For this #salemsuffragesaturday, a look at the contest between Massachusetts suffragists and anti-suffragists at the turn of the last century, with particular reference to the Massachusetts suffrage referendum of 1915. Though Massachusetts had (and still has) a well-deserved reputation for progressiveness, it was (and still is) a very traditional state, and has the distinction of producing one of the earliest and strongest anti-suffrage organizations in the later nineteenth century: the Massachusetts Association Opposed to the Further Extension of Suffrage to Women, founded in 1895 (on the foundation of an earlier association, established right after the notable school suffrage victories in 1880). Like their opposition, the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association, the Anti-Suffragists had a central office in Boston, and branch committees throughout the state, including Salem. By 1915, their periodical, The Remonstrance against Woman Suffrage, claimed to represent the views of anti-suffragists around the country as well as the over 33, 000 Massachusetts members in 423 municipalities and 130 branch committees. They rallied all of their resources and members to defeat suffrage in the 1915 referendum, thus winning a significant battle but not, ultimately (and fortunately!) the war.
One has to do some real historical reorientation to understand the anti-suffragist position, as it is contrary to everything we believe now. As professed by both men and even more stridently by women, it centers on the family within the home, the natural domain of women, and where they were empowered to make their most important contributions to society. In order for society to function in an effective way, separate spheres for men and women must be maintained: public affairs for men; domestic life for women—and domestic life was perceived as the “higher” sphere. Suffrage would impose civic responsibilities on women which they did not seek or need: as you can see from The Remonstrance above, the message was that the vote was being imposed on women by a radical minority of their gender. It gets a bit more complicated (and confusing!) when you consider that many Anti-Suffragists were active club and society members, striving for moral, educational, and social reforms outside the home: one would think that their various missions would be aided by suffrage, but somehow this was not the belief. When I look at the list of Salem women who were members of the city’s anti-suffrage committee, I recognize familiar names of active women: Mrs. Edward C. Battis, Miss Sarah E. Hunt, Mrs. S.E. Peabody, Mrs. John Pickering, Miss P.M. Waldo, Mrs. William Rantoul, Miss Anna L. Warren and Miss Ellen Laight. I also realize that these women who lived right next to women who were notable Suffragists, so there must have been some interesting neighborhood discussions! More specifically and alarmingly, the Anti-Suffragists expressed their fears that votes for women would lead to discord in the existing marriage relation, which would tend to the infinite detriment of children, and increase the alarming prevalence of divorce throughout the land, and made associations between suffrage and socialism, Mormonism, and pro-German sentiments during World War I.
The Anti-Suffragists wrote and distributed flyers and pledge cards, published their newspaper, and held rallies and other public events, just like the Suffragists, although their meetings were clearly less numerous and less open: the committee’s records, among the digital collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, reveal an apparent desire to control the interplay and messaging of public events. They adopted the red rose as their symbol from the beginning—a contrast with the suffragists’ yellow sunflowers and roses—but utilized it with increasing intensity from 1914 on, in their initiatives aimed at the defeat of the 1915 referendum. As Election Day of 1915 approached—and particularly the big Suffrage Parade planned for October 16— the efforts of the Anti-Suffragists became more focused and more public, with a big showdown on Parade Day, when over 100,000 red roses draped individuals and structures lining the street as the Suffragist marchers, wearing yellow banners and/or roses, walked by.
And a few weeks later, a terrible defeat at the polls for Massachusetts Suffragists: with nearly 65% of Massachusetts men voting against universal suffrage. Salem’s return mirrored that of the Commonwealth. Both the Suffragists and the Anti-Suffragists continued their efforts, with the former focusing on the national campaign and a constitutional amendment. Massachusetts became the eighth state to ratify the 19th amendment in June of 1919, and it became law in August of 1920 when Tennessee’s legislature ratified it by one surprising vote: that of first-term representative Harry T. Burn, wearing a red rose on his lapel, who voted “aye” upon the very personal plea of his mother.
Image sources: Ann Lewis Women’s Suffrage Collection; Library of Congress (The Anti-Suffrage Rose); Schlesinger Library, Harvard (Margaret Foley with “the RoseStands for Chivalry sign); Bryn Mawr College Suffrage Ephemera Collection(yellow banner and flower). Newspaper clippings: Boston Globe, 1914-1915.