Today in Feminist History: Mayor Blames Women for Lack of Suffrage (May 16, 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 16, 1913: Local suffragists expressed immediate and universal outrage today over some remarks made by New York Mayor William Gaynor in a newspaper interview.

New York Mayor William Gaynor.

He actually started off quite well when he endorsed woman suffrage: “Would I call myself a suffragist? In that I am perfectly willing, yes.”

He then went even further and said he could understand the militant actions taken by some British suffragists—a statement which made him seem an even more militant advocate of suffrage than most Americans working for the ballot for women. 

But like many a politician before him, he didn’t know when to stop talking, and went on to explain why he had sympathy for the actions of what he called “rather desperate” English suffragists who had turned to vandalism. He then exposed his true views of women in general—suffragists in particular—and offended both. 

Apparently the mayor feels that what makes women “militant” about seeking equal rights is lack of a husband, and since there are many unmarried women in England, he believes such desperation there is inevitable.

He explained:

“As soon as every woman has a man, the women will get peaceful … Is there any suffragette in the world who would not give up her principles for a nice man?”

He said that the reason he did not fear such violence here was because “most of our woman suffragists are married.”

He then made things even worse by blaming women themselves for their failure to win suffrage, and showed that he does not take the suffrage movement seriously:

“Do I think the men of this state are opposed to woman suffrage, or are in favor of it, or indifferent about it? I think the greatest number are in that mood that they just laugh and rub their stomachs and say that they are perfectly satisfied for the women to vote if they want to. But the trouble is that there are only a few women, apparently, who want to vote. Mark me, as soon as the majority of them want it, they will get it.”

Suffragist response was unvaried from the most to the least militant. Elizabeth Freeman, who drove the literature wagon during a recent suffrage hike from Newark, New Jersey, to Washington, D.C., and who served time in English prisons prior to coming here, said:

“The mayor is talking through his hat when he says that all militant suffragettes need is mere man.

“All they need is a vote! Most of the militant suffragette leaders in England, as a matter of fact—that is to say, many of them—are very sweetly married women.”

Freeman then recalled a recent debate here, in which the anti-suffragists implied that those who believed in “Votes for Women” tended not to believe in marriage and motherhood. She then called for a survey of those on the platform, and it was discovered that the five mothers who argued against suffrage had three children between them, while the four suffragist mothers had a total of twelve children, Freeman being the only unmarried debater on the platform. 

Harriot Stanton Blatch said English militance was not due to so many unmarried women, but political and economic reasons, and mentioned the names of many prominent English militants who are married. 

Rheta Childe Dorr, author of What Eight Million Women Want said:

“What an insult to women to say that any suffragette would give up her principles for a nice man. Lots of suffragettes who are chucking things in England are married women whose husbands are nice men, and many of these husbands have stood by them and been arrested with them.”

She then noted, “Women don’t need men half as bad as men need women, anyway.”

With the suffrage movement enjoying unprecedented strength—as shown by massive pageants in Washington, D.C., on March third and here in New York on May third—it’s surprising to see anyone who holds elected office so unconcerned about offending a group that may soon constitute at least half the electorate.

But suffragists—single, widowed, divorced or married, with or without children—have never been deterred by such old-fashioned, outdated views, or the condescending attitudes personified by the mayor, and will simply use these insults as a spur to greater efforts, thus bringing the day of victory closer.


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.