Arguments in Favor of Women’s Suffrage
The arguments made by suffragists and sympathetic political figures across the country were strong, and they surfaced in legislatures and constitutional conventions repeatedly.
The most common arguments remained those of natural or universal rights put forward at the Seneca Falls Convention and others like it and throughout the 1850s.
But emerging alongside those traditional arguments was a more aggressive tact—an argument that not only should women have the right to vote because they were people, but that women possessed particular qualities and virtues that would actually improve the character of politics and governance in the United State. Stanton and others advanced this point of view in the years following Reconstruction, as did many men—who seemed more comfortable discussing the unique virtues of women rather than their similarity to men.
Another strand of argument emerged following the enfranchisement of African Americans that had an overtly racist character. Rather than enfranchising women because they themselves deserved the right to vote, granting women the right to vote would bring huge numbers of white, native-born voters to the polls—counterbalancing what many perceived as the dangers of African Americans and immigrants who possessed the ballot.
Support for women’s suffrage was strongest among educated upper- and middle-class women and women who lived in cities and developing towns, whose experiences extended beyond the domestic sphere, and who were most likely to want the independence that enfranchisement offered.
Arguments Against Women’s Suffrage
Opponents of the right to vote for women rarely if ever argued that they lacked the intelligence to vote. Instead, their arguments about women’s character and capacity tended to focus on what participating in politics would do to the women themselves, not the other way around. Many opponents of enfranchising women felt they and perhaps more importantly, their families, would be degraded by participating in politics.
Opponents continued to insist that women did not need to vote because their civil rights were already protected, and the men voting in their place could express their views. At the core of the opposition to women’s suffrage, then, was an abiding fear that enfranchising women would jeopardize establish gender roles and family structures.
A unique feature of the women’s suffrage movement was that is spawned a significant counter movement of women who were opposed to their own enfranchisement. They put forward much the same arguments as men who opposed reform, with the added dimension of emotional appeal.
I think it was Wendell Phillips who said something like this, “if women are like men, then they certainly possess the same brain and that should entitle them to the ballot; if they are not like men, then they certainly need the ballot, for no man can understand what they want.” And we ask you upon those lines to give the ballot to women.
– Carrie Chapman Catt to the Delaware Constitutional Convention, 1897
I provide a home for my wife, and I expect her to do her share in maintaining it, and I think that is reasonable enough. If we give women the vote our wives will soon be absorbed in caucuses instead of in housekeeping. They will be drafted on juries too. When I come home at night I expect my wife to be there, and not in a political Caucus or locked up in a jury room with eight or ten men.
–Assemblyman Shea of Essex, New York, 1910