Life Magazine Promises “$300 to the Winner”
Throughout the fall and winter of 1910, Life magazine called upon readers to submit three hundred-word manuscripts to their New York office. Each issue of the magazine would contain a selection of the best submissions and, in early 1911, the editors would declare a winner. That author would receive $300—equivalent to nearly $8,000 today. The essay that earned this substantial reward needed to provide “the best reason, or reasons, why any man should not marry a suffragette.” The successful author would be declared the winner of “Life’s Suffragette Contest.”
Such a contest may sound jarring in 2020—a national magazine asking readers to present reasons why men should avoid marrying women simply because those women believed in women’s rights. However, in 1910, this contest would not have surprised readers. Although the women’s suffrage movement grew exponentially in the early twentieth century, “the suffragist” often appeared as a comedic figure—a militant, ugly, shrieking woman who wished to dominate men and take over government. Life magazine’s contest built on this exaggerated figure of the female suffragist and tapped into broader antisuffrage sentiment. The contest entries, in particular, reflect the range of antisuffrage arguments about the incompatibility of women’s political rights and traditional understandings of love, marriage, home, and family.
Antisuffrage Claims about Marriage and Women’s Voting Rights
Antisuffrage writings in the early twentieth century regularly linked voting rights to distinct gender roles for women and men. In particular, they drew on the concept of separate spheres that idealized men and women as complete opposites: men had a duty to work in the public sphere while women had similar obligations to the private realm of home and children.[i]Antisuffrage publications insisted that female suffragists rejected this natural balance between the sexes by attempting to prevent their husbands from serving as their representatives in the public sphere. Throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, American society, government, and law defined the family as a unit of government wherein men represented their dependents—mothers, wives, daughters, and young sons.[ii]Antisuffragists embraced this norm when they argued that “normal” men and women supported existing voting laws that empowered men to cast a single vote on behalf of the family unit. One antisuffragist, for instance, argued that the majority of women “are satisfied to let their husbands, sons, brothers, and sweethearts do the voting.” Women, he pointed out, are the “fountain head of power” because they “make the men who make the laws.”[iii] Thus, women’s indirect influence raising sons and guiding husbands provided them with all the political power and responsibility they needed.
Antisuffragists insisted that women demanding the vote exhibited a dangerous individualism—placing their desires above others—that signaled a disregard for marriage and the family. The act of women voting, antisuffragists warned, created political disagreements between husband and wife, disturbed the “harmony of the house,” increased divorce, lowered the frequency and quality of marriage, and disintegrated family life. Suffragists, according to this formula, not only rejected proper marriage within their personal lives, but also threatened to destabilize the institution of marriage nationwide. A 1913 antisuffrage pamphlet, for example, warned that society simply could not sustain both women’s suffrage and healthy marriages: “Monogamous marriage teaches that man and wife are one, that the husband, wife and children compose a family unit; that the father is responsible for the protection and support of the family, while the Woman Suffrage doctrine teaches that there is no family unit, that the husband and wife are independent of each other.”[iv]
Throughout the months of the writing contest, Life magazine printed dozens of submissions from readers around the country. Contributors penned poems, constructed lists, inked cartoons, and shared personal anecdotes. Some chose an ardent and serious tone, while others infused their writing with humor and exaggeration. Every submission tapped into broader antisuffrage arguments that insisted women’s suffrage ran contrary to true love, happy marriages, and content homes.
The following submissions to Life’s “Suffragette Contest” on the “the best reason, or reasons, why any man should not marry a suffragette” reflect gendered antisuffrage arguments about the incompatibility of women’s political rights and traditional understandings of love, marriage, and family.
Female Suffragists Are Not Real Women
Antisuffrage writers often insisted that female suffragists were not true women. They used a range of labels—from “masculine women” and “mannish females” to “husbandly wives” and “paternal mothers”—to signify that female suffragists lacked the qualities and characteristics that made women “women.” Some ardently insisted that when suffragists engaged in inappropriately gendered behavior (in this case, heated political debates) they literally changed their physical nature and ceased to be real women. This line of reasoning led some antisuffragists to link gender with sexual deviancy, raising the specter of homosexuality by warning that “half women” would trick “nice” and “normal” women into marrying them. For instance:
Donald Lowrie’s satirical submission documented the emergence of a new species of humans known as the suffragette. Mimicking scientific language, the author catalogued the features of this exotic creature: “The specimen now extant affects glasses, and is distinguishable from la femme ordinaire [the ordinary woman] by a rasping, squeaky noise—frequently mistaken for logic—which issues, without intermission, from an aperture in its face.” Despite some apparent similarities in form and character, Lowrie explained, the suffragist only superficially resembled the ordinary woman. In fact, the female suffragist was biologically distinct from the female human—an entirely separate species found under the “Genus hybrida” classification. With dramatic flair, Lowrie solved the evolutionary mystery of the suffragist through “an exhaustive study of the creature—from a safe distance,” concluding that, rather than a woman, “it is androgynous.”[v]
Charles F. Lummis also opened his submission by establishing female suffragists as evolutionarily abnormal. A man cannot marry a suffragist because, he explained, “It’s agin [against] the law. Two he-persons can’t be wed.”[vi]
Suffragists Impervious to Love
Along with portraying them as non-women, antisuffragists also described female suffragists as fundamentally incapable of love. Antisuffragists sometimes framed this as a matter of personal priorities: female suffragists funneled all of their passion into public speaking, organizing rowdy meetings, and hassling politicians, leaving no affection for potential suitors. This intensive desire to engage in the public sphere, antisuffragists explained, essentially rendered such women incapable of desiring the private pleasures of love and romance. A number of antisuffrage comic strips, political cartoons, and postcards furthered this argument by illustrating female suffragists as utterly impervious to love.
This cartoon, published as part of Life’s contest, shows cupid sneaking up on an unsuspecting woman with his bow and arrow drawn. The arrow, however, bounces off her back, bends, and falls to the ground. He tries three more times to no avail. With confusion, he approaches and attempts to hammer the arrow into her back with a rock. Finally, he gives up and walks past her in defeat. The reader then discovers that the woman is actually a suffragist: “Aw, what’s the use? Or Love’s labor lost.”[vii]
Dominating and Abusive Suffrage Wives
As the ultimate cautionary tale to bachelors, antisuffrage literature pointed to the ostensibly poor, pitiful men already trapped in marriages to suffragist wives. Poems, anecdotes, and cartoons warned that female suffragists were worse than normal wives. They nagged, henpecked, and harangued. They emasculated their husbands by forcing them to do domestic labor (from childcare to dishes!) while they went out to agitate for women’s rights. The most alarming depictions of suffragist wives painted them as physically and verbally abusive. Antisuffragists imagined these assaults—whether on a husband’s masculinity or physical body—as an extension of suffrage activism, rooted in a desire to dominate men.
T. R. Powell submitted a poem that described a friend warning a groom about the dangers of consummating a marriage to a suffragist. The second stanza explained:
A wife for life is tough enough,
Whate’er the compensation,
And none would face the dire disgrace
Of female domination,
Or dare to bear the wear and tear
Of endless acrimony,
Could he foresee,
in slight degree,
The gloom of matrimony.[ix]
Mrs. M. J. Guerin framed her submission as a letter to her son. She warned that suffragists may “beguile thee into matrimony” with their “power” and “allurements.” Submitting to their siren call, however, would go against the laws of God and nature. In part, she wrote:
“Hearken, my son, and beware of her allurements. She hath a fluent vocabulary and her speech is confusing to the mind of man…
Even the earth beneath thy feet will seem to cry out against thee for being so vile as to subvert the law of thy Maker and let a woman rule over thee…. As the years wear on, my son, thou wilt only be fit to stay at home and do the menial work of thine abode whilst thine illustrious spouse lectures from the platform or spends the evenings at her club.”[x]
Suffrage Marriages Destroy Homes, Families, the Nation (and White Superiority)
The question of whether suffragists made good wives purportedly had consequences that extended far beyond an individual husband’s happiness. Like many Americans, antisuffragists connected love, romance, and marriage to larger issues of secure home lives, safe children, healthy families, domestic harmony, robust communities, and a thriving nation. Antisuffragists capitalized on these popular associations when they warned that the gender deviancy of the suffrage movement would not only destroy romantic relationships between individual women and men but also devastate homes and ruin communities. After the turn of the twentieth century, many antisuffragists even warned about race suicide—the idea that eugenically “desirable” citizens bore children at a lower rate than “unfit” or “degenerate” populations likely to produce “feebleminded” or “immoral” offspring. Claims that suffragists’ rejection of marriage amounted to race suicide tapped into racialized fears about elite white women turning away from the home and reproduction in favor of politics and the public realm.
A. L. Birb submitted a poem to the Life contest, titled “The Consequences.” The rhyme opens with a warning that men who choose a suffragist as a wife will soon bemoan their choices: “Who yokes up with a suffragette,/ Will spend his life in vain regret;/ Will seek divorce, upon my oath,/ Or go stark crazy, one or both.” From there, Birb catalogues a cascading series of regrets and consequences of this unhappy union—resulting in the destruction of the white race:
This woman has a stubborn will,
She talks too much, she won’t keep still
No prof’table domestic art
Has any room in her cold heart.
Her plans are all to save the State
And in no manner contemplate
Help for the man she vowed one day
To love, to honor and obey.
The drift of her ideas and cares
Is all away from home affairs.
Her manners grow severe and cold,
Race-suicide is her best hold.”[xi]
The Judges Declare A Winner
By their estimations, Life received thousands of submissions testifying to why men should not marry suffragists; although Life only had room to print what the editors considered the sixty-one best articles. In March 1911, a panel of judges declared a winner—“H.B. Meese” of Braddock, Pennsylvania. Meese’s submission—a list titled “Eleven Reasons”—opened with a sentence that encapsulated many of the antisuffrage arguments about the incompatibility of women’s rights and marriage: “The fact that a woman is a suffragette (one who actively and militantly supports woman suffrage) disqualifies her for the mission of wife and mother because she is abnormal mentally, and, very often, physically.”
Suffragists responded to these critiques and stereotypes in as many ways as there were women in the movement. Some labelled this language slanderous and demeaning. Others ignored it and chose not to respond. And some fought to prove their opponents wrong by displaying their husbands and children as examples of their conformity to gender expectations.
In many ways, so much has changed since 1910—from packs of children’s Wonder Woman themed valentines that commend strength and bravery to women getting together for “Galentines Day” brunch in celebration of platonic love. Nevertheless, a woman’s desirability as a sexual and romantic partner is still too often determined by her conformity to gender expectations. And many of these expectations mirror those used by readers of Life magazine to lampoon suffragists: she must want children, she must create a welcoming home, she must look feminine and attractive, she must speak softly and kindly. There remain many moments in 2020 when a woman can trespass outside of these boundaries of acceptable gendered behavior—at school, on a date, in the workplace, and on the campaign trail. Echoing back more than a hundred years, when a woman today breaks from gender norms, she is often perceived and portrayed as undesirable—as a romantic partner, coworker, or elected official.
[i]Historians have increasingly understood separate spheres to be a rhetorical construction, a metaphor for complex gendered, class, rhetorically constructed, racially varied, and reciprocally constructed power relations. Linda K. Kerber, “Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman’s Place: The Rhetoric of Women’s History,” The Journal of American History75, no. 1 (1988): 21. For recent histories that so complicate the separate spheres ideology see: Sarah Deutsch, Women and the City: Gender, Space, and Power in Boston, 1870-1940(New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), and Nan Enstad, Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century(New York: Columbia University Press, 1999). I am in agreement with Robert O. Self who argues that even though the ideals surrounding sex and gender are not representative of how most Americans actually lived, “the conflict over this political and ideological fiction was very real.” Robert O. Self, All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s(New York: Hill and Wang, 2012), 5.
[ii]Ellen Carol DuBois, Woman Suffrage and Women’s Rights(New York; New York University Press, 1998), 37; Leslie J. Harris, State of the Marital Union: Rhetoric, Identity, and Nineteenth-Century Marriage Controversies(Waco: Baylor University Press, 2014); Nancy F. Cott, Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000); and Linda K. Kerber, No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship(New York: Hill and Wang, 1999), chap. 3.
[iii]“The Pulpit on Woman’s Rights,”Portsmouth Daily Times(Pourtsmouth, OH), December 9, 1871, 2.
[iv]Charles Edwin Tibbles, Doctrines of Woman Suffrage and Monogamous Marriage Antagonistic(1913), 13-14.
[v]Donald Lowrie, “One Explanation,” Life, December 1910, Susan B. Anthony Ephemera Collection, clippings volume 18, Huntington Library.
[vi]Charles F. Lummis, “Reasons Why Any Man Should Not Marry a Suffragette,” Life, December 29, 1910, p. 1202.
[vii]Thomson [?], “Ah, What’s the Use?,” Life, October 13, 1910, p. 612.
[viii]Bayard Jones, “The Home of the Suffragette: A Little Difference of Opinion,” Life, December 29, 1910, p. 1201.
[ix]T. R. Powell, “Why No Man Should Marry a Suffragette,” Life, December 8, 1910, p. 1048.
[x]Mrs. M. J. Guerin, “(With Due Apology to King Solomon),” Life, November 17, 1910, p. 858.
[xi]A. L. Birb, “The Consequences,” Life, November 24, 1910, p. 894.