For women around the country, the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which extended the vote to female citizens, was supposed to have been a celebration. Instead, 2020 is the year that wasn’t. The anniversary has been anything but joyous, a victim of the pandemic—and also an occasion for shaming.
When the virus struck in March, Women’s History Month, a lineup of parades, reenactments, exhibits, and presentations scheduled through 2020 was replaced by scholarly online essays, half-finished plays, and panel discussions via Zoom. Already, the commemoration had become notable for denunciations of dead white suffragists, who had excluded their Black counterparts from the movement and the history books.
The New York Times took the lead two years ago with a Sunday column skewering the two most famous reformers. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was not only “a classic liberal racist,” wrote editorial board member Brent Staples, but she and Susan B. Anthony penned a six-volume history of the suffrage movement that rendered “nearly invisible the black women who labored in the suffrage vineyard.” Theirs was a “toxic legacy.” Staples’s exposé was blistering—and fully justified. The past is rarely pretty, and history is served by facing it full on.
But although Times readers may have learned about the failings of white suffragists, they have remained in the dark about the paper’s own strident, misogynistic, and sometimes hysterical attacks on the very idea of allowing women to vote. In the final years of the suffrage campaign, from 1913 to 1920, Times editorialists parroted the standard anti-suffrage arguments: Women did not want the vote; they would vote as their menfolk did, doubling the cost of elections; they would be ruled by emotion; they were ill-equipped for the rough-and-tumble of politics. These diatribes echoed the views of owner Adolph Ochs, a rabid opponent of women’s rights.
The paper’s loud opposition began on October 19, 1912, during the presidential campaign. Theodore Roosevelt was on record favoring woman suffrage, but Woodrow Wilson had so far been silent. Were it not for Maud Malone—a librarian, intrepid suffragist, and labor activist—he might have avoided the issue altogether. “How about votes for women?” she called out from the floor of the Brooklyn Academy of Music while Wilson was polishing his progressive credentials with an attack on monopolies. He shifted gears.
“Woman suffrage, madam, is not a question that is dealt with by the National Government at all,” he replied.
“I am speaking to you as an American, Mr. Wilson,” Malone answered calmly.
The audience erupted in hoots and titters. Police dragged Malone out and down a fire exit. She spent the night in jail and was charged with a misdemeanor.
Rightly so, the Times editorialized: “Woman suffrage is not an issue in Gov. Wilson’s campaign for the Presidency.” Malone had “impudently interrupted his speech,” and persisted with “her irrelevant questioning.” It called for prompt punishment.
The following January, the Times applauded the lack of progress by British suffragettes: “It is clear that the day when women will generally be privileged to vote is still a long way off, on both sides of the ocean, and for that we may well be thankful. A multitude of evils will fall upon all womankind when the comparatively few agitators for the right to vote have won their victory.”
In 1915, measures enabling women to vote were on the ballot in New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Enfranchisement, the Times insisted in a three-column editorial, would “stir up discord in society and in the home, and would put obstacles in the way of progress…. Without the counsel and guidance of men, no woman ever ruled a state wisely and well. The defect is innate and one for which a cure is both impossible and not to be desired.”
Readers took exception. What about Catherine II of Russia? What about Maria Theresa, 40 years at the helm of Austria? Spain’s Isabella? Britain’s Elizabeth?
When suffrage failed in all four states, the Times rejoiced. Advocates had been “thoroughly and hopelessly beaten,” it said, “because the majority of conservative men are convinced that woman suffrage would be a weakness or a danger in the State…and politically an irretrievable error.”
The 1915 setback, however, convinced many suffragists to abandon efforts at a state level and work instead for a constitutional amendment.
Such an amendment had been first introduced in the Senate in 1887, and promptly failed. Alice Paul, a New Jersey Quaker, just 28, had breathed new life into the idea with a parade in 1913, the day before Wilson’s inauguration. In a display of pageantry never before seen in the nation’s capital, thousands of women marched behind a banner aimed at the new president and Congress: “We Demand an Amendment to the Constitution of the United States Enfranchising the Women of the Country.” Demand was something nice women didn’t do.
Paul is among the white suffragists often cited for racism. She discouraged Black women, particularly members of a fledgling Howard University sorority, from joining that parade until the national suffrage organization in charge ordered her to admit them. The young women marched, an act of great courage in the nation’s racist capital.
In subsequent meetings and speeches, Wilson, a Virginian by birth and a Democrat, argued that his hands were tied. Suffrage was a states’ rights issue. In private correspondence, he wrote that he was “strongly against” it.
The Times agreed. “The New York Times does not believe that the achievement of woman suffrage will increase either the happiness or the prosperity of women in America.… it believes that the bestowal upon women of the right to vote, and their contact with men in political matters, will tend to deprive them of certain privileges they now enjoy.”
Moreover, women posed a danger “of increasing the electorate by a body of citizens who have shown no special aptitude for dealing with the kind of questions that are submitted to voters, and whose view of such questions is likely to be amateurish.” The result “might be disastrous.”
As support for the amendment grew, the Times insisted this was the wrong moment. There was war in Europe. America was under pressure to abandon its neutrality. “Amid the many pressing vital problems, domestic, foreign, economic, industrial, with which the United States has to deal, the intrusion of feminism is grotesque.”
For Alice Paul, it was precisely the right moment. She had worked tirelessly since 1913 to try to convert Wilson and his fellow Democrats in Congress, many of them Southerners alarmed at the prospect of voting by Black women. Nothing had moved the president. On January 10, 1917, Paul stunned the nation. A dozen women under her command took up positions in front of the White House, the first people ever to do so. Calling themselves “Silent Sentinels,” they held aloft banners pressing Wilson for the vote.
“Silent, Silly, and Offensive” was the next day’s headline on the Times editorial; men would never resort to such “pettiness and monstrosity.”
As weeks then months passed, the pickets’ signs grew more belligerent. How dare the president hold America up as a democracy when “20,000,000 women are denied the right to vote”? One banner was addressed to “Kaiser Wilson.” The pickets were attacked by patriotic mobs, arrested, and jailed on trumped-up charges. “They are injuring woman suffrage” with their “petty whims,” said the Times in July. “They are disgusting the doubtful and making some of the faithful doubt.”
Arrests multiplied. Sentences grew longer. Paul and other leaders drew seven months. Brutalized in prison and fed rotten vegetables, putrid meat, and oatmeal crawling with worms, they went on hunger strikes and were force-fed.
The Times did not acknowledge their harsh treatment. It lumped “suffrage obsession” with “witchcraft” and “tarantism,” said to be an irrational desire to dance.
In November, the paper proclaimed, “Feminine disorder and sedition have been borne with altogether too much politeness and patience.” The suffragists should no longer “be humored as petulant children.”
That same month, New York’s all-male electorate gave its approval to woman’s suffrage. When Wilson suddenly announced his support for the amendment in early 1918, the Times felt betrayed: “He sacrificed what seemed to be a reasonable conviction to political expediency: to save his party from defeat in the Congressional elections he disregarded its platform and his own belief that suffrage is a matter for State decision.”
In 1920, when the amendment passed Congress and ratification was assured, the Times scolded women for resorting to “methods which the women ought now to drop. We mean the intolerance, the intense sex-consciousness, the angry assaults, the resentments, the absorption in a single aim which have too often marked—and marred—the suffrage cause. With the vote won, there will be no need for the employment of such weapons, if there ever was.”
Fast forward to 2020. On Sunday, August 16, the Times published a 42-page insert containing 11 essays highlighting the movement’s neglectful omissions. There were profiles of Black activists and their descendants, queer women, Native women, and female political cartoonists, among others.
An article on prominent anti-suffragists noted that the “antis” had “received admiring coverage in The New York Times.” It was a lame admission. One would not know that the news pages had been tuned to anti-suffragists’ every word, while the editorial board cheered them on.
The next day, acting editorial page editor Kathleen Kingsbury wrote a weak apologia, headlined “When The Times Opposed Women’s Suffrage.” Her predecessors had been “among those hostile to the cause,” she acknowledged. There followed two measured quotes as examples, neither of which honestly reflected the extent of the paper’s years of vitriol and bigotry, the thousands of hateful words spilled to discredit women fighting for their rights. Kingsbury then took a bow for “acknowledging our past failings,” and quickly moved on to a shout-out for Staples’s earlier revelations about “the way the suffrage movement betrayed Black women.” She shoehorned in another dig at Stanton and Anthony.
How disappointing that the nation’s most influential newspaper is willing to substantially overlook its own moral lapses while imposing a self-righteous historical reckoning on everyone else. Whatever failings individuals in mass movements have—and they always do have failings—should not be given equal weight with the failings of the powerful institutions upholding the status quo. To obsess about individuals and shy away from institutions, with all their cultural and political power, is historically dishonest in the worst way.