Monday, May 5, 2014

What David Barton Really Said About Women and Voting

Everyone seems to be ripping on David Barton today.  They are claiming that he said that women's suffrage is somehow bad for the country.  Here are some of the headlines:

"David Barton: Allowing women to vote "hurts the entire culture and society."

"Barton: Denying Women's Suffrage Protects the Family"

"David Barton: Women Weren't Allowed to Vote in Order to Preserve the Family."

Most people who read this blog know that I have been very critical of Barton.  In fact, I could probably write something critical about David Barton every day on this blog and see my readership double.

Here is the clip that is circulating on left-wing websites:

I just listened to the entire episode of the May 1, 2014 "Wallbuilders Live." This is the episode in which Barton apparently said that women's suffrage was a bad thing.  There is a lot that is familiar in this episode.  As usual, Barton and his co-host Rick Green take their shots at the way history is taught in "government schools" (a slap in the face to all history teachers in public schools who are doing a wonderful job). They also continue to use the story of the American past to promote their political agenda in the present.  I have warned against this approach to history in both Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? and Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

Barton, of course, represents the Christian Right, but as this most recent incident shows, the Left is not immune from this kind of cherry picking and manipulation of evidence to promote their own political agenda.

Perhaps all of those historians (yes, some legitimate historians have jumped on the bandwagon) and pundits should listen to the entire Wallbuilders Live episode before hitting social media to skewer Barton for saying that women's suffrage was a bad thing.  If you listen to the entire context of this discussion of women's suffrage, you will notice several things:

1.  Nowhere in this episode does Barton say the 19th amendment was a bad thing or that women voting is a bad thing.  Listen for yourself.  Some might say he is implying this.  If someone wants to make this argument, it is a stretch.

2.  The clip I posted above has been edited.  The part of the discussion in which Barton and Green seem to suggest that women's suffrage is a positive development in American life has been cut out.

3.  Barton's culture war rhetoric often gets in the way of his historical assertions, but he is right about the way New Englanders understood the family.  It was patriarchal in nature and, as Edmund Morgan has argued, it was at the heart of New England Puritan life.  Barton believes that this kind of patriarchy should characterize families today.  But I am not sure his belief on this front is as newsworthy as the Right Wing watchdog websites make it out to be.  Millions of evangelicals embrace what is often called a "complementarian" position on marriage and support the right of women to vote.  In fact, if I remember my women's history correctly, many 19th-century women's suffragists held what today might be described as a "complementarian" position on marriage.  (Historians of American women--please correct me if I am wrong here).  While some might find this a reprehensible position, and I am not endorsing it here, the fact that Barton is calling for a kind of soft-complementarianism (he distinguishes it from the "tyranny" of the 17th-century Puritan father) is not really news.

4.  Barton is correct when he suggests that divorce was difficult in early America, although I do not know if one had to appeal to the legislature in order to get one.  (Can someone help me with this one?). On more contemporary matters, he is also correct that no-fault divorce has led to a rise in American divorces and divided families.  I think many conservatives and liberals think this is a problem in our culture.  Moreover, Barton's concern about the traditional family unit is not some kind of anti-intellectual rant.  Christopher Lasch, writing from a neo-Marxist perspective, defended the traditional family (although not necessary a patriarchal family) against that rise of individualism and consumer capitalism in 1977 with the publication of Haven in the Heartless World; The Family Besieged.  

4.  Barton is correct to suggest that voting in early America was often directly related to the ownership of property.  This, as he mentions several times, is why a few women could vote in some colonies and in early national New Jersey.  Barton's never said that this was a good thing or a bad thing.

5. Barton says that some property-owning women could vote in 17th-century New England.  This is true, but these were exceptions to the rule and very rare.

6.  The idea that single property-owning women somehow represented a "family unit," as Barton suggests, is overstated.  If some of the single property-owning women at Salem were considered a true Puritan "family" they probably would not have been accused of witchcraft.  At least this is what I learned in graduate school from reading Carol Karlsen.

7.  The original question asked of Barton (by a caller named Britton) was whether or not the founding fathers were "sexist" for not letting women vote.  While "sexist" is not an eighteenth-century term, the members of nearly all early state legislatures believed that women should not have the right to vote. Were there some exceptions?  Yes.  But to say that the founders and early framers of state constitutions made deliberate attempts to grant suffrage to women is not accurate.

In the end, Barton is trying to defend the Founders against charges that they were sexist.  (And he is once again very wrong on this front).  He is not trying to say that the 19th amendment was a bad thing. Of course we never heard the question that was asked because the edited clip making its way around the Internet is taken out of context.

Barton's words have been twisted here. Does Barton believe that the 19th amendment was a bad thing? I have no idea.  Did he make this claim in the May 1, 2014 episode of Wallbuilders Live?  I didn't hear it.

Indeed, those on the Left can also play fast and lose with the record.

I am guessing I am going to get hit hard from some of you.  Please fire away...  The comment section is open.