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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