“Women’s Suffrage in a Democratic Republic” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In June 1915, suffragist and social reformer Anna Howard Shaw delivered one of many similarly themed speeches she gave across New York State. Speaking in Ogdensburg, in the far north of the state, Shaw argued that the United States could not be considered a true democratic republic when not all of its citizens could participate in the democratic process. With World War I raging in Europe, Shaw proposed that women’s suffrage could help foster future peace.

Summary Overview

In June 1915, suffragist and social reformer Anna Howard Shaw delivered one of many similarly themed speeches she gave across New York State. Speaking in Ogdensburg, in the far north of the state, Shaw argued that the United States could not be considered a true democratic republic when not all of its citizens could participate in the democratic process. With World War I raging in Europe, Shaw proposed that women’s suffrage could help foster future peace.

Defining Moment

The women’s movement in the United States, which began in earnest in the mid-nineteenth century and continued through the twentieth century, coincided with (and in many cases was overshadowed by) some of the key events of this pivotal period. Early in its life, the movement linked women’s empowerment with social issues, such as temperance and family matters. Prior to the Civil War, however, two key figures in the movement–Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton–met to launch a formal, national campaign for women’s rights. The two led an unsuccessful push to include women in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which were already controversial by granting citizenship and suffrage to freed slaves.

During the post–Civil War era, the movement found new life, but it was marred by a disagreement over how to achieve suffrage. Anthony, Stanton, and Anna Howard Shaw believed that change should occur at the federal level, while activists like Lucy Stone pushed for a state-level approach. Neither approach gained much traction, despite garnering some sympathy from leaders in Congress and some state legislatures. This trend changed during the last decade of the nineteenth century. Anthony, Stanton, and Shaw’s National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA)–created in 1889 by the merger of the Anthony and Stanton’s National Women’s Suffrage Association with the American Woman Suffrage Association with which Shaw had been affiliated–returned to the movement’s roots, recruiting new supporters by focusing on social issues that were in the eye of the general public, such as labor, child protection, and temperance.

Stanton died in 1902 and Anthony in 1906. Leadership of NAWSA fell to Shaw in 1904, whose exceptional oratory skills had been well known since the late nineteenth century. Shaw was able to attract more than 150,000 new suffrage activists to NAWSA during her tenure and tripled the number of states in which NAWSA sought legislative changes. During this period of growth, however, war broke out in Europe. Americans’ attention was diverted from domestic issues to foreign matters–specifically, whether the United States should enter the war.

US neutrality was called into question in 1915, when German U-boats sank the British ocean liner Lusitania on May 7, 1915, shortly after it departed New York for Liverpool, England, with a large number of American passengers aboard–128 of them were among the nearly 1,200 people killed in the tragedy. Shaw was delivering presentations across New York State at the time. With Americans focused on the Great War, Shaw modified her speeches to suggest that a truly unified United States–with men, women, and people of all races sharing equal power in the spirit of democracy–would see the greatest success in the war and in the future establishment of world peace. Her speech–dubbed “The Fundamental Principle of a Republic”–was never written down verbatim. However, she echoed its verbiage throughout the state, including on June 21, 1915, when she delivered it in Ogdensburg as part of the New York state equal suffrage campaign.

Author Biography

Anna Howard Shaw was born in Newcastle-on-Tyne, England, on February 14, 1847. She and her parents immigrated to Massachusetts in 1851 and, in 1859, moved to the wilderness in Michigan. Shaw began her career as a teacher at the age of fifteen. She paid her way through Albion College in Michigan until 1875 and then attended the Theological School at Boston University, graduating in 1878. She was a pastor in East Dennis, Massachusetts, and sought ordination in the Methodist Episcopal Church before being ordained as a Methodist Protestant elder in 1880. She also went on to earn her medical degree in 1886 and worked as a paramedic for the poor in South Boston. During the late 1880s, she became involved in the suffrage and temperance movements, joining the Massachusetts Women’s Suffrage Association and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. In 1900, when Anthony resigned as president of NAWSA, Carrie B. Chapman became NAWSA’s president and Shaw was named vice president at large. Shaw later became the association’s president, serving from 1904 to 1915. During World War I, she was an outspoken advocate for the American effort, receiving numerous honors for her leadership. She died from pneumonia on July 2, 1919, in Moylan, Pennsylvania.

Document Analysis

Speaking before her New York state audience, Anna Howard Shaw linked the women’s rights movement–which she said had taken place over decades of her own life–to the idea of a true democratic republic. She argued that the nation was founded and developed by men, who were initially well-meaning and earnest but who eventually succumbed to the same sorts of prejudices that had driven them from Europe. Through universal suffrage, she said, the country would be stronger and free from discrimination. It was time, therefore, for men to share governance of the country with the rest of its citizens. Women in particular, she said, could help promote peace and stability in the postwar era.

In her speech, Shaw reminds the audience of how long it has been since the women’s suffrage movement began (she and Anthony stood on that very stage twenty-one years earlier, she said, addressing this very issue) and how much had changed during that period. Men, who centuries earlier had established the colonies and then founded the nation, continued to entrench themselves in positions of leadership, promoting the idea of the nation as a democratic republic. However, she said, men had given in to many of the same prejudices that they escaped while under British rule–male religious leaders had driven out different-minded people from New England during the colonial era, and had excluded other religious and social groups from power throughout history.

The central issue, Shaw said, was whether the nation wished to be a democratic republic. Such a political structure, she argued, was designed to be all-inclusive, fed by the votes and participation of every citizen. The present form of government, Shaw said, strayed considerably from this ideal and more resembled an “aristocracy”–the male-dominated political machines, for example, limited open political participation. The notions that fueled this approach to male-dominated government–the divine right of kings and the divine right of sex–were slowly “dying,” she said. Leadership was starting to take note of the need to embrace a more literal idea of a republic.

Standing in the way of this progress, however, were “sentimental” men who were unwilling to change the country’s ways. Men clung to the notions of women as homemakers and wives and not as citizens, she said (adding that some men even saw women as lesser humans). Suffragists, women’s rights activists, and feminists, she said, were seen by men as threats. Thus, the men confronted with such groups would label them “socialists” and “anarchists” and seek to keep them out of mainstream politics.

An acceptance of women’s suffrage, Shaw said, posed little risk. Women would not necessarily vote in a way that would disrupt the government. However, she said, their vote on any number of topics would represent a greater sample of Americans’ preferences. Still, the issues of interest to women would be brought to light and addressed, she said. One such issue was world peace; she suggested that the intransigence of men had created the ongoing war, while the initiative of multinational women’s groups resulted in peaceful resolutions (which had not been adopted by the warring nations’ governments, however). Women were created to provide a balance for men. In this case, she said, the balance created by acceptance of women’s suffrage could keep men from fighting and instead foster international peace.

Essential Themes

Anna Howard Shaw recognized the fact that the women’s rights movement–specifically in the area of suffrage–had been developing slowly since the mid-1800s and yet had produced few tangible results. Men, as they had throughout American history, continued to dominate the US political system. In the shadow of World War I, Shaw spoke to the ideals of the democratic republic to which Americans were endeared, and said that if these ideals were indeed invaluable to Americans, women should be allowed to vote and participate in government.

Shaw was one of the last living icons of the women’s suffrage movement when she delivered this address (with Stanton and Anthony dying during the previous decade). Shaw said that the reason why women had not yet accomplished suffrage (and why the movement itself was consistently met with resistance) was simple: men would not relinquish power. Men had long been America’s primary leaders, she said, while women and people of color were relegated to subordinate positions. Men continued to hold all seats in Congress and in other legislative bodies. When faced with the increased influence of suffragists, she added, these men would resist. In fact, in a desperate attempt to defend a male-dominated United States system, Shaw said, men would inevitably dub these activists anarchists or socialists as the rising voice of women captured the nation’s attention.

Because men held fast to their positions, Shaw said, the nation was not a true democratic republic, instead resembling an aristocracy. Still, Shaw said, the “divine right” of kings and gender that men presumed to enjoy in the past was slowly dying as women and minority groups sought the opportunity to participate. Ironically, Americans were considering entering a war in an effort to defeat the ideals of discrimination and royalty while America itself was clinging to some of these virtues in its own political system. If given a chance to vote, she added, women would play a role in finally defeating these principles and promoting the peaceful democratic ideals Americans professed to embrace.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Bausum, Ann. With Courage and Cloth: Winning the Fight for a Woman’s Right to Vote. Washington, DC: Natl. Geographic, 2004. Print.
  • Crawford, Elizabeth. The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide, 1866–1928. London: Routledge, 2001. Print.
  • Franzen, Trisha. Anna Howard Shaw: The Work of Woman Suffrage. Champaign: U of Illinois P, 2014. Print.
  • Frost-Knappman, Elizabeth, and Kathryn Cullen-DuPont. Women’s Suffrage in America: An Eyewitness History. New York: Facts on File, 1992. Print.
  • Shaw, Anna Howard. The Story of a Pioneer. Teddington: Echo Lib., 2006. Print.
Categories: History