“Resolved, that it is the duty of women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.”
In 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton insisted that the Seneca Falls women’s rights convention approve this resolution. But woman suffrage was such an outlandish idea then that the resolution barely passed. After 100 years of most women being eligible to vote, have any of the predictions of the suffragists or anti-suffragists come true?
At first, suffragists argued that giving women the ballot was only fair. As one male suffragist observed, a country where women could not vote should be called a “manocracy,” not a democracy.
Anti-suffragists, though, argued that the male head of the household should cast the vote for his entire family, and any woman who could not convince her husband to vote as she wanted was not worthy of the ballot.
When the fairness argument proved ineffective, suffragists formulated the “social housekeeping” argument. Women in the 19th century were considered morally superior to men. Since their chief duty in life was bearing and caring for children, love and service were natural feminine traits — traits that the government needed. So women should be able to vote because their moral superiority would enable them to clean up politics and create a more moral society.
Opponents of suffrage predicted that enfranchising women would break up the home and family, masculinize women (or emasculate men), and rob women of their moral authority. Some feared that it would lead to socialism or cause a gendered “social revolution such as the world has never seen.”
Until recently, historians mostly agreed that none of these predictions came true. Women voted no differently from men, so they had not brought about the envisioned reforms. But in fact, the effects began to be seen almost immediately.
Soon after enfranchisement, women began to win elections and men to lose them. Wyoming women began voting in 1869; in 1870, Esther Hobart Morris became a justice of the peace.
Idaho women were enfranchised in 1896. In 1898, the first women legislators — Hattie Noble, Mary Wright and Clara Permilia Campbell — were elected. Montana women started to vote in 1914; in 1916, Jeanette Rankin was elected to Congress. In 1911, voters recalled the mayor of Seattle, who had tolerated drinking and gambling. In 1920, Virginia women defeated an anti-suffragist candidate for Governor.
In 1913, several Idaho governors and congressmen reported that women voters had enabled legislation against gambling, raised the age of consent and created a State Library Commission. Furthermore, none of the anti-suffragists’ negative predictions had occurred — there were actually fewer divorces in states with woman suffrage than in states without it.
Recent studies confirm that women voters did make a difference. Economist John Lott’s research showed a dramatic change in American politics from the very beginning. There were sharp increases in spending on social programs, especially on health and education. As a result, child mortality decreased by about 15 percent.
Today about 10 million more women than men are registered to vote and more women than men have voted since 1964. In 2016, 9.9 million more women than men voted. There has also been a gender gap in presidential elections since 1980, with more women than men supporting Democrats, and a gender gap is also appearing in congressional elections.
Clearly women voters have made a difference in American politics. They have brought about important changes and will likely continue to do so. And if they turn out to vote in sufficient numbers for November’s election, women could determine the outcome.
Mary Mosley has been an activist for women’s rights for many years in Missouri, Illinois, Ohio, and Idaho. She is a retired professor of Spanish.