Most People Opposed Women’s Suffrage

Most women and men believed that equality for women would lead to the destruction of the state; that the highest order of the state relied upon completely separate responsibilities for each sex. Overwhelmingly, people believed that women and men rightfully occupied separate spheres. Men belonged to the public sphere, while women occupied the domestic sphere, as caretaker for children and husbands. In law and in custom, women had no separate existence from their fathers or husbands. Today it is difficult to understand how completely radical the idea of any rights for women was to people of the past. While most people believe they would have supported woman suffrage, the reality is that most of us would not have done so, especially in the early years when that support would have made us social pariahs.

For a time it was popular for suffragists and anti-suffragists to meet and debate the topic of women voting. The first recorded debate was held in 1870 between Catharine Beecher and Mary Livermore. Susan Fenimore Cooper, the daughter of popular author James Fenimore Cooper, articulated the arguments of the anti-suffrage movement. She believed that women, being of a higher religious and moral quality than men but lower in strength and intellect, should wield their influence by inspiring morality and faith at home, not by political action in in public. In the early 1870s, anti-suffrage women began petitioning and speaking before Congress in opposition to women voting. These conservative women contended that suffrage would move women out of their appropriate domestic sphere.

Why the Majority of Women Oppose Woman's Suffrage. This pamphlet was created by the New York State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage and issued by the Ohio Association Opposed to Woman's Suffrage. Courtesy of New York State Library.

Text from Catharine Beecher’s speech opposing women’s suffrage given in Boston in December 1870, where she debated suffragist Mary Livermore. From Beecher’s book, Woman Suffrage and Woman's Profession, 1871, page 3. Courtesy of Cornell University via HathiTrust.

Full text available here.

Female Suffrage: A Letter to the Christian Women of America. Article arguing why women should not be given the right to vote. Published in Harper's New Weekly Magazine, Vol. XLI (June--November, 1870), pp. 438- 446, 594-600. Courtesy of David O. McKay Library, BYU Idaho via South Central Regional Library Council.