John Hertwig’s 1883 Arguments Against Women’s Suffrage: Why They Still Matter in 2020

Hertwig, John George. Woman Suffrage Pamphlet. Washington, D.C: Eckler, printer], 1883. Digital surrogate available on Gale Cenage Learning (license required)|AYOQLV128351566&v=2.1&it=r&sid=NCCO&asid=74a2c182

Woman Suffrage: Equal Rights to All in All Matters of Public Concern is a title that might have had you thinking seriously about letting American women vote, if you were debating the issue of suffrage in 1883. Strangely enough, this article is in heavy opposition to women’s suffrage. The author John Hertwig, cited in the pamphlet as authoring other political essays, is not terribly relevant to the following piece or otherwise. His thoughts on suffrage, representative of accepted claims in the late 19th century or not, are backwards and sexist. What he does offer in his essay are some condemning and accurate predictions for the position of women in a world where they have suffrage. Utilizing some of Hertwig’s core arguments in his pamphlet, I will explore these predictions and the relevance of the claims that Hertwig made to modern society, almost a century after discriminatory voting practices were amended in the Constitution.

Let’s dissect Herwig’s argument in “Woman Suffrage.” He was adamantly in support of a social atmosphere in which men and women have “equal rights”. This idea of equal rights, however, does not involve women being granted the right to vote. The matter lies within the ideology of public and private spheres. Hertwig takes a long time distinguishing between these two spheres and describing how the Constitution specifically designates men as the sole actors in the “public” sphere. This distinction between the sexes, he states, is the “natural law”:

“All civilization is based upon the two distinct and separate institutions of State and family… In this country, the men serve the State by voting for and holding the public elective offices, while women serve the family by attending to the household affairs. Thus the serving, that is really necessary and must be done in this country, is equally divided between the two sexes, and in this respect the principle of equal rights to all in all matters of public concern ­– family beingby law a matter of public concern, –  is fully heeded, without woman suffrage” (6-7).

The separate spheres doctrine that Hertwig writes about is a prominent concept, especially under a market economy, where income is earned outside of the home. Women, thought to be naturally suited to the “private sphere,” were tied to domestic duties, with few income-generating occupations available; their work was unpaid and unregulated. Men claimed the regulated realm of the “public sphere,” which included government and business (Kuersten 16-17). Hertwig credited women with maintaining the private, domestic sphere and he acted as if this separation of spheres provided equality in society. He saw woman suffrage as a disruption to that balance.

Hertwig wrote that:

If Congress “should vote woman suffrage as the privilege and impliedly the duty of married and unmarried women to vote for and hold public elective offices, they would virtually violate the principle of equal duties to all, in all matters of public concern. They, by doing so, would attempt to burden the women of this country with the duty of serving both the State and family, while the men, by natural law, can serve only the State and not the family” (9).

This quote is comical to read through a modern-day lens, and while it is absurd to see a statement that excludes men from all domestic responsibilities, Hertwig’s remark about women being burdened with responsibilities in both public and private domains throws light on some pretty similar dilemmas now, in 2020. Women are increasing their presence in the full-time workplace beyond the civil servant positions that Hertwig described, and they are returning home to carry out most of the domestic chores and child-rearing. “The Second Shift”, written in 1989, was coined by Arlie Hochschild in a research study she conducted and contrived in a book on how couples divide domestic work— she says in an interview, “What I was finding is that women were going home to husbands who said ‘Sweetheart, love to have you working so long as you can do most of the housework and raising the children’. And when they went out to jobs where the boss was saying ‘Susie, love to have you here so long as you’re here at 8:00 on the dot and leave [at] 6.’” She found a major discrepancy in the distribution of domestic labor. A review of Hochschild’s book in The New York Times describes what Hochschild called a “stalled revolution” that opened up employment for women in the public sector—the first shift—but failed to make any changes to the domestic work that women were expected to carry out as if they were not working a day job—the second shift. Furthermore, the author Robert Kuttner says, “In most marriages, the woman’s paid work is still considered a mere job, in contrast to the man’s career. Thus the woman’s first shift–her employment–is likely to be devalued, thereby rationalizing her continuing responsibility for the second shift.” Another study from 2017 reports that it will be at least 75 years before global domestic labor is divided equally between cisgender heterosexual couples. Hertwig was obviously not part of any feminist movement, but his proclamations that suffrage will not inherently bring equality is an interesting take for the anti-suffrage perspective.

Another piece of Hertwig’s essay that I would like to mention in the wake the of the 2020 presidential primary is this:

“The woman suffragists demanding the privilege of women to vote for and hold public offices of every kind, mean only civil offices. Yet if a woman, married or unmarried, could and should be elected President of the United States, she, as such, according to the Constitution, would also be Commander-in-Chief of the army and navy of this country…Would she be able properly to fulfill these, her military duties, particularly in case or time of war?” (9).

With news of Elizabeth Warren (the last woman-identifying candidate running for the 2020 election) suspending her campaign, this quote rings loudly in my ears. The idea of a woman as president has been vehemently opposed (or not even considered) since the inception of the United States as a republic, and that is evident in Hertwig’s not-so-subtle skepticism about the ability of women to lead, especially when it comes to “masculine” duties. The incompetence associated with women in politics is an ongoing barrier, as we have seen with Warren and other women candidates. The Atlantic recently published an article called “America Punished Elizabeth Warren for Her Competence,” which discussed the struggle for women in positions of power and noted “women candidates are punished, still, for public displays of ambition” (Garber 2020). It is a dismal feeling to think that sentiments towards a woman as president now in the 2020 election, 137 years after John George Hertwig, are so reminiscent of what they were before women even had the legal right to run.

Progress is a slow train. Reading 19th century essays like Hertwig’s that were blatant in their sexism and misogyny can be enlightening for our deep analysis into 21st century injustices, which are subtler in appearance but just as oppressive.

Works Cited

Garber, Megan. “America Punished Elizabeth Warren for Her Competence.” The Atlantic, 5 March 2020, Accessed 9 March 2020.

Hertwig, John G. “Woman Suffrage.” Gale Primary Sources: Nineteenth Century Collections Online, 1883,|AYOQLV128351566&v=2.1&it=r&sid=NCCO&asid=74a2c182 Accessed 9 March 2020.

Kuersten, Ashlyn K. “Women and the Law: Leaders, Cases, and Documents.” ABC-CLIO Inc, 2003,

Kuttner, Robert. “She Minds the Child, He Minds the Dog.” The New York Times, 25 July 1989, Accessed 9 March 2020.

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