Forgotten Americana – The Women’s Suffrage Movement


Spring 2004 (Vol V, No. 1) Table of Contents

This is the third article on the American women’s suffrage movement. All three are overviews in which I’ve tried to emphasize the major books and ephemera of the period. Although much new material continues to appear, The History of Woman Suffrage is still the main source of information.

“Dr Gannon told me I must be fed. …I was held down by five people…Gannon pushed the tube up left nostril…It hurts nose and throat very much and makes nose bleed freely…Operation leaves one very sick.” Lucy Burns in a note smuggled out of jail, where she was leading a protest against jailed suffragists treatment in 1917. (1)

After nearly seventy-five years of unsuccessful attempts to pass a federal amendment giving women the vote, the Susan B. Anthony amendment passed in 1919. Why was the drive for suffrage finally successful after seventy-five years? There were a number of reasons. Suffrage had finally become respectable after the largest suffrage association, NAWSA, the National American Woman Suffrage Association, worked to gain social acceptance for the movement. Younger and more militant women, inspired by British suffrage workers, embarrassed politicians and the Wilson administration into supporting suffrage. Increasing political sophistication, better communications, the influence of the national progressive movement, and the new consumer movement were factors as well. And, as 19th Century leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had predicated, the time had finally come for right to prevail

Much of the collectible suffrage ephemera now available (mostly on ebay but also, occasionally, from dealers and private sellers) was printed between 1900 and 1920. The onslaught of suffrage paper increased after 1910, and posters, fliers (must have been hundreds, maybe thousands of these), postcards, trade cards, ads, articles, debate manuals, fund-raising items like cookbooks, and periodicals were produced by both the pro and the anti suffrage groups. Suffrage sheet music and romance novels were popular, there was Stanton soap and beauty and health hints dedicated to “Aunt” Susan.

Both pro and anti suffrage arguments, influenced by the increasingly strong reform and progressive movements, were different from 19th century arguments based on traditional values, democratic ideals, the Bible, and the constitution. Twentieth century debate was less lofty, appealing more to self-interest and less to the rightness of the cause.

Pro suffrage supporters argued that women who could vote would clean up society much as they cleaned up their homes: the evils of alcohol, poverty, and crime would yield to the cleansing brush of the woman’s vote. Antis argued that women could be more effective as reformers and as workers to alleviate the misery in society if they were not involved in the political process. Once women became committed to political action and parties they would, like men, lose their ability to act altruistically.

The anti suffrage movement had gathered members and money between 1895 and 1910. NAOW, the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, with an estimated membership of 200,000, passed out leaflets, took out ads, organized meetings, and continued to argue that women were more effective reformers when they stayed out of politics. (2)

Collectibles of the anti suffrage movement are very similar in type to those of the suffrage movement. Remonstrance, published in Boston, was the leading anti suffrage paper. Early anti suffrage books had often been written by men, frequently by clergymen, but women dominated in print by the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Helen Kendrick Johnson’s popular book, Woman and the Republic, published in 1897, effectively presented the antis’ arguments, and a number of other women writers including prominent journalist, Ida Tarbell, produced anti suffrage books. (3)

The October 1913 issue of Remonstrance includes articles arguing that legislation limiting women’s working hours and requiring additional safety measures for women will be eliminated if women have the vote, that women are more effective as independent workers for civic reform, and that, yes, women’s place is in the home as God and nature intended. There is also much criticism of the militant tactics of British suffragettes, with Emmeline Pankhurst as a particular target.

Antis also used uglier tactics. Scare leaflets and ads linking suffrage with socialism, communism, atheism, and anarchy, as well the very popular cartoon postcards (usually depicting a dominating caricature of a woman smoking a cigarette while her submissive husband did the wash and cared for the children) were common, as were anti suffrage jokes and cartoons in newspapers and periodicals like Judge and Life.

Much of the increased attention resulted from the pro suffrage movement’s steady gains. At the same time women worked through state organizations to pass amendments, the push for a federal amendment continued. Although a Congressional amendment enfranchising all woman citizens, first introduced in 1868, was introduced every year after that, NAWSA had long focused on the passage of state amendments.

In 1906, the year of Susan B. Anthony’s death, women had achieved voting status in only four states: Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Idaho. A disastrous non-binding referendum in Massachusetts in 1895 (most women, at the urging of the antis had stayed home to show that women did not want to vote) had strengthened the suffrage opponents’ argument that many women either did not care about or did not want the vote. By 1900 anti suffrage forces were increasingly organized, the old suffrage leaders had retired or died, and the movement appeared stalled.

Suffrage leaders knew the “radical” image, which had haunted the movement for half a century and turned middle-class women away, had to be changed, and historians of the suffrage movement now see the period between 1900 and 1910 as significant for the progress made toward making involvement in the movement not only respectable, but socially desirable.

Before her death in 1906, Anthony had recognized the need to change the image of the movement and had urged younger leaders to gain acceptance by drawing the socially and financially elite into the movement. Memories of her “unwomanly” youthful radicalism had faded and she was well on the way to sainthood, an idealized icon of the movement, the womanly, domestic Aunt Susan who symbolized a socially acceptable reform movement. Her long-time friend and co-worker, Stanton, who definitely did not become “conservative when old” had become something of an embarrassment and was de-emphasized.

Carrie Chapman Catt, Anthony’s choice to succeed her as President of NAWSA, and Anna Howard Shaw led the drive for respectability. They made a successful effort to draw wealthy, elite women into the movement, giving it social cachet, though the tactics were not such as would draw more militant, reform-minded women who found leaders in Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, and Harriot Stanton Blatch (Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s daughter).

NAWSA’s approach worked. Between 1906 and 1910 membership increased from about 12,000 to more than 117,000, a dramatic increase, and by 1916 there were over 200,000 members. A tightly organized campaign and a million dollar legacy from Mrs. Frank Leslie helped strengthen NAWSA’s position. (4)

Collectibles from the first decade of the twentieth century include the usual meeting notices and convention-related material, as well as more of the “official” documents of the movement. Volume 4 of The History of Woman Suffrage was published in 1902 and Volumes 5 and 6, written by Ida Husted Harper, Anthony’s carefully chosen biographer, appeared in 1922 and cover the twentieth century movement. Volume 3 of The Life and Works of Susan B. Anthony, also written by Harper, was published in 1908. Both The Life and Works andThe History continued to be available from NAWSA headquarters through most of this period.

Several groups, leaders, and philosophies (sometimes conflicting) were at work during the second decade of the century. NAWSA, the oldest and most conservative suffrage organization, was increasingly effective politically, utilizing committees in states where suffrage amendments had passed to influence elections and garner support for passage of the federal amendment. This, combined with the politically-oriented and popular approach of the Women’s Political Union, headed by Harriot Stanton Blatch, and the confrontational approach of the National Woman’s Party, led by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, led to the successful passage of the 19th amendment, but keeping the cast of characters straight during this period of time is difficult and unnecessary in an overview of the movement. It’s helpful, however, to the collector or bookseller trying to identify the source of the many leaflets and pamphlets from this period, to be aware of the number of sometimes competing groups. These have been analyzed in recent scholarly books; a few of the most useful are listed in the bibliography.

Between 1910 and 1915 seven more states (mostly western) had passed suffrage amendments and by 1920, another seventeen states had done so. When the federal amendment was finally ratified in 1920, 339 of 531 presidential electors represented states in which women could vote. This, of course, made possible political action, capitalizing on the support of those states in which women could vote,

By 1912 popular suffrage novels, sheet music, ads, postcards, books of argument aimed at high school and college debaters as well as Suffrage Schools established by NAWSA had become common.

World War I presented a dilemma—to continue the fight for suffrage or to hold off in deference to the war effort. The NAWSA, while not abandoning the fight entirely, largely adopted the second course. The New Woman’s Party, led by Paul and Burns, who learned their tactics from the British Women’s Social and Political Union led by the Pankhursts, did not. Instead they pointed to the contradiction of “fighting for democracy” when the nation excluded women from voting. They embarrassed the administration with parades and demonstrations, set fire to copies of presidential speeches and chained themselves to the fence of the White House. The government obligingly martyred them with increasingly lengthy jail sentences, in terrible conditions, and force-feeding. The conflict, though never as extreme as the British suffrage battle, became increasingly violent.

Two especially interesting and fairly available first-hand accounts of the period by New Woman’s Party leaders are Doris Stevens’ Jailed for Freedom and Inez Haynes Irwin’s The Story of the Woman’s Partyreprinted as Up Hill With Banners Flying. Yes, she’s also the author of Maida’s Little House.

Some of the most interesting and elusive books of the period are by suffrage workers recounting their experience during this period. That it was a “peak’ experience for the women involved is clear. Their reminiscences, like the reminiscences of war veterans, are full of the desire to tell “what really happened” and reflect the great significance the events had to the teller. Some of these accounts have not been reprinted and are serendipitous finds for the collector.

Accounts by NAWSA leaders and historians, Harper, Catt, Shaw and others are more readily available than Women’s Party material and are listed in the bibliography.

By 1918, with the war over, a suffrage amendment passed in New York, and with a President now committed to the suffrage cause, prospects for passage of a federal amendment looked good.

There was still plenty of resistance, however. The Susan B. Anthony amendment passed in the House, but two more votes were needed in the Senate. Two postponements of a Senate vote led to renewed picketing by the NWP. Forty-eight women were arrested and sentenced to fifteen days in jail. The vote was rescheduled after an embarrassed President Wilson took the unusual step of personally addressing the Senate, but the amendment again failed by two votes. In 1919, the House again passed the amendment, but the Senate was still one vote short. After considerable maneuvering, the amendment finally passed on June 4 of 1919. It was ratified in fifteen months and in 1920 women all over the United States were eligible to vote.

Notes

 

  1. Irwin, Inez Haynes. Up Hill with Banners Flying. (Traversity Press, 1964) p. 289.
  2. Jablonski, T. “Female Opposition The Anti-Suffrage Campaign” in Jean H. Baker, Editor, Votes for Women: The Struggle for Suffrage Revisited. (NY: Oxford University Press, 2001) p. 206.
  3. Thurner, Manuela. “Better Citizens Without the Ballot” from One Woman One Vote. (Troutdale, OR: Newsage Press, 1995) p. 206.
  4. Fowler, Robert Booth & Spencer Jones. “Carrie Chapman Catt and the Last Years” in Jean H. Baker, Editor, Votes for Women: The Struggle for Suffrage Revisited. (NY: Oxford University Press, 2001) p. 139.

Primary Sources

Blatch, Harriot Stanton and Alma Lutz. Challenging Years: The Memoirs of Harriot Stanton Blatch.
Catt, Carrie Chapman, and Nettie Rogers Shuler. Woman Suffrage and Politics: The Inner Story of the Suffrage Movement.
Irwin, Inez Haynes. “Up Hill with Banners Flying” The Story of the Woman’s Party. Originally titled The Story of the Woman’s Party. First-hand account with many quotes from NWP members.
National American Woman Suffrage Association. Victory How Women Won It: A Centennial Symposium 1840 – 1940. A collection of articles including one by Carrie Chapman Catt and several by her biographer, Mary Gray Peck.
Shaw, Anna Howard. The Story of a Pioneer. Shaw’s autobiography.
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady; Anthony, Susan B.; Gage, Matilda Joslin; and Harper, Ida Husted. The History of Woman Suffrage. The six volumes were published between 1881 and 1922. The first three volumes are by Stanton, Anthony, and Gage, Volume 4 is by Anthony and Harper, and Volumes 5 and 6 are by Harper. They have been reprinted a number of times and are also available on CD-ROM.
Stevens, Doris. Jailed for Freedom. Probably the most readily available first-hand account of the NWP.

Secondary Sources

Baker, Jean H., Editor. Votes for Women The Struggle for Suffrage Revisited. A good and very readable collection of articles.
Dubois, Ellen Carol. Harriot Stanton Blatch and the Winning of Woman Suffrage. Dubois may exaggerate Blatch’s importance a little, but the story of the 1915 New York suffrage campaign is interesting.
Jablonsky, Thomas. The Home, Heaven and the Mother Party: Female Antisuffrage in the United States 1868-1920.
Kraditor, Aileen S. The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement. Classic.
Linkugel, Wil A. Anna Howard Shaw: Suffrage Orator and Social Reformer.
Lunardini, Christine. From Equal Suffrage to Equal Rights: Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party, 1910-1928. Lunardini’s discussion of the NWP is as complete as any I’ve found, especially since no biography of Alice Paul is available. Contains a helpful bibliography of secondary sources.
Peck, Mary Gray. Carrie Chapman Catt: A Biography.
Van Voris, Jacqueline. Carrie Chapman Catt: A Public Life. Most recent biography of Catt.
Wheeler, Marjorie Spruill, Editor. One Woman, One Vote: Rediscovering the Woman Suffrage Movement. Good, scholarly introduction to the historical issues.

 

Martha Kelly
Gutenberg Books
mkelly03@rochester.rr.com

 

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