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FOR THE PAPERBACK RELEASE: The prominent political women of today stand upon the shoulders of those who spent the last two hundred years building a foundation for women's political participation. Jo Freeman brings to us the rich story of how American women entered into political life and party politics—well before suffrage and often completely separate from it. She shows that women's early political involvement was focused on the Republican party, very different from the situation today. And she builds up to the explosion of women's political activisim of the 1960s and 1970s, connecting past to future by tracing the roots of key political strategies still being debated in the early 21st century. Now for the first time in paperback, A Room at a Time is considered a landmark of original research into women's political history as well as party politics.
Freeman deftly weaves together the many intricate political, moral and social complications in her story--such as that the highly influential General Federation of Women's Clubs essentially banned the participation of African American women--to fastion an insightful, fascianting portrait of the ongoing fight for women to partake fully in U.S. political life.
Social Movements and Party Systems:
Where Do Women Fit?
Political history is not a smoothly flowing river; there are periods of great calm punctuated by times of rushing rapids. These changes in topography are not erratic. Their patterns have been studied and dissected by political historians and social scientists. Two of the most important patterns—episodic social movements and periodic party systems—have generated vast bibliographies of literature, but have rarely been looked at together.
It was also rare for scholars to look at women's participation in these patterns of activity, though it is becoming less so. Political historians ignored women's political work because women could not vote for most of our history, and even when they could, were seen as auxiliaries to political life, playing only minor, supporting roles. Social movements scholars usually acknowledged the importance of women's movements, but treated them as phenomena apart from those run by men, sideshows rather than part of the main event. Those who write women's history of course put women up front. But the spotlight is sometimes so narrowly focused that one can't see the theater in which the drama is taking place or understand that the lines spoken by women are usually part of a dialogue with men.
Context is crucial to political history. It is impossible to understand what people say or do in the political arena without knowing the influences upon them and those whom they are trying to influence. Otherwise one runs the risk of seeing thepast through the eyes of the present, and distorting both. To understand the history of women's entry into political parties, one must first look at the context in which this occurred. This requires an understanding of social movements and party systems.
Social movements come in clusters. There have been periods in our history in which entire regions or sectors of society have been repeatedly convulsed with waves of social movements. One movement stimulates another, which in turn stimulates another ad infinitum. The different movements attack different social problems but are not completely independent from each other because ideas, values, and even people move between them. Social movements also prompt countermovements by people who oppose the changes sought, and these in turn stimulate other movements, some of which are countermovements and some of which are not. A cluster of movements and a cluster of countermovements carry competing social values. Thus one can identify major themes or mindsets typical of a cluster. Movement participants work through the political system and outside of it to change institutions, laws, practices, and above all attitudes to bring them into accord with their values.
Since our country's founding there have been three great clusters of social movements which have transformed institutions and values in a variety of ways, and there was a previous wave which led to our Revolution. Each has lasted roughly twenty to thirty years, though individual movements are usually shorter in duration. The movements within these clusters resound like waves throughout our society. They ripple and rebound. Some are contained; some spread everywhere. Movements and countermovements battle for public support on the values most appropriate for each time and place.
If one were to chart the spread of activity and impact of a given social movement it would resemble the classic bell-shaped curve. An indefinite beginning, a sharp upturn of activity, a peak, followed by a decrease of activity and finally a long decline. These bell-curves are not identical; some are long and low, others short and sharp, and not all are symmetrical. But they are all curves. While it is hard to pinpoint exactly when a cluster or a single movement begins and ends, the periods of peak activity are easy to discern and the take-off and falloff points aren't hard to see when viewed from an historical distance. The first and third clusters are essentially outside the scope of this book, so they will be only briefly mentioned.
The first social movement cluster after our Revolution was in the 1830s and 1840s. Its main theme was moral reform. Movements to abolish slavery, encourage temperance, oppose sin, and relieve want looked first to individuals to act properly, and then to the state to enforce morality on those who did not do so voluntarily. These movements were heavily motivated by a sense of Christian duty, and often separated the godly and deserving from the ungodly and undeserving.
The second great cluster is known as the Populist/Progressive Movement. It had two crests. Beginning in the 1880s and peaking in the 1890s, producers in Midwestern, Rocky Mountain, and Southern states sought to recapture government for the people and to curb the economic power of corporations. At the same time elites in major cities organized municipal reform movements to purify politics and remove city government from the hands of party bosses. The Populist Movement quickly coalesced into a political party (the People's Party) and elected some men to public orifice. The municipal reform movement also elected city officials, but emphasized non-partisanship, arguing that cities should be run like a business, without concern for party loyalty. Much more widespread and diffuse than the 1890s movements, the Progressive Movement expanded on their ideas. To the goals of eliminating corruption in politics and using government to curb corporate exploitation were added relief for workers and concern with the problems caused by industrialization and urbanization. Progressivism was strongest and most successful in the Western states, particularly those in which Populism had made inroads, and weakest in the Southern states, even those which had had strong Populist Movements. While the Progressive Movement peaked between 1910 and 1914, its ideas lived on and eventually became staples of the New Deal.
The third great wave of social movements is known as the Sixties, although it began in the 1950s and eddies were still present well into the 1980s. Its themes were greater social and economic equality, preservation and redistribution of resources, and opposition to war.
The backlash begins before a cluster ends. Inevitably, countermovements germinate in response to early movements, and grow as they grow, shifting terrain to meet each new demand. By the time later movements arise in a cluster, the countermovements may be quite strong, providing instant opposition. Women's movements have never been the initial movement in a major cluster. They always come later. Thus they always face significant opposition almost from their inception—opposition that links the demands by women with those of the earlier movements from which they sprang.
In between social movement clusters are more quiescent periods. There is no such thing as a permanent social movement. They always decline, whether they succeed or fail or both, but not always in the same way. Some cease completely. Some institutionalize, becoming part of the mainstream they once challenged and fighting their battles through institutional channels. Some succeed so well that they capture the very institutions they were trying to change. Some encapsulate, creating social movement communities that survive but have little impact outside their own boundaries. Even during lulls there are sporadic new social movements—the political pot is always boiling—but they are isolated, affecting only a small geographic or demographic area. While such movements may see some successes, they don't result in major transformations of how people act or how they see the world. The troughs between clusters are times of consolidation and retrenchment, in which some changes are absorbed into the social fabric and become part of the general consensus, and others are resisted and undermined.
In our two hundred-year history many different political parties have been active in one or more of the United States. But, with only temporary exceptions, there has always been a national two party system, which reflects "a natural division between competing ideological traditions." Political scientist Jim Reichley calls them the party of equality and the party of order. The former, tracing its origins from the anti-federalists and Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans, favors "economic and social equality," while the latter, stretching from the Federalists, National Republicans, and Whigs to the modern Republicans, prioritizes "public order and economic growth."
These traditions have fostered different political cultures. What I wrote in 1986 about the Democratic and Republican parties of the late twentieth century applies to the nineteenth century versions as well: "Essentially, the Democratic Party is pluralistic and polycentric. It has multiple power centers that compete for membership support in order to make demands on, as well as determine, the leaders. The Republicans have a unitary party in which great deference is paid to the leadership, activists are expected to be `good soldiers', and competing loyalties are frowned upon." Factions and fights in the Republican Party are usually over ideology. In the Democratic Party they are more likely to be over spoils—the distribution of tangible and intangible rewards. Because of these cultural differences the style of governance, as well as the content of policies, changes with a change in party control.
Party control of Congress or the Presidency, or the ruling bodies in each state, only requires a simple majority. Thus there can be a major shift in power with only a slight shift in voting patterns. Nonetheless, the pattern of party control is normally stable. The periods when there is a durable distribution of partisan power are called party systems. Every few decades, the pattern shifts and a new party system emerges. In the nineteenth century there were three national party systems, and in the twentieth century there have been at least two. Political historians have identified the breaking points between them as roughly: 1828-36, 1856-60, 1894-1900, and 1928-36.
Transitions between national party systems, when voting patterns realign along new axes leading to new majorities, proceed rapidly through a few "critical elections." These critical elections have often been analogized to earthquakes, because the political landscape changes significantly. However, a sharper image is conveyed by comparing what happens to island building. By looking beneath the surface, one can see change come slowly, over many years, just as a land mass grows underneath the sea. Since a change in a few votes is all that is necessary to create a new majority party, at some point power shifts, just as at some time a new island appears above the surface of the ocean. Party systems, like new islands, are only relatively stable. Storms wash over these islands, sometimes obliterating the changes in surface topography. But unlike islands, these mid-system storms also have a pattern. In the middle of most party systems there has been a crisis, often accompanied by a shift in voting patterns leading to a different distribution of partisan power for a few years. These are called deviating elections.
The underlying cause of new party systems is alterations in the composition and size of the electorate and the effect this has on the social base of each party. These changes happen gradually—just like the growth of an island. They come from (in order of importance): 1) differential accretion to each party's pool of voters, largely from foreign immigration and naturalization, but also from uneven birth rates in different population segments; 2) internal immigration of large populations who bring their culture, values, and party preferences with them; 3) mobilization of normal nonvoters into the active electorate; 4) demobilization from the active electorate of normal voters; 5) conversion in party preferences of identifiable population segments, a transition usually aided by temporary support for a third party or not voting; and 6) generational falloff as children inherit their party preferences but not with the same commitment or reliability, until a critical election creates new or reinforces old loyalties. Such changes in the voting population are necessary but not sufficient causes of critical elections. Crucial is a crisis of some sort—social, economic, or political—which galvanizes people to vote, or to not vote, or to vote differently than before. Unlike deviating elections, voting patterns do not return to "normal" once the crisis is over. A brief history of the first five party systems will illuminate these processes
The First Party System began with the "revolution of 1800." However, the parties were more like factions among elites than a true party system. Participation in the meetings and caucuses that selected candidates was limited to "respectable" men. "Party" meant devotion to special interests in contrast to public spiritedness. By 1820 the Federalists had declined as a national party, leaving Thomas Jefferson's Democratic Republicans as the dominant—sometimes the sole—party outside of New England. In the first three decades the electorate rapidly expanded as the American population almost trebled, western settlement increased the number of states to twenty-four and property qualifications for white male voters were removed in all but six states. These changes created the foundation for the Second Party System.
After the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828, his opponents in Congress allied against him. Calling themselves Whigs, they ran several candidates against his successor, all of which lost, as well as candidates in state and local elections, many of which won. By 1840, the Whigs had elected governors in a majority of the states, and united behind William Henry Harrison to win both the Presidency and the Congress with 80 percent of the electorate casting ballots. There was a viable two party system in all regions for the next sixteen years. During the Second Party System voters were organized into party bodies at all levels. The first national party convention was held in 1831; the first national party chairman was installed in 1844 and the first national committee created in 1848. The parties selected their candidates at conventions, from the bottom up. Conventions were first held on the local level where delegates were selected to successively higher levels at which the party's candidates would be selected.
The Second Party System was shattered by the slavery issue, specifically whether to extend slavery to the Western territories, and the Fugitive Slave Law. Population changes also contributed to a new pattern of sentiments. By 1860 half the voters lived west of the Appalachians; most of these settlers came from New England and the Middle Atlantic. The total population had almost trebled to over thirty-one million people living in thirty-three states and the territories. New immigrants came largely from Catholic countries, especially Ireland, and often replaced native-born Protestant workers in the industrializing Northeast. While only 11 percent of the population, the newcomers were a quarter of the free, white males that composed the actual and potential electorate; in the North they were over a third. This stimulated enormous xenophobia by native-born Americans who experienced loss of jobs and feared loss of political control.
During the 1850s minor parties formed and reformed, some of which were ardently anti-Catholic. The two major parties fractured and reorganized. In 1854, those who could stomach neither slavery nor secession founded the Republican Party. Four-fifths of the new Republicans were former Whigs, but some came from the anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant parties. That year the nativist American (Know-Nothing) party won several seats in Congress and control of the Pennsylvania and Massachusetts governments. When it fell apart, most of its adherents joined the Republican Party. The Republicans ran their first national ticket in 1856 and elected their first president in 1860. Almost 82 percent of the electorate voted, the highest turnout at any election before or since.
The Second Party System collapsed into the Civil War; the Third Party System was built upon the ruins. For the rest of the century party loyalty ran high and turnout for Presidential elections was over 70 percent. On the national level the major issue was the tariff: Republicans favored protection while the Democrats wanted free trade. But underneath, the primary cleavages were region, race, and religion. For a few years after the Civil War blacks were a majority of voters in five Deep South states and the Republican Party ruled. Once former Confederates regained the right to vote, they made the Democratic Party into the Party of White Supremacy, dedicated to disfranchising the freed slaves and eliminating the Republican Party. By the end of the Third Party System the South was solidly Democratic. The rest of the country had a slight Republican majority but it was not evenly spread throughout, so competition could be fierce. In three New England and four Midwest states the Republican Party dominated; in the rest statewide elections were closely contested with wide variations within each state.
The primary cleavage outside the South was religion; Catholics were Democrats, most Protestants were Republicans. Religion usually trumped ethnicity when it did not coincide. Among the Irish, Catholics voted Democratic, Protestants voted Republican. But among the Germans, the Democratic party was favored by both Catholics and Lutherans, though less so among the latter. Local conflicts over schools, "blue" laws, and liquor control usually divided along religious lines. The northern branches of most Protestant denominations that had favored the Democrats before the Civil War became staunchly Republican. The new immigrants were heavily Catholic, and when they could vote, joined their ethnic cohorts in the Democratic Party. Protestant northern Democrats were usually foreign born or the children of foreign born. Blacks, where they could vote, were Republican, as were the few Jews.
At the end of the nineteenth century, in 1896, there was another critical election. By then the frontier had closed, the population was over sixty million in forty-five states, and immigration was escalating after a lull during Reconstruction. Industry needed workers, and millions came, particularly from southern and central Europe, with different traditions and more conservative concepts about women. They flooded the cities, making the urban population two-thirds of the rural one. This critical election was preceded by several years of economic and political turmoil.
In the 1880s, minor parties bubbled up in the rural Rockies and Midwest. Several farmer's alliances, calling themselves the People's Party (Populist), elected candidates to Congress and state legislatures. In 1892 they joined with Southern rebels behind a national ticket and won 9 percent of the Presidential vote, while capturing the state governments of Colorado and Kansas. The economic crash of 1893, when the Democrats controlled the Presidency and both houses of Congress for the first time since the 1850s, led to that party's seizure by proponents of the free coinage of silver. Their program appealed to the Populists. Both parties nominated William Jennings Bryan for President in 1896, resulting in the Populist Party's absorption by the Democrats. Bryan was a fundamentalist Protestant. His agrarian radicalism and "free silver" campaign drove the urban Democratic voters into the arms of the Republican Party or out of the ranks of normal voters altogether. Although Bryan tried to draw a new fault-line between the "monied interests" and the "common people" industrial workers did not identify their economic needs with those of agricultural producers. Even New York City voted Republican for the first time. The votes the Democrats gained in the sparsely populated West were more than offset by the losses in the urban centers of the East and Midwest. With McKinley's election prosperity returned. This may have been coincidental, but it ensured that Democratic electoral gains were temporary, while their losses were permanent. In some areas outside the South the Democratic Party almost ceased to exist.
The Fourth Party System saw growing one-party dominance everywhere and Republican party dominance nationally. Sectionalism flourished, involving "the virtual destruction of the Republicans as an organized political force in the ex-Confederate states and a parallel and almost as complete a destruction of the Democrats throughout large areas of the North and West." States that had been evenly divided and those that had seen occasional Democratic victories became Republican bastions. By 1904 only one-seventh of the population lived in states with real party competition; by 1920 only one-ninth did so. While the Democratic Party survived, in only a few places was there a viable two-party system, and this was usually maintained by ticket splitting. State and local Democratic parties held onto some power by disassociating themselves from a national party infected with "Bryanism." Voter turnout declined. The Presidential vote dropped from 79.3 percent in 1896 to 58.8 percent in 1912, to 48.9 percent in 1924. There was an enormous variation in turnout, by region and election, but there was a consistent pattern of decline reflecting to subtle changes in the electorate.
A major deviating election occurred in 1912 when progressives demanded that the Republican Party replace incumbent President Taft with former President Theodore Roosevelt. After the party refused to do so, its progressive wing held its own convention where it nominated and ran Roosevelt on the Progressive Party ticket. The split elected the first Democrat in twenty years, but with only 41 percent of the popular vote, and a Democratic Congress. Roosevelt came in second with 27 percent; Taft was third with 23 percent. In 1916 the Eastern Progressives reluctantly rejoined the Republican Party. However, Westerners were more independent. Even with a larger overall turnout the Republican candidate got only 46 percent, and the Democrat, 49 percent of the total vote.
The Fourth Party System was marked by urban/rural conflict, as the cities bulged with new immigrants from rural areas and foreign countries. The first decade of the century saw the largest wave of immigration ever known; by 1928 most had become citizens and their children had reached voting age. When Congress restricted immigration in 1921, industry recruited African Americans from the South to replenish the low wage workforce. The consequence of high foreign immigration and high birth rates before the Great War and rapid internal immigration afterwards was that the American population shifted from one living on farms to one living in small towns and large cities. Economic elites were also located in the cities. Rural regions were dominated by native-born stock and the descendants of earlier waves of immigration who worked the land and ran the small towns. Cultural conflicts over Prohibition and woman suffrage coincided with the economic divisions of town and country.
In 1928, these conflicts were personified in the candidacies of Catholic Al Smith, who opposed Prohibition, and Quaker Herbert Hoover, who supported it. The national voting rate increased to 56.9 percent, as city-dwelling ethnics and Southern supporters of Prohibition flocked to the polls. In the industrial Northeast, voter mobilization portended future Democratic victories. But in the South, temporary conversion made 1928 only a deviating election. In 1932 it returned to the Democratic column, even though Roosevelt also opposed Prohibition.
The Fourth Party System ended as it began—with a crash. The 1929 drop in the stock market and the Great Depression caused voters to turn on the ruling Republican Party in 1932 has they had turned on the Democrats almost thirty years before. But voter turnout remained at 56.9 percent. Only in the Western states, especially those with a populist and/or progressive tradition, were large numbers of new voters mobilized. Turnout in the Southern states and industrial Northern states fell or stayed the same. While there weren't enough progressive voters in Western states to elect a Republican Roosevelt in 1912, they could elect a Democratic Roosevelt in 1932, by joining with the "Solid South" and ethnics in the North who had been mobilized by Smith. It was not until 1936, when 61 percent of the voting-age population went to the polls but the Republicans won only Vermont and Maine, that the Fifth Party System was firmly in place.
The dominant cleavage of the Fifth Party System was class. Region, race, and religion did not disappear as important indicia of party preference; class was superimposed on top of them, creating some strange political bedfellows. As expressed by Lubell: "Put crudely, the hatred of bankers among the native American workers had become greater than their hatred of the Pope or even of the Negro." Indeed, once blacks saw that New Deal programs benefited them, they shifted their votes from solidly Republican to mostly Democratic. FDR saw his mandate as the use of federal power to curb the consequences of industrial capitalism—a goal of progressive Republicans twenty years before. The major policy clashes were over federal regulation of business practices, the protection of labor unions and the right to organize, and the creation of and payment for various welfare programs. With Roosevelt's encouragement, labor unions increased their influence every decade and class consciousness "suppressed racial and religious antagonisms."
The shift in voting patterns began nationally and worked its way down. Well into the 1940s and even the 1950s, voters, especially in the Western states where Republicans had solid progressive roots, stayed with that party in state and local elections while voting Democratic for national offices. However, over time the Republican Party became more conservative and the Democratic Party more liberal. The influence of progressive Republicans declined as some jumped ship to the Democrats, many died, and others became more conservative with age. One sign of the shift from the Fourth to the Fifth Party System was that the fight over the growth of the federal government took place between the parties rather than inside each of them, and nationally at least, the Democratic and Republican parties had switched the positions they held in the Third Party System. Outside the South, it was the Republican Party rather than the Democrats that flew the banner of states rights and the Democratic Party that saw progress in the growth of the federal government. Indeed the Democratic party almost split in 1948 over the issue of civil rights, a subject on which it had traditionally deferred to Southern views. A States Rights Party put its candidates on the ballot as the Democratic ticket and won in four Southern states.
By the mid-1960s the Fifth Party System was in decline. But there was no critical election, and no abrupt realignment. The "New Deal Coalition" was clearly disintegrating, but no one knew what would replace it, or how. What ensued were a couple of decades of debate over whether realignment would occur, had occurred, or was even relevant. Some political scientists argued that dealignment was what was happening, and others that there was a rolling realignment. My own reading of the tea leaves is that there was an elite realignment, beginning in Congress, seeping into the national conventions of the Republican and Democratic parties, and slowly working its way into state legislatures, party activists, and the habits of voters. It began in 1958 when progressive Republicans in Congress were replaced by liberal Democrats and accelerated in 1964 with a Democratic landslide that defeated many progressive, and some conservative, Republican office holders. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, grassroots party activists were reforming the Democratic party. As liberals captured the Democratic Party, the conservatives within it, especially Southern conservatives, gradually left. They joined the Republican Party, adding to the conservatives' strength and eventually driving out the few remaining progressives.
By the 1990s it was clear that the distribution of partisan power was quite different from what it had been in the 1950s, but this realignment had not happened in the usual one or two elections and had substantial regional variations. Indeed, the most obvious realignment was in the South, which had resisted realignment for the previous three party systems. The South ceased to be solidly Democratic; its voting patterns more and more resembled those in the North, with blacks still voting Democratic while white Protestants shifted to the Republican Party. Religion also underwent a change. The religious cleavage changed from one between Protestants and Catholics to one between those who held orthodox religious views and those who were more liberal or completely secular. Attitudes about religion, rather than religion per se, distinguished the parties, with conservatives and traditionalists becoming Republicans and liberals and seculars voting Democratic.
The driving force behind these changes was not immigration but education. Prior to 1960 there was a correlation between education, income, and party. The GI Bill, federal support of education, and expansion of state universities vastly increased the number of people getting a higher education. Most of these had Democratic parents, from whom they inherited their party preferences, but even Republican children became more liberal from a "liberal education." As a result, a curvilinear relationship emerged between education and party preference, with the Democrats commanding the votes of those at the bottom and the top of the educational ladder and the Republicans the votes of those in between. It was the educated Democrats who became party reformers. Essentially, the Democratic party changed because the children of the working class went to college. With education came changes in attitudes toward race and issues related to race. As a result the Sixth Party System was one in which race, or more accurately, attitudes about race, was superimposed over class as the dominant cleavage, while region faded from importance and a new type of religious cleavage emerged.
The results of this realignment creeped in. The Republicans controlled both the Presidency and the Senate for the first six years of the 1980s, and both Houses but not the Presidency for the last six years of the 1990s. Democratic hold on state and local offices receded more slowly as party regulars whose preferences were formed in the Fifth Party System were slowly replaced by their children who were more independent. Weak party loyalties and split tickets were the hallmarks of the Sixth Party System. Divided government was the result.
There is a relationship between periodic party systems and social movement clusters, but it is not a simple one. The first wave took place largely within the Second Party System, but shaped the politics of the Third. The moral reform movements of the 1830s and `40s eventually took on political form, through the creation of multiple third parties to bring the authority of the state behind various prescriptions for proper behavior. These movements and parties became tributaries to the new Republican Party. Inheriting the mantel of moral reform, the Republican Party counted correct moral order as well as economic order among its goals. Thus when the Prohibition Party was founded in 1872, it drew its voters from Republican ranks, and when that party receded in strength, its voters returned to the Republican fold.
The Populist Movement contributed considerably to the realignment from the Third to the Fourth Party Systems. It drew from the ranks of Democrats in the South and Republicans in the Midwest and Rocky Mountain states. However, in the South the Democrats co-opted and absorbed the Populists while in the Midwest the Populists frequently coalesced with the weak Democratic Party to produce some of the few two-party states in the Fourth Party System. There were Progressives in both major parties, but they were stronger in the Republican Party with its long reform tradition. When the movement took partisan shape, it split the Republican Party and put the Democrats into power. However, Republican Progressives met the same fate as Southern Populists. Progressivism, which had been very successful in many states, did not succeed on the national level until it was adopted by the Democrats in the Fifth Party System.
The Sixties cluster began in the 1950s with the Southern Civil Rights Movement, which eventually realigned the region. Blacks and those with liberal attitudes on race stayed in the Democratic Party, while Southerners with more traditional attitudes became Republicans. But there were changes in the North as well. The demands of the Civil Rights Movement were an issue in the Presidential election of 1964, where the contrasting attitudes of the Republican and Democratic candidates prompted most of the remaining black Republicans to shift parties. Over the next few decades some Northern whites followed Southern whites into the Republican party, particularly conservative Catholics and orthodox Jews who had voted Democratic. Many who shifted parties, North and South, claimed it was because the Democratic Party had been captured by the Sixties movements and no longer expressed their values.
The Civil Rights Movement had many children; movements formed around issues of "sex" took on partisan colors. The new feminist movement, the movement to repeal abortion restrictions, and the movement for social acceptance of homosexuals polarized the parties throughout the Sixth Party System. A gender gap emerged in which women were more likely to vote Democratic while men leaned toward Republicans. As the twentieth century ended, perspectives on race remained the dominant cleavage, but the seeds of a Seventh Party System were being sowed by attitudes toward gender, sex, and sexuality.
WHERE DO WOMEN FIT?
Women have participated in social movements throughout our history. There have also been separate movements of women in every cluster. Some of these movements have organized women to improve society generally, to aid children, to help less fortunate women, or to change men. And some have focused specifically on increasing women's rights. In the nineteenth century both types were part of the larger woman movement. Here, the former will be generically referred to as reform movements and the latter as feminist movements, even though "feminism" was not commonly used until 1910.
In the moral reform movements women had to organize separately from men because the social mores of the day saw mixed activities as promiscuous. Indeed it was the exclusion of women from abolition and temperance meetings that led them to organize on their own behalf and not just for the welfare of others—that made feminists out of reformers. Throughout the nineteenth century women worked to increase the rights of women, particularly the rights of married women to gain some independence from their husbands and the right of all women to an education. While some women advocated suffrage as early as 1848, and two major suffrage organizations were founded in 1869, the demand for suffrage did not take on the dimensions of a social movement until the Populist/Progressive period.
Women in the Populist movement usually worked with men in the same organizations, largely because they were in rural areas where families acted together. But in the municipal reform movements, women organized separately even though they worked with the men's organizations to elect reform candidates. Separate organizations for men and women were also common in small towns and urban areas. The Progressive movement combined both approaches; women worked in their own organizations and they also worked with men. Since the Populists formed their own party, and the municipal reformers espoused nonpartisanship, women in each movement had different attitudes toward parties. Populist women fused social movement and party activity, while municipal reformers separated it. They also had different attitudes toward Suffrage. The Populist Movement prompted major state campaigns for woman suffrage, two of which were successful. Women in municipal reform movements avoided Suffrage, in part because among their most prominent supporters were avowed anti-suffragists. As the Progressive movement peaked in 1912, woman suffrage became part of its agenda.
During this time the labor movement was struggling to organize and sometimes it made common cause with Progressives. By and large labor preferred to organize itself and bargain with corporations over working conditions and wages rather than rely on government, which was the Progressive solution. But when it came to women both agreed that the government should protect women workers by limiting their hours and regulating their working conditions. Women in industry, when they could speak for themselves, often, but not always, agreed. Protective labor legislation for women joined the Progressive agenda very early and then was adopted by the Democratic and Republican Parties.
In their analyses of the social bases of party systems, historians have paid little attention to gender as a factor in partisanship. Voting patterns were the main source of data; since few women could vote in the first three party systems and those that could in the next two voted much like equivalent men, sex did not appear to be an important variable. There was an agreement among pollsters and election analysts that woman suffrage had helped the Republican Party more than the Democrats, largely due to higher turnout among Republican women, but no one looked much further. Yet if one shifts perspective slightly, and looks for displays of partisanship beyond voting, sex emerges into bold relief.
Throughout the nineteenth century women became more and more involved in party activities. Even though they could not usually vote, there was an assumption that women could influence the men who did vote. The only issue was whether such influence should be exercised solely in private, or also in public. Before the Civil War women gave speeches and wrote political tracts in support of their candidates and their party. They joined in the rallies and camp meetings, partially as participants and partially as cooks and cleaners. After the war women organized partisan meetings with women speakers, some for both sexes and some for women only. They sometimes stood vigil at the polls in order to increase decorum and to remind male voters of their duty to vote right. In the 1890s, women in several states took on major responsibilities for delivering male voters. They canvassed their homes, speaking both to voters and their wives. They were counted among the orators and "spellbinders" at organized meetings and street rallies. They wrote and distributed literature. Often they formed women's political clubs. Sometimes they were delegates to state party conventions.
These activities were not uniformly engaged in by women of all parties. There was a partisan pattern. Women labored initially on behalf of minor parties—Prohibition, Populist, Labor. They were convention delegates, speakers, committee members, and even candidates of these parties well before they were accepted by the major parties, indeed well before they could vote. But of the two major parties, the party of order attended to women long before the party of equality. Whether using the name of Federalist, Whig, or Republican, the party of order acknowledged women's presence, utilized their talents, and recognized their contributions a good ten to twenty years before the Democrats in most every area. The few instances where Democratic women were on a par with Republican women were ones in which minor parties were in fact major ones. In Colorado for example, a strong Populist Party fused with a weak Democratic Party and Populist women changed party labels.
This pattern is superimposed over a regional one. Women's overt partisanship was not geographically uniform. The South was significantly behind the rest of the country in the acceptance of women in political roles. The West was ahead. In the Midwest and East, local conditions shaped the political environment. Several midwestern states produced women political leaders in the nineteenth century; in others there is little evidence of female partisan activity. New York City was a greenhouse for Republican women in the 1890s; New Jersey was not. Even in the four states where women got full suffrage in the nineteenth century, women's participation varied. Colorado and Utah had an abundance of party women, including Democratic women; Idaho and Wyoming did not. As the Third Party System shifted into the Fourth, elections became less an act of male solidarity and more of a civic duty, the Progressive Movement legitimated political work as an expansion of women's duty to maintain the home, and women moved into political life in areas where they had only occasionally been seen before. That process continued after 1920 as women became normal voters and party workers at different rates in different states. There was also a generational effect. Younger women voted and worked in the parties in greater rates than their mothers. The right to vote did not divide political from nonpolitical women nearly as much as did region and party—and after 1920, age.
The class and religious bases of the major parties provide one explanation of their different receptivity toward women and women's rights. Region provides another. Different religions had different attitudes toward women and their proper roles. If one looks at how men voted in suffrage referenda, Catholics were more likely to be opposed than Protestants, at least outside the South. Catholics and Southerners were Democrats; their conservative attitudes toward women shaped those of the entire party. If one looks at the leadership of the major social movements in which women were active, they are virtually all Protestant but in different denominations. Temperance leaders were heavily Methodist, followed by Baptists and Presbyterians, while the suffragists tended to be Quakers, Universalists, Unitarians, and Congregationalists with some Episcopalians. Of course, the anti-suffrage leaders were also Protestant—mostly Presbyterian and Episcopalian. These were all Republican denominations. As for class, in the first five party systems, the Democratic Party was the party of the working man while the Republican Party was the party of the growing middle class. Middle-class women had more leisure for politics, and more education, than the wives and daughters of the working man. Partisan differences in class, education, and religion created a much bigger pool of women available to the Republican Party than to the Democrats and also a larger number who saw politics as a natural outlet for their social concerns.
To this must be added the fact that the Republican party began as the party of reform; even when it became dominated by a business elite, it still viewed itself as the party of progress. Moral order was as important as economic order. Except in the South, whose social system ossified after the Civil War, women's place along with it, Democrats were much more likely to be foreign born or the children of foreign-born, urban, Catholic and to have less education. The Democratic Party was composed of marginal peoples striving to become part of American society, not to change it.
The impact of race on women's overt partisanship is not as obvious as that of region and religion. In the nineteenth century, the party of order was more receptive to African Americans as well as to women. This was reciprocated. Until the 1930s, most African Americans were loyal Republicans, regardless of sex. However, there is some evidence that black women, like white, were more loyal, longer, to the Republican Party than their men. Writing in 1892, Southerner Anna Julia Cooper observed that to "the black woman ... a Democratic Negro is a traitor...." This attitude faded when African Americans moved north, but it took a long time. In 1895, New Yorker Mary Hall commented that "the colored man who is a democrat is despicable to me." In Boston, and probably elsewhere, black men increased their registration in the Democratic Party gradually throughout the 1920s; black women waited until 1936.
Despite repeated rhetoric about "the women's vote," political analysts have always known that women and men of the same race, region, religion, and class voted alike. But below this surface similarity there are some distinctions of importance, ones that determine the composition of the active electorate and thus the shape of party systems. First, women did not vote at the same rate as men until the 1980s, yet sometimes they outvoted men. Women were particularly responsive to specific issues and special organizing efforts to bring to the polls those who were not normal voters. Second, women were less likely to commit themselves to a party when they registered to vote. Where registration data exist by sex for the 1920s through 1940s, more women declare they are "independents." However, surveys from the 1950s and 1960s show more men affirming their "independence." Third, until the end of the Fifth Party System, the Republican Party had a slight edge in getting women's votes.
The "gender gap" has two components: turnout and preference. Different groups vote at different rates. Women of the higher socio-economic strata (SES), particularly those who were white, Protestant, and native born of native-born parents, became normal voters more quickly and at higher rates than women from other strata. Until the end of the Fifth Party System more of them voted Republican. The difference in turnout between high SES men and women was smaller and closed more rapidly than in the rest of the electorate. Because of this turnout effect, woman suffrage benefited Republican candidates more than Democrats well into the 1960s. A preference effect, indicating that women voters favored one party more than equivalent men, is harder to document before scientific sampling (and varies with the definition of "equivalent"). Nonetheless, there is evidence to support a preference effect in some elections. Here, too, women were more likely to vote Republican. But when a preference effect appears in primaries or nonpartisan elections, women favored the progressive Republican candidates more than the conservatives, and independents more than those associated with party machines. These will be mentioned in the chapters that follow, although voting analysis is not a major concern of this book.
There are variations with time and place. Sometimes turnout and preference effects favor the Democrats, or are more pronounced among lower SES women. Most of these can be accounted for by differences in local political culture, or by special efforts to mobilize women. When electoral outcomes are uncertain, both parties look for new sources of strength and often find them in women, whether as voters or workers. But throughout the Fourth and Fifth Party Systems there wasn't a lot of party competition in local elections, so special efforts were rare. Since Republican women were better organized than Democratic women, absent special circumstances Republican women voters were more likely to be pushed to the polls, reinforcing the normal tendency of higher SES women to vote more frequently and to vote Republican.
Among women, all of these things—turnout, preference, and organization—meant more female votes for the Republican Party. And, despite a few variations, until the 1970s the Republican Party and its predecessors generally provided a much warmer reception to women, and in particular those women actively working to promote women's rights, than did the Democratic Party. On issues of woman's rights as well as ways to bring women into politics, the Democrats usually lagged. When they did take the lead, it was usually temporary. By the mid-1960s, partisan distinctions were slight, but they were still there. In the 1970s, they faded. It was the 1980s before the Democrats took the lead in promoting women's rights.
This book ends in the 1960s because the emergence of a new feminist movement brought a sea change in the relationship between the major parties and women. As a result, the parties switched sides, with the Democratic Party becoming the home of feminist activists and the Republican Party welcoming the anti-feminists. This sea change was one aspect of the realignment from the Fifth to the Sixth Party System. Its story will require another volume. The story of how women entered party politics during the first five party systems is long enough.
Chapter 1 Introduction: Feminists, Reformers, and Party Women Chapter 2 1. Social Movements and Party Systems: Where Do Women Fit? Chapter 3 2. Cracking Open the Door: Women and Partisanship in the Nineteenth Century Chapter 4 3. Assaulting the Citadel: Woman Suffrage and the Political Parties Chapter 5 4. Learning the Ropes: Emergence of the Party Woman Chapter 6 5. Making a Place: The Women's Divisions Chapter 7 6. Party Organization: The Evolution of 50-50 Chapter 9 8. Building a Base: Women in Local Party Politics Chapter 10 9. Doing Their Bit: Women in National Party Politics Chapter 11 10. Having a Say: Women's Issues in the Party Platforms Chapter 12 11. Claiming a Share: Presidential Appointments of Women Chapter 13 12. Conclusion Chapter 13 7. Down Different Paths: Women's Organizations and Political Parties after 1920
Posted May 30, 2004
As a young boy I was always fascinated with the tales of intrepid archaeologists, Schliemann at Troy or Carter in Egypt. I imagined myself accompanying them as they dramatically uncovered humanity's hidden history. Many years later as an adult I volunteered for an archaeological survey. I followed a trail of Anasazi flint chips to the top of a hill and discovered an 13th century American tool factory with a great view of the Utah high desert. Not exactly the walls of Troy or the treasures of Tutankhamen, but a source of joy and wonder nevertheless Accompanying Jo Freeman as she uncovers the hidden history of how women entered into the political parties gave me a similar sense of wonder and discovery. Her book begins with a section called 'Myth As History'. Freeman meticulously demolishes the convenient myth that the Suffrage Movement 'failed' because women did not storm the barricades of American politics and vote as a revolutionary bloc. As a political activist as well as a scholar, Freeman understands that political change is a complex process with many fits and starts. She explains that women political activists were a diverse group ranging from radical feminists to stalwart big city machine bosses. Sometimes these divergent groups worked in tandem when their interests coincided. More often they worked separately or even at cross-purposes. Yet, as more women slowly entered politics 'a room at a time', politics became more democratic. Voting moved from the saloon to the local grade school polling place. Issues like child labor and public health came to the forefront. Is it a coincidence that most of the significant social legslation in America came about after women entered politics as activists and voters? Freeman dug deep into the sources to bring this hidden history to the surface. While doing so she uncovered a political tragedy worthy of a Sophocles or a Shakespeare-- the moral decline of the Republican Party. It may surprise today's readers to learn that for most of its history, the Republican Party was the party of feminism and women's rights. The GOP began its life as party of radical reform, attracting feminists, abolitionists, free soilers and even socialists to its ranks. Susan B. Anthony, Ida Wells or Jane Addams would not recognize today's Republican Party with its deep disdain for gender equality and its opposition to all progressive social legislation. Jo Freeman's book is a wonderful tool for uncovering the complex relationship that American women have had with our major political parties. Buy a copy and dig in.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.