith. New York: N. Y. State Ass'N Opposed to Woman Suffrage.
"Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, Seneca Falls." Stanton and Anthony Pages Online. Aug. 2006. Rutgers U. 27 Oct. 2006 .
Eastman, Max. "Is Woman Suffrage Important?" Comp. Edith M. Phelps. North American Review Jan. 1911: 60-71.
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Jones, Gilbert E. "Facts About Suffrage and Anti-Suffrage." Comp. Edith M. Phelps. Forum May 1910: 495-504.
Phelps, Edith M., comp. Debaters' Handbook Series: Woman Suffrage. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: The H. W. Wilson Company, 1912.
Phillips, Elsie C. United States of America. Hearings Before a Joint Committee of the Committee on the Judiciary and the Committee on Woman Suffrage. Comp. Edith M. Phelps. 1912.
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