Today in Feminist History: Teddy Roosevelt’s a Suffragette! (May 2, 1913)

Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.

May 2, 1913: Theodore Roosevelt joined the ranks of suffrage speakers tonight, and left no doubt he will bring the same enthusiasm and stirring oratory to our “Votes for Women” campaign that characterizes his efforts for other causes he passionately supports.

Ten suffrage organizations combined to present a program at Manhattan’s almost 30-year-old Metropolitan Opera House, 1411 Broadway, to accompany the former President’s first suffrage speech. Not only was every seat and box sold out, but the aisles were packed with those grateful for the opportunity to listen, even if they had to stand for the entire length of the program.

When the curtain went up, there was a loud burst of applause and waving of American flags and suffrage pennants as the audience spotted Colonel Roosevelt next to Reverend Anna Howard Shaw, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Dr. Shaw opened the program by reminding the audience of recent victories in Kansas, Arizona and Oregon – and one defeat. The Colonel enthusiastically nodded and clapped when Dr. Shaw talked of how what should have been a suffrage victory in Michigan had been “stolen.”

On November 5th, a suffrage referendum came within 760 votes of victory out of 495,510 cast (49.92% in favor, 50.08% opposed). But charges of fraud favoring anti-suffrage forces were so widespread that a new referendum was put on the Michigan ballot on April 7th. This time, the liquor interests waged an open, all-out, extremely well-funded campaign against suffrage and it was defeated again, this time by 96,144 votes out of 433,620 cast (38.9% in favor, 61.1% opposed). 

After Dr. Shaw finished bringing everyone up to date on other late developments in the suffrage campaign, she proceeded to the main business of the night, and introduced Col. Roosevelt to an audience that gave him a two-minute standing ovation. 

As always, Roosevelt gave his listeners what they came for. In an hour-long speech he addressed and refuted every objection to woman suffrage and gave positive reasons for advancing our cause as well.

To those who would oppose woman suffrage in America because of the violent actions of some British militants, he said:

“It is an utter absurdity, it is wicked to condemn a great law-abiding movement because there are a few elsewhere who do foolish and wicked things. As Dr. Shaw said, apply to men the rule that none are worthy of the vote because some of them are not and there will not be one of us permitted to vote.”

He attacked the idea of male supremacy directly, noting that things had changed greatly since the women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848:

“At that time you would have found a great number of worthy people, including the very orthodox people, who insisted that the foundation of the family would have been ruined if it didn’t rest on the masterful leadership of a man. But now we have advanced to a far better ideal, the ideal of equal partnership between man and woman …

“Conservative friends tell me that woman’s duty is the home. Certainly. So is man’s. The duty of a woman to the home isn’t any more than a man’s. If any married man doesn’t know that the woman pulls a little more than her share in the home, he needs education. If the average man has more leisure to think of public matters than the average woman has, then it’s a frightful reflection on him. If the average man tells you the average women hasn’t the time to think of these questions, tell him to go home and do his duty. The average woman needs fifteen minutes to vote, and I want to point out to the alarmist that she will have left 364 days, twenty-three hours and forty-five minutes.”

Roosevelt then said that not only had the predictions of disaster made by opponents of woman suffrage been proven false, but that each new suffrage State had benefited by this reform:

“Mind you, I don’t believe that getting votes for women will cure all our ills or ailments, but I give it as my deliberate and careful judgment that in every State where suffrage has been tried, there has been, as far as I know, no single instance where it has produced damage. And there has been case after case where it has worked for universal betterment of social and civil conditions … In every community where women have received the vote it has meant so much loss of power to the underworld …

“Every disbeliever in decency will oppose this movement. And when you see men who make a business of that which is foul and base rallying against a cause you may be convinced that it is pretty good common sense to stand for that cause.”

He then noted that when he was in Michigan campaigning for President last year, he saw “Vote Against Woman Suffrage” signs outside of every saloon in the State, making it clear where much of the opposition comes from. 

Near the end of his presentation he told the audience: “There is no surer sign of advancing civilization than the advanced respect paid to a woman, who is neither a doll nor a drudge.”

Roosevelt than handed the meeting back to Reverend Shaw, who, as might be expected after such a speech, had a most successful call for contributions. This was followed by an elaborate and beautiful pageant put on by the combined efforts of nine different suffrage organizations. It featured costumed women representing “Hope,” “Truth,” “Woman,” “Justice,” and “Columbia.”

The pageant ended with a procession of women representing the nine “equal suffrage” States, and the singing of the Star Spangled Banner to close the evening.

Like the huge parades of last May in New York, and on March 3rd of this year in Washington, D.C., the addition of Colonel Roosevelt as an active supporter of our cause offers still more proof that this is a new era for the suffrage movement, with victory certain – and perhaps not that many years in the future.


David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.