Women's Suffrage: The Fighting Forces

Updated May 6, 2020 | Infoplease Staff
by Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie Rogers Shuler
The Crises of 1916
The Decisive Battle

The Fighting Forces

In the struggle from which the final woman suffrage victory was now about to emerge four groups of fighting forces were engaged. They were the Suffragists, the Liquor Interests, the Anti-Suffragists and the Prohibitionists.

In the suffrage army more than two millions of women were enlisted. The parent body, the National American Woman Suffrage Association, directed the activities of the great mass of them, while the Woman's Party projected its entirely separate and often conflicting program for the group of militants. When victory finally perched upon the banners of the suffragists the National Suffrage Association had direct auxiliaries in 46 States of the Union and these far-reaching confederated bodies were functioning as one organ through its centralized national board. Extensive headquarters were maintained in both Washington and New York. In Washington congressional activities radiated from the great house at 1626 Rhode Island Avenue. In New York headquarters occupied two entire floors, equivalent to thirty large rooms, of a business building, 171 Madison Avenue. Between forty and fifty women were continuously retained on the clerical staff, and as many field workers were engaged in campaigns. A publishing company prepared and printed literature of various kinds. Publicity, organization, data and educational departments constituted branches of the general administration, and a weekly 32-page magazine, the Woman Citizen, was maintained as the Association's official organ and mouthpiece.

Historically, the National American Woman Suffrage Association presents a record of intensive organization probably never paralleled. Through half a century of incessant work that record reaches back to 1869. Even fifteen years before that time suffrage work of an agitational kind had been conducted by local committees or clubs under the direction of a strongly centralized national board. That plan of organization served the purposes of the early time admirably, but when it became clear that the women must for a time go to the States to seek and win their suffrage by referenda campaigns, a different form of organization was found necessary. The workers, therefore, by common consent in 1869, prepared the way for a new body better adapted to the new phase of the struggle. Out of the process, two organizations emerged-The National Woman Suffrage Association and The American Woman Suffrage Association, the first led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, the second by Lucy Stone, the differences being more personal than tactical.

The aims of both were the same, to secure suffrage for women whenever possible and by any constitutional method. The National emphasized the federal suffrage method by holding annual conventions in Washington and securing hearings on the Federal Suffrage Amendment, but it maintained, too, the policy of winning woman suffrage State by State until enough States should have adopted it to make women voters an element no longer negligible in the constituencies of United States Congressmen who would some day vote on the Federal Suffrage Amendment. The “American“ concentrated on State campaigns with the same end in view, whenever federal action should be possible. The field was wide and by tacit consent the two organizations kept out of each other's way, only a few States having auxiliaries to both.

Twenty years later the younger recruits, perceiving that the two separate organizations at times conflicted, set themselves to the task of union. This they successfully accomplished in 1890, the National-American Woman Suffrage Association resulting, with this announced aim:

“The object of this Association shall be to secure protection in their right to vote to the women citizens of the United States by appropriate national and State legislation.“

Auxiliary to this national body were the State suffrage organizations, known by various titles. They paid dues and sent delegates to the annual conventions where officers were elected, reports heard and plans made. The annual conventions were dated from 1869, although they had been held continuously since 1850, except during the war period.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whose “State papers,“ as Miss Anthony called them, showed a rarer touch of the statesman's genius than those of any other woman have ever shown, was president of the National Association continuously from 1869 to 1890, and although approaching her eightieth year, served the merged associations for one more year.

The National American Woman Suffrage Association had but four presidents, Mrs. Stanton being the first. She was followed in 1891 by Susan B. Anthony who retired in 1900 at the age of eighty, having been the suffrage president only nine years, but the “propulsive force“ of suffrage, as Grace Greenwood called her, for forty years-the untiring, intrepid, never discouraged, never defeated, greatest-souled woman of the suffrage movement. Carrie Chapman Catt was president from 1900 to 1904. In 1904 there came to the presidency one who stood unchallenged throughout her career as the greatest orator among women the world has ever known, and who made more converts to the suffrage cause than any other one person-Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, vice-president from 1891 to 1904 and president from 1904 to 1915. Carrie Chapman Catt served again as president from 1915 to 1920, when the final victory came.

Lucy Stone, the leader of the American, was made chairman of the Executive Committee at the union of the two suffrage organizations in 1890, and after her death in 1893 her place in the movement was ably assumed by her husband, Henry B. Blackwell, and her daughter, Alice Stone Blackwell.

After 1890 the composite organization, with its auxiliaries, conducted all the referenda suffrage campaigns in the United States, while at the same time carrying on the campaign for a Federal Suffrage Amendment. An occasional independent society arose here and there, sometimes with special aims, sometimes motived by personalities, but these were spasmodic and short-lived. With a single exception no one of them ever conducted a campaign. The exception was the Congressional Union, organized in 1913 and in 1916 renamed the Woman's Party. Its sole aim was the passage of the Federal Suffrage Amendment. Its tactics being out of harmony with those of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, auxiliaryship was denied it. It therefore conducted a parallel but independent federal campaign.

The early administration work of the National American Woman Suffrage Association was performed in the homes of the officers until 1895, when a part of one room in the World Building, New York City, served as a headquarters for the Organization Committee. That same year an attempt was made to establish a headquarters in Philadelphia as well as in New York, but at the end of the first year the two headquarters were united and located in two rooms in the World Building in New York. In 1898, the headquarters were removed to the Tract Society Building, where they occupied four rooms. In 1902 they were removed to Warren, Ohio. In 1909 they were returned to New York and occupied considerable space in a business building on Fifth Avenue. Before the end of the suffrage campaign “Headquarters“ meant the extensive housing arrangements already noted as applying to New York and Washington.

Concurrent with other suffrage work, the organization sponsored a series of suffrage papers that formed a journalistic chain reaching forward from the beginning in 1869 to the end in 1920. As early as 1868 Miss Anthony and Mrs. Stanton launched the lively paper called the Revolution. It lasted until 1870. In 1870 Lucy Stone, with money left her by Mrs. Elizabeth Eddy, established the Woman's Journal. It was published weekly in Boston and served as the organ for the American Association until the merger in 1890, when it became the official organ of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Thereafter it had a continuous life until 1917. Mrs. Frank Leslie having in the meantime bequeathed a fund to be used for the furtherance of the suffrage cause, that year, 1917, out of a combination of the Woman's Journal and several smaller suffrage papers, the Woman Citizen was established, “in the hope,“ as its prospectus announced, that it might prove “a self-perpetuating memorial to Mrs. Frank Leslie's generosity to the cause of woman suffrage and her faith in woman's irresistible progress.“ It remained the official organ of the Association until the victory of 1920, since which time it has functioned as an independent magazine devoted to the civic interests of women.

The activities of the second group of the fighting forces in the suffrage struggle, i.e., the liquor interests, have been already fairly covered. When the federal investigation into the political activities of the brewers brought out the minutes of the conferences where political campaigns were reported, it was discovered that the liquor interests' political committees, heavily financed, had directed all campaigns in the nation and that woman suffrage was uniformly included with temperance activities as equally invidious to the liquor traffic. These revelations made clear many a mystifying incident and squared with suffrage experiences that had been carefully filed away after each campaign. That the liquor forces regarded themselves as solely responsible for antisuffrage campaigns was evident, since each member of liquor organizations, when reporting suffrage defeats in his State, said “we did it.“ In the closing years of the struggle, the trade added “allied interests and groups of foreign-born voters“ as among those who “did it“ but all were under the direction of the common master. The liquor organizations were the United States Brewers' Association, the Wholesale Distillers' Association and the Retail Dealers' Association, each with its auxiliary in each State. Collectively these organizations and their allies were designated as the “wets.“

The only other organized opposition to suffrage came from the group of women commonly called “the Antis.“ The name of their organization was the Association Opposed to Suffrage for Women. Its members were mainly well-to-do, carefully protected, and entertained the feeling of distrust of the people usual in their economic class. Their speeches indicated at times an anxious disturbance of mind lest the privileges they enjoyed might be lost in the rights to be gained. The first anti organization appeared in Boston some time before 1890 and was lengthily designated as “The Association Opposed to the Further Extension of Suffrage to Women.“ It began its work by sending a male lawyer to protest in its name against having the vote thrust upon women, and it issued a small sheet called the Remonstrance which withheld the names of editor and publisher.

With the years these ladies grew bolder and made their own protests before committees. By and by similar groups were organized in other Eastern cities but the protestants gained no headway west of Ohio. Their uniform arguments were that the majority of women did not want the vote, therefore none should have it; that “woman's place was in the home,“ and that women were incompetent to vote.

After 1912 the women antis were represented in all referenda campaigns, but the manager of their activities was a paid outsider. A few names of women within the State were usually secured and these women were made to do duty as officers of an anti-suffrage association for the State, but they were rarely workers. Speakers were kept in the field and were sent collectively into campaign States. Suffragists learned to regard them, paradoxically, as unfriendly aids. Parlor meetings were their specialty and they frequently drew an audience of conservative women who could not have been persuaded to attend a suffrage meeting; and these women often received an impulse there which led them into the suffrage campaign. The antis recruited from the indifferent, and through an aroused interest many of the indifferent became suffragists. The president of the National Suffrage Association at one time was entertained at luncheon in a conservative city where the table conversation developed the interesting fact that every guest present had been converted to woman suffrage in anti meetings. In another city a woman became so indignant at what she heard at such a parlor meeting that she presented $10,000 to the suffrage association, the largest contribution any living person had made at that date.

The only time and place when the women antis really aroused suffrage tempers was in legislative hearings. Legislative committees divided the time equally between suffragists and anti suffragists, and thus the appearance was given of a conflict between two groups of women, each presenting equal claims, before men who had the authority to act as judges. The suffragists represented an unmistakable popular demand for a just cause facing an inevitable final triumph, and the poorest of their speeches no man could answer. Yet when an anti with an ingratiating smile said, “Gentlemen, we trust you to take care of us and the government,“ almost any legislative committee could be counted on to beam with selfsatisfaction in response. Then it was that suffragists felt, as at no other time, the poignant difference between the appeal of a just claim and a clinging vine. However, even this experience stirred a new suffrage zeal, so was not without its uses.

Whatever value women anti-suffragists may have placed upon their own efforts in campaigns, neither their opponents, the organized suffragists, nor their unacknowledged allies, the liquor forces, as evidenced in the secret minutes, credited them with decisive influence. A letter, already quoted in part, is illustrative of the attitude of the liquor forces on the subject. Wrote Hugh Fox, Secretary of the United States Brewers' Association, to the Fred Miller Brewing Company: “We are in a position to establish channels of communication with the leaders of the anti-suffrage movement for our friends in any State where suffrage is an issue.“ To those who erroneously thought of the anti-suffrage women as the leaders of the anti-suffrage movement this seemed conclusive proof of collusion, but the next sentence absolved the anti women and threw this telling light on the situation: “I am under the impression that a new anti-suffrage association has been organized in Illinois and is a retail liquor dealers' affair.“ It is clear that Mr. Fox had no thought of the women antis at all, but pointed his correspondent to the only force he recognized as anti-suffragists. As a matter of fact there had been no organized women antis in Illinois for years.

Probably the worst damage that the women antis did was to give unscrupulous politicians a respectable excuse for opposing suffrage, and to confuse public thinking by standing conspicuously in the lime light while the potent enemy worked in darkness. The anti-suffragists were probably as neutral toward the prohibition vs. liquor campaign as were the suffragists, but there was this difference: the women antis and the liquor men worked for a common aim; the suffragists and the prohibitionists had two entirely different aims. The campaigns of the anti women and the liquor men supplemented each other; the campaigns of the prohibitionists and suffragists were often in conflict and each regarded the other in those instances as a decided handicap. Very many persons accused the women antis and liquor opponents of collusion; suffrage field workers had the habit of sending affidavits in support of such a contention to headquarters. In the closing years, well known counsel for the liquor forces appeared at hearings in several States with the anti women, and not only spoke for but sat with them and wore their red rose insignia.

A representative of the anti-suffrage association sent to Montana, in 1914, attempted to arrange a basis of co-operation with the Montana liquor men whereby the women would do the public work and the liquor men keep out of sight. The National Forum, liquor organ at Butte, published the whole story. The Liberal Advocate, official organ of the Ohio liquor league published at Columbus, ran a series of articles by the Secretary of the Cincinnati Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, and many liquor papers carried general material sent out by the women anti-suffragists. Street cars in Stark County, Ohio, 1914, carried advertisements for the liquor amendment which urged the reader to “see the card on the opposite side of the car.“ On the opposite side was the women's anti-suffrage advertisement, asking for votes against the suffrage amendment. In Warren, Ohio, pieces of literature issued by the women antis and literature issued by the liquor organization, folded in the same package, were left at the doors of all houses by professional bill distributors. In Nebraska, the conspicuous “right-hand man“ of the women antis was the well-known publicity agent for the brewers.

The Macomb County Michigan Retail Liquor Dealers' Association addressed the following letter to newspapers-one of which turned the copy over to suffrage headquarters:

“Macomb County Retail Liquor Dealers' Association, Office of the Secretary, Mt. Clemens, Michigan - March 31st, 1913.

To the Publisher:

I enclose herewith copy for an advertisement which I wish you would insert in this week's issue of your paper....

I will thank you to see that this is done, and mail statement of charges and also marked copy to me and we will remit for the same....

- Joseph Matthews Enclosure - Secretary“

The enclosure, for the publication of which the Macomb County Retail Liquor Dealers' Association guaranteed payment, read:


You should vote against woman suffrage for ten thousand reasons.

We mention but six.

As women, we do not want the strife, bitterness, falsification and publicity which accompany political campaigns.

We women are not suffering at the hands of our fathers, husbands and brothers because they protect us in our homes.

We have women's greatest right-to be free from political medley. We do not want to lose this freedom.

We have refrained from protest heretofore, depending upon men to protect women from the ballot. We now ask the men of Michigan to defend us and vote NO on suffrage.

Keep mother, wife and sister in the protected home. Do not force us into partisan politics. Put a cross before the word 'No' on April 7th, and win our gratitude.“

The appeal was issued by the Michigan Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage and signed by its women officers.

In many States, posters or placards issued by the women antis were hung both outside and inside saloons. Usually they were hastily removed when photographers appeared, yet photographs were taken and are on file.

To hints in the press that their association was supported by liquor money, anti-suffrage women made loud disclaimers, as did also the liquor men. Certainly there was no need for anti-suffrage women to go outside their own group for funds, for most of their leaders were among the wealthiest of American women.

One interesting affidavit, filed at National Headquarters was that of Frances Belford Wayne, a clever, wellknown newspaper writer of Denver. A Mr. Maling of Denver, long the antis' chief field man, tried to persuade her, as he had other Colorado women, to engage in the service of the antis:

“If only you would drop your silly convictions and look after No. 1, I could take you down to these anti-suffragists and put you in a position to make as much money in six months as you can make here in two years. You could have a trip to Europe, live on velvet and line your pockets merely by boosting against suffrage instead of boosting for it!“ ... “Better let me lead you to the trough“ was Mr. Maling's final word. (The Woman's Journal, October 31, 1914.)

Although the antis were able to finance themselves and seemed to be well supplied with campaign funds, and although the officers and members of the organization probably knew of no collusion, suffragists believed that a trail led from the women's organization into the liquor camp and that it was traveled by the men the women antis employed. The anti women usually sent a man and woman manager to each State, the man working among the men and the woman among the women. These men were observed in counsel with the liquor political managers too often to doubt that they laid their respective plans before each other so far as co-operation could be of advantage. One evidence of this understanding came in the last years when the prohibition campaign was waxing exceedingly hot throughout the nation. By then the liquor men were exerting their utmost strength to vote, not only all living sympathizers, but also names on tombstones in suffrage referenda. They had waged a deadly anti-suffrage campaign among labor men, but in response to the appeals of suffragists the Federation of Labor and most labor unions had resolved for woman suffrage and labor leaders had long been sincere advocates of the cause. Union men were therefore engaged by the liquor interests to go among the local unions and by the reiterated declaration that women would vote prohibition, and thus not only take away the workingman's beer but also throw thousands out of employment, they succeeded in turning large numbers of organized labor men against suffrage.

Even this additional force did not suffice, for they apparently felt the need of still greater numbers. There followed an organized attempt to alienate from suffrage support a class less easy to reach, the men who were supposed to be supporting woman suffrage because they believed women voters would in turn support prohibition. To this task the women antis set themselves with definite intent and great zeal. A pink leaflet entitled, “Woman Suffrage and the liquor question-Facts show women's votes have not aided prohibition,“ was widely distributed by them in the 1915 campaigns and thereafter. At least one speaker at every meeting devoted time to this plan and tried to prove that women had not supported prohibition. At times the speech got a bit misplaced, as at Plattsburg, New York, where to a small audience, conspicuously sprinkled with well-known saloon men, an anti discoursed upon the positive disinclination of women voters to aid prohibition. At one and the same time, many trade papers were desperately entreating the liquor men to work early and late to defeat woman suffrage because women voters here and there and everywhere had voted dry. “It behooves all saloonkeepers and brewers to get busy early in the campaign to oppose the suffrage amendment by organized effort. It is the only way to save your business,“ urged the National Forum in the Montana campaign.

The combined plans are best described by the political colloquialism, “catch 'em goin' and comin'.“

Throughout the suffrage campaign suffragists were constantly making accusation that votes were being bought and returns were being juggled. They did not, however, accuse the women antis even of possessing knowledge that these things were being done, yet the antis were continually diverting public attention from the guilty men to themselves, to the complete bewilderment of the public. Again and again when suffragists attempted to tell the people what they knew and to announce some new evidence of the criminal nature of liquor opposition, the lady antis would “rise to explain.“ Such public defense of the entire opposition was as exasperating to suffragists as it must have been gratifying to the liquor trade. This interpretation of the situation became so general that cartoonists found a fruitful theme in picturing ladies with widely spread skirts concealing the real anti-suffragists hiding behind.

The last group in the fighting forces, the Prohibitionists, included the Prohibition party and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. The Anti-Saloon League, non-partisan and as strictly neutral on all other questions as the National American Woman Suffrage Association, assumed and held the leadership of the fight for prohibition during the decade preceding the ratification of the prohibition amendment. The relation between this body and the organized suffragists was admirably stated by L. Ames Brown in the North American Review (Suffrage and Prohibition 1916): “Enmity against a common foe does not always result in an alliance between the two crusaders but it cannot fail to produce a feeling of benevolent neutrality.“

Yet the woman suffrage struggle was vastly complicated by the prohibition struggle. Men indifferent to suffrage but hostile to prohibition were rendered impervious to the suffrage appeal, and men hostile to prohibition but in favor of suffrage were frightened by the continual insistence of liquor workers that woman suffrage meant the speedier coming of prohibition.

Mr. Taft, ex-President, in a magazine article in 1915 was representative of the first class:

“It is said that women will vote for prohibition and that, therefore, if they are given the vote we shall be rid of the saloon evils. To those of us who do not think that the saloon evil can be abolished by general prohibition, either national or statewide in States with large cities, and that the result of the effort would be worse than present conditions, this argument does not appeal. The lack of experience in affairs and the excess of emotion on the part of women in reaching their political decisions upon questions of this kind are what would lower the average practical sense and self-restraint of the electorate in case they were admitted to it now.“

Upon these two parallel reforms, each propelled onward by men and women whose souls were afire with a “holy zeal,“ a vast part of the population at first looked indifferently. Eventually all the intelligent members of society were listed for or against one or both. Had there been no prohibition movement in the United States, the women would have been enfranchised two generations before they were. Had that movement not won its victory, they would have struggled on for another generation.

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