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“Politics Is a Pretty Personal Thing with Women”: A 1950s Look at the Impact of Women Voters

When women first voted in national elections following ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, participants in the women’s movement and others predicted that women voters would be an important factor in a shift toward increased social legislation and anti-corruption in politics. An estimated one-third of the eligible female voters actually voted in 1920, compared to two-thirds of eligible male voters. Women’s impact on national elections was not felt to a significant degree until the 1952 election, when the proportion of women voting for Dwight D. Eisenhower was six percent higher than the percentage the candidate pulled among men. Before the 1956 presidential election, the popular magazine Collier’s sent writer Walter Davenport to bipartisan Marion Country, Indiana, to survey women’s attitudes on candidates and issues. Many of the women whose views Davenport included in the resultant article refuted accepted beliefs of seasoned male politicians. Their paraphrased opinions, however, also employed essentialist gender stereotypes of the time—that “women are all house cleaners at heart” and that “a woman lacks the administrative qualities of a man”—to explain perceived voting tendencies. Davenport’s findings ignored factors that social scientists have considered to be important in accounting for voting patterns, such as education, income level, age, and race. He did, however, report the opinion of two female teachers that the formation of women’s groups during and since World War II—when more women joined the workforce—had resulted in increased political consciousness among women, an opinion that scholars have since found valid. Although by the 1964 election, more women were voting than men, a viable national female voting bloc has not surfaced in the U.S.

Where Men Go Wrong About Women Voters

By Walter Davenport

A cross section of that new political phenomenon—voting females— is quizzed by a Collier’s editor. He got told, and now tells you, why the ladies are voting much more and much differently than expected. . . .

We were going to Indianapolis, Indiana, to ask women why they vote as they do, why they are voting in ever-increasing numbers, why they are overtaking and even passing men in their interest and activity in politics. Thus, the bare bones of our mission. Before we finished the job or, perhaps more accurately, got as far as anyone was likely to get, we saw a great light.

Up to a certain but never fixed point, the woman voter is a lady. Pushed beyond that by the candidate’s stale burblings on time-tattered issues and/or by his blind and unimaginative adherence to a creaking political machine, she is more than likely to become a Nemesis—particularly his—and ballot him back to whatever he was doing before he decided to become a public payrollee.

“It is not hard to explain in a sort of vague way,” said our survivor of the political wars. “Every so often,” he explained, reaching into his capacious bag of memories, “women get causy. You can gentle them around for just so long. The old sweet-nothings stuff, if you get what I mean. And then someone will come along with a ringing call to arms, a cause. And suddenly,” he concluded with a sigh, “they’ll throw party affiliations and party leaders—bosses, some call them—out the window. Believe me, sir, a woman with a cause can be a fearsome thing.” (Later, when we got out in the field, we indeed found women less tolerant, to put it gently, of party hacks and political clichés than their shoulder-shrugging husbands.)

We did not fix haphazardly on industrialized Indianapolis and its rural surroundings of Marion County for our research. In both Republican and Democratic National Headquarters there is unusual bipartisan agreement that we would find the facts of political life in that 400-square-mile area.

On the banks of the Wabash there is no accurate table for the political tides. They flow erratically, leaving first one party then the other in low water. Eisenhower swept the state in 1952. In the 1955 municipal election, however, the Democrats won cities which had been as Republican as Vermont hamlets. Just about everything warranted to keep professional politicians, especially candidates, in a clammy sweat has happened and can recur in Indiana. And Marion County is its palpitating heart. . . .

In a job like this you knock on any door. That’s how we met Mrs. Vivian Wells, an industrial worker’s wife and, incidentally, a persistent demander for Plain Answers to Simple Questions, an unorganized but rapidly growing movement among women voters.

In her precinct, Mrs. Wells said, “Women voters outnumbered the men two to one at the latest elections.” Why? Hard to say exactly. But the men are inclined to shrug things off, don’t see what can be done about a lot of things that need to be done. But women are all house cleaners at heart. Sort of look upon brooms, mops, dusters and disinfectants as weapons peculiar to their sex. “Understand?” We nodded.

Well, in the latest local elections the women had a slogan: Scratch the Hacks. Here was that Cause we’d heard about in Washington. And the women need nothing more. Scratch the Hacks.

The slaughter of the hacks—the interminables who grew potbellied, waffle-tailed and bag-eyed in public office—can be compared to one of those cellar-to-attic house cleanings, the kind that jars and confuses the easygoing male.

Women, Mrs. Wells went on, are born ticket splitters. They may be registered Republicans or registered Democrats but let them get together to talk things over, and they’ll emerge from the kitchen on Election Day and leap party fences. Scratching hacks? Mister, it’s a pleasure.

Hack-scratching? Applecart-upsetting? Are these the ways of a woman? Mrs. Floyd Holland nodded. Her husband, who is a school janitor, nodded too. Men are fond of saying that women fear change, Mrs. Holland said; and that, thus, female votes, however increasing, are not menacing the old, organizational setups. Mrs. Holland shook her head. So did Mr. Holland. It’s the men who fear the applecart upsets, she said. Women have taken to looking at the applecart’s contents. If they don’t like what they see, well, that’s just too bad for the applecart.

Men, to Mrs. Holland’s way of thinking, still talk and think as they vote—in a rut. Not that she doesn’t understand why. Sometimes a man’s job depends on his party affiliation and loyalty. Then again he fears change—change which might upset his business. Personal friendships induce him sometimes to regard bad government with an uneasy tolerance seldom shared by women, she concluded.

“These are bad times for old wives' tales about how women vote,” Mrs. Holland said. Mr. Holland nodded again, more vigorously.

A Mrs. Annie Furrmann had something to say about the feminine fondness for ticket splitting. She said she doesn’t know “one solitary woman who votes a straight ticket unless she has a political job.” It is—well, sort of woman’s nature. Let’s say (she said) she’s got two children, a boy and a girl. Let’s say one of them gets out of line—disobeys, or something. That one gets a clout or is fined a week’s allowance, or something. Anyway, a stern warning. Punished. Well, that’s the way she feels about politicians and parties. Clout the bad ones regardless of sex or party or personal pre-disposition. She asked us whether her theory sounded screwy. We hedged; said only another woman could answer that. She flapped her hand at us.

In Indianapolis and on Marion County’s farms we talked to scores of women. Without exception, all derided the predictions so frequently made in 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution became effective, that government would become cleaner and more efficient as the woman vote increased. Also, that the quality of male candidates would consequently improve. Nonsense, they said. Rot. Bunk. Short snorts like that. The woman voter, they said, is still a human being, with all the ability of the male to vote for the wrong candidate and be bamboozled by well-constructed but false propaganda. But, they added, it is extremely dangerous to tell a woman the same lie twice.

Only two women foresaw the day when a woman would become a Presidential candidate. Neither said that she’d necessarily vote for her. Both denied with some heat that this latter is due to the familiar male theory that jealousy deprives many female candidates of the votes of her sisters. Rather, they agreed, a woman lacks the administrative qualities of a man.

But, said Mrs. Lydia Wellcome, a woman as President might be “influenced in big things by what men regard as little things—the kids, for example, or primary schools or TV shows.”

You may accept it as a fact that, in a manner of speaking, women carry the simple problems of their individual homes with them as they enter the polling booths. Men, to the contrary, vote with their business affairs uppermost in mind. This is as true as it is trite. Witness the testimony of Mrs. Opal Kremer.

Mrs. Kremer was busy when we arrived. She was painting the kitchen and at the same time carrying on a school-report-card discussion with her small daughter. Mrs. Kremer, wife on an Indianapolis police sergeant, is always busy. She is a Democratic county worker and a personal-tax assessor in the effervescent Nineteenth Ward. A practical woman, Mrs. Kremer, not bowed down with theory but rich in experience. Is there a difference in the way a woman votes? Different from the man’s way? No, she didn’t think so. But there might be this: as a mother she is closer to the children. Mrs. Kremer wouldn’t be surprised if the woman has her children’s future high in her mind when she goes to the polls. Maybe women vote thinking of tomorrow and men merely of today. Maybe. Maybe. And yes, politics is a pretty personal thing with women. . . .

The woman committee worker (and the woman in general), he [a congressman] sighed, does not take political defeat for her side philosophically. Her side, her candidate, her cause is a matter of great and lasting importance. And she will work up a personal dislike for the candidate she is opposing. If he is elected, her distaste for him becomes intense. That he may turn out to be a better-than-average officeholder rarely softens her. Disappointed women, he said, never forget.

We said we detected a tinge of blackmail. He was shocked. Blackmail? Not at all, not at all. It is merely, said he, that women frequently like to have their own way and strive by devious means to get it. “At any rate,” he said, “don’t mention my name.” . . .

Mrs. Margaret Jones, a housewife, was certain the days are vanishing when husband and wife voted “hand in hand.” In that fading past the precinct worker took it for granted that the men in the family guided or even dictated the votes of their women. Suddenly, it seemed, women’s political discussion groups sprang into being—“like overnight.” Come to think of it, these groups multiplied fast “during the second World War and Korea while the men were overseas fighting.” Or maybe it began before that—in the early thirties, when the government began doing things to alleviate the family privations of the great depression. Women, Mrs. Jones said, were thinking in terms of food and shelter, and women were thankful for the aid Mr. Roosevelt brought to their doors. Anyway, the more women talked among themselves, the more convinced they became that they needed no mere male to lead them to the polls. . . .

We were talking to two of the teachers—Miss Esther Myers and Mrs. Elloree Northcott. Both teachers believe that the women’s vote became a thing to reckon with when World War II fetched them out of their homes into industrial jobs. Women got together in huge numbers. They got fresh points of view. State and national legislation that affected them became more important to them. And, ever since, they’ve been voting more independently of their menfolks. They have enjoyed meeting with large numbers of their own sex and talking things over. And now, back home from their industrial jobs, they are still meeting. Political discussion clubs, for example. . . .

Thus far we had turned up very little to substantiate what professional male politicians had said when we told them what we were planning to write about. Sure, here and there a woman would give us to suspect that her “emotions”dictated her vote. But our own experience in digging into American voting habits told us that emotion-voting is not exclusively a feminine quality. Very far from it.

If there is any reason to believe that the farm woman’s voting motivations are different from the city woman’s, we didn’t find it. Each apparently votes in the interests of family security as she sees it; although today, as ever, the farmer’s wife is more concerned with teetering farm produce prices than her city sister is with, say, stocks and bonds or even union wage scales.

Nor did we find anything to back up the oft-repeated male contention that the woman voter is highly susceptible to the matinee-idol type of candidate. “That sort of male thinking,” one woman said, “is more directly than indirectly the reason we are voting in greater numbers. It’s old, old stuff. Antique-shop junk. It’s evidence that the male politician has not changed his frayed brand of thinking. And because he hasn’t, because his campaign methods and phrases are just about the same as his grandfather’s, the demand calls for something new. And I believe we women are supplying that.”

. . . “Listen,” said Mrs. Boland, “write this down. Us women can understand what’s going on in our precincts. Even in the city. Like graft, overcrowded schools, holes in the streets, curfews for the kids, and stuff like that. But when we listen to those people in Washington about what’s going on outside the country and why we ought to agree that what they’re doing about it is okay—well, it doesn’t make sense. Straight talk in simple language. That’s what we want.”

In the eye of the Indiana political whirlpool, the Claypool Hotel, we had a leave-taking chat with a State senator—male. “So all you had to do,” said he, “was find out why women vote like they do.”

“What do you mean ‘all we had to do’?” we demanded.

“I could have told you without all the fuss,” he replied. "It’s because they’re women."

Source: Walter Davenport, “Where Men Go Wrong About Women Voters,” Collier"s, September 14, 1956, 32.