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"Better Citizens Without the Ballot": American AntiSuffrage Women and Their Rationale During the Progressive Era Manuela Thurner For historians, writing about those who "back the wrong horse in politics" is neither an extremely popular nor a very easy undertaking, as Brian Harrison has pointed out in his 1978 book on the British opposition to woman suffrage.1 With the losers being dumped onto "history's rubbishheap ," it is difficult to find information about antisuffragists, male or female, because it is buried under layers and layers of a "feminist-whig'' history that has recounted women's collective endeavors and triumphs more extensively than the many conflicts and tensions among women of different ethnic, racial, religious, and class backgrounds or political persuasions .2 And yet, a case can be made for studying the losing side of a protracted historical struggle, such as the contest over woman suffrage. Not only is an exploration of the opposition to women's enfranchisement essential to a better understanding of the proponents' tactics, rhetoric, and self-definition; it is also evident that a fuller picture of the period's cultural and political climate emerges when both, or more, sides of the debate are taken into consideration. Within the framework of women's history, moreover, a study of female antisuffragists has the additional utility of steering feminist scholars away from a concept of sisterhood that, through its quasi-political function as a plea for women's (comm)unity, has tended to negate or downplay intragender struggles and conflicts.3 Thus, an examination of the women who opposed their own enfranchisement—their collective profile, organizational history, tactics, strategies, and arguments—both adds to our understanding of the turn-of-the-century political and social dimensions of the suffrage fight and, in its theoretical implications, explodes various concepts and paradigms of women's history. Those paradigms often result from the tendency of scholars to adopt uncritically feminist perspectives and judgments when they set out to write women into history. In the case of the female antisuffragists, this bias, at worst, has led to their neglect and ridicule, and at best, to misconceptions about them, as historians have reiterated the assessments of various leading suffragists. If one is to trust the veracity of the Antis' renderings of her statements, Anna Howard Shaw, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) from 1904 to 1915, could be especially critical, almost contemptuous, of the antisuffrage women: "They are © 1993 Journal of Women's History, Vol. s No. ι (Spring)_________________ 34 Journal of Women's History Spring like vultures looking for carrion. They revel in the dark and seamy side of human nature. They are always emphasizing the small and mean in women. You'd think they would have loyalty enough to their sex not to make us all out a set of fools."4 Questioning their sincerity and autonomy, Shaw and other prominent suffragists assumed that the Antis were merely puppets of more powerful male forces, human shields for "liquor interests, food-dopers, child-labor exploiters, white slavers and political bosses."5 Thus caricaturing Antis' dependency on male interest groups, belittling their numerical strength and significance, suffragists also tended to paint their social background as well as their arguments in a few rather broad strokes: Its members were mainly well-to-do, carefully protected, and entertained the feeling of distrust of the people usual in their economic class. Their speeches indicated at times an anxious disturbance of mind lest the privileges they enjoyed might be lost in the rights to be gained... Their uniform arguments were that the majority of women did not want the vote, therefore none should have it; that "woman's place was in the home," and that women were incompetent to vote.6 Later historians of the suffrage movement for the most part reiterated those evaluations, if they paid attention to the opposition at all. Two early accounts, Eleanor Flexner's 1959 classic Century of Struggle, and Alan Grimes's 1967 The Puritan Ethic and Woman Suffrage, each devoted a whole chapter to those opposed to woman suffrage but dismissed the female Antis as insignificant, elaborating instead on the (male) liquor, business, political, and Southern states rights interests...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 33-60
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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