The Political Legacy
The separate institution building of the late nineteenth century rested on a belief in women’s unique identity that had roots in the private female sphere of the early nineteenth century. Increasingly, however, as its participants entered a public female world, they adopted the more radical stance of feminists such as Stanton and Anthony who had long called for an end to political discrimination against women.
The generation that achieved suffrage, then, stood on the border of two worlds, each of which contributed to its ideology and politics. Suffragists argued that women needed the vote to perform their traditional tasks — to protect themselves as mothers and to exert their moral force on society. Yet they also argued for full citizenship and waged a successful, female-controlled political campaign to achieve it.
The suffrage movement succeeded by appealing to a broad constituency — mothers, workers, professionals, reformers — with the vision of the common concerns of womanhood. The movement failed, however, by not extending fully the political strengths of woman bonding. For one thing, the leadership allowed some members to exploit popular racist and nativist sentiments in their prosuffrage arguments, thus excluding most black and immigrant women from a potential feminist coalition. They also failed to recognize that the bonds that held the constituency together were not “natural” but social and political. The belief that women would automatically use the vote to the advantage of their sex overlooked both the class and racial lines that separated women. It underestimated the need for continued political organization so that women’s interests might be united and realized.
Unfortunately, the rhetoric of equality that became popular among men and women (with the exception of the National Woman’s Party) just after the passage of the suffrage amendment in 1920 subverted the women’s movement by denying the need for continued feminist organization. Of course, external factors significantly affected the movement’s future, including the new Freudian views of women; the growth of a consumer economy that increasingly exploited women’s sexuality; and the repression of radicalism and reform in general after World War I.21 At the same time, many women, seemingly oblivious that these pressures necessitated further separate organizing, insisted on striving for integration into a male world — sexually, professionally, and politically.
Examples of this integrationist approach can be found in the universities, the workplace, and politics. In contrast to an earlier generation, the women who participated in the New York World’s Fair of 1939 had no separate building. Woman, the fair bulletin explained, “will not sit upon a pedestal, not be segregated, isolated; she will fit into the life of the Exposition as she does into life itself— never apart, always a part.” The part in this world’s fair, however, consisted primarily of fashion, food, and vanity fair.22 In the universities, the success of the first generation of female academics did not survive past the 1920s, not only because of men’s resistance but also, as Rosalind Rosenberg has explained, because “success isolated women from their culture of origin and placed them in an alien and often hostile community.” Many academics who cut off their ties to other women “lost their old feminine supports but had no other supports to replace them.”23
The lesson of women’s politics in the 1920s is illustrated by the life of one woman, Emily Newell Blair, who learned firsthand the pitfalls of rejecting a separatist basis for feminism.24 Blair’s life exemplified the transformation of women’s roles at the turn of the century. Educated at a woman’s college, Goucher, this Missouri-born, middle-class woman returned to her hometown to help support her family until she married and created her own home. Between 1900 and 1910, she bore two children, supported her husband’s career, and joined in local women’s club activities. In her spare time, Blair began writing short stories for ladies’ magazines. Because she found the work, and particularly the income, satisfying, she became a freelance writer. At this point, the suffrage movement revived in Missouri, and Blair took over state publicity, editing the magazine Missouri Woman and doing public relations. Then, in World War I, she expanded her professional activities further by serving on the Women’s Council of the U. S. Council of National Defense. These years of training in writing, feminist organizing, and public speaking served Blair well when suffrage passed and she entered politics.
In 1920, women faced three major political choices: they could become a separate feminist political force through the National Woman’s Party, which few did; they could follow the moderates of the nawsa into the newly formed, nonpartisan League of Women Voters, concentrating on citizen education and good government; or they could join the mainstream political parties. Emily Newell Blair chose the third option and rose through the Democratic Party organization to become national vice chairman in the 1920s.
Blair built her political life and her following on the belief that the vote had made women the political equals of men. Thus, she thought the surest path to furthering women’s goals was through participation in the party structure. Having helped found the League of Women Voters, Blair then rejected nonpartisanship and urged women not to vote as women but as citizens. In her 1922 lecture “What Women May Do with the Ballot,” Blair argued that “reactions to political issues are not decided by sex but by intellect and emotion.” Although she believed that lack of political experience and social training made women different from men temporarily, she expected those differences to be eliminated after a few years of political activity. To hasten women’s integration into the mainstream of party politics, Blair set up 30 “schools of democracy” to train the new voters during the early twenties, as well as over 1,000 women’s clubs. Her philosophy, she claimed, was one of “boring from within.” Blair rejected the “sex conscious feminists” of the Woman’s Party and those who wanted “woman cohesiveness.” Although she favored the election of women, she wanted them to be chosen not as women but as politicians. “Give women time,” she often repeated, and they would become the equals of men in politics.
By the late 1920s, however, women had not gained acceptance as men’s political equals, and Blair’s views changed significantly. Once she had claimed that the parties did not discriminate against women, as shown by her own powerful position. After she retired from party office in 1928, however, Blair acknowledged that the treatment of women by the parties had deteriorated since the years immediately after suffrage passed. As soon as male politicians realized that there was no strong female voting bloc or political organization, they refused to appoint or elect powerful women, and a “strong masculine prejudice against women in politics” surfaced. Now they chose women for party office who seemed easiest to manage or who were the wives of male officeholders.
By 1931, Blair’s former optimism had turned to disillusionment. She felt herself “ineffective in politics as a feminist,” a term that she began to use positively. Blair realized that women could not command political power and the respect of their male colleagues unless, like the suffrage leaders, they had a visible, vocal following. “Unfortunately for feminism,” she confessed, “it was agreed to drop the sex line in politics. And it was dropped by the women.” In the pages of the Woman’s Journal, Blair called for a revival of feminism in the form of a new politics that would seek to put more women in office. Reversing her former stance, she claimed that women voters should back women candidates and use a women’s organization to do so. They could remain in the parties but should form “a new organization of feminists devoted to the task of getting women into politics.”
The development of Emily Newell Blair’s feminist consciousness may have been unique for her time, but it is a familiar process among educated and professional women today. Having gained access to formerly male institutions but still committed to furthering women’s struggles, today’s “new women” are faced with political choices not dissimilar to those of the generation that achieved suffrage. The bitterness of Stanton and Anthony in their advice to the younger generation in 1881 and the strategy that Emily Newell Blair presented in 1931 may serve as lessons for the present.