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Women running in the streets

Surprisingly — at least from this vantage point 100 years later — some of the 19th Amendment’s staunchest opponents were women. When the amendment granting women the right to vote became law on August 18, 1920, anti-suffrage activists like Old Lyme resident Susan Platt Hubbard were deeply disappointed.

In January 1919, Susan had written a polite but critical letter to The Day decrying the paper’s liberal stance on the issue. She said, in part, “The policy of this paper is so soundly conservative that it is difficult for me to understand its position on women’s suffrage, the most radical and socialistic movement of the day, one that strikes more surely at the foundations of democracy…” She signed the letter “faithfully, Susan Platt Hubbard.”

Susan posted a second letter to The Day in March, urging them to support a woman’s right of “freedom from the ballot.” This time her tone was much sterner; she signed it “Mrs. Hermon M. Hubbard.“

In another letter in June, she argued that women’s proper role was caring for their children at home, “not running in the streets.”

Susan was born into a prosperous family and married well. Her son, Platt Hubbard, was a landscape artist, and her extended family included a cousin, Charles Adams Platt, architect of the Lyme Art Association Gallery, and an uncle, President Rutherford B. Hayes. Susan was president of the Ohio state’s anti-suffrage movement before moving to Old Lyme, where she became chairperson of the Old Lyme Society Opposed to Woman’s Suffrage, an organization that had a robust membership.

One of those members was Florence Griswold, another Old Lyme resident against suffrage. The Florence Griswold Museum website displays a roster of the organization’s board of directors, which included Florence.

The issue was as divisive locally as it was nationally. For example, Katharine Ludington, a portrait painter from Lyme, was pro-suffrage and even ran pro-suffrage classes in New London.

The drive for suffrage began shortly after the Civil War. Decades later, it had gained enough momentum that women who opposed it sprang into action. The National Association of Women Opposed to Suffrage (NAOWS) organized in 1911, and within three years, Old Lyme "antis," as they were called, had formed their own group that Susan chaired.

We may wonder what on earth these women were thinking, but their fear of social change was genuine and their reasons were varied. Some women felt that their social positions were threatened. Others believed that women’s suffrage went hand in hand with radical ideas like birth control, free love, and socialism. Some thought they could more effectively advance charitable causes like prison reform and settlement work from behind the scenes rather than by the ballot. They thought that the obligation to be an informed voter was an unfair burden on women already busy with housework and community service.

The antis published pamphlets, held protests, and organized rallies. Some of their rhetoric is amusing to 21st-century ears. I especially like this slogan: “You do not need a ballot to clean out your sink.”

The Flo Gris website, a major source of information for this column, has an example of an anti-suffrage postcard that reflects their fear that family life would be turned upside-down and gender roles disastrously reversed if women got the vote. The picture shows a beleaguered father surrounded by six children. Twins sit on his lap while a baby tugs on his trousers. On his left, a boy is mercilessly pounding a drum while a little girl on his right has a major meltdown. Yet another child has crawled up his back. It has the look of a hostage situation. The caption reads “Have so many little things to attend to.”

From a different source about the antis, I found a postcard showing a man wearing an apron, bent over a washboard. He looks sadly at the viewer and whines, “I wanted to vote, but my wife won’t let me.”

I can’t say whether either of these postcards was designed by a woman, but they certainly show the antis’ apprehension about sweeping social transformation.

Even after the amendment passed, Susan Hubbard never changed her opinion about the appropriate role of women in public life. In 1923, the appointment of the first woman to be a diplomatic officer in the foreign services met with her strong disapproval. But some other hearts and minds changed surprisingly quickly. Just three months after the amendment’s passage, one young woman, who’d fought hard against it, reported with delight, “My first X ever was put on a ballot for Father for State Senator.”

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