Allison Sneider’s Suffragists in an Imperial Age: U.S. Expansionism and the Woman Question 1870-1929 combines two burgeoning fields in United States history circles. Utilizing the analytical of gender in a transnational appraisal, Sneider explores the domestic effects driven by American imperial and territorial expansion of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By incorporating rhetorical devices that articulated the need to enfranchise women in developing territories, Suffragists created a space for discussing the expansion of voting rights as a federal obligation despite the persistent trope of state rights and self sovereignty put forth at the time.
Expansionism reoriented American politics in numerous ways. Sneider traces debates around the incorporation/possible incorporation of the Dominican Republic, Utah, Hawaii and Puerto Rico among others and their relation to women’s suffrage. Post Reconstruction, the Federal government abdicated much of its responsibility to enforce equal voting rights for minorities, allowing states’ rights advocates to dominate such debates. However, imperial expansion forced the federal government to acknowledge “colonial subjects” and others, determining their present and future status. Women’s suffragists learned from each experience, tailoring arguments such that they maintained a consistent dialogue around enfranchisement and the federal government’s necessary role in such processes.
At times, suffragists marshaled the language of race and citizenship. For example, when advocating voting rights for women living in U.S. possessions, suffragist leadership argued they required the vote due to the threat presented by male counterparts in such territories, “such women, even more than those of our own States will need the ballot as a means of self-protection.” Hawaii’s entrance into the United States polity illustrated such debates, “The Hawaiian Appeal was not aimed only at white women in the territory. Couched in the rhetoric of protection for native Hawaiian women, the petition merged views about native men’s savagery and notions of essential womanly virtues across races to make a case for native and white women’s voting rights.” Similarly, in earlier periods, U.S. Native American policy proved equally influential. Expanding citizenship rights to American Indians influenced ideas about gender, masculinity, and voting as an inherent right of membership. Incorporating Native American populations into the citizenry represented a potential framework for moving “dependent” women into similar status. Race and citizenship emerged as factors but “to suffragists … Indians were noble savages whose plight at once elicited sympathy and disdain.” Extending voting rights to newly incorporated Native American men suggested that voting existed as a right of citizenship, an idea that many suffragists promoted. In comparison, Utah’s Mormon population presented obstacles to national legislators but for religious reasons. Though some suffragists used anti-Catholic arguments in other contexts to support expanding the vote to protestant women, in the case of Utah political maneuvering proved more nuanced. Some avoided the topic all together, “by 1878 woman suffrage in Utah territory had become an embarrassment for the suffrage movement because of the way polygamy linked votes for women and sexual scandal in the public mind.” The Mormon example “would have far more salience for the political fate of woman suffrage than would the Indian question.” Ultimately, Western expansion and imperial designs forced legislators into uncomfortable debates that force both Republicans and Democrats to contort their usual political logic regarding rights and citizenship, but suffragists like Susan B. Anthony realized, “the politics of territorial expansion made clear that under certain circumstances the physical expansion of national borders could reconfigure the gendered boundaries of political space ….”
Though suffragist appeals failed to win over a majority of Congressional legislature, these attempts at enlarging the voting public reformed colonial policies which in turn affected domestic ones., “in the context of U.S. empire, attaching women suffrage amendments to the governing bills for U.S. territory helped suffragists and their legislative allies squash the state’s rights framework that had circumscribed suffragists activities for decades.” Whether or not, voting rights became an essential aspect of citizenship remained debatable but from an international perspective suffragists had at least established that “political rights for women” were added to the list that marked proper civilization..