Patriotism or Equal Rights: The Suffragist’s Dichotomy during World War I

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The Great War in Europe had already lasted much longer than anticipated by the early months of 1917. Despite a long-standing precedent of neutrality in the face of foreign conflict, the United States steeled itself for the possibility of war. On February 26, 1917, the New York Times ran an article entitled "Suffragist Pledge Aid to the Nation" covering the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s pledge to aid in the war effort if the U.S. became involved in the conflict overseas. The Suffrage Association had met the day before in Washington, D.C. and had drafted a letter to President Woodrow Wilson promising the services of two million suffragists.

The New York Times cited the contents of the letter, which expressed the suffragists’ belief that "the settlement of international difficulties by bloodshed is unworthy of the twentieth century" [1]. However, despite their opposition to the war, the suffragists would remain loyal to the U.S. government and fulfill their civic duty to support the soldiers and the war effort. In anticipation that the U.S. might enter the war, the Suffrage Association planned to form a committee of representatives from each suffragist organization to ready them for war work, such as collecting rations and medical supplies. Additionally, the Times reported that a new bureau would coordinate the placement of women in the positions left empty by men shipped out to fight.

The suffragists’ letter to President Wilson made clear that they had "no intention of laying aside [their] constructive, forward work" to obtain voting rights for the female citizens of the United States [1]. At the same time the suffragists were pledging their loyalty to the nation, they were also planning a demonstration at the White House the following Sunday. According to the Times article, women from all over the country would rally together in support of a constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote. At the same meeting that produced the letter to President Wilson, the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage raised $12,500 in support of the demonstration outside of his offices. Later the same week, the Woman’s Party and the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage would be merged following another convention in Washington, D.C.

The New York Times article highlights some of the paradoxes of the time period in which it was published. Women were told to be prepared to fill men’s positions on the home front while the men were fighting overseas, and yet were not accorded the same rights as those men. They were encouraged to be loyal to the U.S. government, but had no say in choosing that government. During this time period, women were expected to be patriotic and functional, but not political or radical. Opponents to women’s suffrage frequently made comparisons between the suffragist movement and socialism, implying that the two were irretrievably intertwined. However, during World War One, suffragists rationed food, volunteered for the Red Cross, and worked in factories that produced munitions [2]. Their continued loyalty and patriotism deflated arguments that voting rights for women opened the doorway for radical socialist pacifism.

Ironically, suffragist actions to support the war effort fulfilled the female Red Cross volunteer ideal presented in pro-war propaganda. Organizations such as the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association featured in the New York Times article tried to prove women’s "fitness for suffrage and equal citizenship rights by loyally supporting the government’s military preparedness and war policies" [3]. Through the patriotic efforts of suffragists during World War I, American citizens came to accept that women were entitled to equal voting rights. Their ability to step in and keep the country functioning while a large portion of the male population fought valiantly overseas proved that suffragists were loyal to the United States of America and sought to be further enabled to participate in the country’s government.

 

[1] "Suffragists Pledge Aid to the Nation. Declare at Washington Meeting that 2,000,000 Women Will Serve in the Country’s Crisis." The New York Times, February 26, 1917. Retrieved from http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9E01E2DD123BEE3ABC4E51DFB466838C609EDE

[2] Brown, K. M. "The Education of the Woman Citizen, 1917-1918." Bowling Green State University, 2010. Retrieved from http://etd.ohiolink.edu/view.cgi/Brown%20Kathryn%20M.pdf?bgsu1277150212

[3] McKillen, E. "Pacifist Brawn and Silk-Stocking Militarism: Labor, Gender, and Antiwar Politics, 1914–1918." Peace & Change, 33(3), 388-425, 2008. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0130.2008.00504.x

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