We Can Do Better Than the Suffragists

How many references to suffragists have you seen in the news lately? In April, the US Treasury announced that five suffragists will appear on the back of the new ten-dollar bill. Three months later, Hillary Clinton wore a white pantsuit — a reference to the suffragists’ white dresses — to become the first female presidential nominee of a major political party. Women dressed up as suffragists on election day and pressed their “I Voted” stickers on Susan B. Anthony’s headstone. As a suffrage historian, I delight in the heightened awareness of this defining women’s rights movement as we near the centennial of Nineteenth Amendment. But we also need to remember that the suffragists were an exclusive group. Not all of us identify with the prominent women in the current historical narrative. Suffragists won the vote when they successfully cultivated a public image that emphasized that they were a group of elite, educated, moral, and white women.1

History of Woman Suffrage

You might have noticed the spate of articles that covered the history of anti-women’s rights pictures amidst the misogyny of the 2016 election. America’s political women have encountered this imagery since the eighteenth century when cartoonists represented them as masculine revolutionaries (fig. 1-2). As suffragists organized during the mid-nineteenth century, they realized they needed to convince Americans that women were capable of making educated political decisions. So, they started shaping their movement’s public image with projects like the History of Woman Suffrage. Not just one book, it’s a series of six volumes that are roughly 1,000 pages each. It definitely took me several trips to lug all of those books home from the library.

Leading suffragists published them between 1881 and 1922, and they remain central to the movement’s historical narrative.2 The first editors, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, emphasized the role of educated white women as the movement’s founding mothers. They featured expensive engraved portraits of writer Margaret Fuller and lecturer Frances Wright alongside their own. Black reformers like author Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and lecturer Sojourner Truth, who worked closely with the editors, received little attention and certainly no portraits. Nor did the editors include pictures of any male suffragists, like Parker Pillsbury and Frederick Douglass. The editors did not need to prove that men could be political leaders, and affirming that black women — or anyone from the “lower orders,” as Stanton referred to people of Chinese, African, German, and Irish descent — were competent political actors was not important to them.3

White Women on Parade

Later generations of activists built on the public image established in the History of Woman Suffrage. In 1913, women marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC to demand a suffrage amendment. Perhaps you’ve seen a picture? If so, you have Alice Paul and her fellow organizers to thank. She planned this parade to take place the day before Woodrow Wilson’s presidential inauguration to ensure that reporters would be ready to document the spectacular protest. Suffragists of various backgrounds marched: homemakers, college graduates, and nurses (figs. 3-5). They wanted to emphasize that a variety of women sought the vote. Each group wore matching dresses, sashes, and hats to evoke their solidarity. Some photographs were sold as postcards, while others were printed in newspapers across the country.

In this segregated parade, black women were not allowed to march with other nurses or college graduates. They could only march alongside other black women. The New York Evening Journal’s diagram of the parade does not list them (fig. 6). Cars carried officers of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, but where were the cars for the leaders of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs? Why doesn’t it list the marchers from Delta Sigma Theta, a black sorority founded at Howard University earlier that year?4 Ida B. Wells, a suffragist famous for leading the anti-lynching movement, refused to march separately and integrated the Illinois delegation. But the suffragists didn’t publicize a picture of that.

The “Prettiest Pickets” Head to the White House

Four years later, suffragists launched the first-ever picket of the White House. As with the parade, they wanted Americans across the country to witness their protest. The National Woman’s Party, headed by Alice Paul, hired publicity professional Charles Heaslip. He thought the protest would provide “excellent photographic possibilities” and instructed them to “get six of your prettiest pickets” to the White House gates.5 Local photography firm Harris & Ewing captured the picketers in action: college graduates, Pennsylvania natives, and working women (figs. 7-9). Heaslip wanted picketers to be “pretty” according to dominant white ideals of beauty; think Charles Dana’s fashionable Gibson Girl. Like the editors of the History of Woman Suffrage decades earlier, the National Woman’s Party knew suffragists still had to counter imagery that satirized political women as masculine.

Respectability and Black Womanhood

Instead of convincing the public that all women deserved the vote, white suffragists were concerned with convincing the public that they deserved the vote. Black women had to combat prejudices against women and dark skin on their own. Mary Church Terrell, the National Association of Colored Women’s first president and founding member of Delta Sigma Theta, became an icon of educated, respectable black womanhood. Born to the South’s first black millionaire, she was a light-skinned woman who graduated from Oberlin College. Her portrait circulated widely in the black press and advertisements for her lectures (figs. 10-11). She cultivated her public image as a respectable leader, which made her appealing to white suffragists. The National American Woman Suffrage Association invited her to speak at several national and international meetings. Since black women were largely excluded from their organization, Terrell’s appearances were remarkable. These invitations suggested that black women backed their cause without emphasizing that a suffrage amendment would enfranchise black women as well.

Forward

Even today, when most people think of a suffragist, they think of an elite, educated white woman. In histories of suffrage, black women’s organizations and their leaders are still not central to the narrative. In 2020, we’ll be commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment. As with the flawed male figures celebrated on our currency, memorials, and in musicals, it’s okay to highlight the positive things white suffragists did as long as we acknowledge their shortcomings. The fact that women can vote today is unequivocally a good thing, but we need to resist the historical narrative they handed down to us. In 2020, after voting for a new president, I hope we’ll have some voters pressing stickers to Mary Church Terrell’s headstone too.

As feminists organize in response to the current political climate, we can’t model our activism after that of the suffragists. Our efforts need to be intersectional in a way these women could not have imagined. We can’t know what would have happened if white suffrage groups had invited Terrell and her colleagues to define their platform. Instead, we can organize our own better, stronger coalitions that acknowledge our differences even as they bind us together.

Notes

  1. For more, see Allison Lange, “Images of Change: Picturing Woman’s Rights from American Independence through the Nineteenth Amendment” (PhD diss., Brandeis University, 2014). Return to text.
  2. Lisa Tetrault, Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014). Return to text.
  3. Michele Mitchell, “‘Lower Orders,’ Racial Hierarchies, and Rights Rhetoric: Evolutionary Echoes in Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Thought during the Late 1860s,” in Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Feminist as Thinker: A Reader in Documents and Essays, ed. Ellen Carol DuBois and Richard Cándida Smith (New York: New York University Press, 2007). Return to text.
  4. See the chapter “Performing and Politicizing ‘Ladyhood’: Black Washington Women and New Negro Suffrage Activism” in Treva Lindsay, “Configuring Modernities: New Negro Womanhood in the Nation’s Capitol, 1890-1940” (PhD diss., Duke University, 2010). See also her forthcoming book, Colored No More: Reinventing Black Womanhood in DC, which will be published in April 2017. Return to text.
  5. Charles Heaslip to Alice Paul, January 1917, Alice Paul Papers; Mary Walton, A Woman’s Crusade: Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballot (New York: Macmillan, 2010), 156–157. Return to text.

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