The attainment of women’s suffrage which accompanied the passage of the 19th Amendment is generally regarded as synonymous with Human Progress. Like the abolition of slavery or the passage of ’64 Civil Rights Act, I’m doubtful you’ll find many people who’ll see women’s suffrage as anything other than a badly needed step of evolutionary human progress to redress a boorish and retrograde inequity. Nor are you likely to find a history book or media depiction of the suffrage movement as being anything less than heroic and principled. It’s difficult to even fathom the idea that there was anyone who was opposed to women’s suffrage, let alone a woman. Surely, anyone who would argue such a position is beneath contempt and unworthy of mention in the annals of history.
As it turns out, Helen Kendrick Johnson was that woman and that’s precisely what makes her anti-suffrage treatise, Woman and the Republic, such a fascinating read. Published in 1897, Woman and the Republic is roughly analogous to Thomas Sowell’s 1984 book, Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality, in the sense that she examines the arguments and claims of suffragists and scrutinizes their claims against the historical data and the daily reality of life in late 19th century America. At the time of its publication, the suffrage movement was fifty years old and suffragists had a very specific agenda and a set of grievances that were spelled out in the Suffrage Declaration of Sentiments and the History of Woman Suffrage among others. Johnson proceeds to demolish these arguments one by one in a very elegant and systematic fashion. You could say she was both a proto-Christina Hoff Sommers and Phyllis Schlafly. Not all of Johnson’s arguments stand up to scrutiny, but when one measures her arguments against the claims of contemporary feminists and progressives, one can certainly assert that she was correct about more than most would be willing to concede.
The single most astonishing revelation of Woman and the Republic is that the grievances of the suffragists are exactly identical to the grievances of contemporary feminists. This book is 119 years old, and Johnson could easily be teleported into the 21st century and would find herself exasperated that feminists are still griping about the same things as their 19th century forebears.
The clearest example of this is Johnson’s elegant yet brutal takedown of the 19th century wage gap. Yes, indeed. Just like feminists of the 21st century, suffragists of the 19th century were in fact whinging about the wage gap back in 1897 and Johnson disposes of these claims like a boss. While rational people who value empiricism over manipulative, demagogic claims have been trying to stamp out the wage gap myth for decades, Helen Kendrick Johnson was the clearly the mythbusting OG. Though largely arguing from biological determinism but always grounded in sound economics, Johnson supplies a trove of data indicating that women are properly compensated according to skill, suffer no unequal access to the labor market and that wage discrimination is largely influenced by the fact that women often leave the labor force to have children. Johnson rightfully points out the glaring absence of outrage around female representation in physically strenuous and technically challenging fields and the deafening silence from suffragists that’s exactly analogous to contemporary feminists.
The Suffragists did not decry man’s “monopoly” of the honorable and profitable but severe professions of civil engineering, seamanship, mining engineering, lighthouse keeping and inspecting, signal service, military and naval duty, and the like. These, and the drudgery of the world’s business and commerce, man was welcome to keep.
Nowadays, feminists blame “socialization” for disparities in representation and have gamed the political system in order to feed at the taxpayer trough. Johnson was attuned to this phenomenon as well.
The influence of women upon politics, and the influence of politics upon women, have already been degrading. This is true of political intrigue in the old world, and of the “Female Lobby” in Washington. It is astonishing to what an extent it is true in our new country, with our fresh and sweet traditions.
Johnson challenges the mantle of victimhood that was a feature of suffrage, and is the hallmark of contemporary feminism. Modern feminism hinges on a theory of an all-encompassing system of male patriarchal oppression, and Johnson’s criticism feels way ahead of its time.
While the counts contain concrete statements, the closing clause—”the law in all cases, going upon a false supposition of the supremacy of man, and giving all power into his hands”—sets forth an abstract idea in justification of which they furnish no proof.
Even worse, the divisive, supremacist beliefs that are commonplace among feminists were also espoused by suffragists. The following quote from Utah State Senator and champion of suffrage, Martha Cannon, as well as numerous other examples gathered by Johnson demonstrate that these sentiments were not isolated phenomena.
Of course I am. It will help women, and it will purify politics. Women are better than men. Slaves are always better than their masters.
In another striking parallel between the 21st century feminist grievance machine and the 19th century suffragists, Johnson illustrates how access to higher education was politicized. Johnson persuasively argues that the market was already providing expanded opportunity for women, and that this was neither hastened by granting suffrage nor a matter that required enfranchisement. While the world rightfully cheers Malala Yousafzai’s heroic efforts to bring female education into the Islamic world, women of the West suffer no lack of access to higher education. If anything, the vote has only enshrined a culture of entitlement and a toxic alliance between government power, illiberal feminist activism and the entire apparatus of higher education.
The central pillar of opposition to which Johnson devotes much of the book is her contention that woman suffrage is too closely aligned with socialism and collectivist anarchism.
Johnson devotes a significant portion of the first half of the book to failed attempts at woman enfranchisement throughout the Union. Using a combination of hard rationalism, a dizzying deluge of voting data and razor sharp rhetoric, Johnson piles layer upon layer of scorn on the various proponents of suffrage who espoused an affinity for socialism, fiat currency, disdain for family, sexual profligacy, and disregard for Constitutional principles. It’s easy to dismiss Johnson as narrow minded, uptight prig whose views belong in the dustbin of history, but even if you view prostitution, pornography, sexual liberation and non-traditional family arrangements favorably, it’s impossible to deny the ongoing advancement of everything else she warned against.
Johnson insists that if women are going to agitate for suffrage, they must also share in the responsibility that accompanies the maintenance of the nation state. In other words, be prepared to back up the law with force. She sees no diminution of woman’s sphere of social or civic influence by honoring the traditional biological division of labor that has defined most societies through the centuries. If anything, she argues that this traditional separation has privileged womanhood and allowed her to exert an even greater sphere of influence in the realm of private relations and family.
To give women a position of apparent power, without its reality, would be to make our Government forever unstable.
The one point where Johnson’s argument feels the most prescient is her concern that suffrage would lead to military conscription for women. On this point, Johnson was not only Phyllis Schlafly’s philosophical progenitor, but she unwittingly exposes the rank hypocrisy of feminists. As politicians and military leaders advance legislation that would mandate Selective Service registration for women, the silence from feminist media and blogosphere is deafening. Despite the often desperate and pathetic attempts to brainwash the public to believe otherwise, contemporary intersectional feminism has nothing to do with “equality.” No matter how often feminists say they want to “smash the patriarchy,” it’s patently obvious that feminists are thoroughly uninterested in smashing this particular expression of “patriarchy.” If anything, the abiding lesson of Johnson’s message is that if you start treating voting as a universal “right” or use the voting booth to agitate for positive rights over the preservation of negative rights, don’t be surprised when the politicians decide to trample your liberty in order to expand their own power. Most of all, don’t mindlessly regurgitate talking points about “equality” when there is state enforced gender discrimination which places the burden of military conscription squarely on the shoulders of men.
Women can be seriously destructive; but no one will claim that organized military duty is really practicable for them. And the suffrage proposition does not look to anything of the kind. The Suffragists demand equal vote in sending their fathers, brothers, sons, husbands, and lovers to the military field of action, and propose to be absolutely exempt from equal share in the duty that that vote now lays upon male voters. Before the law there could be no distinction of duty on account of race, sex, or previous condition of servitude. The “emancipated” woman would be emancipated into that which the Declaration of Independence expressly called for, “the right and privilege of the people to bear arms.”
Johnson righteously attacks the dubious equivalence between the suffrage and the abolitionist movements. She devotes an entire chapter to the delta between the rhetoric of suffragists and abolitionists. It’s yet another remarkable example of a phenomenon that lives on in feminist and social justice circles alike, and serves as a potent reminder that the feminist script remains largely unchanged. To this day, feminists use the legacy of slavery to inculcate shame and guilt and claim an unearned mantle of moral authority by drawing a non-existent equivalence between the abolitionists of the 19th century and 21st century intersectionality. Johnson opens the chapter by lauding the abolition of slavery as a triumph of human freedom, but credits the achievement to “enlightened rulers” in the federal government. She attributes the abolition of slavery to the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, but devotes no real attention to the moral argument against slavery itself. Johnson’s views could be described in contemporary terms as paleoconservative. She consistently appeals to tradition by arguing that the United States federal government was conceived to be confined to limits prescribed by the Constitution for the express purpose of preserving liberty. From her vantage point, suffrage was granted to those who had property rights for the express purpose of upholding the sanctity of property rights as a general principle. The fact that this limited suffrage was the province of men was not only proper and just, but necessary for the preservation of liberty. Under universal suffrage, there’s an inequality of self-interest with respect to the preservation of property rights and a danger that the law could then be perverted to serve as an apparatus of plunder as it is presently. She castigates the champions of woman suffrage who used the abolition movement as a moral fig leaf, but otherwise, denigrated the institution of marriage, favored communism over property ownership, or otherwise held no principles or stake in the institutions which conferred the liberty they enjoyed even without suffrage rights.
The pauper was excluded from the ballot as not being worthy to share with freemen the honor of its defence. The unfortunate was excluded by an inscrutable decree of Providence. The criminal was excluded as being dangerous to society. The women were exempt from the ballot because it was for their special safety that a free ballot was to be exercised, from which the pauper and the criminal must be excluded. They were the ones who have given to social life its meaning and its moral, the ones who give to civic life its highest value.
Tackling yet another shopworn cliché that was commonplace among suffragists and is just as alive in progressive and feminist circles, Johnson addresses the suffragists’ contention that the Christian Church not only maintains the subjection and subordination of women, but actively cultivates bigotry, intolerance, and arbitrary authoritarianism. Johnson rightfully challenges the claim that Christian Church’s alleged encouragement of a subordinate role for women will be alleviated somehow through suffrage. If anything, it’s feminism that treats women as a class of people under perpetual assault and in need of constant special attention. If any ideology is promoting the powerlessness of women, it’s feminism.
By far, the most burning question with which Woman and The Republic leaves the reader is what has been the true consequence of woman suffrage? Has it wrought greater liberty and a reign of justice or a cult of obedience to the Church of Democracy and never-ending list of rights to be bestowed? Has suffrage conferred a deeper appreciation of the principles of liberty or transferred all moral authority to the State? Helen Kendrick Johnson argued that none of the perceived or actual inequalities in civic life for which suffragists sought redress would be solved with the ballot. After a more than a century of enfranchisement and little to no change in the feminist script, one certainly wonders if, in fact, she was completely correct.
Cure by ballot has been the one and only remedy suggested by Suffrage conventions for all the ills, real or imaginary, that are endured by women.
If nothing else, this book underscores the challenge of upholding liberty. Those who agitate for an expansion of state power are always able to secure support from those want to expand the influence of the state. In Johnson’s time, there was arguably greater sympathy for removing the sphere of influence of the state in public affairs, yet suffragists sought to politicize everything. Based on what you hear from your average intersectional feminist, Johnson’s warnings seem prescient.
As time goes on, this spirit becomes more injurious, because progress is carrying philanthropy into higher fields of moral action, and in so doing is carrying it away from and above the plane where rests the ballot-box. While Suffrage effort is directed toward keeping all issues in the political arena, the trend of legislation is to take them out of politics.
Helen Kendrick Johnson was not a gender egalitarian. She favored economic liberty, property rights, educational access and equality before the law for men and women alike, but she was unequivocally what feminists would disparagingly call a gender essentialist. She held no objection to women pursuing higher education or employment in the private sector, but absolutely saw an essential role for women in motherhood and building a stable home life. She could be accused of being overly deferential towards men and insufficiently skeptical of state power, but she fundamentally saw virtue in manhood. She argued that the preservation of liberty and peace is best secured by attending to the most essential building block of human civilization: the family. And in this role, she argued that women had a unique and critical role to play that was, in fact, largely biological. She believed that the sexes were, in fact, different and each gender is edified by recognizing and celebrating this difference as opposed to repeating dogmatic mantras of Equality.
My main objection to the Woman-Suffrage organization is this, that a wrong mode is employed to gain a right object. The right object sought is, to remedy the wrongs and relieve the sufferings of great multitudes of our sex; the wrong mode is that which aims to enforce by law, instead of by love. It is one which assumes that man is the author and abettor of all these wrongs, and that he must be restrained and regulated by constitutions and laws, as the chief and most trustworthy methods. I hold that the fault is as much, or more, with women than with men, inasmuch as we have all the power we need to remedy the wrongs complained of, and yet we do not use it for that end. It is my deep conviction that all reasonable and conscientious men of our age, and especially of our country, are not only willing but anxious to provide for the good of our sex.
When contrasted against the prevailing orthodoxy of intersectional feminism, gender neutrality and biological denialism, Woman and the Republic feels weirdly transgressive and revolutionary. Even if Johnson was a bit of a hidebound biological determinist, her robust defense of liberty, property rights, market economics, and Constitutional principles has only accumulated strength in the years since its publication. Underneath it all, Helen Kendrick Johnson was putting forth a deeply radical notion: women do not need government in order to be powerful. It will likely continue to be ignored or reviled purely on the basis of her opposition to full suffrage for women all by itself, but in this age of Progressive orthodoxy, this is precisely the kind of heresy that needs to be propagated far and wide. It’s imminently clear that no quantity of legislation will satisfy the grievance machine that is modern feminism. There isn’t a single argument being made today that wasn’t destroyed by Ms. Johnson back in 1897. The question is how long it’ll take for feminists to recognize that, if ever. After all. It’s 2016, SYSTERS.