Idaho History

The suffrage battle was won in Idaho before it was in much of the U.S.

Elihu Root thought giving women the right to vote would make them ‘repulsive.’”
Elihu Root thought giving women the right to vote would make them ‘repulsive.’” Idaho State Historical Society

“I am opposed to the granting of suffrage to women. Suffrage is not a natural right, but is simply a means of government, and the sole question to be discussed is whether government by the suffrage of men and women will be better government than by the suffrage of men alone.”

These are the words of Elihu Root, former U.S. secretary of war and secretary of state, who has been described as a “brilliant lawyer.” After World War I he helped develop the Permanent Court of International Justice at The Hague.

Root continued with his reasons for not giving the vote to women:

“It is not that woman is inferior to man, but that woman is different from man. Woman rules today by the sweet and noble influences of her character. Put woman into the arena of conflict and she abandons those great weapons which control the world. Woman in strife becomes hard, harsh, unlovable and repulsive; as far removed from the gentle creature to whom we all owe allegiance and to whom we confess submission, as the heaven is removed from the earth.”

What would Root think if he knew that a century later there would be five energetic and intelligent female candidates for president of the United States, none of whom could be described as “unlovable” and certainly not “repulsive.”

The battle to give American women the vote had been going on for 60 years before the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed on Aug. 26, 1920.

Idahoans take pride in the fact that women in this state have been able to vote since 1896. Wyoming was first, its admission to the union in 1890 giving women political equality. Colorado followed in 1893, and Utah and Idaho in 1896. Western women benefited from a tradition of respect and admiration for their role in opening the “Wild West” to settlement and civilization, and they got the vote years before their sisters elsewhere. It was 1910 in Washington, 1911 in California, and 1912 in Oregon, Arizona and Kansas. All those states came before New York, which did not do so until 1917.

In his 1897 inaugural address, Gov. Frank Steunenberg said: “By a vote as flattering as it was just, the electors of the state at the last election conferred the privilege of the ballot upon woman. I take this opportunity of welcoming them to the ranks of voters and feel sure that in their new capacity they will continue to exert the same influence that has characterized the sex since creation’s dawn.”

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@gmail.com.

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