Today in Feminist History: Debate Propels Pro-Suffrage Voters to the Polls (October 7, 1911)

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.

October 7, 1911: With just three days to go until the vote on woman suffrage in California, the Valencia Theater in San Francisco was filled to capacity for the second consecutive night, this evening by those eager to hear the big debate that we’ve all been waiting for.

Dr. Charles F. Aked

It was a spirited contest between Dr. Charles F. Aked, representing the pro-suffrage side, and Colonel John P. Irish, his equally-determined opponent, and the exchange left no argument on either side unspoken.

The battle opened with Irish attacking the assumption that adding women to the electorate would naturally tend to improve politics. He quoted from long-time suffrage advocate Judge Ben Lindsay’s book, “The Beast,” (a phrase which Lindsey uses to describe corrupt influences in his own state of Colorado, where women won the vote 18 years ago). Reading from Lindsay’s book, Irish said: “‘The women are as free from the Beast as men, and no freer. They are bound by the same bonds of bread and butter.'”

Aked then supplied the rest of the quote:

“‘Do not misunderstand me – woman suffrage is right; it is expedient. In all moral issues they have been loyal. The good they do is a great gain. When the women see the Beast they will be the first to attack it. The women saved us – they saved the Juvenile Court.'”

This response brought forth the first – and biggest – ovation Aked got during the evening, though by no means was it the last, from the mostly pro-suffrage, and quite boisterous crowd.

This is far from the first time our opponents have tried to mislead the voters by selectively editing Judge Lindsey’s words. In fact, it’s becoming so common that earlier in the week Lindsay sent a telegram to Mr. B. J. McCormick in which he said:

“My Dear Sir: Unjointed sentences or statements from the contents of many addresses I have made in favor of woman’s suffrage have been used in the manner your telegram indicates. Of course it is a very disreputable kind of business and reflects no credit on those who resort to such unfair tactics.

Do the people of California insist that women shall be ministering angels so absolutely ethereal and perfect that they are incapable of any of the wickedness of human nature? Do they demand as a condition precedent to giving them the right to vote – the same right that has been given to men – that they shall furnish conditions that were never required of men – perfection? If they do it is the height of impudence as well as the height of absurdity.

Of course, some women, like some men, are just about as crooked as they can be in politics, and of course, some of them will be just as men have been, but our experience is that where there is one woman who stands for injustice, iniquity and fraud there are a good many men who do the same thing. If that is one point against woman suffrage, it is ninety times more a point against male suffrage, and the only logic of such rot in a suffrage campaign is to take the suffrage away from men and give it all to the women.

Why do the suffragists of California permit the ‘antis’ to lead them on wild goose chases by such side issues? Suppose a woman would stand for political iniquity, as some of them certainly will, what has that got to do with the question? No such arguments were used in the struggle for male suffrage. It would never have been extended, and no man outside of the privileged and property-owning classes would have a right to vote in California today. If there is anything that ought to make any honest, fair-minded man vote for suffrage, it is just such illogical arguments and unfair tactics. Very respectfully, Ben B. Lindsey.”

Having lost the first round, Irish tried another tack: “Manhood suffrage is logical. The hand that votes must be the hand that enforces the statutes created by the ballot. To divorce these two functions is to attack the very foundations of government.”

But the ballot has never been restricted to men in law enforcement, or even to those capable of serving in police forces or the military, and Aked noted that it was taxpaying that has been man’s principal claim to the right to vote. “Taxation without representation is tyranny” dates back to pre-Revolutionary times. Since women pay precisely the same kinds of taxes at exactly the same rates as men, they have just as valid a claim on the right to elect those who tax them. Aked even turned Irish’s own argument against him: “The vote of the weak is man’s answer to the aggressions of the strong. The weaker physically a woman is, the more she needs the weapon of the ballot.”

An overt, but not well received appeal to male supremacy launched the next volley, as Irish objected to women attacking “good laws” such as those which make the man the head of the family and give him sole control of all the couple’s property: “These laws were conceived in wisdom. Man is the head of the family because he is responsible for its support and can be sent to the rock pile if he fails to support his wife and children.”

The debate got more personal and intense as the evening wore on, with cheers, hisses and boos from the crowd punctuating more and more of each speaker’s comments. The final portion of the debate was marked by demonstrations so loud that it became increasingly hard to hear the debaters. But what the end lacked in decorum it made up for in enthusiasm. Judging by tonight’s audience reactions, there will be a high turnout of voters on Tuesday, with most of them having far more intense feelings about this amendment than any of the other 22 that the legislature has placed before the (male) electorate.

As to whether this year’s vote will turn out better than the unsuccessful suffrage fight held here in 1896, the Los Angeles Tribune has no doubts, and quotes a revered source for its prediction of victory:

“It is recalled that when, fifteen years ago, Susan B. Anthony led the fight in California for equal suffrage she met with little opposition. But a few weeks before election, representatives of the State Liquor Dealers’ Association met quietly in San Francisco and passed the word along: ‘Vote No.’ In those days what the railroad and saloon said ‘went.’ They had the organization; the people had not yet learned what it means to run their own affairs.

Does any one doubt that the interests whose welfare may not be advanced by equal suffrage have already had their meeting and passed along the same orders in the campaign of 1911?

But there are fewer people now who take such orders. An army that once followed the dictates of the machine either from fear of punishment by its orders, or in order to stand with the powers, or to be on the winning side, is broken up and scattered. Its skeleton remains, however – make no mistake about that. It is ready to take quick advantage of popular lethargy, to which it looks for a chance to rehabilitate itself, but it is powerless so long as the right-thinking people of California stay on the civic job.

One great obstacle of equal suffrage, therefore, is removed this year and only the failure of the best manhood in California to meet its full responsibility next Tuesday can again postpone the fulfillment of Miss Anthony’s prophesy after her defeat: ‘Be of good cheer; California will have suffrage.'”

The polls open in less than 72 hours, and every “Votes for Women” advocate will make the most of each remaining minute of the campaign to assure that our late suffrage leader’s prediction comes true.


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.