The Past is Female: Tales of the Suffragette Revolution

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Suffragettes rallying in a car

For the past few years, a popular t-shirt has been sighted on social media and at rallies across the nation. Maybe you’ve seen it…The Future is Female. It’s an exciting and optimistic message that has, and continues to, inspire women and men on the prospect of more women entering politics specifically, or simply making a difference in general. However, examples of societal change by women are as old as the republic itself. But the most exciting transforming events for women happened during the suffragette movement when women demanded and won the right to vote. Here are some stories from the suffragette revolution.

New York State

The State of New York was ground zero for the women’s suffragette movement. In 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and other like-minded women convened the first Woman’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York.

“That it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.” — Woman’s Rights Convention

A photo portrait of Alva Vanderbilt c.1919
Alva Vanderbilt Belmont (circa 1919) was an ardent suffragist who devoted much of her fortune to the cause. Courtesy Library of Congress. Image sourced from Women in Long Island’s Past.

These women, who would soon include Susan B. Anthony, worked ceaselessly for woman’s rights and suffrage. There, power remained scant and failed to grow much beyond New York. It wasn’t until several wealthy Long Island women, including Katherine Duer Mackay and Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, brought financial support to the suffrage movement in the early 1900s. After her second husband’s death in 1908, Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont dedicated her energies to suffrage and women’s causes, inviting suffrage leaders to her Newport, Rhode Island mansion, and in founding the Political Equality Association (PEA).

Photo portraits of Harriet Stanton Blanch (left) and Harriet Burton Law (right)
(Left) Harriot Stanton Blatch (circa 1917) brought radical suffrage tactics to New York from England and held suffrage events at her Shoreham home. Courtesy Bryn Mawr College Library, Special Collections, C.C. Catt Collection.

(Right) Harriet Burton Laidlaw (circa 1917) and her husband held offices in national and state suffrage organizations and hosted suffrage events at their Sands Point home. Courtesy Bryn Mawr College Library, Special Collections, C.C. Catt Collection.

Images sourced from Women in Long Island’s Past.

Other notable New York State suffragettes came from the ground up — Cady Stanton’s younger daughter Harriot Stanton had the suffrage movement in her blood. After assisting her mother and Susan B. Anthony with their book History of Woman Suffrage, Harriet Stanton travelled in Europe, observing more radical suffrage strategies. Upon returning to New York, she and her British husband and their daughter, Nora, moved to New York City where they lived with her mother, Cady Stanton, her aunt and her brother. She organized what became the Women’s Political Union (WPU) and held street meetings and parades, which became popular and respectable annual events. Her efforts led Blatch to work closely with Alva Belmont and the radical wing of the suffrage movement.

Massachusetts

In the early twentieth century, Massachusetts was the nation’s most urban state, with three-quarters of its residents living in cities, teeming with impoverished immigrants who sought relief from low wages, long hours, and dangerous working conditions. Economically advantaged white women had more freedom to explore political activism as demonstrated in the formation of the Massachusetts Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1893. By 1900, more than eight thousand Massachusetts women belonged to over fifty-five women’s clubs, with the woman suffrage movement being a major beneficiary. Both well-to-do and blue collar women would join forces, and thrive.

Photo portrait of Mary Kenney O’Sullivan
Mary Kenney O’Sullivan. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University. Image sourced from Massachusetts in the Woman Suffrage Movement.

In 1903, the Women’s Trade Union League was founded, representing Massachusetts’ spectrum of women. Just look at it two founders: Mary Kenney O’Sullivan was the daughter of Irish immigrants, who was convinced that women must organize to improve working conditions. She established a union of women bookbinders in Chicago and was the first national woman organizer of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). In contrast, Mary Morton Kimball Kehew’s maternal grandfather had been governor of Massachusetts, her father was a banker, and her husband was a wealthy oil merchant. The two women founded an auxiliary of the Union for Industrial Progress to encourage trade unionism among women. Their activism culminated in the formation of the Women’s Trade Union League, which would be an umbrella organization of women’s trade unions dedicated to supporting existing labor unions, aiding the formation of new ones, and advancing legislation to improve pay and working conditions. Neighboring suffragists found kinship in the progressive, like-minded activists in the labor movement, and saw advantages to an alliance.

Virginia

Like New York State, Virginia had a long tradition of women suffragettes. Through groups like the Equal Suffrage League and the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, suffragists came to believe that an amendment to the Constitution of the United States was the best way to secure voting rights for all women. Those women endorsed what was called the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, which Anthony had drafted in 1875, and the U.S. Constitution’s Fifteenth Amendment stating, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

A street view of a suffrage parade in Washington, D.C.
Thousands of suffragists, including more than one hundred from Virginia, marched in the woman suffrage parade in Washington, D.C., on March 3, 1913. Library of Congress. Image sourced from The Campaign for Woman Suffrage in Virginia.

For standout leaders in Virginia, look no further than Alice Paul, who helped to reinvigorate the national campaign for an amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Born into a well-off Quaker family with a belief in equal rights and woman suffrage, Paul participated in numerous events, became an organizer, and was arrested multiple times. Frustrated with the state-by-state campaigns, she joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association and became chair of its Congressional Committee. In 1913, she triumphed organizing a suffrage parade with floats, bands, mounted brigades and groups of women marching behind banners in color-coordinated attire, with as many as eight thousand women participating.

Tennessee

After failing to pass for several decades, the 19th Amendment finally succeeded in both chambers of congress on June 4, 1919. Within a month, eleven state legislatures had ratified the amendment. Needing three-fourths of states to ratify, the 19th Amendment stalled, and Suffragists held out hope that Delaware, North Carolina or Tennessee would be the “Perfect 36th” state. Even though a significant number of Tennessee voters in both parties opposed suffrage, a voted was scheduled for August 5. Carrie Chapman Catt barnstormed the Volunteer State on a speaking tour. It would all come down to one man’s vote in the Tennessee legislature.

Harry T. Burn and other officials shaking hands with suffragettes on the steps of the state capitol
Burn (above right) shakes hands with Anita Pollitzer on the steps of the state capitol. Courtesy of the Burn family. Image sourced from Tennessee Statesman Harry T. Burn.

Poor Harry T. Burn, the Tennessee politician who was pressured from all sides for his support, both for and against women’s suffrage — Burn had the power to put it over the top and enfranchise millions of American women. Despite urging from peers, supporters, and mentors, Burn ultimately voted in favor…because his mother told him to! On August 18, 1920, the Tennessee General Assembly ratified the 19th Amendment. American women had won the right to vote.