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Leaflet, 1914

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HS Unit II: Women's Struggle for Equal Rights, 1825 - 1930
Lesson B: The Activists


Voters Deny Massachusetts Women the Vote
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On This Day... 1915, a referendum to give Massachusetts women the vote failed at the polls. In spite of its leading role in the nineteenth-century woman's rights movement, Massachusetts was the first state to organize an association of women opposed to suffrage. Known as the "Antis," these women believed that they could be better, more effective citizens without the ballot. Many of the "Antis" were active in Progressive era causes; they feared that involvement in electoral politics would erode their influence. For over 30 years, they and their male allies succeeded in keeping Massachusetts women out of the voting booth. But ultimately they lost the fight. On this same day in 1920, Massachusetts women cast their votes in a federal election for the first time.

Massachusetts had a long history of activism on behalf of women's rights. As early as the 1830s and 1840s, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, Lydia Maria Child, Lucy Stone, Abby Kelley Foster, and Sarah Parker Remond were daring to speak in public about the evils of slavery and the oppression of women. The first national women's rights convention was held in Worcester in 1850. After the Civil War, suffragists intensified the campaign to enfranchise women. In 1879 Massachusetts women won the right to vote in school committee elections, but that would be the extent of their enfranchisement until the U.S. Constitution was amended in 1920.

Only a minority of Americans questioned that a woman's proper role was to ensure the physical, emotional, and moral well-being of the family and bring up the next generation of democratic citizens. For example, Harriet Beecher Stowe's sister, the influential educator Catharine Beecher, championed women's education but believed that woman exercised her greatest power within the home.

By the late 1800s, however, as opportunities opened up for women to pursue higher education, many women became involved in causes beyond the home. During the early years of the Progressive Era, increasing numbers of women used their education to improve conditions among the nation's poor. They became settlement house workers and health care providers; they formed committees to improve sanitation, hygiene, and diet and to limit working hours for women and children. They served on the boards of hospitals, prisons, and orphanages. Although this work often took them away from the domestic sphere, they saw it as an extension of, rather than an escape from, that sphere.

Not all of these socially active, progressive women supported woman suffrage. The Massachusetts anti-suffrage movement began in 1882 with the founding of the Massachusetts Association Opposed to the Further Extension of Suffrage to Women (MAOFESW). Organized, staffed, and led by women, the organization opposed woman suffrage. The movement soon spread to other states, and by 1911 there was a national anti-woman suffrage association.

In the view of some historians, the Antis, as the anti-suffrage activists were called, were upper-class wives and mothers made uncomfortable by rapidly changing social and gender expectations. As members of the social elite, these women feared that the "democratizing tendencies of suffragist politics" would threaten their privileged class position. But a recent study of the Antis' speeches and writings reveals that most of them were socially active, progressive women; the majority were single, college educated, and employed outside the home. When Massachusetts voters defeated the 1915 suffrage referendum, the president of MAOFESW praised the work of the Antis, who came, she said, from "every class or type" and whose public welfare activities "could fill pages."

Why did the Antis oppose woman suffrage? Many of them apparently feared that if women got the vote, involvement in electoral politics would divert their energies from the women's clubs and organizations in which they had found a power base. They claimed that women's civic work had declined in states where women had won the right to vote.

They also expressed concern that, once a woman could vote, loyalty to a political party would raise doubts about her non-partisanship and so reduce her influence with legislative or other government officials. In this view, as long as women had no promise of political reward, no one could question the disinterested nature of their activism.

Finally, some Antis rejected the vote simply to put distance between themselves and the image of suffragists. The campaign for female suffrage had long ties to feminism, with its support for such controversial issues as free love and birth control. Suffrage supporters were often linked to socialism, Bolshevism, the labor movement, and other radical causes.

Meanwhile, suffragists continued their campaign for the vote. They based their arguments on their rights as citizens and taxpayers, their ability to exert moral influence both inside and outside the home, and their need for legal protection as more women entered the labor force.

The Antis emphatically resisted such arguments, claiming that "outside the political machinery there is a world . . . where all reform begins." They launched an extensive and effective campaign, producing tracts, pamphlets, and a periodical, The Remonstrance Against Woman Suffrage. By 1915 the Massachusetts organization had 37,000 female members. By holding rallies, providing speakers, and raising funds, they helped to defeat a series of woman suffrage referenda in Massachusetts.

World War I proved to be the turning point in the long battle between pro- and anti-woman suffragists. While the Antis channeled much of their energy into war relief work, suffragists strategically offered female support for American involvement in the war in exchange for the vote. In the end, President Woodrow Wilson declared that woman suffrage was a necessary war measure. Acknowledging the invaluable contribution women had made to the war effort, he backed the 19th Amendment. Shortly after it was passed in 1920, MASOFES dissolved, and Massachusetts women went to the polls.


"'Better Citizens Without the Ballot': American Anti-suffrage Women and Their Rationale During the Progressive Era," by Manuela Thurner, in One Woman, One Vote: Rediscovering the Woman Suffrage Movement, ed. by Marjorie Spruill Wheeler (New Sage Press, 2005).

The records of the Massachusetts Association Opposed to the Further Extension of Suffrage to Women, 1895-1920 are at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

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