The Anti-Suffrage Movement in Oregon in 1912
With the muted sounds of spring outside the window of the Multnomah Hotel, 40 women led by Mrs. Francis J. Bailey set out to plan their campaign, March 16, 1912. The Oregon State Association Opposed to the Extension of the Suffrage analyzed their expenses, allowances, and stratagem while relishing their continued trend of success. The question of suffrage, alive in Oregon for over thirty years, was met with constant opposition—voting trends had clearly been moving away from equal suffrage. After tea service and prior to an adjournment of the meeting, members were called to arms. Leaders asked association members to pursue enrollment among friends and family. The campaign against suffrage seemed hardly reactionary in these terms, presenting itself in its fullest composure.
In less than one year these 40 women, and many more, would be dissatisfied with the final tally of the vote on Oregon’s equal suffrage amendment. With a margin of only 4,161 votes Oregon became the final state on the West coast to extend the vote to its female citizens. Suffragists in the state had finally succeeded in persuading the male voting population that women, too, ought to be represented by the government.
Too frequently the struggle, the protest and the politics of woman suffrage appears as two sides of a coin. Suffragists are remembered nobly for their struggle toward civil rights, opposed by the “antis.” Reactionary, stubborn and stuffy, the anti-suffrage movement has fallen into ill repute. Within this structure it is all too easy to ignore the individual men and women who protested the extension of the ballot. Without proper understanding of the ideals of these individuals, their argumentative techniques and the campaign strategies they employed in their resistance to equal suffrage, a portrait of the suffrage movement remains one-dimensional.
Among the tea services, pamphleteering, and open debates, the character of the anti-suffragist can seem foreign. The refusal to grant a political voice to half of the population of the state appears unwarranted on any grounds. The “anti” position seems a contradiction. Manuela Thurner outlines common stereotypes attributed to “anti” women, including “‘A little band of rich, ultra society women,’ ‘the candied fruit of a generation characterized by “frenzied finance,”’ ‘butterflies of fashion [who] move in a limited though unimpeachable circle.’”
Behind these generalizations, however, one discovers some strategic concerns. Many opponents perceived the vote as part of the dishonest world of political lobbying, pork barrel legislation, and back room dealings. This seemed contrary to what some considered the spiritual nature of woman, her pure and genuine nature.
Anti-suffragists adopted several argumentative tactics throughout their long battle against the equal suffrage movement. They used religious arguments as one strategy. Writing in 1894, from the political contest held in New York State, members of the anti-suffrage movement appealed to divine law, stating, “The Creator made man and women to govern, but in totally different spheres…woman has her equally important…empire in which she is to rule—by persuasion, by captivities [sic] of love, by force of character…” This appeal reinforced the traditional roles of femininity. The argumentative technique captured key religious voters for the anti-suffrage cause and proposed equality under the eyes of God as a substitute for political equality.
The anti-suffrage movement, and the arguments of that movement, are too often viewed as the products of masculinity. As Susan Marshall notes in her work, Splintered Sisterhood, this is in fact quite ironic. “The stereotype of antisuffragists as a group of sheltered women bound to antiquated gender norms has deflected attention away from women’s activism in favor of the male opposition, paradoxically denying agency to female remonstrants.” That the anti-suffragist woman would be denied ‘agency’ in the historic account of her own opposition to enfranchisement is painfully incongruent.
Nationally, the trend in the anti-suffrage camp was to engage in “quiet protest.” This tactic aligned well with the opinion of politics voiced by ”antis.” To engage in an all-out campaign would be to equally submerge their protest in the “filthy realm” of politics. The progressive approach of the suffragists, including victories in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and Idaho necessitated an “anti” response.
Writing after the outcome of the Oregon election, Mary Ella Swift summarized a common position held by antis in other states, “For me, the vital argument against suffrage for women is that it would hamper them in their more effective work in social and political lines.” Resisting the urge to draw large scale publicity to their cause, and operating under the assumption that “the people who do not want women to vote are not the kind who got out and [shouted] and [that] they will take care of us in the next election as they have in the past,” the Oregon anti-suffrage movement clearly embodied the claim made by Swift. They distributed pamphlets, and organized lecture tours but restricted their campaign. Though suffragists called for debates , the “antis” did not agree to hold them. One such call for debate was brought forth by W.M. Davis, president of the Men’s Equal Suffrage Club. Wallace McCamant rejected the request with simplicity, “I will pay no attention to the challenge of Mr. Davis.” The anti-suffragists entered the campaign having successfully defeated the extension of the ballot for the past 30 years. No extravaganzas seemed necessary: those who had voted against suffrage would do the same yet again. It seems probable, however that the “antis” had begun to realize the instability of their position when brought to open debate.
The failure of the anti-suffrage campaign seems inevitable in retrospect. While having publicly endorsed the methods of a quiet and patient resistance, “antis” did take action. By doing this the anti-suffragists entered the “filthy” domain of politics against their own arguments. Often, their opponents used this against them. Colonel Robert A. Miller, a suffrage supporter, noted that “women [can] not be soiled by plunging into the pool of politics…” and that in fact, “…the feminine opponents of equal suffrage, by their activity in the…campaign, had either refuted their own logic or else had already suffered the taint that they asserted would ensue in case the amendment carried.”
By the fall of 1912, the anti-suffragist camp felt certain of their forthcoming victory. Speaking of their previous margin of success, Mrs. Francis J. Bailey commented “I still feel that 23,000 men are not going to desert us in two years…I feel very confident that the ballot is not going to be thrust upon us at this time.” When the polls closed, however, enough men had been convinced for the measure to pass.
The individuals who had met earlier that year in the rooms of the Multnomah Hotel had lost the long running battle against suffrage. Though each member must have had their own reason to take up the opposition, the collective efforts of the anti-suffrage movement contained too many contrary techniques. But without understanding these individuals and their arguments, our analysis of suffrage history is single-sided.
Oregon Secretary of State. Voter’s Pamphlet, General Election, November 1912. Salem, Oregon State Printer 1912 .
Harper, Ida Husted. History of Woman Suffrage. New York, NY: Arno & The New York Times, 1969
Thurner, Manuela. “Better Citizens Without the Ballot.” One Woman One Vote. 203 - 221 Edited by Marjorie Spruill Wheeler. Troutdale, OR: NewSage Press, 1995.
Women’s Anti-Suffrage Association Pamphlets of the Third Judicial District of the State of New York. Littleton, CO: Fred B. Rothman & Co, 1990.
About The Author
Christopher McFetridge is an undergraduate at Western Oregon University majoring in Philosophy. He enjoys listening to, recording, and performing music and owns a small Salem based record label.