On this day in 1915, the House of Representatives voted against women’s suffrage. “I am not gratified,” said Anna Howard Shaw, who was president of the National Suffrage Association, “but the vote was better than I had expected.” Suffragists could see the path forward, she said. At the end of that path: the right to vote.
Those who voted against women's suffrage "stood firmly on the dark side of history, making claims about a woman’s role that would end a politician’s career today,” writes Rebecca Ruiz for Mashable. The final tally of votes that day: 204 nays, 174 yeas. “The 1915 vote may seem like an inconsequential anniversary,” Ruiz writes, “after all, women won suffrage five years later through the 19th Amendment. Yet, it is an indelible reminder that parity at the ballot box — and in so many spheres of American life once ruled by chauvinism—was hard won.”
Shaw and her colleagues were among the women (and men) fighting for women’s suffrage. But a vocal group of women (as well as a majority of elected representatives) actively opposed giving women the right to vote. It might sound ridiculous today, but they had reasons for their stance.
“Central to the movement was the then-prevalent notion that in order to be functional, prosperous and pleasant, American society required men and women to operate in separate spheres of influence,” writes Ella Morton for Atlas Obscura.
The idea of men and women having different “natural strengths” that inevitably confined them to separate spheres of influence, she writes, was widely accepted. What was important for public order was that each gender stick to what they were good at: for men, that meant operating in the public sphere, and for women, acting as “nurturers, moral guardians and peacekeepers” who were expected to preside over the domestic sphere.
So when women went out into public and fought for the vote, from the perspective of this idea they were behaving unnaturally. One anti-suffrage pamphlet argued, “it is a fatal mistake that these excellent women make when they conceive that the functions of men are superior to theirs and seek to usurp them.”
For a woman who loved being a nurturing homemaker and who wanted the life she had been raised to expect as a wife and mother, it’s easy to see how these kinds of scare tactics could have made suffrage seem frightening. Anti-suffrage campaigns made it seem impossible to have the domestic life they expected and the vote.
But it’s a mistake to think that “domestic sphere” just meant the home. Wealthy women were also often active outside the home in a public reformer capacity, transforming the public sphere into part of the domestic one, which required moral guidance and correction. “The prospect of votes for women also posed a threat to the elite ladies who had grown accustomed to using their social status," rather than the ballot box, to exert political influence, Morton writes.
The separate spheres idea might seem antiquated, but it influences our lives today. Ever wonder where we got “home economics” from? Yeah, it’s this idea. How about the stereotype that expects men to be unable to help at home? Yup, that too.