Staff Columnist

Gazette mansplains suffrage in 1920, and too little has changed

The Gazette archives
The Gazette archives
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A large, dramatic headline was sprawled across the front page of the Aug. 18, 1920, edition of the Evening Gazette of Cedar Rapids.

“TENNESSEE RATIFIES SUFFRAGE,” the historic headline shouted.

Tennessee became the 36th state to approve the 19th Amendment, putting votes for women over the top after a century of uphill struggle.

So how did women in Cedar Rapids greet the news?

“Local Women As Tickled As Kids When They Learn Ballot is Theirs,” read a smaller front page headline. The men who ran the Evening Gazette decided “tickled” was the best word to describe the reaction to winning a long fight for a fundamental civil right. Yep.

“Oh, isn’t that lovely,” said Mrs. William F. Hirst, president of the women’s club, when a Gazette reporter rang her to tell her of the news. “I’m so pleased and I know that other women will be also.”

“It means a good deal to the country and to the women of the country, who I’m sure will do all they can to improve politics. We have been ready for the ballot for some time — the trouble has been that the ballot wasn’t ready for us.”

Well put, Mrs. Hirst. Too bad we only get to know your husband’s name.

Women in Iowa had just suffered a suffrage near-miss. After finally convincing the Iowa Legislature to put a state women’s suffrage constitutional amendment on the ballot — a push that dated back to the mid-19th century — the measure was defeated by just more than 10,000 votes. Anti-suffragists, including liquor interests, made a late charge arguing suffrage would spark tax increases.

When you have no good arguments left, cry “tax increase.”

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Most Iowa newspapers endorsed the 1916 amendment, although I couldn’t find The Evening Gazette’s editorial. But on Aug. 23, 1920, a Gazette editorial welcomed passage of the 19th Amendment.

“A century of struggle for woman suffrage has ended successfully,” the Evening Gazette wrote.

So far, so good.

“Society has undergone successful treatment for one-sided paralysis. Women have always exercised a powerful influence in making organized government; indeed they have trained the statesmen from the cradle up, and then they have exercised that indirect influence of persuading those statesmen, when in power, to legislate in accordance with feminine sentiment and intuition.”

Sentiment and intuition. I don’t like where this is headed.

“But now they will speak at the ballot-box, in conventions, at primaries, through platforms, and their hands will write some of the laws and they will administer them,” The Evening Gazette opined.

OK, maybe we’re back on track.

“This means society will receive direct benefits from the finer sentiments that spring from the soul of woman. From the mothers, from the wives. The tenderness of woman will be felt in the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government,” the editorial continued.

OK, you’ve heard of oldie timey? Get ready for more oldie cringe-y.

“So when women go to the ballot-box and to conventions, they should take their feminine, motherly, sisterly, soulful and tender characteristics with them. There is no place in the government for women who are mannish, but there is plenty of room for the womanly characteristics,” The Evening Gazette urged.

So our Gazette editorial men were OK with this suffrage business so long as women came to the political process only to add a touch of womanly tenderness. Don’t get in the way of any statesmen doing statesman stuff. Instead, let us mansplain democracy, ladies.

As the current foreman at The Gazette opinion factory, I apologize our forebears didn’t construct something built to last at that historic moment.

Luckily, times have changed.

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I mean, yes, we’ve read stories about how Kamala Harris is too ambitious, doesn’t smile enough and hasn’t adequately apologized for gutting Joe Biden in a televised primary debate. Amy Klobuchar, as no doubt you’ve read, is mean and rotten to her staff, not driven and demanding like a male senator. Hillary Clinton is an unlikeable cackler in pantsuits. Elizabeth Warren was shrill and unelectable, and then vanished from news coverage even after finishing third in Iowa.

The president uses words such as “fat” and “ugly” to describe women, and worse, demeans them in public discourse and has bragged of sexual assault on tape. But her emails.

So times haven’t changed nearly enough in a media landscape still dominated by men and by tired, threadbare narratives.

“Firstly, traditional media remains mostly an obstacle for women’s political ambitions, as the coverage women in politics receive still is heavily biased against them, both in quantity and in quality, and this has a negative impact on women’s political ambitions, viability as candidates and ultimately on societal expectations of women and power,” researcher Lucina Di Meco wrote in a report last fall, “#SHEPERSISTED Women, Politics and Power in the New Media World.”

Di Meco is an expert, advocate and writer on women’s leadership and gender equality with a resume and list of writings longer than your arm. She interviewed 88 women leaders in politics, journalism, civil society and technology in 30 countries, reviewed dozens of publications and analyzed Twitter communications to male and female candidates during the 2020 Democratic primaries.

Di Meco found that although social media helps women get their message out, it’s also a conduit for “shocking amounts of sexism, harassment and threats.” In the U.S. and Britain, a female politician or journalist is abused on Twitter every 30 seconds, Di Meco found.

Tired narratives die hard. Media stories centering on families tend to benefit male candidates, while women, especially those with young kids, face questions about their ability to balance a family and a career. Coverage of female candidates focuses too often on personal traits and not issues.

Di Meco concludes coverage will improve if news operations work to become more diverse, and make a commitment to training journalists on the pitfalls of gender bias.

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On the plus side, more women are seeking public office than ever before. In 2018, the U.S. House of Representatives elected its largest class of women, with many stepping forward as ‘firsts’ who broke gender and other barriers in their home states. They’re leading campaigns and political movements. I don’t get the impression they’re tickled, but they are determined.

And as Mrs. Hirst predicted in 1920, they’re doing everything they can to improve our politics. The ballot is more than ready for them.

(319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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