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Woman Suffrage

...if woman would fulfill her traditional responsibility to her own children; if she would educate and protect from danger factory children who must find their recreation on the street; if she would bring the cultural forces to bear upon our materialistic civilization; and if she would do it all with the dignity and directness fitting one who carries on her immemorial duties, then she must bring herself to the use of the ballot -- that latest implement for self-government. May we not fairly say that American women need this implement in order to preserve the home? -- Jane Addams in "Why Women Should Vote,"

By the time Jane Addams began her social welfare reform in 1889, the woman suffrage movement was over forty years old. While it took decades of struggle to achieve national suffrage, reformers first won incremental victories-- the right to vote at municipal, county, or state levels. Woman suffrage was a revolutionary idea because in the early 20th century, society lived with strict gender roles. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, men worked within the public sphere and women operated in the private sphere, responsible for home and family. In the Progressive Era, women’s issues, like health services and education, became more prominent, but women could not vote for these issues.

Without the vote, women could only indirectly influence politics. They were tired of relying on the men in their lives to vote for the issues that mattered to them. Woman suffrage promised that they would have the same direct impact on politicians that men had. They could use the power of the ballot box to make change.

Women gradually gained the right to vote in school elections, local and state elections, especially in Western states, they but they still could not vote in federal elections. Addams’ home, Illinois, was the first state east of the Mississippi to grant women the right to vote, in 1913. Although suffrage was gaining popularity, many men, women, and religious leaders continued to oppose suffrage and worked against the efforts of suffragists like Addams.

Opponents of Suffrage

Anti-suffrage women organized to form the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage because many did not want to vote or found it unnecessary because their husbands voted. Anti-suffragists believed that women were already so busy with their families, that political activism would take them away from their responsibilities, so having the vote would put the American family at risk. The anti-suffrage movement also appealed to religious leaders, who believed that woman suffrage was against God’s will. Many who opposed suffrage did so because of the traditional gender roles that women were expected to follow. Women were expected to behave in a quiet, conservative manner, and the behavior of suffragists contradicted what was expected of women.

Additionally, opponents often did not understand why women needed to vote, and Addams’ papers provide a window into the ways that both men and women viewed the suffrage movement. In their letters to Addams, opponents argued for alternative propositions, like each man getting two votes, one which he would make on behalf of his wife. Others believed that allowing women to vote would not have a great impact on election outcomes. Addams also received letters from proponents of woman suffrage, usually college educated women, Western women, professional women, and single women. Additionally, most suffragists were white.

Proponents of Suffrage

Suffragists argued that the vote was essential to becoming equal members of society. They also argued that it would enable women to better protect the home and family. Addams became a more active suffragist in 1906, and focused on this latter argument. She wrote articles and gave speeches around the country, undertaking a tour of women’s colleges, including g Mount Holyoke and Rockford College. As one of the first generation of college-educated women, Addams felt a responsibility to let younger women know what was at stake. College women formed the backbone of the movement, they formed or joined suffrage organizations, and spearheaded local activity around the country. Education opened up new worlds for women, ones in which they could do more than marry and raise a family. They sought careers in public service, education, and social services, and Addams linked these goals with the vote. Addams and other suffragists spoke extensively on the many social issues that could be resolved if women had a voice in government. Women were advocates in the social welfare, temperance, restrictions on child labor, education, and juvenile courts movements long before they were able to vote. Addams argued that it was especially important that working women gain the ballot because they lacked the economic power that middle class women had. Without the vote, they had no power over the conditions they lived in, the conditions they worked in, and the future that the country held for their children.

Debates within the Suffrage Movement

Even within the suffrage movement, there were divisions. In the 1912 election, the Progressive Party adopted a plank supporting universal woman suffrage. Addams believed that suffragists should support the Progressive Party because of this stand, but many other suffragists wanted to remain firmly non-partisan.

As the fight for woman suffrage took so long to win, activists had different ideas about the best tactics. Jane Addams was part of the mainstream suffrage movement, which focused on incremental change and working with politicians to win concessions rather than confronting them. By 1910, a group of younger women, led by Alice Paul and Doris Stevens, were impatient for change and less willing to play nice. They adopted a militant feminist stance, sparking national attention with protests, hunger strikes, vandalism, and their demands for suffrage as a right.

Although woman suffrage activists used a variety of methods, they achieved their goal when the 19th Amendment was passed on August 18, 1920.

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Addams, Jane, and woman suffrage

suffrage movement

woman's movement

woman's political culture

women, equality for

People associated with woman suffrage

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Photo Caption

Harry Mayer, "The Awakening," 1915, Library of Congress.