Photo by LSE Library on Unsplash

Is It 1920, Again?

And what will your judge say? That this is your house. Your house and your children? What am I to you, Tom? What am I then in your house? Chattel?” (from Iron Jawed Angels)

What year is this? It’s 2020? Really? Are you sure? ’Cause it seems like it’s 1920, again.

Of course, 2020 is the 100-year anniversary of woman suffrage. After a 144-year struggle, women finally got the right to vote and to run for office. In honor of that anniversary, schools, radio stations, and TV networks are running programs to educate the public and to acknowledge those who worked on suffrage.

Mind you, you that history gets collapsed and condensed (as history always must be), and it also gets whitewashed — focussing on the contributions and actions of white women, and leaving out the women of color who also fought tirelessly. (See, for example, Rosalyn Terborg-Penn’s African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850–1920.)

The pushback was strong and violent. The arguments were (from our perspective in 2020, rather laughable). They argued, men and women, that women were not suited for politics. They could not grasp the issues. Further, they argued that participation in politics would sully and damn women because they would have to hear about the awful and depraved things in the world (mostly committed by other men). As Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1816:

“Were our state a pure democracy, in which all it’s inhabitants should meet together to transact all their business, there would yet be excluded from their deliberations 1. infants, until arrived at years of discretion. 2. women; who, to prevent depravation of morals, and ambiguity of issue, could not mix promiscuously in the public meetings of men. 3. slaves, from whom the unfortunate state of things with us takes away the rights of will and of property.”

Anti-suffragists argued that women would turn their backs on their families and leave husbands home caring for the children. They argued that women would abandon their “natural instincts” and “duties” for motherhood and domesticity.

And, they argued that men, as the superior intellect and greater moral half of the family, should vote for the entire family. Women did not need to vote because their husbands voted, and his vote represented the entire family. Suffragists argued against the “household vote” because all too often wives and husbands did not agree on political and social issues. All too often, men voted against women’s interest — as in the vote for franchise itself.

The suffragists prevailed. Eventually.

But 100 years is not nothin’. Women now vote in equal or greater numbers than men. Women — we are told — decide the outcomes of elections. Women run for office, and they now hold more seats at the local, state, and federal level than ever before.

On August 27, 2020, however, Abby Johnson stood before the RNC convention and provided her right-to-life argument for Republicans and Trump. However, Johnson has also advocated for a return to the “household vote.” That is, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of universal woman suffrage, Johnson argues that women give it back — or men take it back.

Johnson’s justification is largely religious. She argues that the man is the head of the household and that the wife must submit to the will of the husband. According to Johnson, if a husband and wife disagree on a subject, they can discuss the matter and try to come to an accord. If they cannot agree, however, his opinion and his vote would prevail. Only his vote would be cast. She writes: “In a Godly household, the husband would get the final say.”

Of course, Johnson says nothing about same-sex marriages. I suspect that she would see them as “ungodly,” and I suspect she would rather see them nullified (though this statement is conjecture based on her other arguments). I assume, though, that only one person would get to cast a vote.

A return to a household vote would be a disaster. It would undo 100 years of gains by women in politics, in society, and in relationships. Such an argument is ludicrous on its face, and yet Johnson makes it in full confidence. Such an argument is dangerous in its consequences. Millions of women (those in heterosexual marriages) would be disenfranchised immediately. Since 1776, women like Abigail Adams have reminded their male counterparts that the American Revolution took place because the men felt that they rejected “taxation without representation.” Adams reminded her husband, just weeks prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, that women felt similar disdain for a system in which they had no representation. It is, simply, tyranny. (See Adams’s letters from late March, 1776 and onward.)

Remember when all those critics said that Margaret Atwood was too far-fetched when the women of Gilead lost citizenship and the right to vote overnight? We’re not there, yet, obviously, but such an argument is being made by someone who spoke at the RNC convention. Nor is she the first. In 2018, a Republican precinct chair Casey Fisher wrote in a Facebook post that he favored a return to household voting. He called woman suffrage “a grave mistake.”

The suffragists were not wrong when they argued against tyranny and for full democratic representation (acknowledging that full franchise did not come for everyone until much later). One hundred and three years ago today, August 28, women picketed outside the White House, asking Woodrow Wilson for the vote. They brilliantly used Wilson’s own words in making their argument to him:

“We shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts — for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their government.”

And in a prescient rebuttal of Abby Johnson, they stood outside the White House in 1917 with a sign that read:

“Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.”

Ritch Calvin is an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at SUNY Stony Brook. He is the author of Feminist Epistemology and Feminist Science Fiction and editor of a collection of essays on Gilmore Girls.

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