Suffrage for Women

In 1896 women had full suffrage in only three states, all of them in the West. Wyoming gave women the vote in 1869, when the state was still a territory. Colorado women won suffrage in an 1893 referendum, backed by a Populist administration and by some Republicans. Utah adopted the measure in the 1870s, but it was struck down in the 1880s by Congress in an alleged effort to combat Mormon polygamy by blocking women's right to vote in the majority-Mormon territory. In January 1896, Utah entered the Union as a state and re-introduced full woman suffrage in its new state constitution. Utah women were thus able to vote in the McKinley-Bryan contest.

Elsewhere, many women held partial suffrage--usually for school-related matters, local offices, or bond issues. Except in unusual circumstances, such issues did not generate the same level of interest as presidential and congressional campaigns. This explained, in part, why women registered to vote in smaller numbers than expected--a fact used by anti-suffragists to support their argument that women were uninterested in voting.

National suffrage leaders, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, faced difficult choices during the 1896 campaign. Many, like Anthony, were former abolitionists and longstanding Republicans. Though occasionally breaking away to work with the few pro-suffrage Democrats, Anthony had supported Republican candidates as late as 1894. By 1896 she was disillusioned with partisanship as a strategy for winning the vote. She urged suffragists to remain above the partisan fray--difficult in the context of such a bitterly fought presidential race. Stanton, meanwhile, had endorsed the Prohibition Party in the late 1880s. In 1896 she offered a lukewarm endorsement of Bryan and free silver, while stressing that woman suffrage ought to be the more important issue.

Two states held woman suffrage referenda in 1896. In Idaho, a heavily Populist state with a strong labor movement in its mining districts, the measure passed. Republican-leaning suffrage leaders in the East paid scant attention until after election day. California suffragists also managed to get a referendum on the ballot; the state's Populists supported it, but Republicans and Democrats did not. Anthony spent much of the campaign in California, but to no avail. A majority of California voters chose McKinley, and by a large margin they rejected the woman suffrage referendum.

This was not lost on anti-suffragists. Helen Kendrick Johnson, in her widely circulated book Woman and the Republic (1897), associated woman suffrage with "Free Silver and Populist of the most extravagant type." She praised California men for choosing "sound money against repudiation," "authority against anarchy," and for acting "in defense of national honor" by voting for Republican candidates and against woman suffrage. The suffrage movement, thus associated with Populism, suffered for a decade after 1896. Woman suffragists' next state victory did not come until 1909. In 1920, women finally won a U.S. Constitutional amendment for full national voting rights.

The Women's Campaign of 1896.

On November 3, the men's great quadrennial National contest will close. President and House of Representatives will be chosen, and the policy of the country for the next two years will be settled. Never since the Civil War have issues so momentous been submitted to the voters. Every woman's prosperity and well-being, material and moral, will be promoted or impaired by the result. Is it not shameful and humiliating that one-half of the citizens of the United States of mature age and sound mind, not convicted of crime, are legally compelled to remain mere spectators in a case wherein they are so vitally interested?

It is admitted by men of all parties that the ship of State is in danger of going upon the rocks. Urgent appeals are being made, money is being spent like water; thousands of able speakers, at a tremendous sacrifice of time and money, are trying to enlighten the male half of the American people on questions of finance and tariff, of federal intervention and State control, of judicial prerogative and congressional supremacy, of foreign relations and domestic affairs. But seven million tax-paying, law-abiding women stand silent and passive, while the battle rages over their heads. How can any woman of sense or spirit help feeling wronged and humiliated by being placed in so unworthy an attitude?

...There are three glorious exceptions to women's political non-entity. In three States women are free to take sides and to cooperate with the men. In Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah, women will be equal factors in the result. In those States they will differ as men differ, and will settle their differences as men settle theirs, at the ballot-box. Let us hope that in the Presidential election of 1900 many other States will welcome their women to political freedom. Next November, when the men's campaign ends, the women's campaign will have just begun.
--H.B.B. [Henry B. Blackwell], Woman's Journal, September 26, 1896

A Woman's Plea
An idol have the silver men; the gold men have one, too;
The Populists have helped themselves to the Democratic stew.
Everyone one's provided for but woman, sweet and fair--
She, poor thing, is "lone and lorn," and the men folks do not care.

Say boys, won't you let us vote?
It's something that we really want to do.
If you'll only let us in,
Our platform's sure to win,
And our President shall be sweet Mary Ellen.

Now we'd like to vote for Bryan, but we really can't, you know;
He has one dreadful failing--in style he's way too slow.
His hat is last year's fashion; his bloomers are the same.
So, of course, he isn't in it, and, of course, we're not to blame.
. . . Our platform is free silver--on that you bet your life.
We ladies like free money, especially for the wife.
And our platform says she'll have it, if we only get the chair,
And we'll let you hand it over, which, you'll own, is fair and square.
--Katharine Dangerfield, New York World, 11 October 1896

Cartoons on Woman Suffrage
25 October, Omaha World-Herald

[Susan B. Anthony]

Susan B. Anthony
from Great Leaders and Issues of 1896

In this crisis of the present time women as a class all over the land are manifesting greater interest than ever before, and giving more intelligent thought to public questions and needs.... This element in politics should be a conservative one, to help correct and modify; there may be and undoubtedly will be, a few extremists, but they will be scarce, if only because of the timidity and lack of confidence among women of their own understanding of these vital questions that are now being agitated. There certainly is great need of conservatism, when opinions run riot as they do now....
The women of Utah who have just been given equal suffrage, have a hard question before them to solve, and they should above all else study carefully and prayerfully over these matters that are so new to them, and of such grave importance. Better do too little than too much, but be sure to register properly, and be ready to vote right....
--Woman's Exponent, September 15

To the Democratic Nominee for President of the United States, William J. Bryan:

Honored Sir:--
In your leisure hours I presume that you are considering some strong points with which to gild your inaugural address in case you should be chosen for our next president.
Allow me to call your attention to the position of thirty-five millions of American citizens, who in violation of every principle of our government, are wholly unrepresented in the legislation of the country. A large number of this class are persons of education and wealth, exerting an immense moral and intellectual influence on our civilization and pouring vast sums as taxes into our national treasury.
In view of this fact, it would be a graceful tribute from a young man to the mothers of this Republic to recommend Congress in his inaugural address to pass a Sixteenth Amendment to the National Constitution "forbidding disfranchisement, in the several States, on the ground of Sex," thus placing educated women at least on an even political platform with emancipated slaves, and ignorant immigrants from the old world.
Such an act of justice on the threshold of your administration would be the keynote to the reforms proposed by the Chicago platform. Important as the questions of Finance and Tariff may be, they are insignificant compared with the civil and political rights of thirty-five millions of people.
This would be the strongest point in your address, and one that none of your predecessors have as yet made; a step of progress in the social and political evolution of the period in which we live.
An enthusiastic supporter of Mr. Bryan read to me his Great Labor Day speech, delivered in Chicago on September 7. It certainly has a true ring from beginning to end. Ignoring all minor questions, such as tariff and finance, that might have confused his audience--as they do everybody--he dwells on the fundamental principles of just government, which, if carried out, would secure equal rights to the thirty-five million disfranchised women.
The ballot, as he describes it, in the hands of every citizen, would indeed be a scepter of power; a crown of royalty. A man who, as President of the United States would use his influence to carry out such principles, I would be glad to see in the highest position in the gift of the American people.
--Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Woman's Tribune, October 17, 1896


The following planks were adopted by the four state conventions of Idaho: Resolution adopted by the Populist convention: "Believing in equal rights for all and special privileges to none, we favor the adoption of the pending woman's suffrage amendment to the constitution."

Resolution passed by the Democratic convention: "We recommend to the favorable consideration of the voters of the state the proposed constitutional amendment granting equal suffrage, believing that this great question should receive the earnest attention of every person as an important factor in the future welfare of the state."

Resolution passed by the Republican convention: "We favor the amendment to the constitution of the state proposed by the late Republican legislature, including equal suffrage for men and women, and recommend their adoption."

Resolution passed by the Silver Republicans: "We favor the adoption of the proposed amendment to the constitution of the state providing for the extension of the right of suffrage to women."
--Woman's Exponent, October 1

OAKLAND, August 8. --The Populists of Alameda county opened the campaign tonight for Bryan and Watson with a torchlight procession and a big mass meeting at Germania Hall. The Populists made the best public showing ever achieved by their organization in Oakland.
... Miss Susan B. Anthony spoke for the eleventh amendment. She said: "In a Populist convention I come to thank you as a party that from the very first your organization has recognized human equality--equal rights for all and special privileges to none. My good friends, you Populists are all converted now, you are the ninety and nine sheep that are saved. I want to find the lost sheep. I shall have to go somewhere else."
--San Francisco Examiner, August 9

Welcome, Idaho! State No. 4 has wheeled into line! ... An unexampled victory for woman suffrage has been achieved in the State of Idaho. --Woman's Journal, November 14, 1896


© 2000, Rebecca Edwards, Vassar College