Theodore Roosevelt is in many ways an unlikely feminist hero. Throughout his life and career, he embodied and celebrated a rugged and decidedly masculine lifestyle: hunting on his ranch in North Dakota, charging San Juan Hill with the “Rough Riders” during the Spanish-American War , even organizing boxing matches in the White Loger. At the same time, however, Roosevelt expressed support for women’s rights at various points in his career, from his Harvard student years to his third presidential election in 1912, when he became the top candidate for the most high office in the country to officially endorse the vote. American women’s rights.
Roosevelt’s Harvard commencement address focused on equal rights
When the women’s rights movement was launched in Seneca Falls in 1848, a decade before Roosevelt was born, America’s founding promise of freedom from oppression clearly fell short of American women. Not only did they not have the right to vote, but married women had no legal status and no property rights. Husbands held complete legal power over their wives and could beat or abuse them without fear of repercussion. Unsurprisingly, divorce and custody laws have also favored men. Colleges and universities were closed to women, as were most fields of employment, especially high-level ones like medicine or law.
In 1880, when Roosevelt graduated from Harvard University, some progress was made. New York, among other states, had passed legislation giving married women some control over their property. In 1900 every state would have such laws on the books. And American courts had finally begun to rule against men who beat their wives, beginning with landmark decisions in Alabama and Massachusetts in 1871.
Roosevelt laid out his own relatively progressive view of property rights and marriage in an excerpt from his graduation thesis, titled “Practicality of Giving Men and Women Equal Rights,” which he read at the graduation ceremony. opening of Harvard in 1880. “A man should have no more claim in the person or property of his wife than she has in the person or property of her husband,” Roosevelt said. “I would like the word ‘obey’ not to be used more by the wife than by the husband.” He even argued that wives shouldn’t be forced to take their husband’s surname after marriage, although his future wife, Alice Hathaway Lee, would change her name to Alice Lee Roosevelt when they later married. this year.
More rights for women in New York
Elected to the New York State Legislature in 1882, Roosevelt introduced a bill mandating corporal punishment for men who beat their wives. Although the press ran satirical cartoons about his position, Roosevelt stuck to his guns, confessing that after reading about men’s cruelty to their wives, “I felt very angry and couldn’t prevent me from saying what I did”.
In the 1890s, as New York City Police Commissioner, he expanded the role of women in the New York City Police Department and ensured that penalties for disorderly conduct were applied to both men and women. women, rather than just punishing them.
In 1899, when Roosevelt was inaugurated as Governor of New York, it had been 12 years since the First Amendment on women’s suffrage had been introduced in Congress, without success. Many suffragists had focused on getting the vote for women at the state level, with Wyoming and other western states leading the way. Roosevelt, a proponent of this state-by-state approach, expressed support for women’s suffrage in his inaugural message, but briefly, and only in the context of school votes.
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As president, a focus on family
Although suffragists hoped to win Roosevelt’s support when he became president, he remained elusive on the issue in the White House (1901-09). He refused to take an official position on the matter, writing to Rose Smith Lee Saltonstall in 1907 that he had no time to properly state his position on women’s suffrage. “I don’t want to be dragged into a controversy like this over matters unrelated to my current duties,” he added.
President Roosevelt often spoke of the importance of traditional families and the centrality of a woman’s role as a mother, preferably to multiple children. For him, the question of whether she could vote or not was much less important. “Personally, I believe in women’s suffrage, but I am not an enthusiastic supporter of it as I do not regard it as a very important matter,” he wrote in a letter to Lyman Abbott in 1908.
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Bull Moose Party support for women’s suffrage
When Roosevelt decided not to seek a third term, he chose his close friend William Howard Taft as his successor, but was bitterly disappointed with Taft’s performance in the White House, prompting him to reconsider leaving. . When mainstream Republicans rejected Roosevelt’s presidential bid in favor of Taft in 1912, Roosevelt and his supporters left to form a new party: the Progressives, also known as the “Bull Moose” party.
As a third-party candidate with no established base of support, Roosevelt needed to attract as many voters as possible, including women, in states where they already had the right to vote. The Progressives were far more welcoming of women than either of the major parties: when they met in Chicago in early August 1912 for their convention, reformer and suffragist leader Jane Addams was one of the two people chosen to second Roosevelt’s nomination. Later that month, during a campaign speech in Vermont, Roosevelt formalized the party’s position by declaring, “We recognize that…there should be equal rights between men and women. , and so we are for equal suffrage for men and women. ”
Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the 1912 election, but the opening of the Bull Moose party to women proved a crucial stepping stone on the road to suffrage. The progressive-led Illinois state legislature granted women the right to vote in 1913, becoming the first state east of the Mississippi River to do so.
Roosevelt continued to embrace the cause of women’s suffrage nationally, advocating on behalf of the proposed suffrage amendment years before Wilson, Congress, and most other prominent politicians joined them. In May 1913, he appeared at an event organized by 10 suffrage organizations at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, seated next to Anna Howard Shaw, then president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), and delivering a one hour speech. in support of the cause.
When women in Roosevelt’s home state of New York finally won the right to vote in late 1917, he congratulated them and encouraged them to fulfill their patriotic duty during World War I. When the war ended, President Wilson would finally voice his support for women’s suffrage. amendment, which Congress passed in June 1919, five months after Roosevelt’s death.
While Theodore Roosevelt’s views on suffrage—particularly in his post-presidential years—were advanced for the time, they were tempered by his strictly traditional view of the importance of a woman’s role and family duties, and therefore did not spur him into vigorous action like many of his other core beliefs had. Writing to Florence Schloss Guggenheim in 1916, he made this clear: “If I believed that the average woman would not do her duty as wife and mother better and no less well and would not recognize that these duties at home should normally remain primary duties, whether or not women have the right to vote, I would not believe in giving them votes.”