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Teddy Roosevelt and Women's Rights

John Gable of the Theodore Roosevelt Association comments on Theodore Roosevelt's career 

Nineteen-twelve was when Theodore Roosevelt came out for women's suffrage and became the great champion of women's rights. And I think one of the least understood, but more important aspects, of Theodore Roosevelt is that he was the great male feminist of his period in terms of the important office holders and politicians. But that goes back to the beginning.

When he's a senior at Harvard, he writes a thesis in which he advocates equal rights for women, including the fact that they shouldn't change their names when they get married. Then when he's in the New York State Assembly, he introduces a bill for corporal punishment for wife beaters, in other words, an equality of blows. Then, when he is police commissioner of New York, he introduces women in executive and other positions in the New York City Police Department. 

Then in 1912 he comes out for women's suffrage. Now the National American Women's Suffrage Association doesn't start fighting for a Constitutional amendment until really -- 'til 1913. And the National Women's Party, which is the left wing of the women's movement, isn't founded until 1913. So the push for a federal amendment to the Constitution starts really in 1913 among, the mainstream of feminists, whereas TR really starts it in 1912.

Now in the Bull Moose Party -- there's a paradox for you -- the Bull Moose Party, women are given equal rights in a political party in a big way. And his nomination is seconded in 1912 at the Bull Moose Convention by Jane Addams. And the former president of Harvard, Charles W. Eliot, says, "It was a spectacular proceeding, but in exceedingly bad taste, because a woman has no place in a political convention." This from the liberal president of Harvard who was backing Woodrow Wilson. So that shows you where women were at that point.

The Progressive Party ensured that women would be represented on the national committee. It's the first time women ever literally vote for a President because states which had the right to vote had women electors for the first time and they voted for Theodore Roosevelt in that election. In 1913, Illinois gives women suffrage, because the Bull Moose Party has the balance of power in the legislature, and that's the first time a state east of the Mississippi grants women's suffrage. Going into 1912, only nine states had women's suffrage and you need three-quarters of the states to amend the Constitution.

So you get this sequence, you know, TR coming out for it, then the women stepping up the pressure in a bipartisan way in 1913, the Bull Moose victory in Illinois for women in 1913, and by that point TR is into it really big because he's working with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union right down on the strike lines in New York City, in Manhattan. So the reporters will follow. So the women workers will get publicity. He's testifying in front of the New York legislature and so on for women's labor, women's labor union movements and so on and going into 1914 he makes it a big issue. That's when the amendment is first introduced and, by the way, it's the Democrats who are the chief obstacle to the passage of it.

Both Woodrow Wilson and William Howard Taft are opposed to federal women's suffrage. And then going into 1915, it finally gets on the ballot and the referendum in New York State and TR campaigns for it. It is defeated. In 1917 it's again on the ballot and this time it's passed. And so TR helps bring it in until there are enough states to go, to amend the Constitution.

Woodrow Wilson gets on the bandwagon at the last minute and, in fact, Congress gets on it at the last minute because there are -- that's the important point -- there are very few males in politics who favor the women's issue. And that's why this button, this button is the Women's Roosevelt Memorial Association. The women of America, many of them, for them Theodore Roosevelt was the hero. So they moved to restore his birthplace and this is the pin of their organization. I mean he was a great hero to American women at the time.

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