What David Barton Really Said About Women and Voting

Everyone seems to be ripping on David Barton today.  They are claiming that he said that women’s suffrage is somehow bad for the country.  Here are some of the headlines:

“David Barton: Allowing women to vote “hurts the entire culture and society.”

“Barton: Denying Women’s Suffrage Protects the Family”

“David Barton: Women Weren’t Allowed to Vote in Order to Preserve the Family.”

Most people who read this blog know that I have been very critical of Barton.  In fact, I could probably write something critical about David Barton every day on this blog and see my readership double.

Here is the clip that is circulating on left-wing websites:

I just listened to the entire episode of the May 1, 2014 “Wallbuilders Live.” This is the episode in which Barton apparently said that women’s suffrage was a bad thing.  There is a lot that is familiar in this episode.  As usual, Barton and his co-host Rick Green take their shots at the way history is taught in “government schools” (a slap in the face to all history teachers in public schools who are doing a wonderful job). They also continue to use the story of the American past to promote their political agenda in the present.  I have warned against this approach to history in both Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? and Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

Barton, of course, represents the Christian Right, but as this most recent incident shows, the Left is not immune from this kind of cherry picking and manipulation of evidence to promote their own political agenda.

Perhaps all of those historians (yes, some legitimate historians have jumped on the bandwagon) and pundits should listen to the entire Wallbuilders Live episode before hitting social media to skewer Barton for saying that women’s suffrage was a bad thing.  If you listen to the entire context of this discussion of women’s suffrage, you will notice several things:

1.  Nowhere in this episode does Barton say the 19th amendment was a bad thing or that women voting is a bad thing.  Listen for yourself.  Some might say he is implying this.  If someone wants to make this argument, it is a stretch.

2.  The clip I posted above has been edited.  The part of the discussion in which Barton and Green seem to suggest that women’s suffrage is a positive development in American life has been cut out.

3.  Barton’s culture war rhetoric often gets in the way of his historical assertions, but he is right about the way New Englanders understood the family.  It was patriarchal in nature and, as Edmund Morgan has argued, it was at the heart of New England Puritan life.  Barton believes that this kind of patriarchy should characterize families today.  But I am not sure his belief on this front is as newsworthy as the Right Wing watchdog websites make it out to be.  Millions of evangelicals embrace what is often called a “complementarian” position on marriage and support the right of women to vote.  In fact, if I remember my women’s history correctly, many 19th-century women’s suffragists held what today might be described as a “complementarian” position on marriage.  (Historians of American women–please correct me if I am wrong here).  While some might find this a reprehensible position, and I am not endorsing it here, the fact that Barton is calling for a kind of soft-complementarianism (he distinguishes it from the “tyranny” of the 17th-century Puritan father) is not really news.

4.  Barton is correct when he suggests that divorce was difficult in early America, although I do not know if one had to appeal to the legislature in order to get one.  (Can someone help me with this one?). On more contemporary matters, he is also correct that no-fault divorce has led to a rise in American divorces and divided families.  I think many conservatives and liberals think this is a problem in our culture.  Moreover, Barton’s concern about the traditional family unit is not some kind of anti-intellectual rant.  Christopher Lasch, writing from a neo-Marxist perspective, defended the traditional family (although not necessary a patriarchal family) against that rise of individualism and consumer capitalism in 1977 with the publication of Haven in the Heartless World; The Family Besieged.  

4.  Barton is correct to suggest that voting in early America was often directly related to the ownership of property.  This, as he mentions several times, is why a few women could vote in some colonies and in early national New Jersey.  Barton’s never said that this was a good thing or a bad thing.

5. Barton says that some property-owning women could vote in 17th-century New England.  This is true, but these were exceptions to the rule and very rare.

6.  The idea that single property-owning women somehow represented a “family unit,” as Barton suggests, is overstated.  If some of the single property-owning women at Salem were considered a true Puritan “family” they probably would not have been accused of witchcraft.  At least this is what I learned in graduate school from reading Carol Karlsen.

7.  The original question asked of Barton (by a caller named Britton) was whether or not the founding fathers were “sexist” for not letting women vote.  While “sexist” is not an eighteenth-century term, the members of nearly all early state legislatures believed that women should not have the right to vote. Were there some exceptions?  Yes.  But to say that the founders and early framers of state constitutions made deliberate attempts to grant suffrage to women is not accurate.

In the end, Barton is trying to defend the Founders against charges that they were sexist.  (And he is once again very wrong on this front).  He is not trying to say that the 19th amendment was a bad thing. Of course we never heard the question that was asked because the edited clip making its way around the Internet is taken out of context.

Barton’s words have been twisted here. Does Barton believe that the 19th amendment was a bad thing? I have no idea.  Did he make this claim in the May 1, 2014 episode of Wallbuilders Live?  I didn’t hear it.

Indeed, those on the Left can also play fast and lose with the record.

I am guessing I am going to get hit hard from some of you.  Please fire away…  The comment section is open.

14 thoughts on “What David Barton Really Said About Women and Voting

  1. The more important part of the left's narrative on this is the idea that the right is all “on Board” with Barton, if in fact he even views women's voting as less than proper. Imagine Conservative women not voting in today's real America. That would be like today's Israeli female warriors laying down their arms on account of “tradition”. It's not going to happen. Wish they could, but glad they won't. I think most American Christian men, looking at the mess we are now facing, might be tempted to drag the wife to the polls by the hair if she said no. Just kidding, but, people, this is now a spiritual battle. Molly Pitcher, present and accounted for.


  2. When we were two years old, David's parents brought him for a play date. I told him to keep his hands off my train. He pulled it off the track. I bit him so hard it drew blood and left an impression of my teeth. Maybe that is why he hates women.


  3. John: Your point is well-taken: It infuriates me when I see either “side” distorting what someone else said. David Barton's “history” is usually fantasy, but that does not excuse putting words into his mouth. In an interesting parallel, when I urged a compromise on the use of “under God” in the Pledge a few weeks back, making both “under God” and “under law” proper — Washington Post, Commentary, April 23, 2014 — I was depressed (and a bit surprised) at the utter unwillingness to see the value in compromise in the comments from either side. John


  4. John:

    Just a quick response.

    l. I know that the women's suffrage movement, like all political campaigns, includes a diverse coalition of actors. Many supported the women's right to vote because it was good for the family. Some were supporters of “domestic feminism.” They often argued that “women voters would promote and advance needed moral and civic reforms.”

    2. I understand that your essay was to refute the claim that Barton stated that “denying women's suffrage protects the family.” However, it is clear that Barton was most comfortable discussing the idea that when there was a family with property that the men should play the leadership role in voting in elections. For me the economic legitimization of voting is as troubling as the question of gender.

    What, for Barton, are the implications of these ideas for the Suffrage Amendment and today? I don't know. I'm not sure I may want to know.



  5. Prof. Carlson: Thanks for responding. I agree with nearly all of what you have said here. These comments need to be taken in the much larger context of the constant criticism I have levied against Barton at The Way of Improvement Leads Home. If you are familiar with that critique you will know that I have deliberately ignored a lot of Barton's errors in this piece. My main goal here was to show that Bsrton never said that women's suffrage or the 19th amendment was a bad thing. This was the unfair critique that many on the Left were making of Barton. My goal was to show that the Left often manipulates evidence for political purposes as well.

    As far as the women's suffrage movement is concerned, I will have to defer to experts. But some stuff I read suggests that many women's rights advocates were not as completely egalitarian. Maybe I am reading the wrong stuff.


  6. John

    Chris Gehrz referenced your website as a possible response to the Barton reflections on women and voting. I really appreciate your reflections on the Barton-Green discourse. However, after listening to the discussion I found the dialogue more troubling.

    1. I think this is part of Barton’s revisionist view of American history. Barton seems unsympathetic with the origins of the suffrage debate and whether it is compatible with the history of the American constitution. I am not sure on which side of the debate Barton would fall.

    If you are going to reference the suffrage debate it might be wise to understand the dynamics of that discussion and the role of faith the positions of both sides. Having done some work on the Baptist contributions to the suffrage debate (i.e. the work of Helen Barrett Montgomery) it is clear that those who supported suffrage did so to challenge the negative impact of alcohol and other vices on the family, support a commitment to biblical egalitarianism, to express a belief that the educated and engaged woman would make a strong contribution to the family and society, and promote societal loyalty is best enhanced by effective participation in core community decisions.

    Those who were opposed did so on the ground of maintaining a “patriarchal” view of family and society. They believed that women might enhance the development of civil rights for slaves and women should not participate in the “messiness” of voting. The temperance movement needed to be challenged. Tumblin, a Texas Baptist wrote that voting and politics were “out of harmony with sweet, modest, home-loving, female nature.

    2. The sidebar comments in the discussion are quite disturbing. They use early American history to assert the value of the idea of the ”economic property” right to vote. Only those who have a “skin in the game” ought to vote. Green states that I “wish we still would do that.” Is that were Christians really want to go? It could be another base for the “suppression of the vote.”

    3. I am not sure that Barton’s view on gender issues is as “pro-family” as they suggest. When the “man” casts the vote is he doing so on behalf of the family or on be half of the interests of a “patriarchal” political system. Does the wife play a role in establishing what the family vote should be? The sidebars suggest that men need to be saying “yes, dear” and “a happy life is a happy wife.” They implied that women were given the right to vote because “men were suffering.”

    4. This leads to my final observation after listening to the debate. Where does Barton get the idea that the foundational arguments of the constitution were premised on a one-family (with property), one vote? I know there is a theory that the Constitution was designed to protect the interests of the economic elite. Is this the implementation of Biblical values and institutions?

    This was a troubling tape and I wonder what vision of American history does he want to establish. Can’t the civil rights movement and the woman’s suffrage movement be established on the “ideals” of the American constitution and the need to expand the rights for all? Won’t these rights in the long run enhance that ability of the family to carry out it’s moral and social functions in society?


  7. Thanks, Paul. Since I posted this I also learned that from Mark Cheathem that Rachel Jackson's first husband, Lewis Robards, had to obtain a divorce from the state legislature in the early 1790s.


  8. Well, I certainly hope you don't get blasted for saying this (and this is coming from someone who's certainly a leftist AND loves seeing David Barton get taken down a peg).

    There can be a real conceit among some leftist groups or Right-Wing Watch Dog Websites that causes them to chop up information in the most palatable and flattering ways, and it's something that's bothered me for quite a while. About a year and a half ago many news sites like the Daily Kos and Addicting Info started passing around an audio recording of a “smackdown” of the Tea Party pundit Michael Graham by Michael Higgins, the president of Ireland. After finding the full conversation (which itself was two years old at that point), I discovered that the recording excised a lot of Graham's comments and reorganized Higgins' thoughts to make it sound more topical and much stronger than it was in the original recording- the entire context of the discussion was lost in the pursuit of a cheap soundbite intended to confirm that, in fact, we liberals WERE as smart and awesome as we think we are.

    It's very frustrating to see others, on both sides, entrench their opinions based on faulty information. In all honesty, I have to applaud your tenacity to take the extra step and seek out the truth of what David Barton was saying, especially given your (I think) clear opinions about his use of history. It's certainly a skill and dedication I would like to see in more people on my social media feeds.


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