The "Woman Card" In Politics Dates Back To The 1880s

Whether it's 1872 or 2016, outspoken women are considered dangerous.


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Many of us likely remember Donald Trump’s statement back in April that Hillary Clinton is “playing the woman’s card,” insinuating that she wouldn’t survive as a candidate if she were a man. What exactly is the “woman card?” Based on the context of the statement, Mr. Trump seems to believe that it is simply the fact because Hillary is a woman we treat her differently.

Unfortunately, that seems to be true, but not in the way that Trump likely intended. Sexism in politics (and in American life) has deep roots. If we examine only politics, we could say it goes back to the beginning of our country because women weren’t expressly given the right to vote in the Constitution until 1920 under the Nineteenth Amendment. That denial of participation in government seems to stem from a twofold error in thinking – one, that women were inferior therefore incapable of making an informed voting decision, and two, that a woman’s vote was dangerous (God forbid we might actually change things) – came to the fore in the 1840s when women started joining together to fight for the right to vote. In the beginning, the movement had momentum and might have succeeded had the Civil War not diverted attentions elsewhere. In the aftermath, the woman’s suffrage movement fractured, not to be repaired until the turn of the 20th century.

It was in that factious period that the “woman card” first emerged in politics, when a 32-year-old New York woman with no previous political experience announced her candidacy for the 1872 Presidential election. That woman was Victoria Woodhull, a suffragist, Spiritualist, Wall Street broker and newspaper owner, whose name has been, until Hillary Clinton’s second presidential campaign, virtually lost to history. 

Neither Hillary nor Victoria stood up and said, “vote for me because I’m a woman.” Neither of them would ever think to do so; they would rather be treated on the same terms as their male counterparts and be voted for because people believe in their stance and want to see the future they promise as leaders. Plus, those words don’t need to be said. By simply standing up and declaring themselves candidates, they declare themselves equal, not special. 

Victoria, like Hillary today, is a symbol of a strong threat implied in the “woman card.” Women tend to speak out and fight for other women. As a member of the suffrage movement, Victoria expanded upon an idea first proposed by Missouri suffrage leader Virginia Minor—that the Constitution already gave women the right to vote in the Fourteenth Amendment by using the term “citizens” instead of “men” or “males.” This was the argument that Victoria brought before the House Judiciary Committee in late 1871. Before she even had a chance to speak, Representative John Bingham told her that her argument wasn’t sound; women were not citizens, and he should know – he sponsored the Fourteenth Amendment she was using as the basis of her argument.

But the inevitable judgment against her petition couldn’t silence Victoria. She continued on, calling for women to start their own government if the one they had refused to accept them. In a February 1871 speech later known as “The Great Secession,” she proclaimed, “Women have no government. We mean treason. We mean secession and on a thousand times grander scale than was that of the South. We are plotting revolution; we will overslaugh this bogus republic and plant a government of righteousness in its stead, which shall not only profess to derive its power from the consent of the governed but shall do so in reality.” 

She also spoke out against laws that kept women from having control of their own bodies (sound familiar?) within marriage and the double standard of prostitution being condoned with a wink and a nudge, but prostitutes being treating as lower than worms. “Rise and declare yourself free,” she commanded in a May 1871 speech. “Women are entirely unaware of their power. If the very next Congress refuses women all the legitimate results of citizenship, we shall proceed to call another convention expressly to frame a new Constitution and erect a new government.” 

No matter if it is 1872 or 2016, women speaking out is considered dangerous because it means we have power. And power breeds fear. Victoria had thousands of followers at her speeches, cheering her on, so she was attacked in the papers, just as Hillary is attacked in the media today. They weren’t afraid to go after her personal life or her family, a trend we’ve seen replicated in Hillary’s various campaigns. In 1872, Harper’s Weekly published a cartoon dubbing Victoria as “Mrs. Satan” because she urged women to fight back against sexual slavery and mistreatment within marriage. Similarly, Donald Trump has dubbed Hillary as “Heartless Hillary” and “Crooked Hillary,” because she came out in favor of gun control and because she was attacking him in ads. While there is always a certain amount of backbiting in politics, especially Presidential elections, the name-calling seems especially vicious when women are involved.

Yet, the very same people who resort to these playground antics accuse female politicians of having some magical advantage simply because we’re women, aka the “woman card.” That’s not exactly the case. We may have won the right to vote since Victoria’s time, but there are still many strides left to make. We earn a lower wage than our male counterparts for equal work, silently endure catcalling in the streets and live in a culture that treats our bodies like disposable property to be legislated, used for pleasure and discarded. So if Donald Trump wants to insist on the female citizens of the United States having a “woman card,” then let’s show him in force what that card can do and play it on Election Day by giving Hillary the vindication Victoria was never able to experience, the honor of becoming the first female President of the United States.


About the Author:

                                                                                              Nicole Evelina is an award-winning historical fiction and romantic comedy novelist based in St. Louis, MO. Her most recent novel, Madame Presidentess, which is based on Victoria Woodhull, is due out July 25. Connect with Evelina on FacebookTwitter and Instagram and via her website.

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