Women Reformers and the Suffragettes

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What were the challenges to women's suffrage in the early 1900s?

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Women's suffrage encountered religiously sanctioned tradition that held that in marriage, man and woman become one flesh. In the patriarchal societies of Great Britain and the United States, the two countries where the movement for suffrage became most intense in the early 1900s, the woman in the marriage was understood to merge with the man. His vote was her vote. To imagine otherwise was to challenge the foundation of marriage as it was then conceived. Women themselves often opposed suffrage, including, in England, Virginia Woolf's mother (Woolf herself supported suffrage), and, in the United States, Laura Ingalls Wilder, later author of the Little House series.

The fact that the only elected officials were male made the task of getting the vote all the more difficult. Men had a difficult time perceiving women's frustration at being denied a direct voice in a democracy. They also feared it would be destabilizing to grant women the vote.

The sometimes radical behavior of the suffragists themselves could also work against them. The suffragists were caught between the proverbial rock and the hard place. Because they had no political power, the only way they could raise sympathy for their cause was to protest in the streets, disrupt business as usual, and invite press attention. In England, especially, this took the form of breaking store windows, damaging or destroying post office boxes, and other acts of property violence meant to demonstrate the seriousness of their cause. However, such behavior, though the suffragists were careful never to harm people, could backfire, as parts of the public perceived them as reckless lunatics.

In the end, social changes brought about by the end of World War I earned women the vote in both countries. 

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One of the major challenges in the fight for women's suffrage was that deeply held cultural values defined women's and men's spheres separately and relegated politics to the sphere of men. By entering the political realm, women upended cultural values about their domesticity and challenged the traditional idea that women had no place in politics. 

Another problem was that many women themselves were alarmed by the idea of women gaining the vote and felt that it would end the "protections" that women enjoyed as daughters, wives, and mothers. Other women, mainly those from the upper class, were against suffrage because they felt that too many women were badly educated and would not be able to make good political choices. 

Finally, many countries were not willing to embrace women's suffrage while they contended with fighting in World War I or faced questions of independence (such as India). Even some progressive politicians felt that women's rights should take a backseat to nationalist movements. 

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The women’s suffrage movement faced many challenges in the early 1900s.  One challenge was the attitudes most men had toward women.  Many men believed that women should serve in a subservient role. These men believed women should stay at home and take care of the house and the kids.  Men were supposed to be the income earner in the family. As a result, men believed women were unequal to them and should be treated this way, including with the right to vote.  This attitude had existed throughout the world for a long time, and changing attitudes is a very difficult thing to do.

Another challenge the movement had to overcome was the perception some men had that they would lose power if women got voting rights.  If women were able to vote and/or run for office, men could lose political jobs and influence. They believed if women got the right the to vote, they would want more rights.  For example, if women began working outside of the home, they might do a better job than the men might do.  Men were threatened by this potential competition, and they weren’t willing to risk losing the power and influence they had.

The women’s suffrage movement had to face competition from other reform movements.  For example, in the beginning of the 1900s, the Progressive Movement wanted to make a lot of reforms in politics, in business, and in the workplace. The question women had to face is where would their quest for voting rights fit into the overall reform movement. They had also battled this when the country was deciding to end slavery with the abolitionist movement.

Women eventually got the right to vote. However, the struggle was a long and difficult one.

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