Anti-suffrage leaders at a picnic event on May 30, 1913

The loudest voices against women's suffrage were women too

Updated 4:27 PM ET, Fri August 7, 2020

Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of "Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics." She co-hosts the history podcast "Past Present" and "This Day in Esoteric Political History." The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN)On a Friday afternoon in April 1909, a group gathered in lower Manhattan to debate women's right to vote (a right extended at that time only to women in select Western states, except for a few others that allowed women to vote in school-related elections).

The arguments echoed those that had been made for decades: the pro-suffragists insisted women's vote would improve the lives of women and children and fulfill the American promise of self-government; the anti-suffragists warned that it would lead to open warfare between men and women, destroying families across the country. While the debates were not unusual, the setting was: the Woman's University Club. All the attendees -- and debaters -- were women, including the ones arguing against women's suffrage.
The women who opposed women's right to vote have often been left out of the story of suffrage, not only because they were on the losing side, but also because it's hard to know what to make of them. They're not laughable villains like male anti-suffragists, conspiring to keep women in a state of second-class citizenship while hogging all the rights for themselves. Even the pro-suffragists at the University Club spoke of them more with pity than contempt. "It saddens me, I confess, when I meet women who are exerting themselves to oppose suffrage," said suffragist Fanny Garrison Villard (identified in the New York Times only as "Mrs. Henry Villard"). "After what has been done for them in the way of education it ill becomes them."
Villard voiced a perspective -- that women should know better than to oppose their own rights -- that persisted long after American women formally secured the right to vote in 1920. As reactions to the popular miniseries "Mrs. America" and the 2016 election returns attest, many Americans remain fascinated with or befuddled by the women who marched against the Equal Rights Amendment or who voted for a man who openly bragged about sexual assault.
That confusion rests on a set of mistaken assumptions about women's interests: what exactly they are and how women come to understand them. Talk of women's interests, like the interest of other marginalized groups, often trades in flat stereotypes, treating all members of the group as though they think, and vote, the same. But as the anti-suffragist women show, women have been shrewd political actors, understanding -- and protecting -- their sources of power in unexpected ways.
Pamphlet by the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage
Anti-suffrage women had been a political force since at least the late 1860s, when word that Massachusetts might extend the vote to women led 200 women to petition against giving themselves the vote. Women-led anti-suffrage drives never amounted to a mass movement, but they were a regular feature of the fight for the ballot over the next half-century, as women with social status fought to protect the power they had accumulated in a country that had mostly excluded them from electoral politics.
And women -- especially the wealthy White women who led this wing of the anti-suffrage fight -- had found ways to exercise power. They made the patriarchy work for them by setting up shop in the informal spaces of political power: the organizations, charities and associations that allowed them to expand their dominion over the private sphere into issues like public education and public health. They feared that, were women given the vote, they would lose their place of privilege and influence in these areas.