At New-York Historical Society, our Education Division and our Center for Women’s History are currently building a nine-unit curriculum guide, Women and the American Story (WAMS), for students in grades 6-12. When the WAMS team started this work, we sought advice from teachers across the country. Very quickly, two big takeaways emerged.
First, when we asked where women were already included in their curriculum, the answer was almost always the Progressive Era. Why? Suffrage. I am currently working on the “Modernizing America: 1889-1920” unit of WAMS, so this posed an interesting problem. I did not want to give teachers more of what they already had. On the other hand, to create a unit on the Progressive Era and not include suffrage seemed irresponsible.
Second, when we asked teachers what types of sources they needed most, they overwhelmingly requested documents that could “speak” to one another and provide opposing perspectives on a single topic. As I mulled over these two pieces of feedback my charge became clear: I needed to balance out the flood of pro-suffrage materials from this era and provide opposing viewpoints. I needed to find an anti-suffrage resource.
The first source that came to mind was a 1914 political cartoon by Joseph Keppler showing the great foot of Woman Suffrage being held back by a cohort of men – and a few women. Teachers love political cartoons; we all do! But this cartoon raised more questions than answers. Why are these people – these women – opposed to suffrage? So opposed that they are trying to prevent it? I needed to know more, and my search continued.
Enter an essay from 1914 entitled Ballot not a Panacea for Existing Evils by Alice Hill Chittenden, President of the New York State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage. Printed as a broadside (a single-sided piece of paper), it could have been distributed at meetings, rallies, or other public venues. The feminist in me cringed at giving voice to an anti-suffragist, but the curriculum writer in me was delighted. Here was a primary source that met my goal and offered a wealth of information to dissect. While it is easy to poke holes in the argument, I believe that there is much our teachers and students can learn from reading Alice Hill Chittenden’s essay.
Lesson 1: Not all women had the same opinion
When the voices of women are so rarely mentioned in the Social Studies classroom, it is easy for students and even teachers to begin to lump them into one homogeneous category. If a student only sees images of women marching side-by-side in suffrage parades, they might assume all women wanted suffrage. Not true!
Women, like the country at large, were deeply divided over suffrage. While I was unable to uncover much about Alice Hill Chittenden, I was able to learn about the organization she represented. The New York State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage was founded in 1897 and was part of a national anti-suffrage movement formalized nationally with the creation of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League in 1908. These anti-suffragist organizations included both men and women who held to a range of rationales for why women did not need the vote. It would take several blog posts to outline all of their reasons, but one of the overarching arguments was that women had other, unique ways of contributing to society, which is at the core of this particular essay.
Lesson 2: Pro- or Anti-Suffrage, Americans felt this was a challenging time
Chittenden’s essay can be used to teach more than the history of suffrage. In fact, the first half of her essay can help students identify the issues American citizens faced in the early 20th century: education reform, access to parks and playgrounds, tenement conditions, street cleanliness, child labor, fair wages, safe work environments, and public health, to name a few. Suffragists constantly pointed to these issues as reasons why women needed the vote. To Chittenden, however, the fact that things had gotten so dire and that men in power had failed to do anything was further proof that women needed to try a different approach. Anti-suffragists, Chittenden wrote, “are in hearty sympathy with all lines of constructive social reform.” She believed women were well suited to tackle the aforementioned issues via “municipal housecleaning.” But the vote was not the answer in her opinion.
Lesson 3: Women were shaking things up without the vote
To back up her belief that women could make change without the vote, Chittenden outlined the ways in which women were already involved in politics: “educational, philanthropic and reformatory boards,” gubernatorial appointments, state commissions, municipal leagues, and other volunteer and paid positions. Through these organizations, she argued, women were able to “provide seats in school houses…lighten dark tenements…furnish pure milk…administer justice.” Indeed, the Progressive Era is full of examples of women working outside the political sphere to make change, as is every chapter of U.S. history, as the example of the abolitionist Edmonson Sisters makes clear in an earlier era.
In “Modernizing America” students will meet Jane Addams, Mary Church Terrell, Clara Lemlich, Adella Hunt Logan, Zitkala-Sa, and dozens of other women who were shaking things up without the right to vote! However, all of the women on my list firmly believed that having the right to vote was critical to their success. So why did Chittenden believe that it was better not to have the vote?
Lesson 4: The fear of the political machine was real
Chittenden’s overarching argument was that the political machine was corrupt, and that women could do more good by staying out of the formal structure of politics. Suffragists, she argued, believed that the vote was a “short cut to the solution of governmental problems.” “Men who are interested in social reforms…have found they could not bring about these essential reforms by merely voting,” she writes. Moreover, women “can do their work better…because they are outside of politics. As non-partisan citizens, untrammeled by party affiliation or obligations”… they do not “have any political axes to grind.”
There is some merit in what Chittenden is saying here. History is full of examples of political corruption. The very nature of our government is such that representatives struggle to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse constituency. This unit will include the story of Jeanette Rankin, the first female member of the United States Congress, who on her very first day of work had to choose between voting in line with her personal beliefs and voting in line with those of her political backers. (Spoiler: She stood by her convictions and paid a hefty price. Learn more in my unit, coming Fall 2018!) Much like today, entering the political sphere in the early 20th century meant making difficult choices, and Chittenden ultimately believed it was not worth the effort.
Lesson 5: Like it or not, she has a point worth considering
Even those on the wrong side of history were capable of making a good argument. Whether you agree with Chittenden or not (and to be clear, I do not), you can’t deny that she presents a clear, concise argument that could have successfully persuaded some readers. In testing this document with teachers, I find that the conversation always inevitably turns to the quality of her writing; teachers loath to admit it, but Chittenden knew how to write an effective persuasive essay.
While Chittenden’s overall message – women don’t need the vote because they can make change in other ways – falls flat, her assessment that the vote is not a cure all for the ills of society is worth consideration. On the opposite end of the political spectrum, anarchist Emma Goldman is often quoted as having said “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” Our nation’s history is full of examples of times when the electorate failed to effectively address societal problems, as well as examples of how granting a population the right to vote does not automatically lead to equal citizenship for that group. Ultimately, reform comes when citizens work at the polls and through other means. It is a shame that Chittenden felt it was one or the other.
The Work Continues
Will there be suffragists in “Modernizing America: 1889-1920”? Absolutely! But there will also be anti-suffragists. By studying multiple perspectives in the past, we empower our students to think critically about multiple perspectives today. This document will appear alongside materials created by suffragists from various economic and ethnic backgrounds. Students and teachers will be able to compare Chittenden’s call to action with those of the women fighting to gain the right to vote. We will also provide discussion questions to help teachers work through this document and address students’ concerns about women who were seemingly against women.
To me, this document encapsulates why I am so excited about Women and the American Story. As a team, we are working to flesh out the story of women in America, and that includes looking at women with whom we vehemently disagree. By providing a range of perspectives from women with diverse backgrounds, we hope to not only inspire students to learn more about the past, but also motivate them to think about where the lines of disunion exist today and seek productive conversations, not divisive ones.
– Leslie Hayes, New-York Historical Society Education Division
Top image credits: Detail of Joseph Keppler, “All Together Now! Stop Her!” 1914. The Keppler Collection, New-York Historical Society Library