At Regions of Mind, Geitner Simmons has a post on the attitudes that people in the women’s suffrage movement had about immigrants and minorities:

The women’’s suffrage movement passed through a curious period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During that time, suffragists often criticized extending the franchise to immigrants and racial minorities.

It is ironic that a social movement associated with progressive thought would embrace such prejudice. Still, this isn’’t news. It’s long been understood, since at least the pioneering analyses by historian Richard Hofstadter in the 1950s, that racism was a powerful undercurrent in the Progressive movement in particular. …

The suffragists’’ turn toward elitism is explained well in Alexander Keyssar’’s well-conceived book ““The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States” (Basic Books, 2000). He writes:

“By the 1901, the aging Susan B. Anthony, a witness to a half century of struggle, concluded that one of the three ‘“great obstacles to the speedy enfranchisement of women’ was ‘“the inertia in the growth of democracy which has come as a reaction following the aggressive movements that with possibly ill-advised haste enfranchised the foreigner, the negro, and the Indian.’

Keyssar points to a cultural change in the suffragist movement several years later, as voices arose to challenge such thinking:

“The turning point for NAWSA [National American Woman Suffrage Association] came at its 1906 convention, at which child labor reformer Florence Kelley sharply attacked the movement’s class and ethnic prejudices. ‘“I have rarely heard a ringing suffrage speech which did not refer to the ‘‘ignorant and degraded’ men, or the ‘‘ignorant immigrants’ as our masters. This is habitually spoken with more or less bitterness. But this is what the workingmen are used to hear applied to themselves by their enemies in times of strike.’ ” …

The mixture of seemingly antithetical positions reminds me of a recent article on August Forel on the occassion of the centennial of the publication of his book, Die Sexueulle Frage. Forel has been celebrated, especially in his native Switzerland, as an advocate of sexual freedom and attacking the foundations of moral laws and regulations (including over same-sex marriage.) He said,

The state cannot forbid a person from exercising mastery over his own body without feigning the role of the advocate of G-d.

Erwin Haebele describes his position:

But which were these abominations that Forel wanted legalized? They were, first of all, the complete legal equality of the sexes and the formal recognition that female house work was just as valid as male work outside the house. In addition, he demanded the decriminalization of concubinage and all mutually consentual sexual relations among adults, including incest and all “perversions” as long as they did not violate the rigths of others. In the case of homosexuality, he even regretted that marriage between men was prohibited, since it would be “quite harmless to society”. Moreover, Forel demanded the free availability of all contraceptives, and he even wanted abortion to be allowed in cases of rape, danger to the mother’s health, mental illness and similar contingencies. It goes without saying that, at the beginning of our century, such a program, proposed by a renowned scientist, had the character of a provocation.

Despite his desire for openness, Forel was also a leading proponent of eugenics and forced sterilization “for the betterment of the race.” He approved of the euthanasia of deformed births and criticized the use of “the healthy” to fight wars.

Both examples show an odd entanglement with the Victorian mentality: revolt against its morality but its obsession with the health of race and nation. There is less of a break from the world of the nineteenth century than an attempt to resituate it more solidly within rational, scientific knowledge that could be just as exclusionary as what preceded it.

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