In 1920, This Campaign Ad Told Women to Vote ‘For Your Own Good’

Oh, how times have changed. Or have they?

National Journal
April 24, 2014, 9:06 a.m.

Barely three months be­fore the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion in 1920, politi­cians sud­denly had mil­lions of new voters to win over: wo­men.

The race to draw fe­male voters to the polls was on. The Re­pub­lic­an Party, polit­ic­ally dis­sim­il­ar from its mod­ern-day ver­sion, went with a straight­for­ward mes­sage to at­tract wo­men, who had gained the right to vote that Au­gust with the rat­i­fic­a­tion of the 19th Amend­ment.

“Wo­men!” pro­claimed an ad­vert­ise­ment from the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee in the Novem­ber is­sue of Needle­craft Magazine (whose old is­sues you can buy on eBay). “For Your Own Good Vote the Re­pub­lic­an Tick­et.”

Wo­men may have fi­nally won the abil­ity to elect their rep­res­ent­at­ives, but those rep­res­ent­at­ives were still go­ing to tell them what was good for them. You can view the full ad here.

The ad ap­pealed dir­ectly to moth­ers just slightly re­moved from World War I, say­ing that Demo­crat­ic policy un­der then-Pres­id­ent Woo­drow Wilson would “put rifles in the hands of their sons” and send them to war. Here’s the plea from the Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial tick­et of War­ren G. Hard­ing and Calv­in Coolidge, who would go on to win the elec­tion by a land­slide:

Amer­ic­an wo­men are be­ing asked in this cam­paign to vote for the Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate for Pres­id­ent be­cause he is pledged to the Treaty of Ver­sailles and the Cov­en­ant for a league of na­tions con­tained therein. They are told this cov­en­ant cre­ates the league of peace of which good and great men have dreamed through many cen­tur­ies. They are told it is a cov­en­ant of peace that will end all war.

Four years ago the same party asked for votes for the Demo­crat­ic Pres­id­ent be­cause “he kept us out of war.” He got them and five months later the United States entered the world war.

Is it wise to re­call that, now that we are asked once more to vote for a Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate be­cause he will com­mit us to a cov­en­ant that will keep the world out of war?

The ad sur­pris­ingly — giv­en the gender role ex­pect­a­tions of the time — re­cog­nized wo­men as fin­an­cial pro­viders:

You know how doubly hard it has been for you as man­ager of the fam­ily funds. Yours has been one con­stant struggle try­ing to keep the home and the table sup­plied — try­ing to pay big bills with little dol­lars.

It even prom­ised that the Re­pub­lic­ans would im­prove wo­men’s em­ploy­ment pro­spects, with this quote at­trib­uted to Hard­ing:

I be­lieve in hold­ing fast to every for­ward step in un­shack­ling child labor and el­ev­at­ing con­di­tions of  wo­man’s [sic] em­ploy­ment.

But, un­sur­pris­ingly, wo­men were viewed as moth­ers and wives first, and voters and cit­izens second:

Your in­terest as a wo­man, your in­terest as a moth­er, your in­terest as a cit­izen, your in­terest as the fin­an­cial man­ager of the home, com­bine to re­quire the re­turn to Re­pub­lic­an prin­ciples.”

An es­tim­ated one-third of eli­gible fe­male voters voted that year, com­pared with two-thirds of eli­gible male voters.

Such a con­des­cend­ing call to the bal­lot would re­ceive tre­mend­ous back­lash today (ima­gine the tweets). But nearly a cen­tury later, politi­cians are still tar­get­ing wo­men voters based on tra­di­tion­al roles, such as mar­riage status, as Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s Alex Roarty re­cently re­por­ted. The Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee is us­ing a new na­tion­al voter mod­el that will help it identi­fy single wo­men and cre­ate the best mes­sages to reach them. Con­ser­vat­ives, on the oth­er hand, have been blast­ing TV ads aimed at mar­ried wo­men.

And nearly a cen­tury later, some of these at­tempts can go wrong. A re­cent in­fograph­ic ex­plain­ing the White House’s ini­ti­at­ives on equal pay pic­tured two wo­men who wouldn’t look out of place on the set of the 1960s-era show Mad Men: Both wore mod, brightly colored dresses and high heels; one car­ried a hand­bag. “It screams Sex and the City, not 9 to 5,” wrote The Wash­ing­ton Post‘s Nia-Ma­lika Hende­r­son of the pain­fully out­dated de­pic­tion.

Let’s hope it doesn’t take an­oth­er 100 years to get voter out­reach for Amer­ic­an wo­men right.

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