Against Her Self-Interest: An Anti-Suffragist Admits Her Mistake

At the beginning of the 20th century, opposition to women’s suffrage wasn’t limited to men; some women anti-suffragists seemingly worked against their own self-interest. After passage of the 19th Amendment, one Post reporter realized her own mistake in opposing women’s right to vote.

People standing in front of a anti-suffrage headquarters
Library of Congress

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“There will be no more domestic tranquility in this nation if woman suffrage comes,” said Alabama Congressman J. Thomas Heflin in 1913. “Pandemonium will reign.” To the women fighting for the right to vote in the 1910s, such arguments were not surprising. Men made all sorts of wild claims about the “catastrophe” that would follow an amendment granting women the right to vote.

And so did some women. Anti-suffrage women — anti’s for short — usually came from a background of privilege that didn’t require them to work. They were not only self-serving, though. As social leaders, many of these women were dedicated to philanthropy and promoting reform, but they achieved their results without entering the world of politics and didn’t feel as though they were working against their own self-interest.

Mrs. Josephine Jewell Dodge, for example, established the National Association Opposed to Women Suffrage. But she also set up a free childcare center to serve working mothers in an impoverished section of New York. Mrs. Annie Nathan Meyer was a co-founder of Barnard College. Yet she believed that women, were they allowed to vote, would “lose their womanly qualities” in their pursuit of careers.

Kate Douglas Wiggin, author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, worked to promote the welfare of children and launched the first free kindergarten in San Francisco. But she told a Congressional committee on women’s suffrage, “If woman is as strong as she ought to be, she should be called continually in council to advise, to consult, and cooperate with men wherever her peculiar gifts are valuable. If she enjoys and uses these rights and privileges, she does not need the ballot.”

Opposition to women’s suffrage collapsed when the 19th Amendment was ratified on August 18, 1920. Many of the anti’s moved on to other causes. But some, like Eleanor Franklin Egan, a former war correspondent for the Post, changed their minds about suffrage.

In “Women in Politics to the Aid of Their Party,” Egan admitted she’d been wrong to oppose women’s suffrage. And she’d been wrong about the women who had done the hard work of winning her rights, and who were now working hard to win victory for their political parties.


Women in Politics to the Aid of Their Party

By Eleanor Franklin Egan

Excerpted from an article originally published on May 22, 1920

I happen to be one of the vast majority of women who had nothing whatever to do with the long struggle which is to result in the Nineteenth Amendment. If I had any feeling at all with regard to suffrage for women, it was a feeling of opposition. I did not believe the average woman would accept the responsibilities that go with active and direct participation in government and was afraid the privilege would be exercised chiefly by a few zealots and a class of women whose qualifications for responsible citizenship are too limited to make them desirable as contributing factors in the conduct of the country’s affairs. I thought there were enough undesirables already enfranchised, and permitted my imagination to dwell on the danger of adding to their ranks rather than minimizing this danger, and thinking principally of the good which might be accomplished by providing reinforcements for the ranks of the politically intelligent and righteously inclined. I knew that if the vote were thrust upon me — as my kind of woman was in the habit of saying — that I should use it, but I believed I should do so reluctantly and with a feeling that I was discharging a serious and disagreeable obligation rather than taking advantage of a precious privilege.

The trouble with me was that I did not think far enough. My vision was restricted by old-fashioned conservatism and prejudice, and in common with millions of other women in the country I ran eventually into a blind alley of platitudinous argument on the subject and stayed there while the procession went by.

How Will the Women Vote?  

I am not proud of my record of indifference, but on the contrary am inclined to be somewhat regretful when I consider that the women engaged in organized opposition to this most momentous movement in the history of social progress have been able always to use me and my numerous kind as convincing examples to point their contention that women did not want to vote and were being railroaded into politics by a fanatic and clamoring minority. I feel like apologizing to the women of the combat battalions who have done all the fighting and who now bear all the scars.

What I did not observe from my blind alley of conservatism was that the millions who were not being heard from, those of the great mass who never are heard from, were watching the progress of events with a deep concentration of thoughtful attention. If this were not true, the great mass would not now be so intelligently prepared to discharge the duties and so willing to accept the burdens of complete and responsible citizenship. While the doughty old suffs were engaged in storming and undermining the stronghold of man’s most sacred monopoly, they were at the same time lighting up the dark in the minds of their sisters with luminant shafts of political information and inquiry into social conditions which women, given the power, could help to improve — the result being that the average enfranchised woman of today not only rejoices in her new privilege but knows definitely why she rejoices.

To be sure, there are still a few who think in terms of opposition and declare that nothing can ever induce them to go to the polls; but they are a negligible quantity, and so far as my own observation goes are usually of the soft and mentally lazy type which modern progress is very rapidly rendering obsolete. They have few troubles of their own and take very little interest in the troubles of others. The only consciousness they have is class consciousness, and they do their thinking as a rule within the narrowest possible limits. They can never do the great causes of forward-looking humanity any real harm.

When the Nineteenth Amendment goes into effect, there will be 27,000,000 women voters! And there are 17,000,000 of us even now! This being according to the statistics relied upon by the women’s division of the Republican National Committee. Is it any wonder the men want to make a magic that will induce us to line up and declare ourselves? Unless they can gauge the degree of purely partisan allegiance for which we can be counted upon they are likely to make some fatal mistakes in their party management.

I do not mean to imply that women as a rule have not made their choice of party. They have; and it is an interesting fact that, regardless of what her husband’s politics may be, a woman usually begins by declaring adherence to the political faith of her father, the difficulty being that she adheres with reservations which denote in her an incorrigible independence. Very few women failed to register and vote in the 1919 elections, and of course they had to enroll on one side or another. But there is considerable doubt expressed as to whether any woman can be depended upon to stay put and to place party allegiance above personal preference as to candidates and conviction as to policies.

In the city of New York, the women voters enrolled are unequally divided among the Socialist, the Democratic, and the Republican parties, with the Democratic Party considerably in the lead; but the 1919 enrollment offers no assurance to anyone in the present situation. …

Much Work but No Plums

I talked with a number of women who are actively engaged in the service of the party and who devote practically their entire time to the work. When I mentioned the splendid privilege of equal participation with the men in party activities and benefits, I got a shock. It was like touching a live wire which one had every reason to believe was perfectly insulated, only to discover that it was not. I supposed of course that women in close touch with the party organization would at least pretend to be fully satisfied with the position which had been so skillfully outlined for them. But they do not; not among themselves at any rate. I was to learn that when a woman becomes a seasoned politician of the professional type; she is seasoned with the same seasoning that seasons men, and begins to think in terms of control through patronage and all that sort of thing. Some of these women displayed as clear a conception as any man could have of the vast system of rewards by which parties are supposed to be held intact, and it was a sore point with them that, though they were granted equal liberty with the men to work themselves to death for the party if they wanted to, they were not to expect to be among those present when it came to the distribution of its plums. They might help build the fences, but they must keep out of the orchard. All of which line of talk goes to show that the men have made a great mistake. They never should have given in. They should have kept the women where women belong.

It is a fact that the women of New York are not talking about anything now but politics and candidates. For more than four years they kept up a steady flow of conversation about the war, and every woman — from those who shine at the top of the social ladder to those who cling to its bottom-most foothold — was engaged in some kind of war work through which, all unconsciously perhaps, she was developing a sense of personal importance in the general scheme of things. With the war finished, these same women now plunge headlong — and with thankfulness in their hearts, no doubt, for something interesting to do — into the maelstrom of political discussion and competition. The arena of political combat used to be an island of unrighteousness wholly surrounded by brass rails, bottles, bartenders, and beer; but, along with the bottles, politics has been transferred to the home.

It may be that the men of the country are taking some interest in the political situation, but to the casual observer it looks as though the women were assuming the lion’s share of responsibility for it. This may be due to a number of things, but primarily I think it is due to the fact that men are capable of harboring thoughts and beliefs that they can get along without expressing. If political discussion should suddenly be forbidden, women would drop out of politics overnight. It is just that it is so grand to be something definite and effective, not to say dangerous! My, how women do enjoy being dangerous!

Yet curiously enough — make no mistake about it — a vast number of women are intelligently interested in and really anxious to understand the problems that confront us. I said, to begin with, that the women of the great mass — and it would be folly to pretend that the average woman has a trained and analytical mind — the women of the great mass are thoughtful about it all and closely attentive to the serious consideration attending their citizenship. And I believe this. On the other hand, a great many women have all the time there is unless they happen to be terrifically busy doing something equally as unimportant as anything else they might be able to do. And that is another variety.

Take me, for instance, sitting here writing this article, with a political tea which I promised to attend going on at the house of a friend not three blocks away. Every afternoon somebody one knows — or somebody who knows somebody who has met somebody one knows — invites one to a political tea in the interest of some candidate. And as for dinner parties, there is no such thing anymore. A dinner party is just another kind of political meeting. And the way the telephone is kept going makes life one continuous jangle. Perfect strangers call one up at all hours to ask one to sign a petition for this, that, or the other candidate; to contribute to a fund; to attend a meeting; to lend one’s house for a tea; to do a bit of canvassing; to become a member of a committee; to buy a button; to read something or other in some magazine about someone in particular; to write a letter to the newspapers; to do any one of a thousand things.

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  1. Wow Jeff, you outdid yourself with this feature. Thank you for the bolded prologue paragraphs on top before the reprint of Ms. Eleanor Egan’s feature. I do hereby declare this May 22, 1920 article to be one of THE most unusual, unexpected, shocking, beautiful and priceless features I’ve ever read in this fantastic magazine!

    Surely there are those that would be upset and scoff at her comments with disdain and misunderstanding. Those who feel this way must re-read her feature, and then hopefully realize she really does have the best interests of the American woman close to her heart after all, despite the gruffness of her words and tone at times here. It also frankly took some real stones (sorry guys) for her to write this.

    As for dinner parties, they re-invented themselves in the glory of the post World War II years, but like Joltin’ Joe have left and gone away. Perfect strangers though still call up at all hours of the day and night and are still a nuisance. Ms. Egan, you’re fantastic, and so is your writing style. I loved every word of it. 96 years later, I send good thoughts to you on the other side of life for having written it.


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