Suffrage Movement Convinced Women They Could ‘Have It All’

tags: gender roles, womens history, childcare

Allison K. Lange is assistant professor of U.S. history at the Wentworth Institute of Technology and author of the forthcoming book Picturing Political Power: Images and the Fight for Women’s Votes in the United States.

Recent studies on the impact of the novel coronavirus on American families reveal that women are being stretched very thin. During this pandemic, they are working more than men: caring for older or sick family members, teaching children, maintaining homes and keeping up with full-time jobs. Now parents are returning to work and scrambling to improvise child care, prompting many women to decrease their hours or even leave their jobs.

Although the global pandemic has dramatically exacerbated these problems, the reality is that women have always had to shoulder more than men. They have had to manage the affairs of the home as they juggle a wealth of responsibilities in society at large.

While this work is a necessity for most families today, there was a time when many Americans resisted the idea of women doing anything outside of the confines of home. The women’s voting rights movement radically transformed Americans’ views on this issue, enabling women’s greater participation in society. But, in doing so, suffragists — activists who fought for the vote — entrenched an impossible ideal of “having it all” that persists today.


Americans feared that the vote threatened traditional gender norms and would transform society as they knew it. Popular pictures demonstrate that many Americans worried that women would refuse to care for their families — or even have families — if they could vote, leaving men to take on domestic chores. When Susan B. Anthony attempted to cast a ballot in the 1872 election, the Daily Graphic magazine mocked her on its cover. In a striking image, she stands, hand on one hip, holding an umbrella the way a military officer might hold a sword. Her skirt — far too short for the period — reveals a pair of boots, complete with spurs. Nearby, a policewoman and women’s political rally illustrate what women will do when they can vote: they have abandoned the men in the scene to care for children and buy food. Americans regularly encountered pictures like this one for over a century.

In response, rather than claiming that women were men’s equals — something that might threaten men’s fragile masculinity — the NAWSA argued that well-off White women wanted the vote so that they could be better mothers. In 1906, NAWSA leader and prominent Progressive Era reformer Jane Addams argued that “city housekeeping has failed partly because women, the traditional housekeepers, have not been consulted as to its multiform activities.” Female voters would clean up politics and improve American life. Addams never had children and had a female partner, but she recognized the power of this gendered rhetoric.

Read entire article at Made By History at The Washington Post

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