Chivalrous or Cowardly? Suffragists, Antisuffragists, and Competing Definitions of American Manhood

Friday, January 6, 2017: 3:50 PM
Room 503 (Colorado Convention Center)
Jessica Derleth, Binghamton University, State University of New York
In a 1909 open letter to the legislature of Ohio, Dr. James Stubbs expressed confidence that the body of elected officials would reject petitions for enfranchising women because “in your honorable body there are no sissy men, no squaw men, no female men, no half men.” Stubbs opined that true manhood was naturally and inherently opposed to women entering into the rough and tumble world of electoral politics. By the turn of the twentieth century, countless antisuffragists, like Stubbs, portrayed male supporters of the American woman suffrage movement as “cowardly,” “sissy,” “effeminate,” “unmanly men.” Antisuffragists warned that men jeopardized their manhood by supporting “unsexed and abnormal” female suffragists, and threatened social stability by encouraging all American men to relinquish their male prerogative to legally and politically represent the family. This paper argues that suffragists, fearing popular associations of the movement with “masculine women” and “feminine men,” offered a competing definition of American manhood rooted in dominant ideas about chivalry, family, and gender. While careful to not criticize all men, female suffragists crafted stories and published jokes about small-minded, simpering, cowardly men who refused to support the intellectual, moral, and political development of their wives and daughters. In contrast to these weak men, the movement publicly venerated male supporters of the movement, offering them as examples of an ideal progressive manhood. Furthermore, pro-suffrage literature written by and for American men insisted that chivalry, admiration for the fair sex, and masculine protection of the home actually necessitated enfranchising women. Suffragists thus responded to antisuffrage criticism by offering a competing definition of American manhood that was both consonant with popular gender ideals and supportive of providing votes for women.