“Defence of Woman Suffrage” (March 18, 1870)


In this article, published March 18, 1870, by the Richmond Daily Enquirer, Anna Whitehead Bodeker frames women’s suffrage as an expansion of rights, the basis for the freedoms Americans historically have held so dear. She points out the ways in which the expectations for a woman’s role in society have limited her individual potential and social contributions. This is the first of her two essays on suffrage published in the Richmond Daily Enquirer, which opposed extending the franchise.


A Voice from its Advocate in Richmond.

The Church Hill meeting was the beginning, but not by a long shot the end, of the woman’s rights agitation in Richmond. Its champions are not only in earnest, but they are indefatigable in their efforts to promote their cause. As an evidence of the fact, we could not get over publishing the following, which was brought us by an intelligent committee of the woman’s rights organizations of Richmond:

What is woman suffrage? The people of Virginia, men and women, in every class of society, are beginning to ask this question. There are some among us who can see any number of motes in the eyes of that poor old Pope in Italy, who nevertheless would give a great deal to wield the wonderful influence in their sphere that he does in his. when his people murmur at the intolerable evils of their condition, and petition at least to try other methods of social economy, they are told to “cease their clamor,” and remanded back to “the sphere in which God placed them,” which means the situation in which their present rulers found them, and to which they intend to confine them just as long as they are able.

But the people this side of the “big water” are a little way ahead of that point. Once upon a time an old British King thundered at them from across the ocean to cease their insufferable clattering and clamoring about their rights or he would send enough cannon and bullets over to put them to rights. But they shrieked back to him, until his old crown tottered again with the hullabaloo, “Give us liberty or give us death!” And when his cannon and bullets came they shot as many of the military as their stock of ammunition would permit and then scampered off into the woods and lived on nothing pretty much until they could beg or borrow more powder and balls, and by-and-bye the commanders of the regular armies wrote home: “You had as well try to bail out the ocean, or dam up Niagara with straw baskets as keep these people down,” and so they got their rights at last. And in our own day a dispute arose between the brethren as to their mutual rights, and the cry was never hushed until the whole land was dotted with new made graves, and thousands lay dumb to death! Truly, we are a wonderful people on the subject of our rights. And now from the North comes a clear sounding peal in a woman’s voice, “Give us our rights.” And from the South a full thrilling tone is beginning to blend in that cry, and the West catches up the echo, and responds, “Be quick! for we are taking what you hesitate about granting.” And people everywhere through the land are beginning to look around and ask their neighbors, “What is it?” and even while they ask their own hearts feel the stirrings of the answer.

What is woman suffrage? Now listen for one thing. It is a woman’s right to make an honest and comfortable living in any pursuit for which she feels herself fitted by nature and her peculiar advantages.

Now, the iron walls of custom which were erected about her in the early ages of barbarism confine her to a life of dependence on man for her pecuniary support, and limit the cultivation of her talents to the drudgery of domestic duties. There has been a mass of sentimental nonsense written about the peculiar fitness of woman for this position, and its peculiar sacredness and dignity.

But stern realities dissipate fancies and follies as time rolls on, and people begin to appreciate the absurdity of laying down any artificial decrees for the development of human genius. The idea the Man is the lord of creation, the highest animal of his species, and that it is his peculiar province to cultivate literature, science and art, while woman is a creature born for a position “just below him,” and is ordained by nature to fill one sole sphere, that of household duties, is beginning to be recognized as an effete superstition.—And a woman who develops talents for intellectual pursuits, or active business capacities, is no longer looked on as an anomaly, a lusus natura.

We are beginning to feel that the old dogma about the province of woman is as ridiculous an absurdity as that of the old feudal Lords, who tried to beat back their vassals from the polls with the brutal mandate, “You are in the sphere for which God and nature designed you!—keep there!” Why, there are many women who have no more natural turn for domestic management than you have sir, who can sit in an unkempt office until the dust lies in ridges on every side of you!

And there are women who, if they had the opportunity which some men enjoy, would invent machinery, sketch architectural [sic] plans, illustrate and elucidate scientific principles as they never have been before, and richly benefit their generation whose labors and talents are now worse than lost. For such being when warped by illustrate and elucidate scientific principles as they never have been before, and richly benefit their generation whose labors and talents are now worse than lost. For such being when warped by irrational and arbitrary laws are very apt, if they live, to find some abnormal development. Like a beautiful tree when forced to grow in a cramped position.—Look to it gentlemen! There are the women who become the “Becky Sharps” whom you so delight to caricature and hoot at! and who contaminate society as few other instruments of evil can. Look to it. You may preach and declaim and write as you will, but you cannot silence the slandering tongues that plant thorns of bitterness to rankle in your hearts as long as they shall beat, while the present state of your social life in continually casting up such spawn as these to infect the moral atmosphere and undermine the peace of you loveliest homes.

Woman is an intellectual being, sir, as well as you are, and she has as wide a range of intellectual taste and talents as you have. There are some women, as there are doubtless some me, who have a natural talent for domestic business, and no matter how much liberty of choice were given them, would always prefer a life devoted to such duties; but to say that because a woman is a woman she never has a, and has no right to have, a talent for any other sphere, is simply to re-echo the old driveling nonsense that usurpers in all ages have tried to force down the throats of their victims, that the sphere in which they found themselves  placed was the one designed for them by God and nature.

APA Citation:
Daily Enquirer, Richmond. “Defence of Woman Suffrage” (March 18, 1870). (2021, October 28). In Encyclopedia Virginia.
MLA Citation:
Daily Enquirer, Richmond. "“Defence of Woman Suffrage” (March 18, 1870)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (28 Oct. 2021). Web. 18 May. 2024
Last updated: 2021, October 28
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