clock menu more-arrow no yes

What happened to the suffrage movement after suffrage?

A suffragette protestor circa 1920

Mischiefs of Faction is hosting a symposium to celebrate the centennial of Jeannette Rankin becoming the first woman elected to the US House of Representatives. Our first post provides a biographical sketch of Rankin’s career, the second highlights the underappreciated role of women’s groups in American policymaking, our third explains how female candidates can spark interest in political campaigns, our fourth highlights the progress yet to come, and the fifth explains how nomination and election rules affect the ability of women to get elected.

Jeannette Rankin became the first woman to serve in the US Congress when she took office as one of Montana’s at-large representatives on March 4, 1917. Her election did not exactly open the floodgates for women’s congressional representation. After the 1944 elections, there were only 11 women serving in the House of Representatives. After the 1968 elections, there were still only 11 women serving in the House.

Yet the excruciatingly slow progress of women’s congressional representation was not necessarily an obstacle to congressional policy change benefiting women. Securing constitutional female suffrage in 1920 gave women the power to influence the policy choices of male legislators as well.

This power had been widely recognized during the lengthy movement to secure female suffrage. After New York state repealed a statute enacted in 1860 giving women equal guardianship rights, for example, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony declared that the power to target male legislators for removal would have enabled female voters to save the repealed legislation: “Had women held the ballot — that weapon of protection — in her hand to punish legislators, by withholding her vote from those thus derelict to duty, no repeal of the law of 1860 could possibly have taken place.”

Throughout the suffrage campaign, but particularly in its final years, suffrage leaders actively sought to strategically mobilize female voters — or, in the states without state-level female suffrage, female family members of male voters — to drive from office male legislators opposed to female suffrage. At its 1917 annual convention, for example, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) resolved that “[i]f the 65th Congress fails to submit the Federal Amendment before the next congressional election, the Association shall select and enter into such a number of senatorial and congressional campaigns as will effect a change in both houses of Congress sufficient to insure the passage of the Federal Amendment.”

Suffragists demonstrating against Woodrow Wilson in Chicago, 1916.
Records of the National Woman's Party

We know now that the NAWSA had an effective strategy. Interest groups’ candidate endorsements (positive or negative) can affect voters’ choices. Voters are typically operating with relatively low levels of information about legislators’ policy positions. Interest groups can internalize voters’ information costs by doing the heavy lifting for them, identifying which legislators or candidates for office most (or least) represent the group’s policy positions. Voters respond to these cues.

So constitutional female suffrage represented an ominous new world for male legislators disinclined to support policy positions endorsed by the powerful national suffrage organization, renamed after the passage of the 19th Amendment as the National League of Women Voters (NLWV). The NLWV had a legislative agenda it was eager to pursue, including the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Protection Act, providing matching grants to states for pre- and postnatal care.

Enacted during the first flush of congressional fear over female suffrage in 1921, the Sheppard-Towner Act was arguably the first federal social policy ever enacted. The NLWV’s wish list of congressional legislation was extensive, including federal regulation of the meat, milk, and coal industries, independent citizenship for married women, equal pay, prohibitions on child labor, compulsory school attendance, “mothers’ pensions,” and prohibitions on gender discrimination in jury service. There was every reason to expect that the landscape of congressional policy would change dramatically as a result of the NLWV’s electoral mobilization efforts.

Democratic convention 1920. Seated: (from left) Miss Dortch and Mrs. Richard Edwards. Standing: (from left) Mary McDowell, Adah Bush, Patty Jacobs, Maud Wood Park, Mrs. Simmons, and James Paige.

But that didn’t occur. Early NLWV successes were stalled by the mid-1920s. Many legislative achievements, including Sheppard-Towner, were repealed by the late ’20s. Women would not again see significant congressional policy successes until the 1960s.

So what happened?

Parties versus movement

In Votes Without Leverage: Women in American Electoral Politics, 1920-1970, I suggested that our focus should be on the NLWV’s decision, made early in the 1920s, to suspend its pre-suffrage strategy of issuing targeted candidate endorsements (both positive and negative). This decision was made behind closed doors. But as each post-1920 election came and went without any attempts by the NLWV to mobilize women’s votes to support or oppose candidates for legislative office, legislators would have felt increasingly able to ignore the league’s legislative agenda.

But why did the NLWV reverse its prior and apparently effective strategy of targeted electoral mobilization? In Votes Without Leverage, I focused on imperfectly competitive markets for voter mobilization. We know that voter mobilization efforts are most effective when they appeal to voters’ social networks. Potential voters are most likely to become actual voters when mobilization campaigns work through voters’ dense networks of social relationships; these relationships can provide the necessary incentives for potential voters to bear the costs of voting even when the policy return seems diminishingly small.

These dense networks of social ties that turn out to be critical for voter mobilization have implications when interest groups compete with one another to spur voter support. The situation is akin to firms competing with one another for customers who are embedded in networks of various kinds, where often the initial entrant in a market has “first mover advantage.”

And the NLWV indeed had competition for women’s votes — from the women’s organizations created within the two national parties. These organizations began to mobilize women as Democrats and Republicans while the NLWV was still the NAWSA, preoccupied with fighting for constitutional female suffrage. The NAWSA had to remain institutionally focused on securing constitutional female suffrage until it was a done deal, ceding first mover advantage to the parties’ women’s organizations. By the time its leaders could turn their attention to post-suffrage electoral strategy, it appears to have been too late. It would not be until the 1960s that women’s organizations could effectively compete for women’s votes against party organizations severely weakened by technological progress.

Anna Harvey is a professor of political science and interim dean at New York University. Learn more about her research here.