From the 1860s until 1920, the suffrage question inspired fierce activism on both sides of the issue. Iowa was no exception. Iowa produced some of the most prominent suffragists and anti-suffragists in American history.
Much like suffrage, the anti-suffrage movement spread West from its origin in the North Eastern United States. Led mostly by White, upper-class married women, the movement really took hold in Iowa in the 1860s. Anti-suffrage women were steeped in traditional gender roles inspired by Victorian societal ideals. Throughout the 19th century, they largely refrained from public speaking, preferring to let men speak for them or get their message out through pamphlets and newspaper articles. Anti-suffragists argued that woman suffrage threatened the tradition of women staying in the home and men going out to work, thus upending society and bringing harm to the family.
Though they argued for tradition, anti-suffragists regularly flouted tradition by entering the male-dominated realm of politics to rail against woman suffrage. By 1898, the suffrage battle raged and anti-suffrage women began to make public addresses themselves, starting with speeches by wealthy Des Moines women before the Iowa legislative committee on February 3rd.
Anti-suffragists were especially effective in Iowa. Rather than winning debates against suffragists, all the antis had to do was create doubt about the consequences of woman suffrage. By preying on fears over immigration, free love, Socialism, and the Black vote, and arguing that most women simply didn’t want the vote, antis were able to block suffrage time and again for decades. Anti-suffragists were also very good at distinguishing themselves from suffrage activists. In contrast to the suffragists’ “New Woman,” who was educated, independent, and involved in public life, antis defined themselves as “True Women,” devoted to their families and loyal to their husbands.
As suffrage activism increased post-1900, so too did anti-suffrage. Antis in Iowa began to coordinate more with the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage (NAOWS) and formally organized into men’s and women’s anti-suffrage groups. Despite antis’ commitment to tradition, men’s groups were often directed by women’s groups.
The most heated suffrage fight came in 1916 when suffragists and antis battled it out over a June referendum to decide whether Iowa women would win the right to vote. Both the national suffrage and anti-suffrage organizations heavily supported the respective campaigns. For Iowa anti-suffragists, this was the first major appearance of outside support, and there was a clear split between each groups’ messaging. Iowa antis presented a more traditional argument that women were fundamentally unsuitable for voting, while the national organization argued that women were simply more useful in the home.
Minnie Bronson, an Iowa native who became the head spokeswoman for the NAOWS, spent a significant amount of time in Iowa trying to defeat the suffrage referendum. Bronson was practically the antithesis to famed Iowa suffragist, Carrie Chapman Catt. Both got their start in Iowa, later going on to lead the national anti-suffrage and suffrage organizations from New York City.
On June 5, 1916, the suffrage referendum was defeated by a mere 10,000 votes. While this was a crushing blow for suffragists, it inspired them to more vigorously campaign for a federal amendment, which came less than four years later. In 1920, Iowa became the 10th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, bringing the United States one step closer to fulfilling its founding ideals.
Cavanaugh, Libby Jean, "Opposition to Female Enfranchisement: The Iowa Anti-suffrage Movement" (2007). Retrospective Theses and Dissertations. 15013.