Guest Post: Brittany Chapman on Ruth May Fox, Mormon Women, and Political Rights

By July 25, 2013

[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.?[1]

RMF_MiddleAgeSuffrageKCI?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).

Votes for WomenWoman 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,?[2] content in their position as the ?political slaves of men.?[3]  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.[4]

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.[5]

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.?[6] 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.

Anthony3Ruth 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.? [7] 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.[8]

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.

[1] My Story, p. 24

[2] Ruth May Fox, ?Lecture on Suffrage,? Woman?s Exponent 24 (August 15, 1895), 42.

[3] 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.

[4] Fox, ?Lecture on Suffrage,? 42.

[5] Ruth May Fox, ?Who then art Thou,? Young Woman?s Journal 23 (November 1912): 621.

[6] Ruth May Fox, ?Woman,? Young Woman?s Journal 32 (June 1921): 335-36.

[7] ?Convention and Woman Suffrage,? Woman?s Exponent 23 (April 1, 1895): 241.

[8] James Weir Jr., ?The Effect of Female Suffrage on Posterity? American Naturalist,  vol. 29 (1895): 822-25.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Fascinating post, Brittany! I would love to see more stories like Ruth May Fox’s used in Mormon culture and dialogue.

    Comment by J Stuart — July 25, 2013 @ 9:40 am

  2. Thanks! As a “tack on,” I don’t want to forget to acknowledge the visionary work of many second-wave feminists in the 1960s. We owe much to them as well.Just have to throw that in there! Oh, and the full citation for note number 1 is from Ruth May Fox’s personal autobiography, ?My Story,? 1953, just FYI.

    Comment by Brittany — July 25, 2013 @ 9:58 am

  3. Interesting… especially the section on Cooper. Were there any influential Mormon women who opposed suffrage?

    Comment by Amanda HK — July 25, 2013 @ 10:00 am

  4. This is great, Brittany! I love how you placed Ruth May Fox and the larger Mormon campaign for suffrage within the larger conversation about if women should have suffrage at all. I wonder if suffrage is celebrated as one of our “greatest achievements” because as you state it is completely unthinkable now in our country to challenge a woman’s voice at the ballot box? I also like your treatment of Susan Fenimore Cooper as a multifaceted person. So many times, the work of antisuffragists are dismissed because they were ultimately unsuccessful in the long run. However, as we all know, their work was just as interesting and valuable within the historical record. Thanks!

    Comment by Natalie R — July 25, 2013 @ 10:09 am

  5. This is a great post, Brittany. Thanks.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — July 25, 2013 @ 3:37 pm

  6. You’re awesome, Brittany! I know there has been some work done on anti-suffrage women, but I suspect it’s a largely unplowed field. I’m not aware of any LDS anti-suffragists, but then it was the pro-suffrage women who edited and were published in the periodicals, so I’m not sure where we would go to find anti-suffrage LDS women.

    Comment by LisaT — July 25, 2013 @ 3:44 pm

  7. Very interesting Brittany. Maybe we are all still struggling a bit to identify with and carry out our God given roles…I love your clarity in identifying issues that are still in flux today.

    Comment by DMC — July 25, 2013 @ 5:05 pm

  8. Great piece, Brittany! Thanks for the contribution! I can’t help, however, sensing the irony of these wonderful, suffrage-championing Mormon women simultaneously campaigning for the right to practice polygamy (since, from my recollections, they seemed equally active in both causes). I’d love to know whether you have come across statements by these women that indicate how they reconciled their belief in women’s equality to men with a practice that seemed to embody the contrary. Thanks!

    Comment by Rachael — July 25, 2013 @ 5:08 pm

  9. Wonderful, Brittany. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — July 25, 2013 @ 6:32 pm

  10. “I?m not sure where we would go to find anti-suffrage LDS women”

    I can’t think of any, either, off the top of my head. It seems that if the women were self-aware enough to leave a written record, they were probably self-aware enough to support suffrage. But if they did exist, perhaps they could be found by looking at the anti-suffrage men and then looking at the women in their circles. (Anyone familiar with the political views of the women in B.H. Roberts’s families, for example, or any claims he made about their political views?)

    Comment by Amy T — July 25, 2013 @ 8:28 pm

  11. Good work BC.

    I think Cooper is a fantastic example to remind us that just espousing one element (equal pay) does not automatically mean one will espouse all elements (suffrage) and that perhaps Cooper didn’t see a contradiction in her choices. The women in the east campaigning for Utah women’s suffrage assumed that Mormon women would vote down polygamy if given the opportunity, yet they didn’t. I think the focus on women’s agency allows us to better understand them as whole people, rather than just objects pulled by the value judgments of others.

    Comment by jjohnson — July 26, 2013 @ 5:52 am

  12. Thanks for this, Brittany! Well-written and fascinating. I would also echo Rachael’s comment on the irony of Ruth’s support for women’s political equality, while she also accepted various incarnations of private, religious patriarchy. As you and I have discussed on a few other occasions, Ruth’s seemingly uncomplicated deference to her husband as absolute ruler and authority in the home seems to fly in the face of such public statements of women “assert(ing) their independence” and freeing themselves from “shackles.” Then, just as today, I am fascinated by Mormon women’s abilities to assert both liberating claims to public citizenship, while also strongly defending a notion of complimentary, and often submissive roles– rhetorically and theologically, even if not not in practice for many– in the home. Perhaps we can use Ruth as a model for trying to get our heads around this one, great contradiction. Well done.

    Comment by Andrea R-M — July 26, 2013 @ 11:13 am

  13. Thanks Brittany, this is excellent.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 26, 2013 @ 8:03 pm

  14. Thank you for the insightful, provocative comments, all. Amanda HK, I have not yet found any leading Mormon women who opposed suffrage–most appear to have, in fact, led the cause. Suffrage almost took on a religious nature, as Relief Societies were used as a vehicle to promote the vote. Natalie–great observation. The soundness of their success lives on. It would be fascinating to know more about the antisuffrage side of the story, wouldn’t it? I agree, Lisa, antisuffragism is an unplowed field and it would be especially fascinating to research in Utah specifically. I have a vague recollection of there being an antisuffrage periodical (maybe dovetailing with an anti-polygamy publication?). Andrea and Rachael–you have touched on the mysterious paradox that I have not been able to wrap my head around, let alone articulate. From what I’ve read, I don’t believe they saw a fierce sense of independence as competing with a reverence/submission to male *priesthood* authority. Their deference seems to be directed more to priesthood power than to a simple male factor, I believe. Ruth certainly believed that some men were worthy of respect and others were undeserving, so it was not a blanket “maleness” that she submitted to, and I assume it was the same for others. Janiece–love the insight about the (non)opposing views of women’s rights at the time. Amy, you give us a good train of thought to pursue. Thanks again for the awesome words, everyone! There is much yet to research and discover!

    Comment by Brittany — July 28, 2013 @ 8:14 pm

  15. Really fantastic post Brittany! I especially loved the queries at the end. For me, history isn’t just recovering dust from the ruins of the past but also sifting it for lessons about the present and our future. It is very personal and meaningful and your queries bring that sharply into focus. BRILLIANT!

    Comment by Connell O'Donovan — July 29, 2013 @ 12:18 pm


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