Women's Suffrage: Special Handicaps and Hazards

Updated May 6, 2020 | Infoplease Staff
by Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie Rogers Shuler
The Invisible Enemy
A New Impulse

Special Handicaps and Hazards

No reform of government can be written into law in America until it has run a gauntlet of handicaps and hazards peculiar to this country. Some are inherent in the range and quality of our electorate; some are incidental to the operation of our laws, especially our election laws, as already written. In the case of woman suffrage each and all of them proved so particularly crippling as to be entitled to a chapter of their own.

To begin with, woman suffrage reached one of its first great moments just after the Civil War. The War had done two things to the immediate detriment of suffrage, along with all other idealistic causes. It had swept into their graves thousands of idealistic American men and it had opened the doors of America to thousands of unidealistic immigrants from Europe.

The appalling figures of the war show that one hundred thousand young men, the flower of the manhood of North and South, gave up their lives in the contest. The vacancies created in population and electorate were ultimately filled by immigrants, who, fleeing from European conscription and lured by the promise of high wages or profits, flocked to our shores in great numbers. Their muscles were as tense, their thrift as constant, their industry as profit-producing as those of the men who had gone. But there were differences which affected the entire history of the nation.

In the veins of many thousands of the dead, both North and South, flowed the blood of the heroes of the Revolution. They were men who had been educated in American schools and knew the ideals and principles upon which the young Republic had been founded. Their idealism had been supported after the European uprising of 1848 by a considerable number of European exiles or disappointed idealists, who, possessing as intense a love of political liberty as any American, found refuge in the United States, and not only gave gallant service in the Northern Army, but made the supreme sacrifice. Such additions were helpful factors in a nation striving for democracy. So, too, was the fact that immigration immediately after the war came from the North of Europe, where education and movements toward political freedom had made most progress.

But later that tide from the North was checked, and another set in from the South of Europe where illiteracy was most prevalent. By the naturalization law, immigrants were granted the privilege of citizenship after a five years' residence. Male citizens became voters in all States when qualified by age and residence in accordance with their laws. Fifteen States, impatient to attain numbers and prosperity, offered to foreign-born settlers the inducement of a vote before citizenship had been acquired, the declaration of intention to become a citizen, or “first papers,“ being the sole qualification required in addition to those of residence. Thus it came about that immigrant voters, who took the places of the men that had gone, had neither understanding of American principles nor a heritage which easily acquired it. Immigrants from each European nation generally joined the party advocated by earlier immigrants of their nationality, the Germans, Scandinavians and Italians usually allying themselves with the Republican party, and the Irish, Greeks and other southeastern nationals with the Democratic party.

The newcomers furnished so fruitful a field in which to recruit party voters that all parties yielded to the temptation. The new voters were not tutored in American history, principles or traditions; they were not made to understand that votes mean responsibility for the common welfare; instead they were urged to support a party because that party would do most for the men of their nationality. The method used was to pay leading men, usually called key men, to round up their nationalities on election day. If the pressure was great and competition strong, votes were bought, yet a loyalty to the party chosen was often beyond purchase. An illiterate Italian bootblack in the national suffrage headquarters building in New York often said that he had been offered a political job as street cleaner, but, said he, “I didn't take it because I would have to vote the Democratic ticket.“

Until the closing years of the struggle, when the suffrage army grew vastly larger and was recruited from all classes, its leaders and members were women of American birth, education and ideals. A remarkable number were daughters of Revolutionary fathers and in their childhood homes had learned the meaning of political freedom and had inherited other ideas of progress. Such women, turning to the States to seek enfranchisement, were driven to beg their right to have their opinions counted from Negroes, newly emancipated, untrained, and from foreign-born voters, mainly uneducated, with views concerning women molded by European tradition. No other women in the world suffered such humiliation nor worked against such odds for their political liberty.

Yet the woman suffrage movement in the United States was a movement of the spirit of the Revolution which was striving to hold the nation to the ideals which won independence.

All women of other lands now enfranchised (1923) received their vote by act of a single parliament, with the exception of two provinces of Canada where the question was put to referendum. In the United States, no State Legislature possessed authority to extend more than a restricted vote to women and some could not do that. Woman suffrage within the States meant approval by a majority, and in several States more than a majority, of the electors voting on the question. The necessary procedure was to secure an amendment to the State constitution by “striking out the word male.“ Thousands of voters did not know what a constitution or an amendment meant and were easily persuaded that striking out the word male “would take the vote away from men and give it to women!“

In the year 1915, the suffrage committees of four campaign States, New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New Jersey, united in the publication of literature. One flier, setting forth simple principles, was illustrated by a cartoon in which a cradle labeled “political liberty“ was being rocked by a big foot, labeled “the Spirit of '76.“ In all four States these had to be withdrawn because of the voters who did not know the meaning of those phrases and interpreted the cartoon as meaning that when women vote men will have to rock the baby's cradle.

The enfranchisement of the black man by bayonet turned into the electorate a vote, enormous in some States, which in every referendum campaign became a solid bloc, under the direction of white men, with which to club back the advancing suffrage forces. The Negro vote proved to be an exceedingly venal one and even though Negroes usually voted the Republican ticket, they were often able to exact pay for their loyalty. A professor at Princeton, suspecting that a certain colored factotum sold his vote, said to him the day after election,-“Well, George, what did you get for your vote yesterday?“-“Five dollars, sah.“-“Well, which ticket did you vote for?“-“Republican, sah, but de Democrats offered me more.“-“Well then, why didn't you take the highest bid?“-“Well, sah, I specs de Democrats be de corruptedest.“

The Negro should not be too much blamed for his political weaknesses; he was untrained and ignorant and leaned upon the advice of the white man who freed him from slavery, much as a child leans upon an elder. Those upon whom he leaned were not the great men who advocated human rights, but small men who lived by prostituting human rights.

With the enfranchisement of the Negro, the last man in the United States was enfranchised except the Indians living on reservations. As these were reclaimed from primitive habits and established in civilized customs, they too were enfranchised by the federal government and were given their chance to vote against extending the right of suffrage to white women, which they proceeded to do in several States.

After the war the Negro, and the foreign-born, together with the illiterate American voter, offered continual temptation to unscrupulous interests within and without the party, whose privilege or profit was affected by an election or the fate of a legislative bill. “Wherever there is money, there will be corruption,“ says James Bryce,[1]* and wherever there is a large portion of an electorate too ignorant to understand party differences or the nature of political issues, a combination is created which will never fail to produce an extreme variety of corruption. Prosperity after the war was stimulated by the protective tariff, by city, State and national franchises, and various commercial concessions. Questions involved in these matters became issues of campaigns, and men whose profits thus depended upon Legislatures or elections were induced to invest a portion of their profits in politics in order that more profits might be forthcoming. A corrupted minority of the monied interest, combined with a corruptible minority of the electorate, produced the inevitable, and a balance of power was created which at times dictated legislation and won elections.

This vicious combination caused the State Legislatures to elect so many United States Senators in bold shamelessness that the dominant parties took up the challenge of the Populists and secured the adoption of a federal amendment providing for the popular election of Senators. This same combination ruled the large cities with such utter disregard for honor or honesty that campaigns by reform elements were constantly waged “to put the rascals out“ and that, too, with more defeats than successes. Neither party was clean; the “shame of the cities“ has been Democratic in New York and Boston, Republican in Philadelphia and St. Louis. Votes have been bought in elections by both parties, and, although the long struggle for the restoration of decency has removed the baser forms of corruption, the end is not yet. An occasional judge has been proved corruptible, juries have been often suspected and legislation not infrequently has borne the signs of purchase. Corporations, with need for political protection, made large contributions to parties and candidates, expecting political favors in return, until the public made so loud a protest that such contributions were forbidden by law. Individual stockholders could do what their collective corporation was forbidden to do, however, and thus the law was easily evaded. Manufacturers, railroads and the liquor trade kept sharp men on watch over all Legislatures and Congress, in order that no legislation inimical to their interests should be passed without their knowledge, and when measures affecting them came up, flocks of professional lobbyists descended upon the Legislature. A man thoroughly versed in all the intricacies of parliamentary law and legislative procedure, informed as to the history, the ambitions and the weaknesses of every legislator, affable, plausible, well-mannered, was an ideal chief for these lobbies. He was often a lawyer and usually a far abler man than the majority of the legislators he was expected “to handle.“

The pay of legislators has always been so small that men ambitious for business success would not give the time necessary to legislative service. The State custom of selecting representatives from the residents of districts often limits the selection of candidates to people ill-fitted for the duties involved. Every Legislature is likely in consequence of these conditions to include a number of men low in mental and moral qualities, easily moved by flattery and tempted by money. “What sort of a Legislature have you got?“ was asked in one State.[2]* Quick came the answer, “As good as money can buy.“

In the second election of Abraham Lincoln in 1864, loyal men at the North, sincerely believing that the fate of the nation would be endangered should the election be entrusted to the free will of an electorate from which loyal men had gone to the front, leaving a disproportion of disloyal ones at home, bought votes to save the day, conscientious Christian gentlemen contributing to this end. The corruption thus begun, or continued from prewar days, was kept alive by elements which were wholly selfish and sordid. New Hampshire furnishes a wellknown example of the methods which robbed many States of all but the form of democratic government. Soon after the war a contest began between the Boston and Maine Railway and the Concord Railway for control of the State. It continued before the voters, the Legislature and in the courts for nearly twenty years. Legislators were bought in each succeeding Legislature, the price climbing higher each year, and when the contest grew most intense, agents of the two railroads selected candidates satisfactory to their respective sides, and bought votes at the polls to elect them. Even at that, they were obliged to pay for the loyalty of the successful candidate.

The bitterness of the contest overshadowed all partisan interests. Electors, observing that others were being paid for their support, excused themselves with the philosophy that one railroad was bound to win and the winner ought to pay for the privilege, and joined the list of the purchasable. The Concord road was finally beaten in the struggle and its representatives made no secret of the fact that the contest had cost it a million dollars. The successful Boston and Maine never divulged the secret of the cost of its victory, but in after years was merged with other railroad interests, thus offering circumstantial evidence that it had impoverished itself in the contest. United States Senator William E. Chandler was outspoken in his condemnation of the methods employed, and was promptly punished by the loss of his seat. The electorate was utterly demoralized by this wholesale purchase of votes. In ordinary elections electors insisted upon being paid for their time, even when supporting the party of their choice. Other men were frankly for sale to the highest bidder. “Floaters,“ as the purchasable voters were called, gathered around the polling places and refused to sell their votes until closing time approached, when prices went up.

“Why,“ asked a suffragist of the Republican State Chairman, “do not the Republican leaders agree with Democratic leaders to buy no more votes and thus rescue the State from its shameful degradation?“ With a whimsical smile, he replied, “It was tried once in the town of C-, and when the announcement was made that no votes were to be bought the floaters called a convention, nominated a ticket and elected it.“ Thus had the right of voters to be bought been firmly established!

When in 1919 the National Suffrage Association sent women into New England to help the local workers in polling their Legislatures, preparatory to the ratification of the Federal Suffrage Amendment, several members quite frankly responded with the confession that they were not at liberty to promise their votes upon any question without consulting the “man who put me in.“ Similar demoralizing conditions were constantly found throughout New England, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio, and spasmodically in other Northern States. Few States, if any, have escaped this corrupting influence, which everywhere has lowered political standards and subverted democratic freedom of choice.

Yet at no time have honest majorities entirely surrendered to criminal minorities and many a hard battle between the two has been fought, and sometimes won. In response to public opinion, laws curbing the practices which had aided corrupt minorities have been passed, and although these have been difficult of enforcement, they have exercised a restraining influence.

“In the United States,“ said Mr. Bryce,[3]* “the swift growth of prodigious fortunes and the opportunities for increasing them by obtaining favors from the governments of States and cities had coincided with the building up of party organizations through whose help these favors could be obtained. The influence of what is called 'Big Business,' wealth concentrated in a few hands and finding its tools in politicians and party organizations, was for many years a fruitful source of mischief, exploiting the resources of the country for its selfish purposes. These abuses provoked a reaction. 'Big Business' began to be bitted and bridled, and though it still shows fight, can hardly recover the dominance it enjoyed thirty years ago, for public opinion has grown more sensitive and vigilant.“

The effect of corruption upon the political history of the nation has been to drive many of the best equipped men out of politics and to render those who accept office conservative and exceedingly cynical toward “the rights of the people.“ Men have long warned women of the “dirty mire of politics“ and many have been in truth pessimistic concerning the permanency of self-government. “Wait,“ they said, “until manhood suffrage has proved itself, money has been eliminated, and politics has become a fit place for women.“ This plea was conscientious and sincere and served to discourage many women of their class from aiding the campaigns for the vote. “We know woman suffrage is just and that it will come, but this is not the time,“ said men and women in large numbers in every suffrage campaign, and held themselves fastidiously aloof from co-operation.

Still other hazards, hazards of a legal nature, beset the path of suffragists and balked their efforts. For instance, an amendment to a State constitution must, in most States, pass two consecutive Legislatures, the campaign to secure submission thus covering a period of three or four years. Several States require more than a majority of the Legislature on the second passage. States requiring passage through one Legislature only usually call for more than a majority vote, three-fifths, three-fourths, two-thirds, being the usual provisions. And when a majority vote of one Legislature only is required for passage, additional handicaps are imposed over the election, it being usual to require the majority of all the votes cast at the election, instead of the majority cast on the proposition. The suffrage referendum in Oklahoma was the only one ever carried under this requirement. In many States a single vote in one House has prevented submission of suffrage amendments. In referenda elections illegal ballots have been counted in the total of which the suffrage amendment must secure a majority. If, therefore, the tricks of suffrage opponents failed to insure defeat in the Legislature there were always many others to be applied at the election.

Again, a referendum on a non-partisan issue has none of the protection accorded a party question. The election boards are bi-partisan and each party has its own machinery, not only of election officials but watchers and challengers, to see that the opposing party commits no fraud. The watchfulness of this party machinery, plus an increasingly vigilant public opinion, has partly corrected the election frauds which were once common. When a question submitted to referendum is espoused by both dominant parties it has the advantage of the watchfulness of both party organizations and is doubly guarded. But when such a question has been espoused by no dominant party it is at the mercy of the worst forms of corruption, precinct election officers often aiding its defeat by running in illegal votes against it, or uniting to count it out.

Women have been eligible as watchers in few States. Moreover, non-partisan questions, even when submitted at elections, are not entitled to separate watchers. A suffrage amendment unsponsored by political parties, as was usual, had no protection within the election precinct and when unscrupulous enemies were on hand was sent to certain disaster. Under the theory of our government, election officials, respecting “the will of the majority“ as the sovereign of our nation, are expected to maintain honesty in elections, but in suffrage referenda theory and practice were frequently unacquainted.

“If suffrage amendments are defeated by illegal practices, why not demand redress?“ the novice in suffrage campaigns used to ask. There was the rub. In 25 States, no provision is made by the election law for any form of contest or recount on a referendum. Political corrupters could, in these States, bribe voters, colonize voters and repeat them to their hearts' content and redress of any kind was practically impossible. If clear evidence of fraud could be produced, a case might be brought to the courts and the guilty parties might be punished, but the election would stand. In New York in 1915, the question was submitted to the voters as to whether there should be a constitutional convention. The convention was ordered by the ludicrous plurality of 1,300 out of New York's millions of voters. On recount in a few precincts, it was estimated that about 800 fraudulent votes were cast. Leading lawyers discussed the question of effect upon the election, and the general opinion was that, even though the entire plurality, and more, was found to be fraudulent, the election could not be set aside. The convention was held.

The election law is vague and incomplete in most States and if fraud has been committed it is practically impossible to discover what an honest count of the vote would have been. Thirty-two States in clear terms disfranchise (or give the Legislature power to disfranchise) bribers and bribed, but few make provision for the method of actually enforcing the law, and, upon inquiry, the Secretary of State of many of these States reported that no man had ever been disfranchised for this offense. This was true of States which have been notorious for political corruption.

With a vague law of uncertain meaning to define his punishment in most States, and no law at all in 25 States, the corrupt opponent of woman suffrage amendments found many additional aids to his nefarious acts. A briber must make sure that the bribed carries out his part of the contract. Whenever it is easy to check up the results of the bribe, corruption may reign supreme with little risk of being found out. Ways of checking up on bribes have been the chief study of the corrupt politician. It was attained in Wisconsin in 1912 by using a small pink ballot for the suffrage ballot. In North Dakota in 1914 the regular ballot was long, the suffrage ballot, small and separate, although of the same color. In Iowa in 1916 the suffrage ballot was separate and yellow. In New York in 1915 there were three ballots. Party emblems easily distinguished the main ballot. The other two were exactly alike in shape, size and color, and each contained three propositions, one group coming from the Constitutional Convention and the other from the Legislature. Party orders went forth to vote down the constitutional provisions and it was done by a plurality of 482,000, nearly 300,000 more than the plurality against woman suffrage. On the ballot containing the suffrage amendment, No. 1, there was No. 3, which all political parties wanted carried. Yet so difficult was it to teach ignorant men to vote “no“ on suffrage, No. 1, and “yes“ on No. 3 that, despite the fact that orders had gone forth that No. 3 was to be carried, it barely squeezed through.

In the early years of State effort so few referenda were secured that women did not learn the difficulty of securing honest elections. With experience, however, they knew that when their cause had overcome the obstacles imposed by the constitution it immediately entered upon the task of surmounting the infinitely greater hazards of the election law. They became aware that an unscrupulous body stood ready to engage the lowest elements by fraudulent processes to defeat suffrage. They learned that the place on the ballot, or the kind of ballot, exposed it to criminal manipulatí­on; that there was no protectí­on against fraud on election day for a measure unsponsored by a dominant political party, and that after the fraud was committed there was no redress.

Through the handicaps and hazards created by these indefensibly unjust conditions, women were forced to fight their way to political liberty. On the outside of politics, with no vote to help, they waged their battle against sharp, shrewd groups of men who, on the inside of politics, served no God but Mammon. To their aid such men called the foreign-born, the Negro, the Chinese, the Indian, mobilized into an army at their back, and in this position of vantage commanded just and liberal-minded men to silence, and many obeyed. There were men who nobly helped the suffrage cause, but in the main the decades came and the decades went, and the women went forward, but alone. No party whip was cracked, no bayonet was drawn in their behalf. They steered their course by their unshakeable faith in self-government and its ultimate redemption from the menaces which threatened it. They despaired, not so much at the postponement of their own vote, as over the wild chaos which the strife of parties had wrought and into which their own enfranchisement would plunge them.

Why did they not give up? Many, very many, did; but the eternal destinies of the human race drove others on.


* “Modern Democracies,“ Volume 2, page 475.


* “Modern Democracies,“ Volume 2, page 479.


* “Modern Democracies,“ Volume 2, page 485.

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