Equal wages for all, improvements in education, the abolition of political parties: Edward Bellamy’s bestselling utopian novel, Looking Backward, is full of what his contemporaries considered radical ideas. In fact, Bellamy openly expressed less-than-traditional ideas throughout his writing career. It stands to reason, then, that women’s suffrage would have been among the many social changes his novel proposed—except it wasn’t.
On the issue of women’s rights, Bellamy’s thoughts were certainly progressive for a man of the Victorian era. This may have been due in part to the influential women in his life who strongly believed in education for girls. His mother, with whom he was especially close, had attended a female academy and retained a lifelong interest in reading nonfiction1; his mother’s sister, Harriet Putnam Packer, donated $65,000 in memory of her husband to rebuild the Brooklyn Female Academy after it was destroyed by fire in 1853.2
The birth of his daughter, Marion, also reinforced his belief that women should not be limited in their life choices by a financial dependence on men. In an interview the year after Looking Backward was published, he said, “I would leave a woman as free in her choice of a life-companion as man has always been. Not to do so is a tyranny that has only been maintained in this age of intelligence by force of the poverty among women as a class. Under my system men will be chosen on their individual merit, and not because they can ‘support a wife.’”3 However, while he talks about social equality, he does not mention suffrage.
A look through some of his earlier writings reveals Bellamy’s strong opinions on the subject. In a letter published in the Golden Age when he was twenty-one, he writes that women could not have the vote because they were physically inferior to men. In his view, a law should not be enacted if its supporters could not enforce it with physical force when necessary. Should women gain the right to vote, it would be unclear whether the majority had the power needed to enforce the law, resulting in “a general want of confidence in [the laws’] authority and stability, and a consequent backwardness in conforming to them.” Rather than benefitting the women who would now have a say in government, he argued that women’s suffrage would delegitimize suffrage as a whole, “destroy[ing] its usefulness as a political instrument.”4
Although Bellamy does not go so far as to say that giving women the vote would bring about the collapse of democracy in Looking Backward, hints of his thoughts on women’s physical inferiority still appear in the novel. In his society of the future, people have generally accepted the equality of women. However, only men with experience in the industrial army and an understanding of how it works are allowed to vote for the president. As women work fewer hours, have more frequent vacations, and work in a similar but separate labor force, it appears that their comparative lack of physical strength still affects the roles they are able to take on.5
Despite not coming out in favor of women’s suffrage in his novel, Bellamy’s ideas did gain the support of many women, as well as interest from several prominent advocates for women’s rights. Among them were Mary Livermore, Abby Morton Diaz, and Frances Willard, all of whom were suffragists and two of whom (Diaz and Willard) were very interested in labor issues.6 It was important that the women in Looking Backward earned the same wages as their male counterparts and had autonomy in their decision to marry—issues that some 19th-century reformers and activists saw as interrelated with the right to vote.
Bellamy did modify his vision for women somewhat by the time he published his sequel to Looking Backward.7 For example, the women in this novel are physically stronger and able to work in a wider variety of occupations than before, and they engage in physical exercise and athletic competitions alongside men.8 If, in Bellamy’s view, physical strength was a requirement of suffrage, it seems that he may have believed society would eventually grant women the right to vote after all.
- Sylvia Bowman, The Year 2000 (New York: Bookman Associates, 1958) 16-7.
- The school was renamed the Packer Collegiate Institute and still exists today. “History,” The Packer Collegiate Institute, https://www.packer.edu/about/fast-facts/history-archives (accessed August 9, 2020).
- Frances E. Willard, “An Interview with Edward Bellamy,” Our Day, Vol. 4 (December 1889), 540.
- Edward Bellamy, “Woman Suffrage Impracticable,” Golden Age, August 12, 1871, 2.
- Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward (1888; repr., New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1996) 94, 124-5.
- Willard, 539, 541.
- Equality, the sequel to Looking Backward, was published in 1897.
- Edward Bellamy, Equality (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1897) 43-44, 144-145.