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Turn-of-the-Century Thinkers Weren’t Sure If Women Could Vote and Be Mothers at the Same Time

In 1905, Elizabeth McCracken recounted in “Woman Suffrage in the Tenements” the experience of helping women in a tenement district register to vote in a school-committee election—what she called “a prolonged, arduous, and futile endeavor.” She discovered that poor women, who worked and didn’t have hired help taking care of their home or children, lacked even the time to vote, let alone the resources to become familiar enough with the issues to vote informedly. Whether or not women more generally were ready to vote in larger political elections, McCracken believed these particular women were not: “They must do so many other things first. Before we put the suffrage question to them before we hold out the ballot, either as a theory or as a fact, shall we not help them with those things?”

Old-fashioned as these arguments might seem today, the question of how women ought to split their time—between the public sphere and the home—has echoes in today’s discourse about the balance between parenting and work. Some argue even now, for example, that the United States’ lack of legislation requiring companies to offer paid maternity leave, coupled with underwhelming attempts to enact such legislation, sends the message that the work world is no place for women.

In the years leading up to and immediately following the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, a handful of other women, such as Ellis Meredith, Mary Johnston, Matilda Hall Gardner, and Frances Parkinson Keyes, also wrote about women’s suffrage in The Atlantic, and all of the women writers but Keyes, McCracken, and Rogers argued in full-throated support of it. Most of these women built their cases for suffrage on women’s equality as human beings and their capability and potential as political participants. Only Keyes substantively addressed the effects, both positive and negative, that women’s voting rights might have on the American family, noting in “On the Fence,” her essay about the complexities of the voting-rights issue, that the “average” woman in the United States was a poor and overworked housewife who lacked adequate medical care, especially in childbirth. “The average woman is exactly the one who [ne] help,” she wrote, “and to whom suffrage will undoubtedly bring help.”

Another popular argument that pitted voting rights against women’s domestic roles focused on the disparity between women’s alleged gentle, mothering temperaments and the decisive act of voting. According to Clark, the same qualities that made women good at maintaining the home and raising children—sentimentality and compassion—would also make them unreliable, overly tenderhearted voters. “The very qualities which do such good in moulding character would be ill applied to public action,” he wrote.  “Our votes are determined by two forces, sentiment and reason: the former quality preëminently woman’s, the latter man’s; the former a quality of the heart, the latter of the head. Now it is generally admitted that the heart of the people is right, and that the mistakes of a democracy are mistakes of the head; right purpose, but not right judgment. Thus, though our government has been that of men exclusively, we have still had too much of the womanly quality.” (In other words, Clark asserted that voters had already been voting with their feelings rather than logic too often; adding women and all their feelings to the mix would make it worse.)