“DANGER! Woman’s Suffrage Would Double the Irresponsible Vote. It is a MENACE to the Home, Men’s Employment and to All Business.”
I stumbled upon a poster with these headlines while doing research for the 90th anniversary of women’s right to vote, which is on Aug. 26. The rest of the poster shows a sample ballot and explains that the (responsible male) voter should “Be sure and put your cross (x) in the square after the word ‘no’ as shown here.” A drawing of a hand points a finger at the sample ballot’s “no” box, which is checked.
Presumably, the Responsible Vote had required this kind of careful guidance. At least, the “Progress Publishing Co.,” which printed it, thought so.
Uncovering this gem of a poster resulted in a moment of high hilarity for me at the Wisconsin Historical Society. I could not resist pulling a librarian over and showing it to him. “I must, I simply must,” I told him, “get this as an electronic file.”
Today, it almost seems hard to believe that only 90 years ago, women did not have the right to vote. How could withholding this basic right from half of the population possibly have been justified?
Poking around in the archives, I unearthed more than one answer to that question. For instance, when asked why he didn’t support women’s suffrage, Milwaukee Sentinel editor James Densmore reasoned, “Women are confessedly angels, and angels do not vote.”
Women are angels -- does this mean we’re already dead?
Even some women argued strenuously against women’s suffrage. Mrs. J.V.L. Pruyn of New York played on men’s fears, arguing that corrupt powers would bribe “uneducated women,” thereby “swell(ing) the number of the worst class at the polls.”
As my research continued, however, my hilarity faded. How had our foremothers felt when people told them that voting would spoil their charm, or that it would destabilize the state, or that men cannot tolerate opposition from those they love? Imagining myself in my great-grandmother’s shoes, these arguments stopped sounding funny at all.
I even came across arguments that have remained with us until the present day. According to the aforementioned Mrs. Pruyn, women were “absolutely and abundantly protected now under the existing system of suffrage.”
With a pang, this naivete reminded me of the arguments that have blockaded the Equal Rights Amendment in contemporary times. Unlike the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote in 1920, the ERA fell three states short of ratification. Women’s equal rights, therefore, have never become the law of our land. In consequence, to mention only a few examples: The wage gap persists, few women have gained access to high office, and college admissions counselors openly admit to discriminating against female applicants. Like Mrs. Pruyn, opponents of the ERA argue that the Constitution protects women enough as it is.
Similarly, this belief that all is already right with the world seems to explain why the United States is one of only seven nations that have failed to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). This international treaty combats the sexual trafficking of women and girls, gives them legal recourse against violence, increases their access to primary education, saves lives during pregnancy and childbirth, and acknowledges women’s right to own property. President Jimmy Carter signed CEDAW three decades ago, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has voted twice to send it to the Senate floor. Still, Congress has never voted to secure women’s most basic rights.
As we celebrate the 90th anniversary of women’s suffrage, it might seem shocking to us Americans that women still do not have the right to vote in Saudi Arabia.
When it comes to the ERA and CEDAW, however, it is the U.S. that is lagging behind.
Elizabeth Galewski is a community organizer for the Madison chapter of the National Organization for Women.