Defending Separate Spheres: Anti-Suffrage Women in South Dakota Suffrage Campaigns

10 October 2019

In 1890, as woman suffrage advocates in the new state of South Dakota prepared for a vote on the issue, a small journal called the Remonstrance arrived from the East. It was a harbinger of a deep national conflict over the roles of women that the campaign for woman suffrage would ignite. This edition of the Remonstrance—subtitled “Special South Dakota Edition”—presented several arguments against votes for women and urged voters in the state to wait to see if the right to vote on school issues, which had been granted in its recently adopted constitution, brought women to the polls. A loosely organized anti-suffrage group from Massachusetts produced the Remonstrance. Their interest in South Dakota stemmed from their desire to curtail the spread of votes for women in western states, where it had been most popular.

As the suffrage campaign nationally and in South Dakota grew stronger and more systematic, the “Antis,” as they came to be called, strove to follow suit without adopting campaign tactics that they deemed unladylike. By the 1910s, suffrage advocates lectured from cars, stood on soapboxes on corners, marched and sang in the streets, and disrupted the decorous lectures of Antis in halls around South Dakota. The Antis’ restraint in many ways allowed suffragists to win the day.

What did Antis believe? Why did they resist political participation for women? The cultural ideals motivating Antis in South Dakota and elsewhere had at their foundation the concept of innate difference between men and women. Men were public actors, political representatives, defenders, and providers for their families. Women were the hearts of the home; they bore and cared for the children, nursed the sick, helped the elderly and the poor, and created community organizations such as churches and ladies’ groups. They also built and maintained the nongovernmental voluntary associations that they considered the foundation of a successful culture. Antis believed that women were already equal. Their roles and duties were different from men’s but just as valuable. By maintaining a nonpolitical and nonpartisan role, women’s groups could work with benefactors and humanitarians of all political affiliations and not succumb to partisan rancor. One vote, the Antis argued, did not do much. United female voices, on the other hand, had great influence.

In my essay in Equality at the Ballot Box, “Defending Separate Spheres: Anti-Suffrage Women in South Dakota Suffrage Campaigns,” readers will meet national Anti-suffrage speakers, ardent South Dakota suffragists, and the state’s few organized Antis. The fight for and against suffrage was long and heated, ranging over twenty-eight years and six grueling campaigns before suffrage won the day. World War I and state legislative innovation aided suffrage success. In 1918, South Dakotans voted to grant suffrage via citizenship, not sex. As a result, alien men, of which there were many thousands, lost their right to vote on first papers, which declared their intentions to become citizens. Antis, meanwhile, lost their battle for the culture. Their leaders nonetheless urged women to go to the polls. Their commitment to duty likely led them to do so.

Paula M. Nelson


The full version of this essay appears in Equality at the Ballot Box: Votes for Women on the Northern Great Plains edited by Lori Ann Lahlum and Molly P. Rozum. Paula M. Nelson is professor emeritus in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. She is the author of After the West Was Won and The Prairie Winnows Out Its Own, books about West River South Dakota; the editor of Sunshine Always, courtship letters from Dakota Territory; and co-editor of The Plains Political Tradition, vol. 3, essays on the political culture of South Dakota.

Image at top is the first page of the “Special South Dakota Edition” of the Remonstrance. South Dakota State Historical Society