What better way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage than by discussing the way it turned out to be a big flop?
The great champions of the 19th Amendment thought that when America’s women got the right to vote, they’d immediately start to change the nation. Promote women’s issues, like better health care and education. Refocus politics from special interests to the general good.
Then in 1920, for the first time, they went to polls across the nation with their husbands, brothers, fathers and sons and elected — President Warren Harding.
In 1921, Congress, with a wary eye on the newly enfranchised sex, passed the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Protection Act. It was a modest effort to improve health care for the poor by training nurses, licensing midwives and establishing clinics for young mothers and their babies.
The physicians’ associations saw it as government-subsidized competition — socialized medicine! — and hated it. During debate on the bill, one opponent claimed the sponsors were pandering to busybody old maids who were always pushing do-gooder causes.
“Old maids are voting now,” a colleague reminded him.
But the doctors kept complaining, and as time passed, politicians began to notice that they weren’t hearing much from the new female electorate. In 1929, the act was repealed.
The Sheppard-Towner debacle was one of the best examples of how the effects of women’s suffrage turned out to be more complicated than its champions had imagined. Everything worked great when it came to the title cause of giving women the right to vote. But the leaders of the movement had expected to use the ballot to transform the nation. For a very long time, nothing happened.
Well, except for Prohibition. Banning the sale of liquor was one cause that really did bring the women together. Most of them didn’t drink, but their husbands did. The upper-class men retired to the study or a club after dinner to sip some liquor and have fun talking among themselves. Poor men went off to a saloon to get soused, spending the family’s much-needed cash.
Many American girls grew up believing that virtually every social evil came from alcohol. Frances Perkins, the New Deal secretary of labor, recalled that she was raised to believe that poverty was just a result of drinking — and laziness.