Suffrage International: Domestic Discussions on Gender and Suffrage in the Philippines

by Carter Craig

     Progressive politics was a strong trend in the early 20th century in the United States, but it also coincided with a period of imperialism and expansion. As a part of this progressive wave, the members of the woman suffrage movement gained traction and began winning their long battle for votes for women. Alongside that progressive battle was another one: the anti-imperialism movement. The intersection of these two elements of the Progressive Era, Women’s Suffrage and Colonization, divided the suffragist movement and a complicated set of racialized and gendered language emerges to discuss the colonial experience. Kristin Hoganson, author of “‘As Badly Off as the Filipinos’: U.S. Women’s Suffragists and the Imperial Issue at the Turn of the Twentieth Century” notes some suffragists, Susan B. Anthony among them, would be supportive of Imperialism. Prominent suffragists, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony aligned themselves with the Imperialist movement, “regarding it as politically astute.” (14) Anthony in particular did not want to be associated with “treasonous anti-imperialists” and also wanted to be loyal to Republican politicians who were more supportive of suffrage for women but also supported expansion overseas. (14)  Other suffragists would align with the anti-imperialists. Hoganson, introduces her audience to one such suffragist, Mary A. Livermore. This division was emphasized with the imperialist accomplishments of the Spanish-American War in 1898 and the subsequent colonial occupation of former Spanish possessions, such as the Philippines. Hoganson noted: “Imperialist endeavors gave rise to an anti-imperialist movement, that, during the Philippine-American War [a conflict which followed the Spanish-American War between American forces and Philippine guerillas], gained more political salience…” (9) As a part of this debate, certain ways of talking about the Filipinos emerged. According to the West, Filipino men were lazy and indulgent, and the Filipina women were saddled with unwomanly jobs as a result. Newspaper articles provide a record of this language.

     Wrapped up in the talking societal talking points for colonization expressed by newspapers was the idea that Filipino women needed protection from “barbarous” Filipino men. While setting up her book entitled Suffragists in an Imperial Age: US Expansion and the Women Question 1870-1929, Alison Snieder establishes the importance of  “interrogating the gendered metaphors of colonial rule [as being] crucial to understanding how language and culture structured relationships between US soldiers and other representatives of US authority to individual men and women in Haiti, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico, and between US men and women at home.” (16)

     The following articles will make it clear that white society in the United States used language to describe the Filipinos as inferior in their masculinity and therefore incapable of ruling themselves. As Roland Sintos Coloma describes in “White Gazes, Brown Breasts: Imperial Feminism and Disciplining Desires and bodies in colonial encounters” an article describing first the interaction of white men (as soldiers) and Filipinas and the following interaction of white women and Filipinas in the early 1900s, “The protection and rescue of brown women by white men from brown men has certainly become the overriding narrative in Western colonial and neo-colonial incursions.” (247) As a result, Filipinas needed American protection and perhaps even empowerment. Not all agreed with this claim, including anti-imperialist suffragist Mary A. Livermore, as Hoganson asserts that, “Livermore turned this assumption around, claiming that women, such as herself, shared something different with Filipinos – injustice at the hands of white men who denied them fundamental political rights.” (10) This point of view would be less common, however. In regard to the claim that the men in the Philippines were insufficient to rule themselves, but that perhaps the women were, Hoganson notes that U.S. suffrage leader “[Susan B.] Anthony shared these sentiments.” (15) This moment in history also relates to a broader issue of suffrage. According to Sneider, colonialism, in the minds of leaders such as Anthony, was an opportunity for suffragists to “provide new contexts for suffragists to push the women question in congress.”(113) Public debate in the Senate would have occurred around the time of the discussion of the Philippine Organic Act of 1902, which set up a democracy in the islands styled from the system in the United States, including the exclusion of women from voting. (115) Despite Anthony’s efforts to “[keep] the word ‘male’ out of the territorial constitutions and ‘organic acts’ that congress would create to govern its new possessions.” (91) Dinah Roma describes the role of women in the American imperial mission in the Philippines in the article, “‘See What My Daughters Can Do in Peace’: Philippines and the Maternal Conduits of US Empire”; Roma writes that crucial to the US civilizing mission were the American women who arrived in the midst of the brutal Philippine-American War (1899–1902). White Women in the colonies helped export American culture by, “Domestic training (or what is popularly known as ‘home economics’) [which] instilled a deeply gendered division of labor whereby Filipino women performed the roles of nurturing and caretaking.” (605) Although the White American men were the instigators in this situation, many White women, including suffragists, aided in the colonizing of the Philippines and exportation of American gender roles even as they were being challenged at home. As Hoganson writes “As the United States became a great power in the late nineteenth century, the racist inclinations of White US suffragists assumed international dimensions.” (11) The racial hierarchy of the United States which placed white people at the top would guide the foreign policy of the United States. The events in the Philippines would facilitate racial discussion that was more often than not racist, but these discussions would include suffragists, such as Susan B. Anthony, and shape their talking points as well.

“Are on Best of Terms,” Morning Oregonian, February 6, 1902, 2.

     Early in the twentieth century, the language used in discussions about women in the Philippines visible in newspapers was already being shaped by imperialists, as evident in the newspaper article “Are on Best Terms” in the February 6, 1902 Morning Oregonian. William Howard Taft, then Governor of the Philippines and later President of the United States, delivers a glowing report of the situation in the Philippines. Part of this discussion is gendered. Senator Dietrich of Nebraska, asserted “while the women are engaged in conducting the affairs of the family the men are engaged in attending cockfights or going about the country with roosters under their arms.” This statement seems to support the claims made by Sintos Coloma and Roma. Much of the national discussion led by U.S. Imperialists about the Philippines included gendered claims that asserted the moral failure of nonwhite men.  This article demonstrates the degree to which some women in the U.S. suffrage movement engaged in the discussion around colonialism, but how their concerns were overshadowed by imperialist concerns, as evidenced by Susan B. Anthony’s political activism regarding the Organic Act around this time.

“Rapa Men Laziest Ever,” Sunday Oregonian, August 29, 1920, Sec 3:6.
“Rapa Men Laziest Ever,” Sunday Oregonian, August 29, 1920, Sec 3:6 (continued).

     Almost 18 years later, the same language is still present and circulating in Oregon papers. This short article from the August 29, 1920 Sunday Oregonian is about Rapa, an island in French Polynesia. The way the author discusses indigenous people mirrors the discourse about the Philippines in the debates above. The men of Rapa are described as “the laziest men ever.” The scandal for the audience is that women are made to do physical labor by the men, who do nothing. Women in the United States also worked, sometimes in dire factory conditions. This article is less about it being an injustice that the men in Rapa make the women do physical labor but instead is part of a general narrative about the moral failings nonwhite men. It is clear that in the opinion of the editor of the Sunday Oregonian and the author of this article feel that the individuals in Rapa do not meet the standard of ‘manliness’ as prescribed by American language and culture. The article contrasts the work of the women as “hewers of wood and drawers of water” while the men “will not even feed himself.” Although these criticisms are aimed at nonwhite men and serve as a justification for imperialism, it is important to consider how women are used in this argument. Women are relegated to the role of toilsome servant to man, again here a contradiction arises because the role of women in the United States does not differ greatly from the one derided in the article.

“YWCA School Graduates 171 Young Women,” Sunday Oregonian, August 29, 1920, Sec 3:6.


     Part of a larger effort to spread Western culture was the use of women in a missionary capacity in colonial spaces. This article provides an example of those sorts of efforts.  “Y.W.C.A. School Graduates 171 Young Women” can be found physically adjacent to the article about Rapa in the same August 29, 1920 Sunday Oregonian. This placement is likely the result of a conscious choice by the Oregonian editors. It provides the readers with an opportunity to view the problem (nonwhite men are morally corrupt) right next to white America’s solution (sending White women to ‘civilize’ them). This report of a graduating class of the YWCA details where the women will be stationed. Several of them are headed to the Philippines to participate in the sort of activity which Sintos Coloma and Roma discussed in their articles. Many of these American women would impart domestic skills such as sewing on their colonial counterparts, these skills were often accompanied with deeper instruction on what made a good woman, in the minds of American society. Sneider notes near the conclusion of her book that in the 19th century suffragists had successfully linked ‘civilizing’ the people in the colonies with focusing on the women in those colonies, and that had allowed them to broaden that argument into extending suffrage to those female populations. (134) While this article doesn’t reflect especially any particular condemnation of Filipinos, it does demonstrate the interaction between racist ideology and suffragist messaging concerning reasons why women should be given the vote.

“Women in Philippines Islands Want Rights on Equality with Men Folk,” Sunday Oregonian, January 23, 1920, Sec 5:7.

Newspapers in Oregon often reinforced an idea that nonwhite women were the victims of nonwhite men in foreign countries, but occasionally there were articles that contradicted this message such as “Women in Philippine Islands Want Rights on Equality with Men Folks” found in the Sunday Oregonian for January 23, 1920. The article discusses the role Filipino women play in society. This article perhaps speaks to the alignment between suffragists and anti-imperialists which existed, although were far less powerful. This account elevates both the capabilities of women and Filipinos in running their own society. Rather than being the victim of men, they are described as having considerable authority in their own communities. Laws in the Philippines are described as “having combined the best of Spanish and American precedents.” The article then describes the number of legal protections women in the Philippines have access to. Jaime De Veyra, the Filipina writing the article directly challenges the notion that Filipinas are at the mercy of Filipino men. “Woman’s equality to man is no new thing, since Uncle Sam came, in the Philippine islands. It being a part of Filipino tradition to give mother of a family not only household leadership, but economic control.” Although the question is largely settled by the time this article is published in 1920, it is important to note, as Kristin Hoganson does, that discussions like these were “intended as a critique of men’s entitlement, suffragists’ arguments accommodated policies that denied men the right to self-government.” (15) This article contributes to the narrative also present in “Are on Best Terms” that the men were the problem in the Philippines. What American society disagreed about was to fix the men. Some, perhaps Livermore among them, wanted to elevate the suffrage status of women in the Philippines so that they could be empowered in that society, the more dominant view in the United States was, however, that the US needed to take a strong role in governance of the Philippines while “Americanizing” the population.

Although the general belief in American society was that one benefit of American imperialism was that civilization would bring more protection for women in the colonies, it seems like that never became more than just the narrative. In reality, colonialism would be difficult and worsen the situation for the colonized. Domestically, suffragist leaders including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony would be tireless advocates for suffrage for American women, but they often neglected the broader concern of racism, which was embedded in the suffrage movement. Hoganson writes, “Just as British feminists hoped that their dedication to empire would testify to their political virtue, some American suffragists–Anthony and Stanton among them–appear to have endorsed imperialism, regarding it as politically astute.” These articles from Oregon newspapers echo that endorsement of imperialism by validating and repeating the language used to describe the nonwhite people in the colonies. These articles demonstrate the degree to which racism and imperialism were ever present in American society and that these forces had incredible power to shape dialogue around a wide range of topics including women and women’s role in society.

Primary Sources

“Are on Best of Terms,” Morning Oregonian, February 6, 1902, 2.

Rapa Men Laziest Ever,” Sunday Oregonian, August 29, 1920, Sec 3:6.

Women in Philippines Islands Want Rights on Equality with Men Folk,” Sunday Oregonian, January 23, 1920, Sec 5:7.

“YWCA School Graduates 171 Young Women,” Sunday Oregonian, August 29, 1920, Sec 3:6.

Secondary Sources

Hoganson, Kristin. “‘As Badly Off as the Filipinos’: U.S. Women’s Suffragists and the Imperial Issue at the Turn of the Twentieth Century,” Journal of Women’s History 13, no. 2 (Summer 2001): 9-23.

Sintos Coloma, Roland. “White gazes, brown breasts: imperial feminism and disciplining desires and bodies in colonial encounters.” Paedagogica Historica, 48, no. 2 (April 2012): 243-261.

Sneider, Alison. Suffragists in an Imperial Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Roma, Dinah. ‘See what my daughters can do in peace’: Philippines and the maternal conduits of US empire. Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 13, no. 4, 2012, 605-613.

About the Author

Carter has lived in Oregon his whole life and is a student of History at Western Oregon University. This class has been important in his education in History because often the voices of women are less present in History. He enjoys the outdoors and podcasts.