[Today’s contribution to this month’s Mormonism & Politics series comes from Brittany Chapman, who basically runs the Church History Library nowadays.]
“Stronger than my political convictions,” wrote suffragist Ruth May Fox, “was my belief in the political rights of women.”
I’ve been thinking lately about how women view themselves, and the seeming monumental change in that perception since the nineteenth century. Often when we speak of women in politics during that time period, we instantly mark “suffrage” as one of woman’s greatest achievements. Our nineteenth-century heroines are those who touted women’s advancement in the public sphere—education, employment, and, most heralded, the vote. Rightly so. Now four or even five generations removed from that innovation, the value of universal suffrage is obvious and marginalizing woman’s voice at the ballot box is unthinkable. It is easy to assume the value of the vote was always obvious and that every woman always wanted it. But alas, such was not the case for hundreds of thousands of women. So, who were the women who did not want the vote, and why? What were they saying? And, at the root of it all, how did they view themselves?
There is a fascinating piece by Susan Fenimore Cooper (the daughter of novelist James Fenimore Cooper) entitled “Female Suffrage: a Letter to the Christian Women of America.” Cooper, well-read and well-bred, represented a preponderance of women when she argued that they should not have the right to vote. In the same breath, she advocated women receiving higher education, equal pay for equal work, and other basic equalities. How did these seemingly inconsistent ideas of equality co-exist?
Cooper cites three basic justifications for her argument, each indicative of how she saw herself as a woman, and each reflective of larger cultural sentiments. “The natural position of woman is clearly, to a limited degree, a subordinate one,” she began. First, nature reinforced woman’s subordinate role, as men are physically stronger than women. Second, woman’s intelligence was inferior to man’s intellect, as he was responsible for cultural innovation and advancement. Third, Christianity “confirms the subordinate position of woman, by allotting to man the headship . . . [and] enjoins the submission of the wife to the husband.” A condition, she concluded, that was “laid upon her by her Lord and His Church.” This was published in Harpers New Weekly Magazine in 1870, the same year Utah women received the right to vote (for the first time—it was revoked in 1887 and reinstated with statehood in 1895).
Woman and her mission, as portrayed by Cooper—passive, subordinate, “feminine”—was deeply entrenched in the cultural psyche. This definition of womanhood was the very one that Mormon women activists sought to expand; women were limiting themselves by this world view. Suffrage then, especially in Utah, was not just a battle between man and woman. It was also woman versus woman, and more subtly, woman versus self.
Ruth May Fox, Utah suffragist and women’s rights advocate, believed that women who clung to a limited definition of self were “bound with chains of degradation who kn[e]w it not,” content in their position as the “political slaves of men.” Fox wrote a series of compelling poems to rouse women to their own potential, and teach them the value of their personal voice.
In a “Lecture on Suffrage” delivered to in 1895, she said:
Never let it be said that women are regardless of the rights of their sisters, rather let us labor for them and with them, let us educate them until they shall assert their independence and shake the shackles from their wrists, thus may we lift them to a higher plane.
Fox repeatedly uses the imagery of woman being bound until a personal awakening allowed her to break free of confines which she herself had created. Citing excerpts from several poems published in the Young Woman’s Journal, woman’s “eyes are ope’d her shackles fall” when she realized she is the peer of men and worthy of respect.
To Ruth, equality was a state of mind: “Up! slave, up!,” she cried, “Thy fetters break. Declare thine independence; Man is not thy master, thy soul’s thine own.” A woman who did not realize her equality, she believed, was willingly living as an inferior. Freedom for mankind came, in part, when women claimed equality.
Ruth with her peers believed that woman suffrage would “open the doors” that would “usher her into free and full emancipation.” They believed that “the woman movement has come because the sun of our civilization has thrown across our social horizon the dawning of a new and more glorious era in the history of man.”  Has woman suffrage revolutionized the U.S. in the ways that Mormon activists idealized? Perhaps not. But, thus far, suffrage does not appear to have hurled women back to the “savage state of her barbarian ancestors,” as James Weir Jr. feared it would in 1895.
The ability to vote, to exercise personal freedom, was born of vision and sacrifice. Women and men do have a different perception of self in the twenty-first century, and I believe we can trace that largely to woman suffrage and other nineteenth- and early-twentieth century women’s activism. Suffrage is a poignant example of the power behind a band of united people, determined to cause change. The principles that motivated suffragists are living and well, wrapped in different causes and manifested in different ways. Are we finding them? What chains bind us, perhaps unawares, that hold back potential and stifle personal voice? Changing how we view ourselves may be an essential component to progress.
 My Story, p. 24
 Ruth May Fox, “Lecture on Suffrage,” Woman’s Exponent 24 (August 15, 1895), 42.
 Susan B. Anthony to Officers and Members of the Woman Suffrage Association of Utah, 21 July 1894, in “Susan B. Anthony’s Letter,” Woman’s Exponent 23 (August 1 and 15, 1894): 169.
 Fox, “Lecture on Suffrage,” 42.
 Ruth May Fox, “Who then art Thou,” Young Woman’s Journal 23 (November 1912): 621.
 Ruth May Fox, “Woman,” Young Woman’s Journal 32 (June 1921): 335-36.
 “Convention and Woman Suffrage,” Woman’s Exponent 23 (April 1, 1895): 241.
 James Weir Jr., “The Effect of Female Suffrage on Posterity” American Naturalist, vol. 29 (1895): 822-25.