January 2017

Creating a Female Political Culture

National Women’s History Museum

By Edith P. Mayo and the National Women's History Museum

Creating a powerful political imagery was crucial to establishing a political presence in the American public consciousness and in bringing about the acceptance of voting rights for women.

As political parties developed in the 19th century, and politicians and their supporters vied for the votes of an expanding popular electorate, male politicians created potent images which they manipulated to achieve popular political support.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as women expanded their roles outside the domestic sphere into the public arena, they found in the mainstream political culture no images that spoke to women's experiences or conveyed women's political objectives.

It was essential that women create a political culture of their own, including an imagery of suffrage that would form a vital and instantly recognizable means of political communication in a pre-television age.

Suffrage's Two Faces: Mainstream and Militant
Out of the two philosophically and strategically divergent suffrage organizations in the early 20th century–the mainstream National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and the militant National Woman’s Party (NWP)–two separate suffrage imageries evolved.

One set of images was aimed at moderate, mainstream women, emphasizing motherhood and social service.

The other was directed toward more radical feminists and stressed equality, individual freedom, and personal empowerment.

This powerful new political culture promoted women's inclusion in the public life of the nation, and proved a significant tactic that successfully propelled suffrage to final passage by Congress and ratification by the states.

Female Political Culture
Creating a female political culture had been an ongoing endeavor for American women. 

Women of the Revolutionary Era, seeking a political role for themselves in the new nation, created the concept of Republican Motherhood, a concept thoroughly explored by historian Linda Kerber in her work Women of the Republic.

The concept of Republican Motherhood was echoed again in the mid-19th century by such prominent women as Catherine Beecher (famous educator and promoter of domestic science as a study for women) and Sarah Josepha Hale (editor of the popular and influential women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book).

Building on the theme, women at the turn of the century continued to use aspects of their cultural role to political effect.

The images and rhetoric comprising this political culture enabled women to transform their domestic experience into a powerful political statement, allowing them to extend their culturally-sanctioned role to include new public responsibilities.

This politicized rhetoric and imagery of motherhood, as both a socially redemptive and politically compelling concept, became a central and forceful rationale, setting patterns for women's political participation in this country that continue to today.

In creating a female political culture, American women used materials rooted in American traditions as well as those borrowed and adapted to American usage from the British suffrage movement.

American suffrage women were inspired by political parades and demonstrations familiar throughout the 19th century during presidential campaigns.

The suffragists also embraced classical figures of women representing America, Democracy, Liberty, and Justice, which had been in American political use since the time of the Revolution.

The Woman's Christian Temperance Union (a women's anti-alcohol and drug crusade that became the largest women's organization in the 19th century) had a history of street actions and public parades dating from the mid-1870s.

Suffrage supporters in California had staged parades as early as 1906 (prior to the first British suffrage parades) to promote a state amendment for women's vote.

The American cultural emphasis on women's presumed "inherent" domestic nature, her responsibilities for nurturing children, and her duties in the maintenance of the home resulted in the mainstream NAWSA's pervasive use of domestic images and rhetoric.

In fact, this domestic emphasis was the single most important distinction between the public discourse of the American and the British suffrage movements, and between the mainstream and militant wings of the American movement.

Women's "Special" Qualities
By the end of the 19th century, American suffrage rhetoric based on motherhood and the "special" qualities of woman's nature became almost universal. 

Mainstream women's movement leaders and the major suffrage journal of the NAWSA, The Woman's Journal, all championed the creed of Motherhood under the banner of "Social Housekeeping."

Society was to be uplifted by woman's higher moral nature (superior to that of man, so the concept held) as that morality was infused into the social and political system.

Political and social reform became a moral and civic necessity that would enable women to carry out effectively the work of "woman's proper sphere."

Rather than intruding into the male sphere, the rhetoric stressed that woman's sphere was expanding outward to include the community and the nation as the larger "home."

Women needed the ballot, so the mainstream argument went, not because they sought to intrude into the male sphere of activity, but in fulfillment of woman's traditional role.

Themes of women as moral arbiters of society, keepers of cultural tradition and agents of cultural transmission, nurturers of children, philanthropists to the less fortunate, and mothers of the race were extensively emphasized.

These themes fit perfectly with the prevailing cultural concepts, held by both men and women, about the role of women in society. Stressing these themes opened up the arsenal of suffrage arguments to a wide range of new strategies and persuasive tactics.

With the reawakening of the suffrage drive in the early twentieth century came a proliferation of political materials aimed at selling the movement.

National Women's History Museum ~ www.NWHM.org
Credits: Story

National Women's History Museum

Edith P. Mayo, Curator Emeritus
National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Jeanette Patrick
Program Manager

Credits: All media
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