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Woman Suffrage

...if woman would fulfill her traditional responsibility to her own children; if she would educate and protect from danger factory children who must find their recreation on the street; if she would bring the cultural forces to bear upon our materialistic civilization; and if she would do it all with the dignity and directness fitting one who carries on her immemorial duties, then she must bring herself to the use of the ballot -- that latest implement for self-government. May we not fairly say that American women need this implement in order to preserve the home? -- Jane Addams in "Why Women Should Vote," January 1910.

By the time Jane Addams began working for social welfare reform in 1889, the woman suffrage movement was over forty years old. While it took decades of struggle to achieve national suffrage, at first reformers won only incremental victories -- the right to vote at municipal, county, or state levels. Woman suffrage was still seen by many as revolutionary, many could not conceive of a society where women worked or men stayed at home.  Instead many, both men and women, thought that men should focus on the public sphere and women should operate within the private sphere, taking care of home and family. To them, voting should remain in the public sphere, accessible only to men.

Jane Addams argued that without the vote, women could not directly influence politics or the policies in their community. They could not rely on husbands, fathers, or sons to vote for the issues that mattered to them. Suffrage promised to give them that power, which would then mean that politicians would be answerable to them. Without the ability to vote politicians out, women were hampered in their ability to maintain their homes, feed and shelter their children, and seek education. 

As the fight for woman suffrage took so long to win, activists had different ideas about the best tactics. Jane Addams was part of the mainstream suffrage movement, which focused on incremental change and working with politicians to win concessions rather than confronting them. By 1910, a group of younger women, led by Alice Paul and Doris Stevens, were impatient for change and less willing to play nice. They adopted a militant feminist stance, sparking national attention with protests, hunger strikes, vandalism, and their demands for suffrage as a right.

Both men and women opposed woman suffrage. Women formed the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage and argued that they did not need the vote. They thought that elections were men's affairs, and wanted to focus their attention on raising families. They thought that if women had the vote, they would become politically active and neglect their responsibilities at home. They also expected women to behave in a subservient manner, and saw the behavior of suffragists as rude and unfeminine. Many religious leaders were also opposed to suffrage, believing that it was against God’s will. 

Addams debated these beliefs in her speeches and articles on suffrage, where she argued that without the vote, women could never be equal members of society. Unlike some of the more radical woman suffragists, Addams' argued that without suffrage women were unable to protect their homes and families. Society, especially urban society, had changed so drastically that women had to become engaged with municipal, state and federal governments in order to be the best mother and wife. Addams wrote extensively on suffrage, giving speeches around the country at women's colleges and for women's organizations. As one of the first generation of college-educated women, Addams felt a responsibility to ensure that younger women knew what was at stake. Addams also argued that it was critically important that working women be able to vote, because they lacked economic power. Without the vote, they had no power over the conditions they lived in, the conditions they worked in, and the future that the country held for their children.

In 1913, Jane Addams and Anna Howard Shaw, the president of the National American Woman Suffrage association, testified in front of the House of Representatives' Committee on Rules.Their goal was to convince the committee to establish a House Committee dedicated to drafting a suffrage amendment. Throughout the testimony, Addams debated the issue, arguing that Congress had already proven its ability to extend the right to vote to all American women. Members of Congress argued that states had the right to make that decision. Their debate also focused on the difference between citizenship and voting rights. In the eyes of the public, the suffrage debate was one about what social roles women should play, while in Congress the debate was centered on who could make that decision. 

The goal of woman suffrage was ultimately achieved when Congress passes the 19th Amendment in 1919 and it was ratified on August 18, 1920.

Primary Sources:

Jane Addams, "Why Women Should Vote," January 1910.

Jane Addams, Testimony before the U. S. House Committee on the Judiciary, March 13, 1912.

Jane Addams, The Working Woman and the Ballot, April 1908.

Jane Addams, Congressional Testimony on Woman Suffrage, December 3, 1913

Jane Addams, Interview with James Evans Crown, September, 1910

Jane Addams, Miss Addams, June 1913

Additional Resources:

Mary Downs and Leah Weinryb Grohsgal, From the Local to the Global: America's Newspapers Chronicle the Struggle for Women's Rights  National Endowment for the Humanities

National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection Library of Congress

US Suffrage Movement Timeline, 1792 to present University of Rochester, Susan B. Anthony Center.

Women's Suffrage from the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America

Suggested subject searches:

Addams, Jane, and woman suffrage

suffrage movement

women's movement

women, political culture

women, equality for

People, Organizations, and Events

People associated with woman suffrage

Organizations associated with woman suffrage

Events associated with woman suffrage

Photo credits

(top) Chicago Daily News, Jane Addams sitting with other women in an automobile in front of the Coliseum, Chicago History Museum.

(bottom) The Awakening, by Henry Mayer, 1915 (Library of Congress)