Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter 99: Woman Suffrage - The American Commonwealth, vol. 2
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chapter 99: Woman Suffrage - Viscount James Bryce, The American Commonwealth, vol. 2 
The American Commonwealth, with an Introduction by Gary L. McDowell (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1995). Vol. 2.
Part of: The American Commonwealth, 2 vols.
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Although the question of admitting women to the right of voting has never been one of the foremost political issues in the United States, its history and present position are so illustrative of the way in which political proposals spring up, and are agitated and handled in that country, that it would deserve to be here noticed, even were it not a matter which has a present interest for at least one European country. All those who have speculated on the foundations of human society and government have long been confronted by the question how far differences of sex ought to imply and prescribe a distinction of civic rights and functions between men and women. Some of the bolder among philosophers have answered the question by simply ignoring the differences. Perceiving in women an intelligence and will, which, if never equal to that of the very strongest men, yet makes the average woman the equal for most purposes of the average man, inasmuch as she gains in quickness and delicacy of perception what she loses in force and endurance, they have found no reason why woman should not share the labours, duties, and privileges of man. This was Plato’s view, pushed by him so far as to expunge marriage and domestic life altogether; and it has found expression in more than one religious movement in ancient as well as in modern times.
Christianity approached the problem from another side. Recognizing in woman an immortal soul equally precious with the soul of man, the New Testament and the usages of the primitive church opened to her a wide range of functions, virtues, and glories, in some of which she was fitted to surpass, and has in fact surpassed man; while the imagination of the Middle Ages, more intense and fervid than that of any other epoch in history, created an ideal of feminine sweetness, purity, and moral beauty infinitely surpassing that of the ancient world, and which the modern world may count as its noblest possession, an ideal on the preservation of which, more perhaps than of any other human conception, the welfare of the race depends.
The consecration of the spiritual equality of woman would doubtless have gone still farther than it did to secure for her a tangible equality in social and possibly even in political matters but for the rudeness of the times, in which physical force counted for much, and for the growth of a sacramental and sacerdotal system, which confined priesthood and the administration of certain life-giving sacraments to men. Thus, though the relations of the sexes were placed on a more wholesome basis than in Greek and Roman antiquity, though the standard of purity was raised and the conception of marriage dignified, the recognition of equality in the sphere of law, both private and public, was less complete than might be expected. When sacramentalism and sacerdotalism were, in the peoples of northern Europe, shattered by the religious movement of the sixteenth century, the idea of a clerical order confined to men was nevertheless maintained, except in a few small sects; and though the law grew constantly more just and humane to women, scarcely a voice was raised to claim for them a share in the privileges of life.
In the early days of the American Republic it seems to have occurred to no statesman, though it did occur to a few keen-witted women, that the principles of the Declaration of Independence might find application without distinction of sex; but as they were not to be applied to men of any colour but white, this need the less by wondered at. However, the legal position of women was speedily improved. State legislation gave them fuller rights of property and a better social status than they had enjoyed under the English common law, and the respectful deference with which they were generally treated was remarked by travellers as a singular exception to the general imperfection of American male manners, and in fact tending to affect inauspiciously the grace of female manners.
When Negro slavery began to excite the horror of sensitive minds, it became necessary to reexamine the foundations of society and find a theory which would, in asserting the ultimate similarity and equality of all men, condemn the ownership of one man by another. This was done by recurring to the New Testament and the Declaration of Independence. Two questions speedily suggested themselves. If all men of whatever race are equal, what of women? If equality be an absolute and, so to speak, indefeasible truth and principle, what does it import? Does it cover merely the passive rights of citizenship, the right to freedom and protection for person and property? Or does it extend to the active right of participating in the government of the commonwealth? “We demand freedom for the Negro. Do we also demand a share in the government? If we do, are not women at least as well entitled? If we do not, it is because we see that the Negro is so ignorant and altogether backward as to be unfit to exercise political power. But can this be said of women? The considerations which might apply to the case of the liberated Negro do not apply to her, for she is educated and capable. How, then, can she be excluded?”
This was an abstract way of looking at the matter, because there had not as yet been any substantial demand by women for political rights. But it was on the basis of abstract right that they were proceeding. Theory is potent with those who are themselves appealing from an actual state of things to theory and general principles. And in this instance a practical turn was given to the question by the fact that many of the most zealous and helpful workers in the Abolitionist movement were women. They showed as much courage in facing obloquy and even danger in what they deemed a sacred cause as Garrison or Lovejoy. They filled the Abolition societies and flocked to the Abolitionist conventions. They were soon admitted to vote and hold office in these organizations. The more timid or conservative members protested, and some seceded. But in an aggressive movement, as in a revolution, those who go farthest are apt to fare best. The advocates of women’s claims were the bolder spirits who retained the direction of the anti-slavery movement. The women established their right to share the perils of the combat and the glories of the victory.
The claim of women to be admitted to the franchise and to public office would no doubt have been made sooner or later in America (as it had been made in England) had there been no anti-slavery agitation. But the circumstances of its origin in that agitation have tinged its subsequent course. They invested it in the eyes of one set of persons with a species of consecration, while providing it with a body of trained workers and a precedent inspiring hope and teaching patience. To minds of an opposite cast they gave it a flavour of sentimentalism, crotchetiness, and of what used to be called in America “radicalism.”1 While the struggle against slavery continued, the question was content to stand back, but since the end of the Civil War and the admission of the Negroes to the franchise, it has come to the front, and continues to be actively pressed. There are now woman suffrage societies in most parts of the North and West. An annual convention of delegates from these societies is held, which stimulates the local workers and resolves on a plan of operations.2 Proposals for the admission of women to this or that species of suffrage are sedulously urged on state legislatures. In many Congresses amendments to the federal Constitution recognizing women as voters have been submitted, but have always failed to secure a majority of either house. The chance three-fourths of the states would accept one is at present very small. Once or twice women have been nominated as candidates for the presidency, though none has ever put out a list of presidential electors pledged to support her candidature.
These effort have borne some fruit, though less than the party counted on when the agitation began. So far as I have been able to ascertain the present state of the law in the different states and Territories of the Union, the political rights of women stand as follows:
In 1869 the legislature of the Territory of Wyoming conferred the suffrage on women for all purposes and when the Territory received statehood in 1890, this provision was retained.3 Since then a like privilege has been given to women in Colorado and Idaho by amendments to their constitutions, and in Utah by the first constitution, adopted in 1895.4 In Colorado the proposal was (in 1893) carried by the “Populist” party, then for a brief space dominant. In several states including South Dakota and Oregon it has been subjected to popular vote, but rejected by large majorities, nor does it appear in the constitutions of the three newest states. In Washington Territory the law which conferred it in 1883 was declared invalid by the courts in 1887, because its nature had not been properly described in the title, was reenacted immediately afterwards, and was in 1888 again declared invalid by the U.S. Territorial Court, on the ground that the act of Congress organizing the Territorial legislature did not empower it to extend the suffrage to women. In enacting their state constitution (1889) the people of Washington pronounced against female suffrage by a majority of two to one; and a good authority declared to me that “few women took advantage of the privilege and most of them were greatly relieved that the responsibility was removed.” But in 1910 it was carried on an initiative vote with little discussion, the people (it is stated) hardly understanding what they were doing, because a large number of questions were submitted to popular vote at the same time and this question was described on the ballot paper in a way which did not indicate the real issue.
In many states besides the ten which give full suffrage5 women are allowed to vote at elections of school officers, or on some question connected with schools; and in several other states (nine at least), as well as in all of these already referred to, they may be chosen to fill school offices, such as that of school visitor, or superintendent, or member of a school committee. They also enjoy “school suffrage” sporadically in a few cities.
In several states they have the right of voting upon questions submitted to the vote of the taxpayers as such. This includes the question of granting licenses for the sale of intoxicants. A bill to confer the same right was lost in the Massachusetts legislature by a majority of one vote only.
In Kansas in 1886 and in Michigan in 1893 women received the suffrage in all municipal elections. In Michigan, however, the law was subsequently held unconstitutional.6
In those states where women possess the school suffrage it is reported that few vote; and this is ascribed partly to indifference, partly to the difficulty which women of the humbler class experience in leaving their homes to go to the poll. In Massachusetts the number of women going to the poll declined rapidly after the first few years. But there have been cases there, and also in Kansas at municipal elections, in which a heavy vote was cast by the female voters.
In Wyoming (while still a Territory) women served as jurors for some months till the judges discovered that they were not entitled by law to do so, and in Washington (while a Territory) they served from 1884 to 1887, when the legislature, in regranting the right of voting, omitted to grant the duty or privilege of jury service. Those whose opinions I have enquired inform me that the presence of women on juries was deemed a grave evil, and that in prosecutions for gambling or the sale of intoxicants a defendant had no chance before them. It is also stated that comparatively few went to the poll. In Wyoming, moreover, the women on juries are stated to have been more severe than men.
As respects the suffrage in Wyoming, the evidence I have collected privately is conflicting. One of the most trusty authorities wrote to me as follows:
“After the first excitement is over, it is impossible to get respectable women out to vote except every two or three years on some purely emotional question like Prohibition or other temperance legislation. The effect on family life seems to be nil; certainly not bad.” Another highly competent witness wrote: “There are no large towns. In the larger places most of the women, who are chiefly married, vote; in the smaller and more rural places the women take little interest in it, as indeed the men do. As a rule, women are in favor of temperance and good schools, and so far as they have been able to cast their influence, it has been on the right side in those questions. Woman suffrage so far seems to work well, but the field of its operations is one presenting singular immunity from the evils which elsewhere might attach to it, the population being sparse and women in the minority.”
Beside these and similar statements may be set the fact that no opposition was offered in the convention of 1889, which drafted the present constitution, to the enactment of woman suffrage for all purposes. The opinion of the people at large was not duly ascertained, because the question was not separately submitted to them at the polls, but there can be little doubt that it would have been favourable. The declarations of Wyoming officials may deserve no weight, for they do not wish to offend any section of the voters, and every Western American feels bound to say the best he can and something more for the arrangements of his own state. But the whole proceedings of the convention of 1889 leave the impression that the equal suffrage in force since 1869 had worked fairly, and the summing up of the case by a thoughtful and dispassionate British observer (Sir H. Plunkett7 ) is to the same effect. Moreover, had the results been obviously bad in Wyoming, they would have been quoted against the adoption of the proposal by Colorado in 1893. In these new Western states, however, women have been in a minority. Comparatively few of them seem to have shown any eagerness to obtain the suffrage, and the laws affecting women are much the same there and in other parts of the West.
No evidence has been produced to show that politics are in the woman suffrage states substantially purer than in the adjoining states, though it is said that the polls are quieter. The most that seems to be alleged is that they are no worse; or, as the Americans express it, “Things are very much what they were before, only more so.” The conditions of the small and scattered populations of most of these states—Utah and in a less degree Idaho, being moreover exceptional as still largely Mormon—render their experience of slight value for such communities as the Eastern and Middle states.
Colorado,with a population of nearly 800,000, and with one great city, Denver, offers a better field for observations, and a book by Miss Helen L. Sumner, published in 1909 under the title of Equal Suffrage, presents the results of a minute and careful study of the working of woman suffrage there in a spirit which strikes the reader as impartial and scientific.8 The conclusions reached are, on the whole, favourable to the experiment, though there is admittedly much difference of opinion in Colorado itself upon the subject, among women as well as among men. Such changes as there have been for good or for evil, are less marked than either advocates or opponents expected. Enquiries made in many quarters do not shew that woman suffrage has done any positive harm to politics in Colorado, and some say that it occasionally prevents men of bad character from being nominated for office. Whether, however, the state, or the women in it, have as a whole gained, the discrepant evidence makes it hard to determine.
Wherever the suffrage or any public right has been given, it is given equally to married and to unmarried women.9 No one dreams of drawing any distinction between the claims of the single and the married, or of making marriage entail disfranchisement. To do so would be alien to the whole spirit of American legislation, and would indeed involve a much grosser anomaly or injustice than the exclusion of all women alike from political functions. This point, therefore, on which much controversy has arisen in England, has given no trouble in the United States; and, similarly, the Americans always assume that wherever women receive the right of voting at the election of any office, they become as a matter of course eligible for the office itself. In some cases eligibility for the office has preceded the gift of the suffrage. There are states in which women have no school suffrage, but are chosen to school offices; and states (Massachusetts, for instance) in which they have no vote at municipal or state elections, but where they are placed on the state board of education or the board of prison commissioners. It would be deemed in the last degree illogical to give municipal suffrage, and not allow a woman to be chosen mayoress, to give state (and therewith congressional) suffrage and not allow a woman to be capable of holding any state or any federal office. In Wyoming five votes out of every thirty-five were once given for a woman candidate for the post of United States senator.10
“What,” it will be asked, “are the forces by which the women’s rights movement is now pressed forward? What are the arguments used to support it? Are they of a theoretical or of a practical nature? Is it on the ground of abstract justice and democratic principle that the battle is being fought, or is it alleged that women suffer from positive disabilities and hardships which nothing but an equal share in political power will remove?”
Both sets of arguments are employed; but those of a theoretical order seem to hold the chief place. In all or nearly all states married women have complete rights to their property; and mothers have rights considerable, if not quite equal to those of fathers, in the guardianship of their children. Women enjoy the equal protection of the law and are admissible to professions and the training needed for professions, while the laws of divorce, whatever may be said of them in other respects, are not more indulgent to husbands than to wives. Although therefore the advocates of woman suffrage claim that some tangible legislative benefits will accrue to woman from her admission to the franchise, especially in the way of obtaining better protection for her and for children, the case on this side seems weak, and excites little feeling. No one who observes America can doubt that whatever is deemed to be for the real benefit of women in the social and industrial sphere will be obtained for them from the goodwill and sympathy of men, without the agency of the political vote. It is on grounds of abstract right, it is because the exclusion from political power is deemed in itself unjust and degrading, and is thought to place women on a lower level, that this exclusion is resented. It seems to be supposed that a nobler and more vigorous type of womanhood would be developed by the complete recognition of her equality, a wider and grander sphere of action opened to her efforts. Perhaps the commonest argument is contained in the question, “Why not? What reason can you give, you whose forefathers revolted from England because representation was not suffered to go with taxation, you who annually repeat the Declaration of Independence as if it were the Nicene Creed, you who after the war enfranchised ignorant Negroes, for excluding from the suffrage women who pay taxes, who are within the reason and meaning of the Declaration of 1776, who are far more intellectually and morally competent than the coloured millions of the South?” This appeal, which becomes all the stronger as an argumentum ad hominem because the American man is exceptionally deferential to women, and the American statesman exceptionally disposed to comply with every request which is urgently pressed upon him, is the kernel of the suffragist case. However, it derived for a time no small practical aid from a practical consideration. The one question of current politics which usually interests women is the question of restricting or prohibiting the sale of intoxicants. This is also the question which excites not perhaps the widest yet certainly the keenest interest in the minds of a great host of male voters. The enemies of the liquor traffic have therefore a strong motive for desiring to see their voting power reinforced by those whose aid would secure victory; and in fact Prohibitionist conventions almost always declare in favour of women’s suffrage. For a different reason, the Socialist and Labour parties are, as were the Populists also, disposed to support it, as indeed the Socialists do in Europe.
Yet it must not be supposed that the sentimental arguments are all on one side. There is a widespread apprehension that to bring women into politics might lower their social position, diminish men’s deference for them, harden and roughen them, and, as it is expressed, “brush the bloom off the flowers.” This feeling is at least as strong among women as among men, and some judicious observers deem it stronger now than it was formerly. The proportion of women who desire the suffrage seems to be smaller in America than in England. Of the many American ladies whose opinion I have from time to time during forty years inquired, the enormous majority expressed themselves hostile; and in most of the states where the question had come near to being a practical issue there have been formed women’s anti-suffrage associations which conduct an active agitation, and present to the committees of state legislatures their arguments against the proposal. They support journals also, which press upon women the desirability of their continuing in the sphere they have hitherto occupied, and dwell upon the greater and better influence which, so it is thought, they may exert on legislation and administration if they remain “outside politics.” It is remarkable that the movement has hitherto found comparatively little support among what may be called the “upper classes.” Woman suffragism has been, though less so now than formerly, thought “bad form,” and supposed to betoken a want of culture and refinement. The same reproach attached before the Civil War to Abolitionism. It was at one time an injury to the cause that some few of its prominent advocates, disavowed no doubt by the great bulk of the suffrage party, also advocated a general unsettlement of the relations between the sexes, and that a few others were too masculine in their manners and discourse. The sentimental aversion to seeing women immersed in politics is all the greater because “politics” have a technical meaning which is repellent to refined Americans; and it is felt that “politics” are more likely to soil women than women to purify “politics.”
But one of the objections deemed gravest is this, that in this land where the suffrage is, as respects men, universal, the constituencies, which are already enormous—a member of Congress represents more than six times as many voters as an English member of Parliament—would be doubled in size, and all the difficulties which already attach to elections be immensely aggravated. Even those who desire to see the sale of intoxicants restricted doubt the expediency of attaining their object by the votes of women, because the difficulty of enforcing prohibitory legislation, already serious where the drinking minority is strong, would be much greater if a majority of men in favour of keeping bars and saloons open were overborne by a minority of men turned into a majority by the votes of women.
The extension, in recent years, of woman suffrage over some Western states does not seem to have been due to any marked increase in the number of women asking for the vote, for the great bulk of the sex in those states are reported to have remained indifferent, but to the following four causes.
One is the influence of the English propaganda of the scheme. Its advance in Europe stimulated the hopes and efforts of those who advocate it in America.
A second is the growth of the Socialist and Labour parties, the leaders of which believe that woman suffrage will promote their aims. The example of Australia, where the Labour party has been greatly strengthened by the woman vote, has encouraged this belief.
A third is the tendency to exalt direct popular sovereignty and disparage representative government. The advocacy of initiative, referendum and recall disposes men to favour extensions of the suffrage, and to be moved by abstract principles and a belief in the so-called “natural right” to vote rather than by considerations of practical expediency, i.e., of what are likely to be the tangible results of any measure on the good government of the community.
A fourth is the idea that the votes of women will further social reforms. In point of fact, such reforms have moved as fast in states that have not adopted woman suffrage as in states that have, and the influence of women in promoting useful legislation seems to have been no slighter. Nevertheless the idea subsists, and seems to have led to the support extended to woman suffrage by the new Progressive party at the election of 1912.
To these one might add the influence of what is called the “woman movement” as a whole, a movement too large to be entered on here, and one felt in Britain as well as in America.
To a European observer the suffrage question seems one rather of social than of political moment. If he sees no reason to expect an improvement of politics from the participation of women in elections and their admission to Congress and to high political office, neither does he find much cause for fear. The results of universal suffrage may not, so far as legislation is concerned, greatly differ from those of manhood suffrage. Such misgivings as he entertains are of a different nature. They are serious misgivings, and they are rendered not less serious by a study of the social changes which are passing upon the world in Europe as well as in America.
 The word “radical,” frequently applied outside the sphere of pure politics, e.g., to theology, seems in American use to denote rather a tendency than either a party or a set of doctrines.
 The first women’s convention was held in 1848.
 According to Governor Hoyt of Wyoming woman suffrage was carried there in 1869, by the arts of one man. His account is as follows: “One large-hearted legislator in Wyoming went and talked with other members of the legislature. They smiled. But he got one of the lawyers to help him draw up a short bill, which he introduced. It was considered and discussed. People smiled generally. There was not much expectation that anything of that sort would be done; but this was a shrewd fellow, who managed the party card in such a way as to get, as he believed, enough votes to carry the measure before it was brought to the test. Thus he said to the Democrats: ‘We have a Republican Governor and a Democratic Assembly. Now then, if we can carry this bill through the Assembly, and the Governor vetoes it, we shall have made a point, you know; we shall have shown our liberality and lost nothing. But keep still; don’t say anything about it.’ They promised. He then went to the Republicans and told them that the Democrats were going to support his measure, and that if they didn’t want to lose capital they had better vote for it too. He didn’t think there would be enough of them to carry it; but the vote would be on record, and thus defeat the game of the other party. And they likewise agreed to vote for it. So when the bill came to a vote it went right through! The members looked at each other in astonishment, for they hadn’t intended to do it, quite. Then they laughed, and said it was a good joke, but they had ‘got the Governor in a fix.’ So the bill went, in the course of time, to John A. Campbell, who was then Governor—the first Governor of the Territory of Wyoming—and he promptly signed it! His heart was right!”—Address delivered at Philadelphia in 1882. Sir Horace Plunkett, however, discredits this story, and assigns as the reasons for the passing of the bill the notion that it would serve to advertise Wyoming (which it did) and a sort of rough Western liking for a joke. (The Working of Woman Suffrage in Wyoming, Cheyenne, Wyo., 1890). In Colorado the amendment conferring the suffrage won the support of the Populist party, powerful in 1893, and of large sections of the working men, who are supposed to have been influenced by abstract doctrines of equality.
 The territorial legislature had in Utah established woman suffrage, but a federal statute had abolished it, as believed to be employed by Mormon wives at the bidding of their polygamous husbands, to maintain polygamy.
 Arizona, Connecticut, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nevada, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Oregon, Vermont, Wisconsin. Women enjoy school and municipal franchise in the Canadian provinces of Ontario, Nova Scotia, Manitoba, and British Columbia.
 Similar proposals have from time to time been defeated in a good many states, though often by small majorities. In several of the smaller cities of Kansas all the municipal offices, from the mayoralty and police judgeship downwards, have occasionally been filled by women.
 In the pamphlet already cited. He observes that his informant never attempted to connect the frequency of divorces in Wyoming with the political equality of the sexes, conceiving this to have exercised no influence on the family life, nor led to domestic discord. “Political differences constitute one of the few domestic troubles which no State or Territory (so far) recognizes as just cause for dissolution of matrimony.”
 It would be impossible to abridge the facts and arguments without the danger of misrepresenting them; but two or three points may be worth noting. Miss Sumner thinks legislation has been improved by the voting of women, and cites instances, but remarks that the Prohibition cause does not appear to have substantially gained, nor the salaries paid to women to have been equalized with those paid to men, even in educational work. One of the gains has, however, been the general appointment of women as county superintendents of schools. Eleven women were between 1893 and 1909 elected to the state house of representatives, but none to the state senate.
It is stated that “the only occupation legally forbidden to women in Colorado is work in coal mines, though in practice they are excluded from other mines also. By police order they have been prevented from serving as barmaids in Denver saloons” (Equal Suffrage, p. 162).
 In a few States, however (e.g., Indiana and Oregon), school suffrage is limited to women who are heads of families, because these only are deemed to be interested in respect of children; and in a few (e.g., Michigan, Indiana, and Oregon) there are property qualifications of small amount attached to the school suffrage in the case of women which are not required in the case of men. In Kentucky school suffrage is granted only to women who have children.
 Women are not infrequently appointed to posts connected with legislative bodies. I found in Washington Territory that they had been chosen to be clerks and messengers to one or other of the houses of the (Territorial) legislature. It appears to have been held in Connecticut that a woman may be appointed pension agent and in Illinois that she may be master (or mistress) in chancery.