Some suffragists in the 19th century exploited existing stereotypes of the period to advance their cause, says Stanford legal historian

As the centennial of the 19th Amendment approaches, Stanford scholar Rabia Belt wants to acknowledge a history often overlooked in discourse about the franchise: people living with disabilities.

When the 19th Amendment became official on Aug. 26, 1920 , it granted millions of American women the franchise – a right to vote that the women’s suffrage movement had spent decades fighting for.

Rabia Belt is a legal historian whose scholarship focuses on disability and citizenship. (Image credit: Courtesy National Council on Disability)

But according to Stanford legal historian Rabia Belt, that fight was waged at a price. With the centennial of the 19th Amendment approaching, Belt wants to use this milestone to reflect on what some of those costs were, especially for people with disabilities. Belt’s research, which focuses on disability and citizenship, found that some women’s suffragists in the 19th century used cultural stereotypes about mental health and cognitive and physical disabilities to advance their campaign to gain the franchise.

“Anniversaries can be good in terms of taking stock and thinking about what we’ve accomplished, what the cost of that accomplishment has been, and then thinking about where we need to go,” said Belt, an associate professor of law at Stanford Law School.

In Belt’s forthcoming book, Disabling Democracy in America: Disability, Citizenship, Suffrage, and the Law, 1819-1920, she describes how women’s suffragist Henrietta Briggs-Wall, a member of the Kansas Equal Suffrage Association, targeted people with disabilities and ethnic minorities to spark outrage among white women.

“One of the difficulties about expanding rights is that you have to convince the people that already have the rights to dilute their power by including more people. One of the ways to do that is to convince the people with that power that you have something in common and create another out-group,” Belt said.

Henrietta Briggs-Wall commissioned the painting American Woman and Her Political Peers to stir debate among women who at the time were disenfranchised from voting. The image was circulated widely and was distributed on postcards. (Image credit: NAWSA Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (047.00.00))

In 1893, Briggs-Wall commissioned a painting for the World’s Fair in Chicago titled American Woman and Her Political Peers that depicted prominent temperance leader and suffragist Frances E. Willard surrounded by a Native American, a convict and pictures of what people at the time would recognize as someone living with a mental illness and a person with a cognitive, intellectual or developmental disability – “lunatics” and “idiots,” as they were known in that period.

Briggs-Wall hoped that by highlighting a typical white American woman with people considered at the time to be mentally inferior and also disenfranchised, it would cause outcry among women and lead them to question why they were deemed by political society as unworthy to vote.

As Belt discovered in her research, Briggs-Wall’s tactic worked. The painting became a symbol of the struggle women experienced at the turn of the 19th century. The image was widely circulated, distributed on postcards and displayed in parades. When suffragist Clara Bewick Colby testified before Congress in 1894, she referenced Briggs-Wall’s painting in her remarks as she pleaded before the legislature to separate women from the category of disenfranchised people.

“What these women said were, ‘We are going to join forces with able-minded white men that are enfranchised and we are going to be this group that is going to use our power to undermine the incompetent men that are trying to get the vote,’” Belt said.

Coupling stigma with stereotypes

As well as questioning the competency of people with mental and physical disabilities, some suffragists coupled their rhetoric with other cultural stereotypes of the era, particularly perceptions related to race and class. Some women asked why Black men as well as Irish immigrants were able to cast ballots while they themselves, who they argued were morally and intellectually superior, remained disenfranchised.

Belt offers an example of how in 1851, at the Woman’s Rights Convention in New York, women’s rights activist and social reformer Lucretia Mott recalled to the audience an encounter with a “stupid-looking Irish boy” with citizenship papers while she was paying her taxes in Boston. She implored: “He could have a voice in determining the destinies of this mighty nation, while thousands of intellectual women, daughters of the soil, no matter how intelligent, how respectable, or what amount of taxes they paid, were forced to be dumb!”

Examples like Mott, Colby and Briggs-Wall and others illustrate how some suffragists in the 19th century exploited existing stereotypes of the period as a way to illustrate their competency and advance their own political position, said Belt.

“It really embodied this idea of incompetence as being something that was heavily inflected by race, gender and class, but also how people used what they had as a way to make themselves ‘in’ by leaving other people ‘out,’” Belt added.

Legacies of disenfranchisement

While the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote, it was by no means all-inclusive. Native Americans did not get full citizenship until the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, known also as the Snyder Act.

Go to the web site to view the video.

Video by Kurt Hickman

The 19th Amendment guaranteed that women throughout the United States would have the right to vote on equal terms with men. Stanford researchers Rabia Belt and Estelle Freedman trace the history of women’s suffrage back to the abolition movement in 19th-century America.

As for the other people in Briggs-Wall’s painting, obstacles remain. Prisoners and people with mental and cognitive disabilities are still blocked from voting in many states. While some of the language that describes people with disabilities has changed since the 19th century, some states’ voting laws have not, particularly when it comes to guardianship and conservatorship, Belt said.

As Belt points out, there is no consistent standard to evaluate who can participate in elections.

“There are very few states now that still say in their constitution that a ‘lunatic’ or an ‘idiot’ can’t vote. People deemed ‘mentally incompetent’ are still not able to vote, but that is still a poorly defined metric. What does that mean? Is voting so important that we want to make sure that most Americans are able to do it because it’s foundational to democracy? Or do we say that voting is really important so we need to have a really high bar so people should jump through hoops to be able to do it? We still need to define what it is,” Belt said.

Moreover, there are still many ways to prevent people from voting, Belt pointed out. “I hope this anniversary prompts us to think about the costs that went into the 19th Amendment and think hard about racism with respect to the suffrage movement.”

Media Contacts

Melissa De Witte, Stanford News Service: (650) 723-6438, [email protected]