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History Major's Surprise Discovery: Anti-Suffrage

By Marie Poinsatte

Editor's note: Arts and Sciences Dean’s Summer Fellowship recipient Marie Poinsatte of Cleveland, a senior history major and a regular in Roesch Library, spent the spring and summer of 2020 studying the women’s suffrage movement in Dayton. “She found an incredibly rich history in her work,” said Caroline Waldron, associate professor of history and Poinsatte’s fellowship adviser. “The work she accomplished and what she discovered for women’s history and suffrage is an important testament to the possibilities of experiential learning at the heart of a UD education.”

  • "Let us suppose that a thousand women today in Dayton stand for any one reform. They stand together as a solid body. No party leader sees in them political hench-woman or enemies… Give them the vote and they all automatically become democrats, republicans, progressives, socialists, or what not." — Katharine Houk Talbott in a 1914 speech to the Dayton Rotary Club.

August 2020 marked the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. The amendment was actually written in the negative. Rather than giving women the right to vote, it stated that the right of citizens to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex,” [my emphasis]. In other words, it prohibited certain behavior rather than embracing in law citizenship rights per se.

That’s one of the many details of the 20th-century women’s suffrage movement I learned in the early spring semester during conversations about voting rights with Caroline Waldron, associate professor of history. She recommended that I visit the Dayton Metro Library on East Third Street in downtown Dayton, where the voting rights seminar she led had visited.

This research became the basis for the Dean’s Summer Fellowship I was awarded. I became fascinated with a discovery I made: There were women who were against women’s suffrage. One example is Katharine Houk Talbott, a Dayton philanthropist and the wife of Oakwood’s first mayor; she really believed that female voters would become “hench-women” who took to the streets for the interests of partisan politics.

My plan was to do research in Dayton and Cleveland, my hometown, for the summer fellowship. Cue coronavirus and then a gear shift.

That provided me with a lot of time to think about Talbott and her framing of politics, suffrage and gender.

A woman's place?

When I first read Talbott's 1914 speech, the idea that women were ever “apolitical” struck me as unlikely, and I wondered if a “solid body” of citizens — whether they could vote or not —demanding change from politicians could ever be free of party politics.

I am fascinated with the anti-suffrage women and their insistence that female voters could cause damage to American society. Talbott and other anti-suffrage women contended that a woman’s integral role in society was in the home, the basic unit of society. They did not think she could be both a political being and a homemaker.

I have fewer big answers now than I had hoped to have at this point in my research, but plans gone astray have their own luxuries.

If I had gone with the plan formulated in early March, I would have been gathering tons of research data from as many archives as I could reasonably access. Instead, I did a close reading of this document from the Dayton suffrage archive and contextualized it in literature. I spent a lot of time looking through online suffrage centennial resources and reading secondary historical documents, all with that pamphlet in my mind. I tried to broaden my understanding of the suffrage movement and also those anti-suffrage perspectives I had recently discovered and place Talbott within that discourse. I located other anti-suffrage primary sources from the time and found some perspectives of some who were as wary as Talbott of women’s participation in the political enterprise. Others focused heavily on the woman’s role as leader of the family, a role that includes moral and ethical instruction but surpasses such menial activities as voting.

Women's influence on men: enough?

Grace Duffield Goodwin, a New York anti-suffragist, would agree that focusing on family responsibility absorbs a woman’s political responsibility. She said quite directly, “WE MAKE THEM,” when referring to the husbands, sons, fathers and brothers who represented women in public society, the courts, law, business, diplomacy and war. If women were unhappy with the representation provided by the men with whom they were affiliated, then women had an ability and a responsibility to exert their womanly influence through motherhood or marriage or another role and set their men straight. Essentially, anti-suffragists said, it is a mother’s job to teach her son right from wrong.

To claim that male political representation is somehow unsatisfactory or problematic was to say that mothers had failed to teach their sons how to consider the good of society in matters of governmental importance. Society spins outward from the home, they said, and men should have learned everything they knew from women.

Talbott and others argued against some suffragists’ idea that voting women would ultimately create a more moral and just government system. Men’s governance had always seemed to lead to war and distress and despair, the suffragists said, so perhaps women with their “unique feminine qualities” would exert a fairer influence on government. It was a common enough conception in the 19th and early 20th centuries that women were the morally superior beings, which historian Nancy Cott attributed at least in part to the influence of evangelical Protestantism. Talbott was perceptive enough to figure that alleged feminine morality would not manifest at the polls. She foresaw women being sucked into the same political vortex of parties, platforms, lobbying and money that runs elections. The game would become about soliciting women’s votes, and the purity that Talbott saw in women organizing for individual issues would be tarnished. What would be left would be an electorate double the size (double the expense) and equally corrupt and manipulative. What would be the point?

A complicated calculus of roles, interests, responsibilities

Anti-suffrage women believed that most women were indifferent or did not want to vote because most women were not clamoring for it (Cott cited the National American Women’s Suffrage Association’s peak membership at 2 million members and the more progressive National Women’s Party at 50,000). What anti-suffragists failed to recognize was that joining a suffrage organization was a large commitment that often put women at odds with other people in their lives; gaining the franchise was important enough to them that they were willing to take that risk. Conversely, women indifferent to female suffrage lacked that interest because it was not part of their citizenship responsibilities; it was not how they were taught to serve society. They served society by raising good men, whose job was to govern justly. Also, though the National Women’s Party and many others took cues from British suffragists and British and American labor movements in the 1910s, they weren’t the first crusaders for the franchise. American women had been fighting for suffrage since Seneca Falls in 1848.

Goodwin’s argument, about women already having that most important role in society of rearing children and raising good men, seems to me a bit indirect. If women are capable enough to teach men right from wrong, then they are capable enough to make that determination in the forms of candidates and issues. If they are to be held responsible for the decisions that men make in government, why would they not fulfill that responsibility directly? As to Talbott’s point, that women would be played by the political system and that women voting would essentially amount to a huge and expensive electorate where the most money still wins — her forecast did prove at least partially true.

What Talbott got right

I’ve been returning to Talbott a lot these days. I did not expect to have much in common with this woman from the past who didn’t believe in female enfranchisement, but I found myself relating to her skepticism of politics. Don’t get me wrong: I believe the expansion of voting rights in general and women’s suffrage in particular are essential to the functioning of representative democracy. But what she got right is that women and other constituencies are often talked down to or seen as blocs of voters who, because of their gender, race, class or other status, are assumed to believe the same things. She warned that party politics would take advantage of women voters and women organizers. Focusing on that document deepened my understanding of anti-suffrage fears and gave me a new angle from which to approach my at-home research.

What Talbott got wrong

Talbott was concerned that women would be diminished by partisan politics and so shouldn’t participate. However, it is necessary for women to participate in government if that government so claims to be representative. Is not the point of expanded voting rights that political outcomes may change? Talbott went wrong because she assumed that men could represent women’s interests.

One man, one vote. One woman, one vote. Only individuals can represent their own interests. In the experiment of American democracy, the voting booth is the sacred place to do so.

Now that we’re into election season, it is important to remember that the ballot should be neither a privilege of an elite class nor a burden to an overworked one. It is instead a shared responsibility of equal citizens and a hard-fought right. Our American predecessors secured and expanded that right, but the right to vote is not guaranteed now any more than it was then. It might be nice to be rid of the suspicion that we are being deluded by “hench-women” or henchmen or anything of the kind, but the truth is that politics is debate over how best to govern ourselves, even if that debate doesn’t sound pretty. A vote is a voice in the discourse.

More information

  • Poinsatte and fellow student Emilee Zoog recorded a 15-minute podcast about the work they did in the women's suffrage archive at the Dayton Metro Library. Listen online.
  • August was not only the centennial of the 19th Amendment; it marked the third time in U.S. history a major party nominated a woman to be on the ballot as vice president. To read more about Kamala Harris and other women political leaders, Waldron suggests this listing by Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics.


  • Cott, Nancy. The Grounding of Modern Feminism. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1987. 
  • Goodwin, Grace Duffield. Anti-Suffrage: Ten Good Reasons. New York: Duffield and Co., 1913. 
  • Talbott, Katharine Houk. Address to the Rotary Club of Dayton, Ohio, Thursday, Sept. 5, 1914. In Woman’s Suffrage Pro or Con? Two Dayton Women Present Their Views on the Woman’s Right to Vote. Edited by Nancy Horlacher. Dayton: Dayton Metro Library, 2019.
  • 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Ratified August 18, 1920.
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