Arguing About Women’s Suffrage

In early 1895, Susa Young Gates sent out a letter “to many of the prominent people in Utah” asking them to share their views on women’s suffrage, and then printed their responses in the Young Woman’s Journal. The overwhelming majority supported female suffrage. A sampling (this got a bit long, but they’re worth a read):

Karl Maeser: “I take pleasure in stating that I am a believer in equal suffrage of the sexes. The obsolete idea of the supposed inferiority of the female sex was the only foundation upon which this unjust discrimination in our political fabric rested.”

James E. Talmage: “I am a believer in equal suffrage for the sexes.”

Sarah Kimball: “When Utah is admitted she should be a beacon light among the galaxy of States. With only half of her citizens enfranchised, she would be a cloudy, faint glimmer.”

Abraham Cannon: “I am free to state that no privilege which my wife, mother, or sister could ask in the affairs of government would I desire to withhold.” (Though he goes on to remark, “I believe that woman’s real sphere—that given her of God—is the home, and herein can she wield more influence in governmental affairs, if she properly appreciates her power, than in casting her ballot or occupying an office.”)

J.P.M Farnsworth: “I am most emphatically a believer in equal suffrage, yet think there always should be a qualification for both men and women voters: they should both cast their votes understandingly and intelligently, or not at all.”

David John: “I am a firm believer in equal suffrage for the sexes; for the reason that they are created and endowed equally, and are equally competent to use the sacred ballot for the general interest of our government.”

May Booth Talmage: “On all questions in which men and women have a common interest, it appears to my mind only right that the voice of one should be heard with as much consideration as that of the other. Nor do I think that the exercise of such right will, in any degree, tend to make woman less womanly.”

Antoinette B. Kinney: “Ours is a right. It is not a question of will we use the ballot wisely or well? will it injure or help us? will it increase the expenses of elections? are there too many illiterate voters already? will it corrupt our morals? or any of the thousand and one issues that anti-suffragists discuss when the subject is broached. The suffrage is woman’s right.”

L.L. Greene Richards: “Do you, can you suppose that the large-souled, sound-minded men of Utah . . . could be so ungrateful, so unchivalrous, and so injudicious as to settle upon their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters a status inferior to that which is to be secured to themselves?”

S.B. Young: “During all the time that women held the ballot in Utah no bad men were ever elected to office; but since their deprivation of this right the facts will hardly bear out the above statement . . . Woman suffrage means peace. A political society of men alone, from which women are excluded, is not always peaceful, because male human beings have in excess the belligerent instinct which needs to be moderated by the influence of women.”

Lillie T. Freeze: “Because woman is the acknowledged daughter of God, and as a human being subject to all the conditions of mortality equal with His son; that she is endowed by her Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness . . . in order to enjoy these three conditions considered positively essential to her earthly well-being, her person must be protected, her personality respected, and all the paths of happiness left wide open, in the pursuit of which she is free to exercise her own divine right of choice.”

“Since woman in receiving the franchise cannot deprive men of it, she only gains that much more while he loses nothing. It cannot prove so disastrous as people fear. . . . We often hear as an argument against suffrage that women themselves do not want it. They have all the rights they desire when they have the protection of a kind husband, a comfortable home, and honorable family. The fact that ten thousand women have all this, with nothing left to wish for, is no reason that twice ten thousand, without any of these rights, and who feel the need of protection, should not have it . . . Why should half the people of a nation, and that, too, gallantly called the better half, yield to the government of the other half in dumb submission. Woman instinctively rebel against any form of government to which her reason or affection does not yield a willing consent. Submission is not happiness.”

M.A.Y. Greenhalgh: “The status of woman in the State should be one of perfect equality legally and politically. She should have the full and free right of citizenship. The term ‘male citizen’ should be unknown. She should neither ask for nor expect more privileges or greater freedom than man but those which he enjoys should be hers also. Almost every vocation she may choose is now open to her and it has been proven that she can succeed on the same plane as man.”

“To be compelled to obey laws, yet have no voice in making those laws, is a state of subjugation fit only for imbeciles, and those otherwise incompetent to use the privilege of citizenship. It cannot be just legislation which excludes one-half of the people before legislation begins . . . Suffrage would make woman legally what she is morally, a citizen of the country she calls her own. It would place her on the same political plane with man, who would then respect her more because she would have more self-respect, that profound feeling which freedom ever gives to its possessors.”

A few respondents, however, explained why they opposed woman’s suffrage:

C. C. Goodwin: “I have very grave apprehensions about the effect of equal suffrage to women, on account of the women themselves . . . I fear that will make women more like men and less like themselves, and if this should prove to be true, it would be something to be regretted in sackcloth and ashes . . . men as a rule are such brutes that it requires constant appeals to their chivalry and courtesy, to make them—at least hosts of them—considerate enough for women. If woman throws off (or wears off) this dependence upon them, which is the source of a mighty influence upon the coarser sex, will not the ultimate result be a loss to woman herself?”

S. A. Kenner “I am not a believer in absolutely equal suffrage for the sexes, for the general reason that the Creator has not made them equal in other respects . . .for contentions with rigorous elements and dangerous things; for destructive campaigns abroad and wearisome vigils at home; for familiarity with the rougher side of life and association with the ‘things we loathe’; for commingling with objectionable people and the accomplishment of perilous enterprises—in all of which and many other respects the coarser and less winsome sex ought to be permitted to figure without other company.”

“Woman would be socially unsexed, the deference now paid her would soon cease to be; she would descend from the pedestal of honorable regard which she now occupies . . . So long as woman is woman in all respects, her station in life is the advanced one, for without her presence and influence, as we have often seen, the male degenerates rapidly and soon reaches a condition but a few removes from that of the barbarian . . . If she persisted in doing the things that we did and making herself as much the property of the public as we have to do, the force of such restraining influence would no longer exist.”

Perhaps the most well-known LDS opponent of women’s suffrage was B. H. Roberts. Though he did not participate in this discussion in the Young Woman’s Journal, his reasoning can be found in his autobiography. He explains that women are not capable of acting independently but will simply act under the direction of their husbands. “Do we not know from the difference of man’s nature and woman’s nature that it will be so?” He asserts that the franchise is a privilege, not a right, and that women are already sufficiently politically represented by their male relatives. He appeals to tradition, pointing out that “all change is not progress” and suggesting that “some customs ought to be.” He also questions what women would actually accomplish by having the vote: “have my opponents pointed out how woman are to work wonders and the reformation that they will make when given the ballot? Have they told us what laws women would change, or what law is desirable to change?”

I realize this is not a systematic sampling, but I am fascinated by the kinds of arguments being made. These are some of the ones I noticed:

–Equality of men and women.
–It is unjust for women not to be given a say in things which impact them.
–Suffrage is a right; it is necessary for female well-being.
–Need for female influence in the public sphere.
–Women in less-than-ideal circumstances need the protection (even if those in ideal circumstances don’t feel the need for it).

–It will erode the differences between the sexes.
–If women become more like men, they will no longer serve as a restraining influence on men (who are brutes by nature).
–Suffrage is a privilege, not a right.
–Suffrage (and corresponding political involvement) is a burden, involving the coarser aspects of life
–Women are sufficiently represented by male relatives.
–This is the way it’s always been done, so there must be a good reason for it.

In reading these, I can’t help but think of contemporary discussions regarding gender. Take, for example, the question of female ordination. Proponents often appeal to equality, the need for women to have a say in things that impact them, the importance of expanded opportunities for women, the need for female input in decision-making, and the need to protect women from abuses. Opponents might mention the importance of the differences between the sexes, the need to keep men civilized, that the priesthood is a privilege and not a right, that the priesthood is a burden, that women have access to the blessings of the priesthood even if they don’t participate in it directly (in other words, their needs in this matter are sufficiently represented by men), and the significance of tradition.

I do realize that there are differences between political questions which impact society at large, and matters involving the behavior of a private religious organization which understands itself to be guided by God–I doubt, for example, many Church members would have believed that revelation was necessary to change the suffrage situation. But I am nonetheless intrigued by the kinds of rhetorical appeals made in this discussion, because so many of them sound strikingly familiar.


  1. Lynnette,

    I’m laughing, because I was thinking the same thing. Your penultimate paragraph describes my reaction to these quotes almost exactly. It’s interesting, how we just seem to continue plowing the same ground.

    I wrote a paper once on the electoral system of Switzerland, where females were not allowed to vote until 1971. I think my conclusion was that the franchise is important for individuals so they can participate as citizens, but that it doesn’t matter much to the outcome of elections whether women vote.

  2. Reading through all your examples, it amazes me how similar the arguments are a hundred plus years ago (even though some are couched in more delicate language).

  3. Thanks, all; I’m glad others found this interesting.

    The comment I found the most striking was the one from Lillie Freeze, about how a frequent argument against suffrage was that women themselves didn’t want it because they were happy with the current situation. Her response was that not all women were happy, and the existence of some who were content shouldn’t mean that those did want suffrage shouldn’t be able to advocate for it. That’s certainly an issue in contemporary LDS feminism; you really can’t say that LDS women as a whole want or don’t want x, because there’s such diversity. So is it legitimate for some women to advocate for things that some (but not all) women want, in the name of women’s rights? I’m probably with Freeze on this, but it’s a complicated issue.

  4. Lynette, what’s the Young Woman’s Journal citation(s) for these quotes? I’d love to read the rest of them. Thanks!

  5. Rechabite, sure–check out the YWJ Vol. VI (1894-5), p. 225-32 and 280-86. Sorry, I’m not sure which specific issues that is, but hopefully the page numbers will help you find them.

    (And no worries about my name–“Lynette” is actually a much more common spelling, so it’s an understandable typo!)


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