A great paradox of the campaign for women’s suffrage—one of the greatest social and political movements in American history—is that with the enfranchisement of roughly half the country’s population, politics did not change dramatically, or really at all. The size of the electorate had doubled in the decade between 1910 and 1920, but there was little noticeable change in voting patterns or party alignment.
Although many of the most vocal opponents to enfranchising women had feared it would cause a revolution in American politics, no such revolution occurred. Women did not vote in huge numbers after being enfranchised; in fact, they voted at rates less than men. Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge were the first presidents elected with women in the electorate, and conservative Republicans stayed in control through the 1920s. Despite persistent fears that enfranchising women would destroy families and taint women, no such disintegration of traditional values occurred.
In many ways, the victories of the women’s suffrage movement were built on the rationale that the enfranchisement of women would not significantly transform politics or policy. The experiences of the first states that had enfranchised women proved this to be true—states who approved amendments or referenda in the 1890s or the 1910s did so with little disruption, and no significant political changes. Indeed, by the time the 19th Amendment was ratified, women had been voting for years in many state and local elections without revolutionary consequences.
But it would be a mistake to assess the impact of women’s suffrage at only this level. Even though the enfranchisement of women did not have an immediate or disruptive impact on national politics, granting women the right to vote across the country had many subtle, long-range consequences.
Women helped to inject new issues into the political arena—issues of social justice, welfare, and issues affecting children received national attention because of the voter base that women now represented. Concrete reforms may have been slow to materialize, but by the 1930s, many of these issues were front and center.
In 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed the first female cabinet member when he named Frances Perkins Secretary of Labor—a groundbreaking step that would not have happened without the 19th Amendment.
The political activism of the women’s suffrage movement—the very way it was carried out—also had a profound impact on American politics. In many ways one of the first organized lobbying efforts, supported by organizations that are in many ways the predecessors of modern interest groups, the women’s suffrage movement shaped the practice of politics in the United States.
The orderly manner in which millions of women were enfranchised following the 19th Amendment begs the question of why women’s suffrage had been so virulently opposed for so long. The first, and perhaps most powerful reason is a simple one—the fear of the unknown. The men in control of the political institutions did not know how women would vote or what effect their enfranchisement would have on the political order. Second, the traditionally established gender roles and family structures seemed to be threatened by women participating in politics. Third—and the importance of this factor should not be under estimated—the women’s suffrage movement had just started to gain serious momentum after Reconstruction, when the strongest pressures were towards constricting the franchise rather than enlarging it.
The long road to success for the women’s suffrage movement could culminate only when images and norms of gender roles had begun to shift—that women could support eh war effort and that local experiences and evolving beliefs could warm to the idea of a woman’s right to vote enough to bring women into the polity.