Theodore Roosevelt is in many ways an unlikely feminist hero. Throughout his life and career, he embodied and celebrated a robust, distinctly masculine lifestyle: hunting on his ranch in North Dakota, charging up San Juan Hill with the “Rough Riders” in the Spanish-American War, even holding boxing matches in the White House. At the same time, however, Roosevelt voiced pointed support for women’s rights at different points during his career, from his student years at Harvard to his third presidential run in 1912, when he became the first candidate for the nation’s highest office to formally endorse suffrage rights for American women.
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Roosevelt's Harvard Commencement Speech Focused on Equal Rights
When the women’s rights movement launched at Seneca Falls in 1848—a decade before Roosevelt was born—America’s founding promise of freedom from oppression was clearly falling short for American women. Not only did they lack the right to vote, but married women had no legal status and no property rights. Husbands held complete legal power over their wives and could beat or otherwise abuse them with no fear of repercussions. Not surprisingly, divorce and custody laws also favored men. Colleges and universities were closed to women, along with most fields of employment, especially high-status ones such as medicine or law.
By 1880, when Roosevelt graduated from Harvard University, some of the progress had been made. New York, among other states, had passed legislation granting married women some control over their property. By 1900, every state would have such laws on the books. And U.S. courts had finally begun ruling against men who beat their wives, starting with landmark decisions in Alabama and Massachusetts in 1871.
Roosevelt outlined his own relatively progressive view on property rights and marriage in an excerpt from his senior college thesis, entitled “Practicality of Giving Men and Women Equal Rights,” that he read at the 1880 Harvard commencement ceremony. “The man should have no more right over the person or property of his wife than she has over the person or property of her husband,” Roosevelt argued. “I would have the word ‘obey’ used no more by the wife than by the husband.” He even argued that wives shouldn’t be required to take their husband’s last names after marriage—though his soon-to-be bride, Alice Hathaway Lee, would change her name to Alice Lee Roosevelt when they married later that year.
Greater Rights for the Women of New York
Elected to the New York state legislature in 1882, Roosevelt introduced a bill mandating corporal punishment for men who beat their wives. Though the press published satirical cartoons about his position, Roosevelt stuck to his guns, confessing that after reading of men’s cruelty to their wives, “I felt very angry, and could not help saying what I did.”
In the 1890s, as police commissioner of New York, he expanded the role of women in the New York City Police Department and ensured that penalties for disorderly conduct were enforced against men as well as women, rather than punishing only the latter.
By 1899, when Roosevelt was inaugurated as New York’s governor, it had been 12 years since the first women’s suffrage amendment had been introduced in Congress, without success. Many suffragists had turned their focus to winning the vote for women on a state level, with Wyoming and other Western states leading the way. Roosevelt, who favored this state-by-state approach, expressed his support for female suffrage in his inaugural message, but only briefly, and only in the context of votes concerning schools.
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As President, A Focus on Family
Though suffragists hoped to win support from Roosevelt when he became president, he remained elusive on the issue while in the White House (1901-09). He declined to take an official position on the matter, writing to Rose Smith Lee Saltonstall in 1907 that he did not have time to adequately state his position on women’s suffrage. "I do not want to get drawn into any controversy such as this on matters alien to my present duties,” he added.
President Roosevelt did speak out often on the importance of traditional families and the centrality of a woman’s role as a mother, preferably to multiple children. For him, the question of whether or not she could vote was far less important. “Personally I believe in women’s suffrage, but I am not an enthusiastic advocate of it because I do not regard it as a very important matter,” he wrote in a letter to Lyman Abbott in 1908.
READ MORE: 7 Little-Known Legacies of Teddy Roosevelt
Bull Moose Party’s Support for Women’s Suffrage
When Roosevelt decided not to run for a third term, he hand-picked his close friend William Howard Taft as his successor, but was bitterly disappointed with Taft’s performance in the White House, prompting him to reconsider walking away. When mainstream Republicans rejected Roosevelt’s presidential candidacy in favor of Taft in 1912, Roosevelt and his supporters left to form a new party: the Progressives, also known as the “Bull Moose” party.
As a third-party candidate without an established base of support, Roosevelt needed to appeal to as many voters as he could—including women, in the states where they already had the right to vote. The Progressives were far more welcoming to women than either of the major parties: When they met in Chicago in early August 1912 for their convention, the reformer and suffragist leader Jane Addams was one of two people chosen to second Roosevelt’s nomination. Later that month, during a campaign speech in Vermont, Roosevelt made the party’s position official, stating that “We recognize that..there should be equality of right, between men and women, and we are therefore for equal suffrage for men and women.”
Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the 1912 election, but the Bull Moose party’s openness to women proved a crucial stepping stone in the path toward suffrage. The Progressive-led state legislature in Illinois granted women the right to vote in 1913, becoming the first state east of the Mississippi River to do so.
Roosevelt continued to embrace the cause of women’s suffrage at the national level, advocating on behalf of the proposed suffrage amendment years before Wilson, Congress and most other prominent politicians got on board. In May 1913, he appeared at an event organized by 10 suffrage organizations at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, sitting next to Anna Howard Shaw, then-president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and delivering an hour-long speech in support of the cause.
When women in Roosevelt’s home state of New York finally won the right to vote in late 1917, he congratulated them and encouraged them to fulfill their patriotic duty during World War I. By the war’s end, President Wilson would finally voice his support for the women’s suffrage amendment, which Congress passed in June 1919, five months after Roosevelt’s death.
While Theodore Roosevelt’s views on suffrage—especially in his post-presidency years—were advanced for the time, they were tempered by his strictly traditional view of the importance of the woman’s family role and duties, and therefore did not drive him to robust action as many of his other core beliefs had. Writing to Florence Schloss Guggenheim in 1916, he made this clear: “If I believed that the average woman would not do her duty as wife and mother better and not worse and would not recognize that these duties in the home must normally remain the primary duties, whether women do or do not have the vote, then I would not believe in giving them votes."