When Women Fought for Suffrage by Disparaging German Immigrants

Carrie_Chapman_Catt_and_Anna_Howard_Shaw_in_1917

Sara Egge, an assistant professor of history at Centre College, reminds us that history is complicated.  Over at Zocalo, Egge shows how some women fighting for the right to vote “saw German men as backward, ignorant, and less worthy of citizenship than themselves.”

Here is a taste:

Nativist fear built into outright hysteria, and Midwestern suffragists began recasting decades of foreign resistance to assimilation as treason. They argued that to protect democracy, only those citizens who understood civic responsibility should vote. By 1917, when the United States entered World War I, suffragists crystallized their message. In South Dakota, propaganda warned of the untrustworthy “alien enemy” while celebrating patriotic suffragists who sacrificed “so deeply for the world struggle.” Another message deemed the “women of America…too noble and too intelligent and too devoted to be slackers” like their German counterparts.

That rhetorical maneuver finally gave woman suffrage the political leverage it needed to achieve victory. In November 1918, voters in South Dakota passed a woman suffrage amendment to the state’s constitution with an impressive 64 percent majority. Of the first 15 states to ratify the 19th Amendment, about half were in the Midwest— a startling shift for a region that had seemed permanently opposed to woman suffrage.

While Shaw’s speech was meant for an audience living in an important historical moment and place, it also resonates today. Suffragists had no qualms about using nativism to open democracy to women. They were willing to skewer immigrants in their decades-long quest for political equality. Shaw’s remarks also remind us how many assumptions Americans have made—in 1914 and today—about the rights and responsibilities that accompany citizenship.

Read the entire piece here.