Monday, June 04, 2018


When we visited the historical museum in Saratoga Springs - one of those serendipitous finds that remind us not to schedule our days too fully when we travel - there was a lot of reference to the wives and daughters of the wealthy as suffragettes, advocates for votes for women. I wondered why it was the wealthy rather than the more truly downtrodden who were attracted to this.  After I had developed my little theory and shared it with my wife, she pointed out that they were the only ones who had time for such things.

Well, yes.  The downtrodden didn't get enough sleep and barely had time to feed the children and do even a modicum of cleaning of their own. Six days a week, usually, with the seventh for attending to the needs of one's own family. Not much time for banners and marches. So, fair point, darling.

Still, it remains to ask why the wealthy and educated women chose to get involved in that cause instead of some other. It's easy enough to see the self-interest why they might, but not why that won out over a hundred other worthy causes, educational, religious, charitable, or historical. Those often had narrow self-interest that was even greater, and more obvious kindly results. An individual vote doesn't actually count for much after all, and even the votes of all your friends and associates don't change things. Setting up a school for young women, because you have daughters, nieces, and associated friends might have a clearer payoff. Helping women get food might be more practical than getting them voting rights.

The first answer to that is easy.  Women did do those other things, and lots of them. Serious Suffragettes were a minority even among the wealthy, though I imagine there was a lot of foundational sympathy and support that was not loudly expressed. (I wonder if large abstract causes are more favored by those who don't have children, women and men. Environmental groups notice that volunteers are no longer available once they marry and have children.) Opera companies, drawing schools, literacy drives, and instructional uplift were created more by women than men of the time.

Yet I drew my theory from putting myself in their shoes. It might have been classist and snobby, but it was also quite true that they were literate and most men they encountered were not, or only barely so. The gardeners and porters and rail conductors and drivers they ordered about were usually uneducated, and often stupid. Those could vote, you could not. You had organised dinners and banquets, and great events which included important people, where the events of the larger world - politics, art, religion - were discussed, men and women. You played music, wrote poetry, understood architecture, knew geography and history. But 90% of the men you encountered in a year knew none of these things. It was unbalanced, and appalling, and obvious. It was not only galling in theory.  One had fresh examples of it every day.

Still my wife's theory of why the wealthy women were drawn to this is probably the better one. they were the only ones with time.


Sam L. said...

They had the time, and the money, and the interest.

Dan Kurt said...

The real down side of Women's Suffrage is that it hastened America's trend into away from a Republic and into Socialism and eventual dissolution.

Read John Lott, Jr.'s paper Did Women’s Suffrage Change the Size and Scope of Government?

Dan Kurt

Christopher B said...

I think you are both about equally correct since you're answering slight different questions. It was weathly women because they had the resources to invest, and it was the vote rather than economic equality because that's the disparity that was most visible to them. Once modern conveniences had reduced UMC housewives from domestic managers to domestic labor (even if the tasks took far less effort) then the second wave of feminists noticed the disparity between their work and their husband's.

Kevin said...

It's a known progression from Early Church Fathers (!) to Bishops, to Pope Alexander XI. The same story told with more expensive costumes and less content, until the story has to change.
We aren't quite to Pope Leo X in female political history, but we are well past the Photian Schism.

Texan99 said...

Isn't it a bit like the thought process that would lead an unusually wealthy or educated black man to support civil rights rather than giving all his attention to food drives? If you can get the right to vote you're on the way to the right to work and otherwise have a bit of control over your own economic future--better than food handouts any day. It's probably hard for any of us to imagine being part of a class officially deemed unworthy of basic roles in public life, from birth, without any regard for ability.

pacific_waters said...

"The gardeners and porters and rail conductors and drivers they ordered about were usually uneducated, and often stupid." And you know they were often stupid, how? In that era most were immigrants or 1st generation immigrants. That does not make them stupid.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

They had often been severely undernourished and subject to diseases as children. I made the distinction between usually and often quite intentionally. That they might have done better in other circumstances is certainly true.