A Conflicted Alliance: Canadian and American Suffragists in Times of War

For the final stretch of the women’s suffrage movement in Canada and the United States in the early 1900s, suffragists continued a conflicted alliance with their government in times of war. The World War I era differed from previous ones when it came to the association between women’s war work and gaining the vote. Women had engaged in patriotic organizations in the 1800s, for example, advancing goals of the state in the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire and the Daughters of the American Revolution. Through organizations like these, women entered into war and governmental work in the World War I era. Some suffragists in the twentieth century, like Canadian Nellie McClung and American Alice Paul, fervently opposed the war on the grounds that because women lacked political rights, they could not endorse a war waged without their consent. Most like McClung, whose views can be seen in her In Times Like These (1915), however, ultimately supported the First World War as the ‘war to end all wars’ and a legitimate response to German militarism. Many suffragists did give up their agitation for the vote; however, donating their time as well as their coffers, to the war, joining the Women’s State Councils of Defense and other groups, and holding the Women’s War Conference in Ottawa in 1918. Their suffrage rhetoric often overlapped that of military language, and their long-held suffrage networks easily converted into war support networks. What women lost in time and resources for the suffrage movement, they achieved in governmental positions during wartime, as well as the ability to engage fellow Canadians and Americans on the national and international stage with patriotic dialogue (and implied deservedness of the vote). Pro-war women, according to Sharon McDonald, gave war a “humanitarian face,” further legitimizing war and women’s public participation in the political arena in a way that suffrage agitation alone might not. War work allowed women to access the government even though they lacked the vote. The First World War saw women’s suffragists in both places bond with the very government they once criticized. Many suffragist protesters had joined the ranks of those they formerly critiqued.


Further Reading

Veronica Strong-Boag and Michelle Lynn Rosa. Nellie L. McClung. Clearning in the West and The Stream Runs Fast, edited, annotated, and introduced (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2003) .

Eileen McDonagh and Douglas Price. “Woman Suffrage in the Progressive Era: Patterns of Opposition and Support in Referenda Voting, 1910-1918.” The American Political Science Review. 79(2): 415-435.

Maroula Joannou and Jane Purvis (1998) “The Women’s Suffrage Movement: New Feminist Perspectives.” Manchester University Press.

Anti-Suffrage Movements in the USA South

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.

Hillary Rodham Clinton


Source: Flickr user VivaAntarctica.

 In the late 1990s, many in the United States loved to hate then First Lady Hillary Clinton. Indeed, after her husband Bill had been president for four years, scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote in 1996 that “Hillary-hating has become one of those national pastimes which unite the elite and the lumpen.” The same year, historian Garry Wills noted, “Hillary Hate is a large-scale psychic phenomenon. At the Republican convention there was a dismemberment doll on sale. For twenty dollars you could buy a rag-doll Hillary with arms and legs made to tear off and throw on the floor” (as quoted in Kohrs 1998: 1). Talk shows were full of speculation about Clinton’s purported lesbianism and drug use and The Nation declared, early in her husband’s presidency, that the country had a “quasi-pornographic obsession” with Hillary (17 May 1993). Clinton’s U.S. Senate election campaigns in 2000 and 2006 brought little relief from the onslaught.

Hillary Clinton by USA Department of State.

Exaggerating her desire to appear powerful, media representations targeted Clinton’s femininity. She was‘the antiseductress who reminded men of the affair gone bad’ (Carlin and Winfrey 2009: 331). Likened by national Public Radio’s political editor, Ken Rudin, to the demoniac, knife-wielding stalker played by Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, Clinton was the woman who simply wouldn’t go away. This image took a bizarre twist when conservative journalist? Chris Matthews linked Hilary’s success to Monica Lewinsky, the supposed ‘seductress’ of President Clinton: “The reason she’s a U.S. senator, the reason she’s a candidate for president, the reason she may be a front-runner is her husband messed around” (as cited in Carlin and Winfrey 2009: 331).

Feminist critics have explained these outrageous attacks as a misogynist reaction to the threat that Clinton posed to gender norms, and more particularly part of the continuing backlash against anything that smacks of the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment movement). Symbolic of the deep struggle over the role of women still disturbing most nations, the conservative forces that viewed Clinton’s rise to prominence as a threat focused were attempting to move national discourses of gender to the right (Templin 1999: 21). Analysts of the 2008 Presidential campaign have argued that sexism toward women candidates remains alive and well in the United States. Coverage of both Clinton and Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, notably when the question of their suitability as a possible ‘commander-in-chief’ was raised, often seemed hard pressed to move beyond a parade of stereotypes and prejudice. Unlike Margaret Thatcher, they were hard put to emerge as ‘warrior queens’.

Resources & Further Reading

Campbell, Karlyn (1998) “The Discursive Performance of Femininity: Hating Hillary.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 1(1): 1-19.

Carlin, Diana B. and Kelly L. Winfrey (2009). “Have you come a long way, baby? Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Sexism in 2008 Campaign Coverage.” Communication Studies 60 (4): 326-343.

Templin, Charlotte (1999) “Hillary Clinton as Threat to Gender Norms: Cartoon Images of the First Lady.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 23 (1): 20-36.

Troy, Gil (2006) Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady. University of Kansas Press.