Skip to main content
Archival photo of women suffragettes

Archival photo of women suffragettes

Right To Vote Didn't Lead To Gender Equality

As America gears up for next year's 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, we look at how the fight for gender equality has evolved since then.

Nancy Unger, professor and chair of history at Santa Clara University, believes that the study of history is not only fun, but a vital and powerful tool in solving today’s problems. Unger teaches a number of courses, including U.S. Women’s History, Gay Men and Lesbians in American History, and the U.S. Progressive Era (1890-1920). As America gears up for next year’s centennial anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave U.S. women the right to vote, we talked to her about how the fight for gender equality has evolved in the last 100 years.

U.S. Women’s History is a broad topic for one course. Where do you start, and what key issues are you trying to address?

It’s not a “great women in history” class, or “the token role of women in history.” I used to call it “social history,” but students didn’t understand what that meant. We start with pre-Columbus Native American women and go all the way through to the present. We are looking at the roles of gender and sex. Where are men and women different, are those differences due to sex or gender? We focus specifically on gender—those differences that are culturally acquired. How do people come to believe that women are “naturally” more nurturing or emotional, for example. And once something is believed, does it become a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Two camps of women fought for the 19th Amendment: those who wanted the vote to be based on equality with men, and an even larger number who argued on the basis of their roles as moral uplifters of society. You’ve said that “uneasy combination” led to a debate over women’s “natural” roles in society and hindered their rights activism ever since. Can you elaborate?

I don’t mean to blame the victim (of discrimination), but a contributing factor is that when women were campaigning for the vote, there were those women who said, “Of course we should have the vote, because we are equal beings. That’s all there is to it.”

But other women were focused on making an argument that was more persuasive for the times. They said, “No, we are not demanding equality with men; we don’t want to compete with men. We just want to be good wives and mothers. But we cannot do that without the vote because we need the vote to help enact federal food and drug laws, and we need the vote for workplace safety, because women are the ones who are more moral and uplifting force in society.”

I ask my students all the time: Was the latter argument how women won the vote? I think in some ways it was, and women paid a high price for it. But what if they had said, “Not until we base this on equality with men”? God knows when we would have gotten the vote.

You have said the fate of the 19th Amendment hinged on America’s entrance into World War I. How so?  

President Woodrow Wilson until then was not interested in women’s suffrage. He believed it was an issue best left to the states. After his re-election in 1916, women began picketing in front of the White House to demand his support. Once the U.S. entered the war in April 1917, he was aware that the war was not popular with Americans, even though he was trying to sell it as an altruistic ideal—that it would make the world safe for democracy.

He tried to make it a “moral” war, arguing that we needed to both win the war and win the subsequent peace in order to make this “the war to end all wars.” If he could get women to support the war, it would give their moral stamp of approval to his war efforts and peace plans. As more women played an expanded role in the war effort at home, Wilson began pushing Congress in 1918 to endorse women’s suffrage. He specifically says, "I want you to pass the women’s vote as a war measure."

And that legacy has stayed with us—that women deserved the vote primarily because women are wives and mothers and naturally the moral uplifters. Congress passed the 19th Amendment in June 1919 and ratified it in Auguest 1920. But it was not like women get the vote in 1920 and all of a sudden it’s an egalitarian society.

How did this tension set the tone for subsequent battles in women’s rights like sexual harrassment?

I generally avoid “What ifs?” in history because, obviously, no one knows! But it does seem to me that women conceded a lot when they didn’t campaign for the vote on the basis of equality.  When women claimed as a voting credential to be inherently more domestic than men, I think this left them open for a lot of unequal treatment as more subservient beings for years.

I remember thinking the Anita Hill hearings would be the turning point (for sexual harassment). And what was so striking to me at the time was how many men said, “Why didn’t she report (the allegations of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas) when it happened?”  And how many women said, “For the same reason I didn’t report it when it happened to me.”

Unfortunately, it often takes white people of some power to say something before it gets recognized and taken seriously.

The U.S. Women’s History class fulfills a diversity course requirement at Santa Clara. Does it surprise you that male students make up a quarter of the class?

I like that men take my classes, and it’s been pretty much a constant that they make up about 25 percent of the class. I think some male students are interested and curious and willing to take it seriously. Last fall quarter, there was a group of young men in my class who had graduated from Bellarmine College Prep. Near the end of the quarter, they told me they frequently talked among themselves after class. A bit to their surprise, they found themselves agreeing with a number of assertions concerning how and why gender discrepancies are created and perpetuated. They were really interested and asking good questions; there was no chip on their shoulders. I think there is often an expectation if you’re taking a women’s history course that it’s about male-bashing, but it’s not. It’s one of those myths that frustrates me.

Many students tell you how much this course changed their life. What’s behind that?  

Usually it’s when they’ve discovered that something that they thought was a personal problem is the result not of their own weakness, but of much larger cultural and political pressures. For example, many young women on college campuses are ashamed that they are obsessed with their appearance, until we trace the societal pressures that essentially demand they be that way. I tell them that if you want a better future, you need to understand the past. I tell them that to solve problems, you need to know how those problems were created.

So many things that we used to think were based on sex, rather than gender, are wrong. For example, if you truly believe women are inherently less intelligent than men and cannot comprehend advanced math, and you don’t train them, then they score poorly on math tests, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In my class, we ask, “Where do these ideas come from, and how do they get inculcated? How can they be remedied?”

More women have been elected to the U.S. Congress than ever before, and a record number are running for U.S. President. Other democracies around the world have elected women to lead their countries. Why are Americans still dragging their feet on this issue?

I’m not sure.  But I do think we’re still dogged by the legacy of the prescribed gender spheres that were so dominant in this country for centuries. Of course, those spheres were dominant in other countries as well. Moreover, people have increasingly been challenging them aggressively in this society ever since the women’s liberation movement really took off in the 1960s and 1970s. I have hope that this new generation of women in politics will finally be able to break the glass ceiling of top leadership, not only in politics, but in business as well. The momentum is encouraging.


Faculty, Students, Leadership, Global, Jobs, Diversity, Social Justice, CAS
Illuminate, activism, multi-generational, relationships, women

More articles by this author

    Follow us on Instagram
    Follow us on Flickr
    Follow us on Linkedin
    Follow us on Vimeo
    Follow us on Youtube