On August 18, 1920, a slowly magnifying political earthquake shook American politics to the very core. On that day, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, setting the stage for millions of women to gain the right to vote when made official on August 26.
The adoption of the suffrage amendment brought a successful conclusion to a decades-long campaign in pursuit of women’s suffrage. It was a victory for activists who had devoted their lives to this cause, sacrificing money, reputations, and even their individual freedom in an attempt to gain the vote.
But there was also a sizable population of the women in the United States who actively campaigned against women’s suffrage. They sought to keep women in their own domestic sphere, and away from politics.
The battle for women’s suffrage pitted suffragists against the “antis,” and their fight for public opinion ultimately shaped the national argument over the women’s vote. And the suffragists won that battle, leaving the anti-suffrage activists with a decision about what to do next.
In the anthracite coal fields of Pennsylvania, the Pottsville Republican sought to explore this very issue. And so in their efforts to explain the political earthquake, they interviewed the wives and daughters of very prominent Republicans, mixing in a handful of other voices as well.
Below, you’ll find the comments these women gave to the Republican reporter on August 21, 1920, three days after Tennessee’s ratification, giving the amendment the necessary 36 states for adoption. In them, you’ll see how some conservative, older women faced the prospect of getting a right under the Constitution that they actively campaigned against. In these comments you’ll also see new battle lines developing. Should anti-suffrage women not vote, even though they had the right? Would the turnout in the 1920 presidential election among women be high or low? Would women vote the way their fathers or husbands voted? Or would they be independently minded and vote for the best candidate? Should women run for public office?
In the following transcripts from the Republican, I’ve added the women’s full name and their age in 1920:
Ella Z. Elliott
“In no country in the world have women advanced as in America. In the home and family life she stands supreme. As educators and in all lines of business, Woman has become the active competitor of man even to sharing with him in an equal renumeration for her services, if they are the equivalent in value to those rendered by him. It has been proven that a womanly woman can enter the business walks in life and still retain the traits that made her a valued member of the inner circle of home and family life.
To such women the antics of the advocates of the advanced suffragettes, the breaking of windows, the throwing of stale eggs, the self imposed hunger strikes, in England, and even the picketing of the White House and waylaying of Congressmen, in our own National Capitol, were a horror and disgrace, and did more toward retarding the movement, epsecially with women, than aiding it.
As to ourselves we felt we were well represented by the male members of our families on the voting lists of the G.O.P. and Bourbon Dynasties of our country. We felt that if any great question came up in which we were interested that we had sufficient influence with these voters to turn the tide in the favor of our candidate or the cause and we were satisfied.
WE perched upon the neutral colored high fence of conservatism, waiting our opportunity to clamber down on either side, with the suffragist or the antis, whichever gained the popular acclaim of the public.
The fiat has gone forth. The freedom of the ballot has been placed in many unwilling hands. But women will be true to the trust imposed in them.
This is an age of progress. A new era of civilization has dawned upon us as a country, with the World’s War. Our responsibilities are great as a nation. We cannot retard progress but we must at least march on with it, if not anticipate its advances.
The Federal suffrage amendment and the Prohibition enactment, are great questions, yet in their crude state. They cannot automatically go into effect but must be individually worked out as time goes on.
If this is the new era of civilization predicted then a Higher Power than ours as a nation is the guiding hand at the Helm and we must go hand in hand with it.
WE have much to learn and women must accept the trust conferred upon them.
Our country expects every woman to do her duty.
Mrs. C.A. Snyder
Laura C. Snyder
“No, I never was for suffrage but since it has come to pass I believe that every woman should inform herself fully as to the manner of government and how she can best aid to bring the most good to everyone. I shall avail myself of every opportunity and use my vote to improve any condition that the government may improve upon.
Mrs. Ruth Snyder Sapper
Ruth Snyder Sapper
“… of course I’m in favor of suffrage and I’m going to be busy as possible to help the women become a part of the political world. I am much interested in having a good organization for the Republican women in the county. I am a member of the committee after advising with the practical men in the county who have been at the head of affairs are about to complete a full organization for women in the county. This will include committee women from every district, and some time during September it is proposed to have a large meeting to devise ways and means to help the Republican party in the county and state. Sure I’m a Republican and I’m going to help Dad all I know how.
No, I’m not a candidate for office – I’ll let some other member of the family hold all the offices he can for a while at least. NO doubt I will learn and after a while we’ll have the best women’s organization in the state of Pennsylvania.
Miss Martha R. Bannan
Martha Ridgway Bannan
“I certainly intend to vote. If we have been given the right of suffrage we must do our duty. The beggar who formerly came to my back door has more power in the government than I have had. While I have been enrolled as a member of an association opposed to suffrage, since the duty of voting has been placed upon me I will certainly vote and for the Republican ticket as I believe Senator Harding is the best man for the office.
As for a woman’s party I do not approve of it because women, as a whole, are so hysterical, that I do not believe they would have any more success in agreeing on a platform for such a party than the various committees that recently met in Chicago and endeavored to form a third party. Irresponsible women will undoubtedly vote so that well-read, intelligent women have a duty to perform voting, therefore I’ll be on hand at the November election.
Miss Edith Miehle
Edith Miehle – (possible Pottsville mayoral candidate)
“There is no reason why the women should not vote…”
Suggests women for school board and council, reform for the city.
“I do not think that a general movement of the women will take this fall. It will take at least a year but you will find that the women will register and that they will vote and that eventually you will find them taking a keen and enthusiastic interest in all matters of local import and likely in state and national affairs as well.”
“A girl in the office”
“The privilege of voting has been thrust upon me, as it were, without my having given any previous thought to the matter as to whether I would wish to vote or not. I think this is the attitude of the majority of the women of Pottsville, as the work of educating them for suffrage has not been general enough to arouse interest in the question. Personally, I am opposed to women entertaining politics and taking an active part. It is more fitting that a woman bring a home to a state of perfection than for her to attempt to tell the country how to be perfect. It seems to be the general opinion that the wives will vote as their husbands do, without knowing why, or wherefore, but I believe that although the wives may acquiesce outwardly, in order to keep peace in the family perhaps, they will enter the voting booths and vote exactly as they please, having a perfectly good reason for so doing, because they have privately studied the matter.”
Mrs. H.O. Bechtel
“I am not in favor of suffrage and have always been strong in my convictions that women should keep out of politics and let the men have charge of the government. I do not wish to vote, but I have not yet decided whether or not I shall register and vote at the coming election.”
Mrs. C.A. Whitehouse
“I do not care to vote, but when it becomes the duty of women to vote, I will do so. In politics and affairs men, through their regular pursuits and training, are qualified to best serve the interests of the public and I believe woman can perform a greater service to her country in the home and by refraining from activities in public affairs and politics, which can safely be left to the men. In the case of the widow, who owns property or who otherwise has interests affected by the conduct of public affairs, I think it would be only justice to permit her to have some voice in the government which regulates the expenditures of the taxes she must pay and has much to do with the welfare of her children.
But the woman with a husband can safely let such matters in the of her husband, who is better acquainted with public needs and how to best secure desired results.
Miss Anna Wilhelm
“We discussed the matter of Suffrage at the home table, Friday evening. The important thing is to familiarize ourselves with the method of voting, and take steps to place the voting booths in rooms and at places where no woman voter will hesitate to go and cast her ballot.
The thinking women, of course, want to vote. But we do not expect many of the women will avail themselves of the right to vote, until sure we can vote without any unpleasant consequences, by reason of going to the polling places.
It is most important to us that we cast our votes intelligently on the issues of the election.”
Miss Margaret Galligan
“Surely I intend to vote if given the opportunity and furthermore I believe women should be candidates for office, and they ought to take an active part in campaigns in their own way.”
Mrs. M.H. Spicker
“Women will not vote uniformly as their husbands do. They will consider the matter from their own stand, and act accordingly. I intend to vote. Women should be candidates for office, and will take more or less active part in campaigns, according to their personal inclinations.
Mrs. Edith Hodge
“Some men seem to think that if a woman gets into politics she will lose all her charm and home loving principles. I differ with them, as I am sure the women most active in politics will be those who have their families raised, or those who have none at all. I believe in votes for women and I will vote among the first. I pay taxes, why not vote. I am sure that woman will not sell her vote for a drink of whiskey as many men do at the polls and will take more care to vote for better office holders than a man. I believe a steady woman will earn the money and put more time to business when elected to an office than most men do now. I get around know a lot of office holders that do not devote nearly the time they ought to, to their business.
Of course some women would fritter away the time just the same but I am talking about the steady business woman. A good woman will do well and make things go both in the home, politics, or church affairs or in fact anywhere you put her in my opinion.”
Mrs. Harriet Kear
“I am going to register as a matter of course… I felt that the majority of women have a mind of their own…
On national issue it is my opinion that the women whom I associated feel that it is six of one and a half dozen of the other, and that if they will vote to suit themselves. If the school board or council do not handle matters to suit me I feel that I will tell them quietly what I think about it and they will likely give my opinion some attention.
I feel that we will get the work at home done and go down and vote without any social display and then come home. In otherwise we will vote as they average voter does on the way home from work.”
In Schuylkill County, 29,000 women registered to vote in the 1920 election. Of that total, 25,000 traveled to the polls on November 2, 1920. Schuylkill County ultimately helped send Republican Senator Warren G. Harding to the White House with 59.5% of the vote.