The Women’s Movement


*Despite the feeling of the late 19th century that the cities were corrupt and wicked, many of the most successful progressives were city-dwellers who wanted to improve their own homes, although they were supported by the rural people, and, in truth, most of them were only one generation off the farm themselves.  Most were middle class, and their leaders tended to be fairly prosperous, but there were progressives from all levels of society.

*Many leading progressives were also the wives of prosperous men.  Leading progressive women used their husbands’ money and their own free time to crusade for their favourite causes.  Others, such as Jane Addams and the women who worked with her at Hull House, found working for a cause to be the only way to express themselves in the age of separate spheres.

*Many progressive women did not attack the notion of separate and different roles for men and women, but instead used that to their advantage.  If men were breadwinners, they had to be made to stop spending their income of liquor in the saloons.  If women were weaker and in need of protection, then it was necessary to end prostitution for their own protection.  If women were naturally more moral than men, it stood to reason that they ought to be able to vote, in order to provide some moral guidance to politics.


*The temperance movement was a powerful force in both small rural towns and large industrial cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it had many advocates, some of whom wanted more than temperance (limitations on alcohol) but prohibition—making alcohol completely illegal.  Many Protestant Christians opposed alcohol as an addiction that distracted people from God and from their duties to society.  Many women opposed alcohol because their husbands drank too much, wasting the family’s money and sometimes beating their wives and children in drunken rages.  Employers opposed alcohol because workers turned up drunk or did not turn up at all.  Lawmen opposed it because it led to disorderly behaviour.  Many groups were formed to support temperance, including the Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union or the National American Woman Suffrage Association.


*In 1873 the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union was founded to oppose all alcohol use (but also to oppose tobacco and other drugs, prostitution, bad conditions for the poor, and other social problems).  Frances Willard, a teacher at a women’s college, became president in 1879 and held that position for 19 years.  Matilda Carse joined the WCTU when her son was killed by a drunken wagon driver, and she built a publishing business for the Union and found other ways to raise money for the organisation.  The WTCU still exists today.


*One of the most famous members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was Carrie Nation, whose first husband had been an alcoholic and died after a few years of marriage, but whose second husband was a minister (and lawyer and newspaper editor).  She described herself as a ‘bulldog, running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at what He doesn’t like,’ and what He didn’t like was alcohol.


*She founded a chapter of the WCTU in Medicine Lodge, Nebraska in the 1890s, and at first sang hymns in bars and gave bartenders greetings such as ‘Good morning, destroyer of men's souls.’  However, in 1899 she decided to oppose saloons more vigourously, and began smashing up saloons with rocks.  Later she bought a big hatchet, and began chopping up bar furniture while singing hymns.  Although she was arrested many times (and banished from Kansas City), she kept it up, even attracting followers who would smash up saloons in groups while singing and praying.  Later she sold souvenir hatchets to fund her retirement.


*Eventually the temperance movement convinced many states and counties to limit or outlaw the manufacture and sale of alcohol, and in 1919 the XVIII Amendment to the US Constitution outlawed the manufacture, transport, and sale of alcohol throughout the United States.


*Taking leading roles in the temperance movement helped women gain political experience.  So had their role in the anti-slavery movement in the mid-1800s, in which the first leaders of the women's rights movement had been deeply involved.


*Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton formed the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869, and worked for women’s suffrage the rest of their lives, although by the time they died (1906 and 1902), only four states allowed women to vote.  Wyoming Territory had been the first place in the US to allow women to vote in 1869.

*By 1900, though, more women were going to college (perhaps one-third of all college students were women), more were working, and more middle-class women (who did not need to work) felt that they were the more moral sex, and that only women’s votes could clean up the cities and that they had a right to vote because public issues reached into people’s homes (of which women were in charge).


*In 1900, Carrie Chapman Catt was elected president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (ten years after it was formed by the unification of the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association).  Her plan was for women to write to their congressmen and to use referendums to try to get local laws passed.  She particularly tried to get wealthy, well-educated women who had free time and the speaking and writing skills needed to form a successful campaign.  These suffrage supporters were called suffragettes, and some were arrested and jailed for protesting in public.


*Among those more radical suffragettes was Alice Paul, who helped to found the National Woman’s Party in 1916 to demand suffrage, particularly targeting Woodrow Wilson and other conservative Democrats.  During World War I, they even picketed the White House, called Woodrow Wilson a tyrant comparable to the German Kaiser for denying women the right to vote, and even burnt President Wilson in effigy, for which many were arrested and imprisoned, including Alice Paul.


*As Western states began allowing women to vote, they even began to elect them to major offices.  In 1916, Jeannette Rankin (R) of Montana became the first woman elected to the US House of Representatives, 2 years after Montana gave women the franchise.

*Some women were opposed to the suffragettes, fearing that their efforts were taking them away from their homes, their families, and from other charity work that was more important.  They even feared that it would make women less feminine and expose them to all the ugliness of politics.


*Other people were convinced of the indecency of the women's movement when Margaret Sanger began to publicly advocate birth control, which she said would give women more freedom and better health, and make abortion (which was illegal and dangerous) less common.  She also felt that encouraging birth control among the poor, insane, crippled, retarded, criminal, and otherwise undesirable would make the human race stronger and better.  This was a fairly popular idea in an age of Social Darwinism, but in most places birth control was illegal and seen as interfering with God's role in creating life.  Sanger was sometimes prosecuted and even imprisoned under the Comstock Law, which outlawed sending obscene materials through the mail—and this included information about birth control, let alone birth control devices (some of which she smuggled into the country).

*While not too many people were very concerned about Sanger's legal problems, the fact that many of the suffragettes who were jailed were treated badly or chose to go on hunger strikes (and were sometimes force-fed by their jailors) upset many people, and the fact that during World War I many women went to work while the nation’s men were overseas, contributed to a growing sympathy for the women’s movement.

*In June 1919, Congress passed what became the XIX Amendment, giving women the right to vote in all elections nationwide.  36 states had to ratify it before it became part of the Constitution.  By March, 1920, 35 states had done so, and Tennessee was considering it.


*Tennessee already had a strong women's movement.  Perhaps the most successful of all Tennessee’s suffrage leaders was Anne Dallas Dudley, a Nashville housewife.  She used the traditional image of women as nurturing wives and mothers to promote her cause, saying that if women were given the vote, 'a woman’s home will be the whole world, and her children, all those whose feet are bare, and her sisters, all those who need a helping hand.'  When a man once told her that only men should vote because they defended their country by bearing arms, Dudley replied 'Yes, but women bear armies.'


*Most of Tennessee’s suffragists were associated with the National American Woman Suffrage Association, but some were involved in the more radical and left-wing National Woman’s Party, which engaged in civil disobedience, even picketing the White House during WWI.  Tennessee’s state chairwoman for the NWP was Sue Shelton White of Jackson, and she was arrested for burning President Wilson in effigy in front of the White House.  She spent five days in jail, and more respectable suffragists like Anne Dallas Dudley were disgusted, feeling that this hurt their cause.

*Eventually an organized anti-suffrage movement was founded.  It was led by John Vertrees, a Nashville lawyer, but supported by many women, too, including Josephine Pearson, head of the Tennessee branch of the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage.  She made her name trying to refute the claim that the only people who really opposed women’s suffrage were the big railroads, the liquor companies, and the factories that used child labour—all big business interests that were easy to attack.  While there was some truth to this accusation, women like Josephine Pearson showed that many ordinary people, including many women, were not comfortable with the movement.

*When the time came for Tennessee to vote on the XIX Amendment, it was close.  Governor Albert H. Roberts supported suffrage, and wanted to call the legislature to session to vote on it.  Technically, though, the State constitution said that no legislature could vote on an amendment until another election had been held since the amendment was made available for voting—thus allowing the next election to be a sort of referendum on the amendment.  However, some of Robert’s advisers insisted that he could call a special session of the legislature anyway, and when President Wilson, who had finally decided to support women’s suffrage, asked him to, he did.

*On 9 August 1920, the fighting began.  Some anti-suffrage state senators were so obnoxious to their opponents that it hurt their own side of the argument, losing them public sympathy.  The state senate approved suffrage by a 25 to 4 vote on 13 August, which put it all up to the House of Representatives.

*Seth Walker, Speaker of the House, had pledged to support suffrage, but at the last minute changed his mind, and put all his effort into beating it, both in debate and through parliamentary manœuvers and technicalities.  Finally, the vote was scheduled for 18 August, and it seemed that there would be enough votes to defeat the measure. Suffrage supporters were told that all they could do was pray.

*The first vote was simply to table the resolution approving the amendment, letting it die without ever being voted on.  To everyone’s surprise, it tied, 48 to 48, and thus did not pass.  Someone who had pledged to vote to table the resolution had changed his mind.

*The legislature then voted on the amendment itself, and it passed 49 to 47. Harry Burn, a Republican from McMinnville and, at 24, the youngest member of the House, had gotten a telegram from his mother the night before, saying ‘Don't forget to be a good boy,’ and telling him to vote for suffrage, and although he had voted to table it, when it actually came to a vote on the amendment itself, he followed his mother’s advice.  At this point, Seth Walker changed his vote to favour the amendment, so that it officially passed with 50 votes, the number traditionally expected for constitutional issues.

*Harry Burn hired a bodyguard when he got back home, but his district re-elected him anyway.

*Women’s suffrage was now the law of the land throughout the United States thanks to the State of Tennessee (which some suffragettes came to call the Perfect 36, because it was the necessary 36th state), and women cast their votes in 1920, overwhelmingly electing the handsome Warren G. Harding.  This alone proved that women would not necessarily elect the better man.

This page last updated 23 October, 2018.
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