Ninety Years of Elections: Reclaiming the Power of Maternity

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Carol Crossed is the founder and president of the new Susan B Anthony Birthplace Museum in Adams, Massachusetts. The birthplace was recently restored, and opened in the spring of 2010.

A copy of the Montgomery Flagg poster on display at the Susan B. Athony Birthplace Museum.

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On Election Day, November 2, 1920, some 90 years ago, the polls swelled almost beyond capacity with voters who had never before done such a thing. Women, proud and eager, rushed to their polling location as early in the morning as possible, as if vying for the front row seat at the theater. Flustered by the idea of a secret ballot, one woman thought she needed to sign the back of the card. Others carried groceries on their hips, maneuvering the crowds and chatting enthusiastically over screaming children. Some things never change.

The day had finally arrived. After 72 years, women, single and married, young and old, exercised a right they had fought for in their homes and churches, in town halls, and on the streets. The New York Times reported that while approximately one in three women, who were eligible, voted, more women than men actually voted in some districts. The Chicago Tribune credited Republican Harding’s landslide victory to the woman’s vote.

It is hard to imagine some of the arguments that prohibited an amendment liberating 50% of the population from exercising this right. Anti-suffrage ephemera collections at the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum provide insight.

Some items show humor at its best. Handbills claimed inferior female brain size. Postcards portrayed women taking too long to get their petticoats on. Comically, men were pictured struggling with diapers and cooking pots as women, puffed up in suits, left the home. My favorite is a picture of Madonna and child. The Madonna is a confused man holding a doll, not sure what to do with it.

It was thought by some that women would only vote the way their husbands told them to anyway.

Against this backdrop, suffrage leaders took seriously these portrayals of power and domination, characteristics they actually opposed. They exercised their greatest skill in combating the perception put forth by their opponents that they would abandon their children. Nowhere was this made more apparent than in their opposition to ‘Restellism,’ the term given to abortion, the most heinous form of child abandonment. It was named after the infamous abortionist Madame Restell, frequently arrested and commented on in Susan B Anthony’s newspaper, The Revolution. Suffrage leaders saw opposition to ‘child murder’ and ‘infanticide’ as an opportunity to clear their name of unfair accusations by anti-vice squads, who saw the decadence of the Victorian era lay at women’s independence.

Not only were anti-suffrage crusaders misinformed about the care for children that was integral to the suffrage agenda, they didn’t understand that women wanted the vote for ‘life over material wealth’ or for the good of families and children, rather than for their own self aggrandizement. Child labor laws, poverty, and universal education were issues for which they sought the vote. They sought the vote for themselves because they were mothers who knew the needs of ‘everychild.’ It was their maternity that they saw as their greatest gift of citizenship.

Maybe we are coming full circle. As more woman reclaim the power and dignity of maternity and abandon the failed individualism of ‘my body, my life’ and the ‘me’ decade, we are returning to the radical 1920’s woman who valued family and their womanhood.

The Montgomery Flagg poster, crucial to winning the public’s favor, states it best: Women bring all voters into the world.

To learn more about Susan B. Anthony, please visit http://www.susanbanthonybirthplace.com/index.shtml

Written by by Carol Crossed.

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