This week marks the 163rd anniversary of the first women’s rights convention, held in Seneca Falls, New York, on July 19-20, 1848. That summer a journalist described the Seneca Falls resolution to seek the vote for women as “shocking and unnatural,” adding, “If our ladies will insist on voting and legislating, where, gentlemen, will be our dinners ... ? Where our domestic firesides and the holes in our stockings?”
A month after the convention, into a world of men who spoke of “our ladies” in terms of personal property not unlike their dinners, hearths, and socks, was born a girl who grew up to lead victorious campaigns for a woman’s right to vote. One of her major successes was the passage of a suffrage bill in Washington state in 1910, and another was the state’s ratification of the U.S. Constitution's Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.
It may seem ironic to a modern reader that Emma Smith DeVoe succeeded because of her profound faith in what she called “womanly" ways of recognizing and meeting human needs — ways that are sometimes expressed in making dinners, mending socks, and tending family firesides.
The moral character and feminine warmth that made her sister citizens good domestic partners, DeVoe believed, made them essential partners in public life. Women could contribute their special talents and virtues in the form of what was known at the time as “political motherhood” and “municipal housekeeping.” They would be especially effective at improving and enforcing laws affecting women, children, food, sanitation, the beauty of public spaces, and schools.
In Winning the West for Women: The Life of Suffragist Emma Smith DeVoe, historian Jennifer M. Ross-Nazzal tells the lively story of how DeVoe led women’s rights advocates in the Western states to use nonthreatening strategies that lessened the likelihood of being viewed like their counterparts back East. There, media cartoons depicted suffragists as cigar-smoking lunatics in skirts, out to overthrow the government.
DeVoe agreed with her mentor, Susan B. Anthony: “The more womanly we can be, the better for the cause.”
Hostile confrontations, believed DeVoe, were less effective than the slow, steady, conciliatory methods known in the suffrage movement as the “still hunt.” Quiet tactics would often “dull opponents to sleep,” she thought, and achieve far more than abrasiveness ever could. The best approaches were gentle, persistent conversations individually and in small groups, with husbands, friends, tradespeople, fellow club or church members, and community leaders.
But "womanly" work also included appealing to reason and justice through pointed arguments based on facts. In 1913, when an opponent tried to link women’s suffrage to higher rates of divorce, DeVoe countered with useful information: “until last year the state of Wyoming, which has had equal suffrage since 1869, had the lowest percentage of divorces of any state in the Union.”
And when skeptics fretted that “bad women” with voting rights could damage the nation, DeVoe counted the male and female inmates in a state penitentiary and serenely reported that the bad men outnumbered the bad women there, 107-to-1. DeVoe was known as “a stunner in persuasiveness” who displayed, at well-chosen moments, “the fire of her caustic wit.”
What DeVoe rejected were the kinds of militant mass demonstrations, storming of public offices, and heckling of officials that characterized the suffragist movement in places like England. “We’re working not fighting” was DeVoe’s mantra. Washington state suffrage advocate Dr. Cora Eaton praised her for having “the mind of a statesman, the manners of a gentlewoman and the persistence of an English bulldog, although nothing in her appearance and manners would lead you to suspect this latter.”
The suffrage bill that finally passed the conservative Washington state legislature in 1910, writes Ross-Nazzal, was “a tremendous feat, which reinvigorated the national movement,” and is DeVoe’s “primary legacy.” DeVoe gave major credit to her fellow advocates, praising their tactful, strategic, patient discussions with legislators and others, as well as their disciplined refusal to indulge in “hysterics.”
The book provides vivid glimpses of America in its passage from the 19th into the 20th century. It's touching to know that thousands of men, including DeVoe’s husband, were vocal activists in the cause of woman suffrage because as soldiers in the Civil War their battle injuries had been so skillfully and tenderly nursed by women at the front. Ross-Nazzal also sketches bustling scenes of life in small Western towns and the struggles of farmers during the tough economic times of the 1880s and 1890s.
In some respects, of course, American life hasn’t changed much since then. During the financial collapse of 1893, politicians were accused of having “sold their souls to Wall Street.” Furious quarrels about strategy split the suffragists, and gutter politics thrived along with personal rivalries. DeVoe’s gritty determination to lead the cause, often as a paid organizer so that she could support herself and the illness-prone husband she loved, prompted many in the movement to impugn her motives: She was in it for financial gain. Or did she thirst for power? Was she “hellion or angel”?
Without question, though, DeVoe's organizing strategies in the Washington state campaign a century ago were admirable, as described by the Tacoma Ledger at the time. She “invited careful thought on the part of the electorate” and treated opponents not “as brutes and oppressors” but “as reasonable beings possessed of a desire to do justice and promote the general welfare." We could use more voices like DeVoe's nowadays.
Jennifer M. Ross-Nazzal, Winning the West for Women: The Life of Suffragist Emma Smith DeVoe (UW Press: March 2011).