Anti-Suffrage Movements in the USA South

Share

The serious opposition to [woman suffrage] has been financed by the Whiskey Interests and the Cotton Mill owners of New England and the South. The former feared the suppression of the whiskey traffic and the latter the suppression of the exploitation of child labor, and of the competition of insufficiently paid labor of women in their mills. –Chief Justice Walter Clark to Henry Watterson, 1919.i

While the cause helped unify diverse groups with different agendas in the United States (US), as in Britain and Canada, suffrage roused great controversy and opposition. Peaking at a time of considerable ferment in the meanings and configurations of race, gender, and class in the US, advocates themselves split over white supremacy, the role of the state, and property ownership. The American South proved a special battlefield. Even as they demanded an end to discrimination against women, some leading suffragists promoted suffrage as a means of preserving white supremacy and systematic discrimination against people of color (Wheeler 1993). Such prejudices linked them, ironically enough, to their opponents. Southern antis, supported by saloon protective leagues and many industrialists, likewise positioned themselves as the champions of White Rule. For them, however, suffragists associated with equal rights campaigns threatened that dominance.

Although American anti-suffragism was composed mainly of women, and somewhat reminiscent of “domestic feminism”— in its emphasis on women’s special nature, although not its extension into the public sphere—the movement was supported by conservative political and economic interest groups. In the South, this coalition combined the forces of big agriculture, big business, and the Democratic Party, all of whom saw enfranchised women as the enemy. What united planters, textile men, railroad magnates, machine bosses, and liquor lawyers in their opposition to suffrage? Simply put, in historian Elna Green’s words, they feared that “suffragists would make good on their promises to vote in various reform measures, and, in effect, change their world” (1997: 52).

Factory workers in Florida by US National Archives.

Specific motivations varied. Textile interests, whose factories relied heavily on the cheap labor of women and children, opposed women suffrage for fear of “the power of women’s votes in preventing the exploitation of child labor, in requiring ‘equal pay for equal service,’ irrespective of sex” (as cited in Green 1997: 52). Big business feared that female voters would pass minimum-wage and maximum-hours laws for women workers, establish health and safety standards for factory workers, and abolish child labor. The railways feared a full-scale assault on a business widely regarded as one of the most corrupt in American society. Career politicians, grown wealthy by government contracts and political contacts, perceived a threat to their incomes when suffragists promised to ‘house-clean’ assemblies. In Green’s words, “the Black Belt aristocrats and their associates had spent the better part of a generation reassembling their former political hegemony [after the Civil War] and were not about to let millions of untested voters destroy that accomplishment” (1997: 55). In sum, because their wealth and political power were doubly dependent upon the political subordination of women and of people of color, antisuffragists in the southern states had a special stake in upholding and reinforcing the status quo. Despite the racism of some southern suffragists, their opponents remained convinced that enfranchising women promised the beginning of the end to entrenched power over both women and Black Americans, not to mention the poor more generally.

Further Reading:

E. C. DuBois (1999). Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women’s Movement in America, 1848-1869. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

E. C. Green (1997). Southern Strategies: Southern Women and the Woman Suffrage Question. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

M. S. Wheeler (1993). New Women of the New South: The Leaders of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the Southern States. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

A. S. Kraditor (1965). The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement: 1890 to 1920. New York: W. Norton & Company.

A. F. Scott (1970). The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830-1930. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

E C. DuBois (1997). Harriet Stanton Blatch and the Winning of Woman Suffrage. Yale University Press.

LeBaron, Genevieve

LeBaron, Genevieve

LeBaron, Genevieve

Latest posts by LeBaron, Genevieve (see all)

This article was written by: LeBaron, Genevieve