Opinion: Did the Founding Fathers deny women the vote to preserve the family?

Suffragists celebrating ratification of the woman's right-to-vote amendment in 1920 by sewing stars on a flag, each star representing a state that voted to ratify.
(Associated Press )

By now we should be inured to the often flabbergasting claims of the far right, but self-styled historian David Barton has upped the ante: The Founding Fathers denied women the right to vote to preserve the American family.

Um, no.

Barton, if you’re not familiar with him, is a self-educated historian who gets most of his play on Glenn Beck’s coattails. He flirted with running for the U.S. Senate from Texas last year, which really would have been interesting in a “will the train crash?” kind of way. Alas, he decided not to.

He still has a platform, though, through Beck and his own, “dedicated to presenting America’s forgotten history and heroes, with an emphasis on the moral, religious, and constitutional foundation on which America was built.” Last week on a program called “Wallbuilders Live,” Barton trotted out his theory that biblical principles led the Founding Fathers to deny women the vote, and the decision was based on a desire to preserve the family unit.


“And you have to remember, back then, husband and wife, I mean the two were considered one. That is the biblical precept. That is the way they looked at them in the civil community. That is a family that is voting and so the head of the family is traditionally considered to be the husband and even biblically still continues to be so....

“Now, as we’ve moved away from the family unit — you need to be independent from the family, don’t be chained down and be a mother and don’t be chained down and be a father and don’t be chained down to your parents, you know, we’ve moved into more of a family anarchy kind of thing, the ‘Modern Family’ kind of portrayal — that understanding has gone away.

“Clearly, what [the listener] has asked is a brilliant question because it does reveal that the bigotry we’re told they held back then, they didn’t hold, and what they did was they put the family unit higher than the government unit and they tried to work hard to keep the family together ... and they crafted their policies to protect a strong family.”

The folks at offer a deep debunking of Barton’s view of the history of the vote (the transcript above also is theirs), as has Americans United for Separation of Church and State. And there’s a history to Barton’s history: People for the American Way two years ago blasted him as an intellectual charlatan:


“Scholars have criticized Barton for presenting facts out of context or in misleading ways, but that hasn’t stopped him from promoting his theories through books, television, and, yes, the textbooks that will teach the next generation of Americans. He promotes conspiracy theories about elites hiding the truth from average Americans in order to undermine the nation from within. Last summer, he declared that liberal and media attacks on the tea party were just like attacks on Jesus. In February, Barton spoke at the Connect 2011 Pastors Conference, where he said that Christians needed to control the culture and media so that ‘guys that have a secular viewpoint cannot survive.’ Said Barton, ‘If the press lacks moral discrimination, it’s because we haven’t been pushing our people to chop that kind of news off.’

“Barton’s work is not just an academic exercise. It is meant to have a political impact. For Barton, ‘documenting’ the divine origins of his interpretations of the Constitution gives him and his political allies a potent weapon. Barton promotes a false reality in which anyone who opposes any element of his political agenda stands in opposition to both the Founding Fathers and to God. He believes that everything in our society — government, the judiciary, the economy, the family — should be governed according to the Bible, and he promotes a view of the Bible and Jesus that many Christians would not recognize. Opponents, even Christians, who disagree with Barton about tax policy or the powers of Congress are not only wrong, they are un-American and anti-religious, enemies of America and of God.”

So why should we care about a fringe figure spouting patently and provably false versions of American history? Because people listen to him. His past endorsers include Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich, and his “The Jefferson Lies” book of purported history was a New York Times bestseller before critiques of the flawed research led publisher Thomas Nelson to withdraw the book from the marketplace.