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Age, Power, and Woman Suffrage

The Radcliffe Institute’s first Mellon-Schlesinger Fellow explores the broader significance of the woman suffrage movement as we approach the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment.

In the Susan B. Anthony Papers at the Schlesinger Library is a souvenir pamphlet from February 1900 celebrating Anthony’s 80th birthday and her retirement from the presidency of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). The pamphlet unfolds to reveal two portraits: the first a family daguerreotype from 1856, when Anthony was a relatively marginalized 36-year-old reformer, and the second an official photograph from 1900, when she had become one of the most famous women in the world. As the images are viewed from left to right, Anthony appears to escape an ornate but cramped frame and grow not only in maturity but also in stature. Her aged profile gazes back at her former self with pride in her achievements. Harsh light emphasizes the wrinkles on her face, the glint of her spectacles, and the whiteness of her hair. The composition of this image both celebrates Anthony’s long years of service to the suffrage cause and promotes a very specific understanding of female middle age—the years after 35—as the time of life when women can make the most of their experience, claim a public voice, and rise to positions of national influence. The image, in short, draws a connection between women’s aging and political empowerment. It is this connection that my current research seeks to explain.

As the inaugural Mellon-Schlesinger Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, I have been thinking about the broader significance of the woman suffrage movement in anticipation of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, in 2020. The Susan B. Anthony birthday souvenir reveals that suffragists, as they fought for the right not just to vote but also to be voted for, realized that many Americans’ negative attitudes toward older women would be a major barrier to electability. They could have celebrated Anthony’s birthday by looking back at an image of her as a girl or as a young woman in her 20s, but they chose a portrait of Anthony at 36 for a very specific reason: candidates for president must be over 35. In practice, Americans prefer to elect men much older than that. In 1900, no man under the age of 45 had ever been elected president. Most had been in their 50s, many in their 60s. If a woman was ever to be elected to the nation’s highest office, she would certainly be past her youth and most likely well into middle age. 

This was a problem for women in the 19th century. By age 30, unmarried women became “old maids.” By 45, married matrons reported intense pressure to fade into the background of their family circles. Those who stepped onto public platforms faced ridicule as unattractive and foolish busybodies. To counter such misogynistic attitudes toward older women, suffragists staged public birthdays for their prominent leaders, circulated dignified images of mature women, ran advice on aging in their newspapers, and theorized the ways in which older white men retained political power in part by sexualizing young girls and then denigrating older women. Yet most Americans, including most women, never bought into the idea that they should value female maturity as a qualification for leadership or recognize old women as charismatic and authoritative. This may be one of the reasons that women won the right to vote but still have not been elected to the highest office in the nation.

Today, as in 1900, if a woman is to be elected president, she will be over 35, and most likely in her 50s. For that to occur, we may need to try a strategy employed by woman suffragists long before they won the right to vote. Like those who took home Anthony’s birthday souvenir, we might celebrate wrinkles, spectacles, and gray hair, embracing female aging not as a loss of youth but as an opportunity for gaining political power.

Corinne T. Field is the 2018–2019 Mellon-Schlesinger Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and an associate professor in the Department of Women, Gender & Sexuality at the University of Virginia.

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