Why did some women oppose the suffrage movement?

When most Americans consider the history and legacy of the women’s suffrage movement, they think of larger-than-life historical figures like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Ida B. Wells, as well as momentous and impactful events like the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention.  In other words, people understand the suffrage movement based on the contributions made by people who actively advocated for the expansion of voting rights to women and who believed that, as equals, women should be able to help shape the institutions and policies that shaped their own lives.

On the other hand, fewer Americans today may know much about the communities of women who did not believe that women should have the right to vote.  Many today may not know that this group even existed in the first place. After all, why would women oppose the expansion of their own basic rights and privileges?

Typically made up of women from more privileged social and economic backgrounds, the communities of women who opposed suffrage were called several different names, including “anti-suffragettes,” “antis” and “remonstrants.”  One of the anti-suffrage groups who helped popularize the term “remonstrant” was the Massachusetts Association Opposed to the Further Extension of Suffrage to Women.     

Founded in May 1895 in Boston, the organization’s first major undertaking was to facilitate an opposition campaign against the Wellman bill, a local initiative to give municipal suffrage rights to women in Boston.  During the following years, the MAOFESW expanded its objectives to counter the growth of women’s suffrage advocacy across Massachusetts and other nearby states. Throughout the organization’s 25-year history, their work to prevent women’s suffrage revolved around the publication of original literature, as well as other methods of community engagement.

The MAOFESW created their own publications, including a journal called The Remonstrance, in order to advertise their views and goals and to facilitate wider engagement with local politicians and the general public.  Published in February 1911, a pamphlet entitled “Some rights and exemptions given to women by Massachusetts law” illustrated a fundamental understanding shared by local anti-suffragists: that women already possessed ample social influence and power as compared to men and did not require or deserve the right to vote in elections.  The pamphlet was outlined in a way to convince readers how women benefitted from current state laws and regulations even more than men, including in the domains of marriage, property ownership and citizenship.  

Although the MAOFESW consistently grew between the 1900s and 1910s–claiming 37,000 members across hundreds of communities in Massachusetts in 1915–the organization officially disbanded in 1920 after the ratification of the 19th Amendment.  And while the MAOFESW and other similar “remonstrant” organizations across the country did lose their crusade against the expansion of voting rights to women, their campaigns remain important for fully understanding the evolution of the women’s suffrage movement and the forces that attempted to impede it.

To learn more about women’s suffrage, check out the “Get Out The Vote: Suffrage & Disenfranchisement in America” exhibit from the Special Collections and University Archives.  

David Biel, Candidate for Master of Library & Information Science, University of Maryland.

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