I was asked once on a radio show whether the arguments I was making against feminism wouldn’t also lead me to oppose women voting. I pointed out that though I personally favored giving women the vote, the case against female suffrage was a very respectable one, and was most visibly urged by women when female suffrage was an issue and not a fact. Nor is the issue of female suffrage quite as moot as it seems, for it taps into fundamental questions about the very nature of modernity.

The advocates of female suffrage in the 19th and early 20th centuries presented two main arguments. The first argument, and one still made by feminists, is that women have a collective interest that they must defend against men. This notion is extremely broad, lumping a large group of individuals together, and assumes that women’s and men’s interests exist in a Hobbesian opposition, when on the contrary, most men want what is best for women. A homemaker supported by a man who loses his job to reverse discrimination has been harmed in the name of women. A man’s second wife has no interest in his first wife collecting alimony. A woman raped or robbed by a fatherless child of the state is a victim of federal aid to single women. Even feminists have recently begun to acknowledge the diversity of women’s interests. As a recent article in Cosmopolitan, a bellwether of woman-on-the-street feminism, states, “The gravest error of feminist leaders is their insistence that what is fair and equal for some women is fair and equal for all.” It isn’t. Ongoing attempts to define “women’s interests” are so contradictory that, according to feminist Ann Snitow, “Willingly or not, activist lawyers find themselves pitted against each other.”

The second common argument for female suffrage was that women have a special moral sense, which will elevate politics. This idea has considerable currency at present, largely thanks to the ideas that Carol Gilligan, a Harvard feminist psychologist, presents in her book In a Different Voice (1982). According to Carol Gilligan, men are “moral absolutists” who see moral dilemmas in terms of predetermined, abstract notions of right and wrong. In contrast, women, she says, are “moral pragmatists” who try to reconcile conflict between individuals and therefore include different points of view in their own.

It is true that women have a particular moral sense, which has great virtues and complementary limitations. But it is not clear that this moral sense translates well into the public arena. On the contrary, one can argue that women’s distinctive moral sense arises from the circumstances of private life, to which alone it is adapted, and that it does not survive immersion in the public arena—even that it leads to negative behaviors there. Recent articles by feminists deploring women’s disgracefully petty and self-serving behavior in corporations—worse than men’s, it is said—provide prima facie evidence of this point. (See, for instance, “When Feminism Failed,” by Mary Anne Dolan, The New York Times Magazine, June 26, 1988.)

American women do vote slightly to the left of men on average, but this effect is minor, commonly on the order of five percentage points. This much-ballyhooed “gender gap” did nothing to prevent the landslide election of ERA-and abortion-foe Ronald Reagan against the near-perfect feminist ticket of Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro in 1984. It is, moreover, not necessarily a sign of superiority. The kind of short-term compassion idealized by Carol Gilligan, grounded in immediate feelings of sympathy, may be highly destructive when planning matters of state, as compared to more abstract approaches grounded in a longer view.

In short, the main arguments that were used to promote female suffrage are false.

A better claim is enjoyed by the argument from equity: that it’s only fair that women get the vote. The argument from equity is often associated with the claim that women’s self-images are poor, and will be improved by women feeling that they are “responsible members of society.” Aileen S. Kraditor, the noted feminist historian, admits at the end of her major work, The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement, that women’s suffrage conferred no practical benefits whatever. “The addition of women to the electorate,” she wrote, “has not significantly altered American voting patterns as the suffragists predicted it would.” But she nonetheless attributes “an enormous change” to the adoption of female suffrage: it did away with the suffragists’ “intense shame” at not having the vote and gave them “a new respect for themselves.” Kraditor’s rhetoric cannot help but remind one of Olive Chancellor, the extremely unattractive and extremely believable feminist character in Henry James’s The Bostonians, who tells her charge Verena Tarrant that she feels the absence of the vote “all the time, like a stain on one’s honour.” Verena, a far more typical, feminine woman, is totally indifferent to the vote and is in this regard probably more representative of the women of her time. Whether such women are more helped or hurt by sexual homogenization is a critical question, one that has by no means been answered in a convincing manner by the conventional wisdom.

Against the argument for equity, one can make the case that women are disadvantaged by a society that refuses to make gender distinctions. To the extent that this is true, respecting women means cultivating gender distinctions. Yet advocates of female suffrage (such as Olive Schreiner and Marguerite de Witt and many others) make very clear that the suffrage was only the opening wedge to the elimination of sex roles. In this regard, they manifested the equality/specialty split that is endemic to feminism: the suffrage was needed to eliminate social gender, but also to express women’s special (especially moral) qualities.

In the view of many anti-suffragists, female suffrage does not simply extend democratic sovereignty on the basis of equity; instead, it represents a fundamental change in the basis of political representation. Where universal manhood suffrage prevails, society is represented by families. Under the circumstances, a man of even the slightest sensibility will vote with a profound sense of the responsibility laid on him. Universal suffrage, however, changes the basis of political representation from the family to the individual. The voter now represents only himself and the family is opened to political intrusion.

Like the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970’s, female suffrage was actively opposed mostly by women. As the feminist Beatrice Forbes-Robertson Hale reported in 1914 of the American anti-suffrage groups, “The number of men in these organizations is apparently few.” It is curious that nobody asked women whether they wanted to be given the vote. There was ho referendum.

Beatrice Forbes-Robertson Hale (in What Women Want, 1914) goes on to give one of the most succinct definitions ever provided of “the average American male” in his attitudes toward feminism: “He, in truth, is today only inclined to oppose the ambitions of women when they may interfere with his business; otherwise he watches their activities with an indulgent smile. Having been trained to give them whatever they ask for, he sees little reason to refuse their demand for the vote. He is no longer anti-feminist, but merely indifferent.”

The ideal state makes gender distinctions, and the ideal society develops these into a rich matrix of human possibility. To the extent that it represents an assault on gender distinctions, it is by no means clear that female suffrage is a net benefit. Thomas Jefferson, the most socialistic of America’s Founding Fathers, explicitly opposed female suffrage: “Were our state a pure democracy, there would still be excluded from our deliberations women, who, to prevent deprivation of morals and ambiguity of issues, should not mix promiscuously in gatherings of men.”

It is possible that Jefferson’s rather limited reasons against female suffrage conceal a sound instinct, in the Hayekian sense that most of the essential structures of society’ remain beyond our ken. You can oppose Nature, but she will always have her revenge in the end. One of the earliest American antifeminist works, Horace Bushnell’s Women’s Suffrage: The Reform Against Nature (1869), argued that if female suffrage were to be adopted, it would signify the approaching end of the American experiment. People would then, Bushnell argued, be forced to cast about for new shores.