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Elihu Root vs. William Jennings Bryan on Women’s Suffrage, 1894–1914

Use this primary source text to explore key historical events.

Suggested Sequencing


During the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, suffragists pressed for the United States to follow through on the assertions expressed in the Declaration of Independence (“that all men are created equal”) and then in the 1848 Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions (“that all men and women are created equal”). By 1900, women had achieved suffrage in only six states or territories. In the next two decades, as progressivism gained momentum, women struggled to increase social, economic, and educational opportunities. The debate over women’s suffrage continued, however, as supporters advocated the principles of equality and government by consent and opponents sought to protect the traditional gender-determined spheres of activity and what they believed was the divine right and responsibility of men to protect women.

Elihu Root was a New York attorney who represented major corporations and prominent individuals in New York politics. He initially delivered the address excerpted before the New York Constitutional Convention of 1894. In 1909, as a U.S. senator, he reiterated these same arguments before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the proposed suffrage amendment.

William Jennings Bryan was an active member of the Democratic Party throughout his life. He ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. presidency in 1896, 1900, and 1908. Bryan was a highly sought-after orator who favored several progressive reforms, including a graduated income tax, the regulation of child labor, world peace, and women’s suffrage. Furthermore, Bryan argued that religion was the foundation of morality, and a commitment to morality was necessary for equality and peace. Bryan is also known for his efforts to end the teaching of evolution in public schools, especially his role in the prosecution of Tennessee science teacher John Scopes in 1925. In 1914, as Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state, Bryan wrote a handbill on the subject of women’s suffrage.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Who were the authors of these two documents?
  2. Briefly summarize the major arguments used by those who supported and those who opposed women’s suffrage.

Source A: Elihu Root: “Address Before the New York Constitutional Convention, 1894”

Vocabulary Text
I am opposed to the granting of suffrage to women, because I believe that it would be a loss to women . . . and because I believe it would be an injury to the State. . . . It would be useless to argue this if the right of suffrage were a natural right. If it were a natural right, then women should have it through the heavens [if at all]. . . .
expediency (n): quality of being convenient and practical But if there be any one thing settled in the long discussion of this subject, it is that 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. The question is, therefore, a question of expediency, and the question of expediency upon this subject is not a question of tyranny . . . but a question of liberty, a question of the preservation of free constitutional government, of law, order, peace and prosperity.
Into my judgment, sir, there enters no element of the inferiority of woman. There could not, sir, for I rejoice in the tradition and in the memory and the possession of a home where woman reigns with acknowledged superiority in all the nobler, and the higher attributes that by common, by universal, consent, determine rank among the highest of the children of God. No, sir. It is not that woman is inferior to man, but it is that woman is different from man; that in the distribution of powers, of capacities, of qualities, our Maker has created man adapted to the performance of certain functions in the economy of nature and society, and women adapted to the performance of other functions. One question to be determined in the discussion of this subject is whether the nature of woman is such that her taking upon her the performance of the functions implied in suffrage will leave her in the possession and the exercise of her highest powers or will be an abandonment of those powers and on entering upon a field in which, because of her differences from man, she is distinctly inferior. . . .
I think [suffrage would be a loss for women] because suffrage implies not merely the casting of the ballot, the gentle and peaceful fall of the snow-flake, but suffrage, if it means anything, means entering upon the field of political life, and politics is modified war. In politics there is struggle, strife, contention, . . . agitation, everything which is adverse to the true character of woman. Woman rules to-day by the sweet and noble influences of her character. Put woman into the arena of conflict and she abandons these great weapons which control the world, and she takes into her hands, feeble and nerveless for strife, weapons with which she is unfamiliar and which she is unable to wield. Woman in strife becomes hard, harsh, unlovable, repulsive. . . . Government . . . is protection. . . .
Mr. President, in the divine distribution of powers, the duty and the right of protection rests with the male. It is so throughout nature. It is so with men, and I, for one, will never consent to part with the divine right of protecting my wife, my daughter, the women whom I love and the women whom I respect, exercising the birthright of man, and place that high duty in the weak and nerveless hands of those designed by God to be protected rather than to engage in the stern warfare of government.
In my judgment, sir, this whole movement arises from a false conception of the duty and of the right of men and women both. . . . Mr. President, the time will never come when this line of demarcation between the functions of the two sexes will be broken down. I believe it to be false philosophy; I believe that it is an attempt to turn backward upon the line of social development, and that if the step ever be taken, we go centuries backward on the march towards a higher, a nobler and a purer civilization, which must be found not in the confusion, but in the higher differentiation of the sexes. . . . Mr. President, I hope that this Convention will discharge the duty of determining who shall vote; discharge it with manliness and decision of character, which, after all, the women of America, God bless them, admire and respect more than anything else on this earth.


Source B: William Jennings Bryan, Two-Sided Handbill: Secretary of State for Woman Suffrage, 1914

Vocabulary Text
Mr. Bryan’s statement is as follows:
The voters of Nebraska will, at the election next November [1914], adopt or reject a proposed amendment extending suffrage to women on equal terms with men. . . . I shall support the amendment. I shall ask no political rights for myself that I am not willing to grant my wife.
As man and woman are co-tenants of the earth and must work out their destiny together, the presumption is on the side of equality of treatment in all that pertains to their joint life and its opportunities. The burden of proof is on those who claim for one an advantage over the other in determining the conditions under which both shall live. . . .
The first objection which I remember to have heard was that as woman cannot bear arms she should not have a voice in deciding questions that might lead to war, or in enacting laws that might require an army for their enforcement. . . . And as we look back over the past we may well wonder whether the peace movement would not have grown more rapidly than it has had woman, who suffers more than man from the results of war, been consulted before hostilities began.
Second, it is urged by some that woman’s life is already full of care, and that the addition of suffrage would either overburden her or turn her attention away from the duties of the home. . . . Surely the home will not suffer if the mother, “the child’s first teacher,” is able to intelligently discuss with her family the science of government and the art of successfully administering it.
Third, Many well-meaning men and women affirm that suffrage would work a harm to women by lessening the respect in which she is held. This argument would have more weight had it not been employed against every proposition advanced in favor of the enlargement of woman’s sphere. This objection was once raised to the higher education of women, but it is no longer heard. The same objection was offered each time the door has opened and woman, instead of suffering degradation, has risen. Third
Politics will not suffer by woman’s entrance into it. If the political world has grown more pure in spite of the evil influences that have operated to debase it, it will not be polluted by the presence and participation of woman. Neither should we doubt that woman can be trusted with the ballot. She has proved herself equal to every responsibility imposed upon her; she will not fail society in this emergency. Let her vote!

Comprehension Questions

  1. According to Root, what would be necessary if suffrage were a natural right?
  2. According to Root, what was the important question to be determined regarding women’s suffrage? What did he imply would be at risk if we got the answer to that question wrong?
  3. How did Root support his claim that he did not consider women to be inferior to men?
  4. What weapons did Root maintain that woman is unable to wield?
  5. On what principles did Root base his opposition to votes for women? How did Root support his contention that “the duty and the right of protection rests with the male.”
  6. According to Root, what false philosophy was the foundation of the women’s suffrage movement, and what would be the result if women were to win suffrage?
  7. According to Root, what was it that women of America “admire and respect more than anything else on earth”?
  8. On what principle did Bryan base his support of woman suffrage?
  9. What three objections did Bryan say were often raised against woman suffrage, and how did he refute them?

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. Compare the two authors’ arguments. To what extent do these points of view support or oppose each other?
  2. Explain how this debate highlights reform efforts that have sought to change American society, institutions, and conceptions of the rights of individuals.

Source A: Elihu Root: “Address Before the New York Constitutional Convention, 1894”

Source B: William Jennings Bryan, Two-Sided Handbill: Secretary of State for Woman Suffrage, 1914 (See image: William Jennings Bryan Advocates Votes for Women; Next?)