About this Episode
On the season premiere of Prologued, we confront the myth of the women's voting bloc in the aftermath of the 2016 election and during the 2020 election cycle. Then, to truly understand the truth of the women's bloc, we take you back--all the way back to the American Revolution--and learn that women in America have never been completely united.
Cite this Site
Episode 1:The Way We Never Were Citations
Theme Music: Hotshot by Scott Holmes
Barbarao, Michael & Twohey, Megan, "Crossing the Line: How Donald Trump Behaved with Women in Private," The New York Times (New York, NY) May 14, 2016.
Del Real, Jose A. & Gearan, Anne, "Trump: If Clinton 'were a man, I don't think she'd get 5 percent fo the vote," The Washington Post (New York, NY) Apr. 27, 2016.
Dubois, Ellen Carol, Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women's Movement in America, 1848–1869, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999.
Lerer, Lisa & Chire, Susan, "'There's a Real Tension.' Democrats Puzzle Over Whether a Woman Will Beat Trump," The New York Times (New York, NY) Jan. 5, 2019.
Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 31 March - 5 April 1776 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society. http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/.
McGill, Andrew, "Trump's 'Nasty' New Insult-Here to Stay?" The Atlantic, Oct. 20, 2016.
Seelye, Katharine & Cain Miller, Claire, "Female Clinton Supporters are Left Feeling Gutted." The New York Times (New York, NY), Nov. 10, 2016.
Episode 1: The Way We Never Were:
The concept of the women's voting bloc, the idea that women will vote in a specific and similar way simply because they are women, has been a persistent narrative in American politics since the turn of the 20th century, when men who opposed women's suffrage based their concern on the fear that enfranchised women would unite and takeover American politics. Of course, that female takeover never happened. While more women do tend to vote than men--and have done so since the 1960s--men arguably remain the dominant political voice and definitely still hold most leadership positions and elected offices. Yet the rhetoric of this formidable block that could make or break a political candidate persists.
Now, as we wade through the 2020 election cycle and celebrate the centennial of the 19th amendment granting American women the right to vote, it is the perfect time to re-evaluate the political and electoral history of women in the United States. Has there ever been such a thing as a united women's block? what divides women? What influences them? Perhaps most importantly, what can we learn from the past century of women's suffrage to better inform our modern expectations and political process? We will be analyzing the history of women's political participation since the nation's founding. I will be speaking with scholars and elected officials from across the United States and, together, we will explore how this exciting history serves as the prologue of the current debate over women's issues in today's elections and the endurance of the myth of a women's voting bloc.
Join me as we discover what modern politics can learn from the past and the way we never were.
For Origins, Current Events in Historical Perspective, I'm Sarah Paxton and this is Prologued
The idea that women vote together has dominated political consciousness for the majority of the last century unless called into question by an unanticipated election result. The most recent anomaly was the 2016 presidential election.
November 10, 2016, was a surreal day for many Hillary Clinton supporters, who the New York Times reported felt “gutted, shocked, appalled, afraid.” They were waking up in a country they didn't recognize and struggling to figure out how they had been so sure of Secretary Clinton’s success and yet so wrong. Their surprise is understandable. In the lead up to the 2016 election, many major media outlets treated Clinton’s election as a foregone conclusion, not in the least part because of now President Trump's scandals involving women that seemed to constantly be dominating the news cycle. The Washington Post reported that in April 2016, then Republican nominee Trump's low favorability among women spelled trouble for the presidential hopeful—that sexist statements demonstrated just how difficult it would be for Trump to garner “support from female voters.”
With the first female candidate of a major political party and her rival nominee repeatedly being accused of sexism and misogyny, the female vote was the major focus and a reoccurring refrain of both campaigns. In April of 2016, Trump accused future Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton of “playing the woman card,” a gendered statement that gave Secretary Clinton one of her top campaign lines “Deal Me In” and “When there's no ceiling, the sky's the limit.”
So when President Trump won the election in 2016, it sent both Clinton supporters in the political media reeling. But then came the shot heard around the internet. 53% of white women voted for Donald Trump. Think pieces blossomed overnight, denouncing the complicity and betrayal of white women to the feminist cause, horrified that they had betrayed their sisters. And then came the articles about how the racial split within the women's electorate was nothing new, all from the same outlets who had been discussing, with minimal nuance, the struggle candidate Trump would have to gain female support. It was suddenly as if the cracks in the female vote had become visible, as if the mask on the women's voting bloc had been lifted and was suddenly revealed to have been long dead.
But then came the 2017 Women's March on Washington, and then the 2018 midterms in which a record-breaking number of women ran for office and won. And now, in the middle of the 2020 election cycle, we are once again talking about the women vote as a single entity. So what exactly is happening? Do we think that the 2016 election was a fluke and are reverting back to the political expectation that women would vote as a bloc that has dominated women's public history? Or are we just pulling the mask back into place, willfully hiding, again, the fallacy of that voting bloc in favor of jockeying for the female vote?
To find the answers to these questions, we need to go back nearly two and a half centuries back to before women could vote.
Despite being barred from voting, were women still politically involved before the 19th century? Or was it just nothing until suffrage?
It's nothing. We just cooked.
That is Dr. Joan Flores Villalobos, a professor of history at The Ohio State University, who teaches US women's history and immigration history. She and I had the opportunity to discuss American women before they were legally allowed to vote.
The 19th Amendment, which is the federal amendment to the constitution that granted women the right to vote in all elections, including presidential, wasn't ratified until 1920. Just a reminder, the English landed in Jamestown in 1607 and the American Revolution ended in 1783. So that is well over two centuries of Americans women's history in which they are living, working, and contributing to society without having any formal political voice. And why not?
So women were not granted suffrage until the 20th century. Part of that was that there was a legal understanding of women's position in the US—it was actually taken from English common law and then appropriated in US law and the Constitution—and that understanding was called coverture. It meant that women were covered under the legal identity of their husband. So women cannot sue, they could not own buy or sell property, they could not enter into contracts. Essentially, husband and wife were considered one person as a legal entity. And so women were not given the right to vote initially, in part, because it was assumed that the husband could vote and the woman was covered by the man's vote.
And, of course, some women, such as black and enslaved women or Native American women, were not given the vote at all because they were not considered citizens. In the case of enslaved women, because they were perceived as property and Native American women, again because of a different kind of legal categorization; but, also, because they were considered to be children…kind of legal children who didn't have the intellect to participate in civic life.
So white women were not the owners of their own citizenship and women of color were not citizens at all before after the American Revolution. First, their citizenship belonged to their father and then it belonged to their husband. And yet, they still actively participated in society outside of the home. And that included the American Revolution.
Women had a political role during the American Revolution and historians have called this Republican Motherhood. And it's kind of a concept that considers women's really active participation during the American Revolution. They wrote petitions, some of them, such as Deborah Sampson, dressed as a man and fought in the war. But part of the ideology of Republican motherhood was that women had a very specific role to play in the political life of the new nation and that this was specifically as a mother and a wife. That they could influence the opinions of their husbands and their children; and, through that, create better, patriotic citizens. That they would be the mothers to a new generation of Republican citizens that they created through their work in the home.
The rhetoric of Republican Motherhood emerged as a backlash to the social effect of women's public participation in politics after the Revolution. See, women's political participation had benefited the fledgling American government in the beginning. As Dr. Flores Villalobos said, they wrote petitions, they participated in boycotts of English goods, they homespun fabric to avoid English textiles, and, in some cities like Boston, participated in rallies in the street. After this political engagement, this active participation in freeing the New America from England, women expected some inclusion in their country's governance.
Take, for instance, Abigail Adams’s famous “Remember the Ladies” letter, in which she implored her husband, John Adams, to remember all the women who had served the country well, and to recognize them better than the English had. This letter is famous. It's an every textbook in the US and “Remember the Ladies” is still a slogan used in modern politics. Less known, however, was John Adams response to his wife.
“Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems. Although they are in full force, you know they are little more than theory,. We dare not exert our power at its full latitude, we are obliged to go fair and softly. And, in practice, you know we are the subjects. We have only the name of masters and, rather than give up this, which will completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and our brave heroes would fight.”
So John Adams and his contemporaries were concerned over women's expanding role in politics in the Early Republic, especially as women began engaging in partisan politics. Partisanship was seen as the dirty side of politics, the divisive side. Where women's politics during the Revolution had been supportive of independence, men believed that female participation in partisan politics wasn't helpful. Rather, they saw it as disruptive to the gendered hierarchy of the new nation’s society by bringing partisan disagreements into the home. Rhetoric supporting the Republican Motherhood ideology emerged to provide women a political role, but limiting that participation to the home. As Republican Motherhood rhetoric grew to be the standard, American politics was divided into two distinct spheres, one inhabited by men that had involved public politics, particularly partisan politics, and the other was the private sphere that surrounded the home, making the home and family the domain of women. And this ideology embedded in American culture, defining gender roles and expectations through the 19th century.
So the ideology of Republican Motherhood evolved throughout the 19th century into what historians now call—starting in the 60s—the Cult of True Womanhood. And this was a pervasive stereotype of the Antebellum Era that said women should cultivate the virtues of domesticity, of piety, of submissiveness, and that their appropriate sphere was in the home—what we call the private sphere, in opposition to the public sphere where men were involved in politics and business. Women were seen as too delicate for the public sphere and part of that evolution occurs because in the antebellum period, economic roles between men and women begin to be separated and, whereas in the colonial Era the home was also the site of labor, that ceases to be the case in complicated ways as we go through the 19th century. And so the home becomes this realm that is only associated with family with certain women's domestic labor, etc.
As the 19th century progressed, the characteristics of mothers and wives, of piety and submissiveness, became expected of American women. However, while the role of mother and wife was considered a role within the home, 19th century women began to reevaluate the implications of possessing these characteristics that define their womanhood. If women were more pious and more virtuous than men, many women began to believe that it was their responsibility to protect the moral health of the nation, taking on roles that were inherently social in nature; but, also, decidedly outside of the home. They stretched the bounds of the private sphere until it began to overlap with the public. So this meant that Republican Motherhood and the Cult of True Womanhood, both ideologies that specifically barred women from public life, were now the justification for women's slow push back into the public sphere.
One of the key areas that stretched the limits of the cult of true womanhood was in social reform movements like the early Temperance Movement, which sought to eliminate the evils of alcohol from American society through the early antebellum period. However, temperance wasn't the only social movement women got involved in. During the first half of the 19th century, developing hand in hand through the 1840s and 50s, were the abolition movement and the women's rights movement.
Women were really involved in this in particular; they created large scale collective petitions and also went on walking talking tours and spoke to big audiences trying to convince other women to join the abolition movement. The most notorious one of these were the Grimke sisters, Sarah and Angelina, who I always call Angelica, who were both daughters of a slave owning family. They grew up in the south and they spoke to other white Christian women of the South, urging them to join the cause.
So women weren't allowed to vote, but they were politically involved in political issues. They wrote petitions, they organized strikes, and it only escalated through the 19th century as women grew more and more involved in the public realm. Even if they still claimed they were acting in the private sphere, they began advocating for more rights. The women's rights movement itself began in the mid-19th century, most notably with the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, which resulted in the drafting of the Declaration of Sentiments and the beginning of the formal agitation for the women's right to vote. However, for some women living in the US, just as the private sphere was expanding into the public realm, their rights were actually being restricted.
In terms of Native women's political participation itself, coming up into the 19th amendment nationwide, we'd have to say that this particular period of time is a period of decline of Native women's participation.
That is Dr. Daniel Rivers, a professor of US and Native American history at The Ohio State University and a member of the Oklahoma Choctaw Nation.
Coming into the 1820s and 1830s, many tribes in the United States—in an attempt, in some ways to stave off settler colonial expansion into their world., land grabs on the part of increased American settlement after the Revolution; but, also, out of respect for American political traditions—had adopted American like structures of government. And, as part of this process, many of them—and here many people held the Cherokee up as the classic example—had actually done away with women’s rights within the tribe, that women had previously enjoyed, under the new constitutions. The Cherokee constitution that happens before the Trail of Tears, for instance, Cherokee women don’t have the right to vote. So that, actually, we see patriarchal eliminations of rights that Native women—not in all tribes precontact; but, in many tribes, my own tribe included, the Choctaw--women’s rights in this period are increasingly eroded. So the period from removal in the 1830s, up until the passage of the 19th amendment is, I would say is also a period of decline in terms of Native women’s political rights because of the increasing encroachment of non-Native patriarchal traditions into Native spaces.
Dr. Rivers’s point about the role of Native women being scaled back just as white women were beginning to make inroads into the public sphere brings us to an importnt point about how Americans discuss women’s politics, electoral or otherwise. For the most part, when Americans say “women’s politics,” it has often erased the presence of women of color from the narrative. Women of color and working classes actively participated in political movements, including social reform and suffrage, but they were actively excluded from many of the ideologies that middle class and elite white women used to justify their involvement.
Because those ideologies we just talked about that women use to justify political involvement? Republican Motherhood? Cult of True Womanhood? They were only available to middle class white women.
The Cult of True Womanhood was, of course, an ideology and not a reality. So though many women did—particularly middle class, white women—did often stay at home, this was not the case for the majority of women. Most women still worked, sometimes they still worked in the home. And it was certainly not the case for working class, Black women, for other women of color who, for example, the home was the workplace for somebody who was a domestic servant.
But despite not having the same access to the public sphere as middle class and elite white women, women of color were both present for, and necessary to, the women's rights movement from the very beginning.
Native American women also impacted the struggle for women's voting in the United States. That happened in a couple of different ways. The first way was the influence that Native American women, their power within tribes, had on US, non-Native suffragists.
So several of the important leaders of the women's suffrage movement and the organizers of the 1848 Seneca Falls convention had, themselves, been deeply influenced by Native traditions and lifeways. Lucretia Mott, in the months leading up to Seneca Falls, lived on the Seneca reservation. She was visiting the Seneca reservation in early summer and was staying there and learned about Seneca customs and was influenced by them, no doubt, coming into the 1848 convention. Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the 1890s, as well as her daughter, Harriet, would occasionally reference the upstate New York tribes as examples of cultural systems where women enjoyed more domestic and political rights than they did in the United States. When activists like Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton looked at the lifeways of the upstate New York tribes, they saw clan based, matrilineal, matri-local systems where Haudenosaunee women enjoyed much more freedom in terms of things like divorce, child rearing, property, and you can see how these principles and ways of thinking about women's power within social structures get woven into the Declaration of Sentiments.
Black woman were also essential to the success of the women's rights movement, which developed both alongside amd in collaboration with many of the social reform movements of the mid-19th century. As emancipated slave Sojourner Truth’s famous speech “Ain’t I a Woman” demonstrates, the antebellum women's rights movement and the anti slavery movement developed hand in hand, making Black women vital, and often overlooked, participants in both movements.
Black women also participated in abolition, notably Harriet Jacobs, who wrote her autobiography in 1861. Again, to encourage women to join the abolition movement, both white and Black women who participated in abolition did it from the perspective of ”this is our kind of moral imperative as women and we're going to speak as women to women.”
But abolition and women's rights began to pick up steam up to and through the Civil War. Closely connected, when the Civil War ended and the Union had won. Many female abolitionists believed that women were about to be enfranchised along with the newly freed African American men. Most of these women had spent their time in organizations like the American Equal Rights Association, advocating for what they called “universal rights,” which meant that every citizen, regardless of their race or sex, would be considered individual voting citizens. However, universal suffrage created a crucial split in the movement.
By the time of Civil War Amendments, the colloquial name for the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, were being drafted, many of the male abolitionists and Union elected officials begin to balk at the idea of immediate universal enfranchisement. Instead, they expressed concern about trying to complete too much too soon and focused on enfranchising freed men first.
After the Civil War, women's political involvements escalated, due in part to their large role in the abolition movement and in the war itself, issues such as social purity, which aimed to end the commercial sex trade, labor reform designed to protect the increasing number of women in the workforce, and temperance reemerged on a greater, more organized scale in the 1870s and 1880s.
The most notorious one was the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the WCTU. And it was founded in Hillsboro, Ohio, in 1873 and their main goal was the prohibition of alcohol, which, if you know anything, it succeeds. But they also pursued lots of other political goals such as age of consent laws, helping working class women. And this was a really grassroots and community-based organization that was led by women, run by women, and was hugely popular all throughout the US. And again, so women weren't voting; but, then you have somebody like Carrie Nation, going around to saloons and using a hatchet to break bottles. So in that way they were politically involved. And there were, of course other famous social reform movements. Jane Addams’s Hull House in Chicago, also the most notorious one. These were settlement houses that helped working class women and children find jobs and engage with culture. This was influenced by several evolutionist ideologies of the period that said that the working class could be raised by help from the upper classes who would help them engage with culture and art and education, etc. And then another place where women were really involved politically was in labor reform.
Despite often being left out of the narrative of women's growing role in politics, women of color also grew more politically involved during the 19th century, with Black women actively working with, and without, the local white women to support issues that were important to their own communities.
Another way that women were involved politically, in particular Black women like Mary McLeod Bethune, Ida B. Wells, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, who were all middle class, educated women from the south, who now historians called club women because they participated in middle class Black women's clubs where they got together and discussed political issues and planned interventions on issues that matter to them. In particular, they promoted education for Black youth and anti-lynching campaigns, and really articulated early vision of racial and sexual equality. A version of intersectionality is what we would call it now.
You should note the role of class in what Dr. Flores-Villalobos just said. Women's political participation was not just hinged on their race, but also the privileges afforded to them by their social and economic standing in society. Dr. Lilia Fernandez, a historian of women and Latinx Americans at Rutgers University, explains that this additional layer of political suppression applies to all women, including Latinas and Chicanos living in the southwest and western states of America,
You know, most Latina/Chicanas would not have been engaged in electoral politics, obviously, just as most other American woman would not have been either except for elite women. Generally, the kinds of women who would have been involved in political engagement, you know, civic issues, that sort of thing, would have been women from, you know, upper class families, women whose husbands were in positions of power or authority in local communities. But these would have been far and few between. So we're not talking about huge numbers here. We're talking about, you know, a handful of women from one town or city to another, depending on the local population size. And women would have been involved in many of the same issues that men were concerned about in their communities in some cases, whether that was labor/economic issues locally or educational issues, that was another big one, and then protecting and defending women's and children's Rights,
As women's political activism escalated during the 19th century, so to did the push for women's suffrage. Part of the rise of a social movement focused solely on enfranchising women was due to the increased importance of electoral politics through the mid-19th century. While petitions walking tours and social events designed to woo politicians had worked for elite white women during the early reform movements of the 1830s and 40s, they have become significantly less effective. Additionally, many of the women who had worked in the abolition movement were rankled by the split in the movement that sought to exclude women from voting. In fact, some of these activists refused to believe they had been excluded. Instead, they interpreted the Civil War amendments, particularly the 14th Amendment, very differently.
And it says “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States, nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law, nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”’
And, as you might notice, the 14th amendment makes no mention of gender and doesn't gender the subject of “citizen” or “any person within its jurisdiction.” So a lot of activists see the 14th Amendment as a kind of legal and intellectual opening to the question of rights and inclusion. This really becomes the central question of the late 19th early 20th century, in various ways, not just for the suffrage movement; but, it is part of why the suffrage movement takes up this issue after the Civil War.
Advocating that women not only should be allowed to vote, but actually already had the right to vote was only one of a number of strategies used by suffragists in their effort to gain the vote over the next half century between the 14thAmendment and the 19th Amendment. It was a process that would be defined by disagreements and fractures in the suffrage movement over both strategy and ideology.
We'll turn to that story next time, on Prologued.
This season of Prologued was brought to you by Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, an online publication of the Public History Initiative, the Goldberg Center, and the history departments at The Ohio State University in Columbus and Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, with support from the Stanton foundation. Our editors are David Steigerwald, Steven Conn, and Nicholas Breyfogle. It was written and hosted by Sarah Paxton with research support from Min A Park. Our audio and technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer and our production specialist is Brandon MacLean and Oranjudio. Song and band information can be found on our website, and we encourage our listeners to visit episode descriptions for citations to background reading and sources that made this podcast possible. You can find our podcast and more on our website origins.osu.edu, on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify and SoundCloud, as well as wherever else you get your podcasts. As always, you can find us on Twitter @ProloguedPod and @originsOSU. Thanks for listening.