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Leaning In: Historical Edition

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Very interesting piece by the historian Allison Lange on how the debate around whether can “have it all” goes back to the suffrage movement.

While this work is a necessity for most families today, there was a time when many Americans resisted the idea of women doing anything outside of the confines of home. The women’s voting rights movement radically transformed Americans’ views on this issue, enabling women’s greater participation in society. But, in doing so, suffragists — activists who fought for the vote — entrenched an impossible ideal of “having it all” that persists today.

In response, rather than claiming that women were men’s equals — something that might threaten men’s fragile masculinity — the NAWSA argued that well-off White women wanted the vote so that they could be better mothers. In 1906, NAWSA leader and prominent Progressive Era reformer Jane Addams argued that “city housekeeping has failed partly because women, the traditional housekeepers, have not been consulted as to its multiform activities.” Female voters would clean up politics and improve American life. Addams never had children and had a female partner, but she recognized the power of this gendered rhetoric.

In the 1910s, a new generation of professional female artists conveyed NAWSA’s message. The famous kewpie doll designer, Rose O’Neill, drew several posters. One poster depicts babies marching with a “Votes for Our Mothers” flag, suggesting that it was children who would benefit if women could vote. Indeed, it showed that for women to take proper care of the home and children, they needed political power to shape the policies that affected food, health, homes and schools.

NAWSA countered anti-suffragists’ fears with their message that voting would actually strengthen women’s ability to manage their homes. In doing so, they skillfully played into traditional gender roles. In this framing, women would enlist their supposedly innate motherly sensibilities when they cast their ballots and take care of everything.

NAWSA challenged a model for American women that limited their opportunities. However, its own campaign presented a limited vision of women’s rights that continues to shape the ways that our society sees women and makes demands on their labor.

NAWSA never published pictures that featured women of color as good mothers who could have it all. Less privileged women already struggled to manage work and family life. Suffrage organizations dominated by White women clearly sought the vote for White women alone. Black women’s groups, such as the National Association of Colored Women, lacked the resources to run comparable visual campaigns. After the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, many White suffragists watched as restrictions such as literacy tests and poll taxes forced poor women and women of color to find their own path to the ballot box.

Yet NAWSA’s visual campaign has had a lasting impact on the ways Americans view women’s roles. A century later, women are still doing it all — and in many circles, this is the expected ideal. Gains in women’s equality have been built on the mythic, stereotyped ideas about women’s responsibilities. Perhaps the crisis of the pandemic can transform our expectations, and we can do away with an ideal that pressures women to “have it all” without real support.

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