Return to Book Reviews

Why Woman Suffrage Didn't "Fail"

A review by Jo Freeman published in Vox Pop, Vol. 17,
Issue 1, Summer 1998, p. 7.

Andersen, Kristi, After Suffrage: Women in Partisan and Electoral Politics before the New Deal, University of Chicago Press, 1996, paper, 191 pages

When the 19th Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution on August 26, 1920, expectations were high about what the doubling of the electorate would accomplish. Because these expectations were not met, before the decade ended woman suffrage was pronounced a failure. This book demolishes that myth. Kristi Anderson carefully looks at what women did in the 1920s, and shows that 1) they did a lot, and 2) what they didn't do was a result of circumstances beyond anyone's control coupled with resistance from established institutions.
Anderson conceptualizes women's entry into the electorate as a negotiated shift in the gendered boundaries of political space, one that varied with time, place and circumstances, but which defined "what was expected or acceptable male and female activity in the public sphere." (p. 15). Politics, she asserts, was transformed by women voters, but it took longer and was more subtle than politicians expected or than scholars have understood. This shift occurred at a time that parties were declining in importance, largely due to the reforms of the Progressive era. The impact of women and that of Progressivism was synergistic, making it hard to isolate women's specific contribution.
Although Anderson's focus is on electoral politics, she does note that there were policy changes. Some federal laws were passed in the 1920s directly as a result of women's lobbying. More were passed in the states. There was among women's organizations "a general consensus on a political agenda which included protective legislation for women and children, women's rights, consumer protection, and industrial health and safety legislation" (p. 9), and major gains were made in attaining these goals.
Three chapters are specifically concerned with women as voters, party workers, and candidates and office holders. But her over overall theme is change, and her conclusion is not only did the boundaries between men and women change, but our understanding of politics itself. Women "helped solidfy the movement from the partisan-structured politics of the nineteenth century to the politics of advertising, interest groups, and candidates that characterize the twentieth century." (p. 170).
In the 19th Century, voting was a male ritual involving drinking and rowdyness and some exhange of favors for votes. The presence of women transformed voting into the obligation of a good citizen. This happened regardless of how women voted, or which women voted. Thus attempts to determine "the woman's vote" after suffrage, then and more recently, miss the point.
Without polls, or separate counts (except for Illinois from 1914 through 1920), women's voting patterns can only be inferred from registration figures and statistical analysis. These do not show clear trends, but they do give some outlines. Women's turnout was lower than men's, but not low enough to explain the general decline in voter turnout. Nor was women's turnout consistent. Sometimes it was higher than men's. Birth co-hort, ethnicity, and region all effected turnout.
But just as important, Andersen argues, was organization. When women's organizations and/or political parties made a particular effort to bring women to the polls, their turnout increased. Initially, these factors helped the Republicans more than the Democrats. Republican women came from the socio-economic strata that were more likely to vote. But in the election of 1928, one marked by a significant increase in women voters, immigrant stock women began to enter the electorate in significant numbers, and to vote Democratic. This didn't help the Democratic Party win in 1928, but may have in 1932.
Andersen also believes that women voters did have an impact on "the shape of the political agenda" because legislators had to take them into account in their calculations of constituent interests. Because women were perceived to be a distinct group who behaved differently than men, it did not matter if there was no proof of that at the polls -- in the days before random sample surveys no one knew exactly how women voted anyway.
The major political parties were a major arena for negotiating gender boundaries. On the one hand the parties admitted women on an equal basis to the National Committees, and to a lesser extent to the state and local party committees. On the other hand, this was not done without a struggle, and when women finally achieved their goal, they discovered the men excluded them from meetings or otherwise ignored them.
At the beginning of the decade suffragists and other important women were invited by the parties to work within them. But when these leaders proved too independent they were replaced by more compliant women. By the late 1920s, "women's political influence within the parties had declined", or at least women partisans believed it had declined. Women, and men, debated whether women's unique perspective required separate organization, or whether women should be assimilated and amalgamated into the regular party organizations. This question was never resolved, but throughout the 1920s, the "gendered boundaries within the parties and party politics" were redrawn, and would not "be subject to renegotiation until the 1970s" (p. 107).
To sum up, the expansion of the electorate in the 1920s accelerated several changes already in process. The scope of political concerns as well as the nature of the participants shifted, and was never the same again.

To Top
Books by Jo | What's New | About Jo | Photos | Political Buttons
Home | Search | Links | Contact Jo | Articles by Jo