On the Moral Superiority of Women

from It All Adds Up:  Reform and the Erosion of Representative Government in Missouri, 1900-2000 by Kenneth H. Winn  [pp.35-36]

[Official Manual of the State of Missouri, 1999-2000, Missouri Millennium.  Rebecca McDowell Cook, Secretary of State.]

If changes to the political process could not make democracy function as it should, suffragists thought women might.  Missouri had a long and vital women's movement.  The National Woman Suffrage Association, the first national women's organization dedicated to women's suffrage, was founded in St. Louis in 1867.  When St. Louis' Virginia Minor was stopped from voting in 1872 she sued and the case went to the Supreme Court where women learned that the fourteenth amendment did not apply to them.  Dramatic struggles continued through the progressive era.  In 1916 at the Democratic National Convention in St. Louis, women, all dressed in yellow, formed a silent gauntlet ten blocks long (the "Golden Lane") forcing delegates to walk through their line to enter the convention hall.

Traditionally suffragists based their case for the right to vote principally on equal rights and attempted to embarrass men into giving them the vote by pointing out how shameful it was for a purported democracy to deprive half of its citizens of the right to vote.  In response, opponents of women's suffrage often argued, among other things, that women were morally superior, finer beings, who would be debased and degraded by participating in the tough hurly-burly would of politics.  In the progressive era, women now readily agreed.  Women were indeed morally superior.  Men had control of society for too long and had made a mess of it.  America's politicians were scoundrels and corruption was the order of the day.  An infusion of moral superiority was just what was needed and it was women voters who would supply it.   In the end it was women's impressive contributions to the war effort in World War I that gave substance to their arguments and, finally, created sufficient support to pass a women's suffrage amendment to the Constitution.  In 1919 Missouri Governor Frederick Gardner called the Missouri legislature into special session where it ratified the constitutional amendment granting suffrage by overwhelming margins, making Missouri the eleventh state to pass it.

Unfortunately the infusion of morally superior human beings into the political process failed to elevate Missouri politics.  The idea that women would vote scared the daylights out of some men, who saw in it the end of the Republic.  By contrast, many women saw in it the Republic redeemed.  Both, of course, were vastly wrong.  As one disillusioned Missouri suffragist put it in the 1920s: "it was said for years that when women had the power to vote, conditions would be improved.  Some women even went so far as to say that woman suffrage would bring in the millennium."  Alas, the consequences were more earthly.  Women either voted the way their husbands did or did not vote at all and the vast majority who did participate in politics did so only by voting.  But perhaps these expectations were merely premature - a gender gap between women and men's voting patterns began to be noticed in the late 1970s.

In the Progressive era, both Missouri and American politicians had a great belief in the efficacy of technique.  Progressives attempted to use new methods to revitalize nineteenth century ideals of democracy, but that world was irrevocably gone.  Rule changes, they hoped, would lead to an end of bossism and corruption.  The people were good, and if they were given a greater voice, evil men would be driven away.  The electoral panaceas of the age: primaries; initiative, referendum, recall; the direct election of senators; and women's suffrage have all proved to be durable parts of the American political landscape, but if they have proved useful, they fell considerably short of the results of which their backers dreamed - and some had future consequences that would have often appalled them.  Technique, however, remains central to the political faith of Missouri's (America's) politicians.  Adopting rules to combat evil is tempting because it is far more easily accomplished than addressing the root cause that created the evil in the first place.  Technique does have a role; it is just a small portion of the story.  Many people want it to be the story itself.  Importantly, however, the techniques the Progressives employed were designed to undermine the politician's power, and that of his party, and in this lay the way of the future.  In the meantime, the failure of progressive hopes, alas, was quite evident in Kansas City, where everything, including the rules, was up-to-date.