“Votes for Women: International Suffragists’ Song”
by Ed Markel, Library of Congress, Music Division
Simple history is inaccurate history, period. How we think about the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which occurred in August 1920 and guaranteed American women the right to vote, is a prime example of our tendency to oversimplify complicated social movements. This monumentally important event is often remembered as a struggle between high-spirited, forward-looking women and dour, fear-mongering men who had a vested interest in keeping women in their place, politically and personally. And there certainly is a kernel of truth to that characterization. But history is always more complicated – and interesting – than we give it credit for. The truth is, many women were active in the anti-suffrage movement, and some of those women were members of the Schubert Club. As we look back at the 19th Amendment during its centenary year, it’s important to remember the anti-suffragists’ stories, too.
There is a common misconception that women who were against women’s suffrage were somehow selfish or self-loathing or disconnected from the social welfare movements that helped to define the Progressive Era. This was not necessarily true. In an article called “ ‘Better Citizens Without the Ballot’: American AntiSuffrage Women and Their Rationale During the Progressive Era”, published in the Journal of Women’s History in 1993, historian Manuela Thurner discusses a 1915 collection of anti-suffrage essays written by Massachusetts women:
Every one of the seventeen essays…was prefaced by a roster of the various public activities of their respective authors – activities that included work in educational associations, municipal, health, consumer, and trade union leagues, women’s clubs, settlement houses, state boards of charity, prison, playground, and children reform organizations.
Thurner then points out John William Leonard’s 1914/15 book Woman’s Who’s Who of America, where proof of antisuffragists’ concern for society is seen on a national scale. Indeed, that book contains a paragraph-long biography of Schubert Club member Belle Comin Swearingen, wife of Rev. H. C. Swearingen of the House of Hope Presbyterian Church. Her brief Who’s Who biography indicates that Mrs. Swearingen was a well-educated teacher and a talented administrator who was the director of St. Paul’s Y.W.C.A. and the president of the Foreign Missionary Society from 1911- 1912. She was also “against woman suffrage.”
Why would such a well-educated professional woman interested in women’s welfare be so opposed to suffrage? One explanation is that many of these women felt that they could do more to improve society, and the lot of Outside the Political Machinery: The Activism of the Anti-Suffragists oppressed women generally, by staying away from what they saw as the morally degrading world of politics. In her article, Thurner quotes Mrs. J.B. Gilfallan, president of the Minnesota Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage: “Anti-Suffragists are opposed to women in political life, opposed to women in politics. This is often interpreted to mean opposition to women in public life, which is a profound mistake.”
In the words of Thurner:
Since casting the ballot would necessitate a woman’s alignment with a political party, becoming a voter would rob her of her political neutrality and nonpartisanship and consequently diminish her influence with legislative or other governmental authorities that had so far been responsive to women’s requests on the very grounds of their political disinterestedness. Standing “apart from and beyond party politics,” unenfranchised women, the Antis argued, were especially effective in addressing social problems and bringing about much needed reform legislation. “Outside the political machinery,” The AntiSuffragist announced in its December 1908 issue, “there is a world…where all reform begins.” “The more reform movements are separated from politics the better for them,” the journal trumpeted again in April 1912.
Of course, the full tangle of motivations behind such a major movement, boasting such far-reaching ramifications, can’t be covered in a brief essay. (Again, simple history is inaccurate history.) But one thing is clear: the history that the members of the Schubert Club lived through and made is far more complicated – and fascinating – than what we might first give it credit for.
@2020 by Emily Hogstad
This article was originally published in An Die Musik in Fall 2020.