Image of the instructive card sold with the Little Suffragist Doll pattern

The Little Suffragist Doll: Cotton, White Supremacy, and Sweet Little Dolls

What does a pattern for doll-making have to tell us about the racial and gender politics of American suffragists in the 1910s? The Little Suffragist Doll sewing pattern from 1914 seems quite simple. Her front and back printed on cotton cloth, this smiling little doll-in-waiting begs to be made three-dimensional. She is rosy-cheeked and bedecked with yellow suffrage roses, representing an attempt on the part of mainstream suffragists to convince the public that suffragism had not damaged their feminine sensibilities or maternal impulses. A mother might make this doll with her daughter, showing that maternal care could be fused with the desire for the vote. But this floppy fabric girl is more complicated than she seems. What she cries out for is not just the vote, but also the use of Southern cotton and the end of child labor. Understood in context, this doll illuminates the complex strategies of mainstream suffrage organizing, bringing together concerns about motherhood, the Southern economy, child labor, and white supremacy.

Lillian E. Whitteker, an artist and suffragist from Cincinnati, designed and circulated this simple sewing project in 1914. The instructions assume almost no expertise, leaving little to the stitcher’s creativity. Even the stuffing material is outlined: “cotton batting makes the best stuffing.” The card that came with the pattern reinforces this point, revealing cotton to be perhaps the most important aspect of this project. The card reads:

“Buy-a-Bale” “Buy-a-Doll” and Use the Cotton Up. These dolls can be put together and stuffed by the child, so simple are they in outline. A number of them made up and displayed to advantage by the retailer would greatly increase their sales. Wholesale price 17 cents each in lots of 500 15 cents each in lots of 5000.1

This card confirms that the use of cotton was the ultimate goal. Made simply, the doll might be stitched by children, but also might be fabricated in huge quantities (lots of 5,000!) and displayed to encourage the purchase of cotton. Together, suffragist mothers and daughters might help to “Use the Cotton Up.”

Photo of the street outside the capitol building; a group a women in white march; more women dressed in dark colors are marching in front of them
Women march on Pennsylvania Avenue NW leaving the U.S. Capitol grounds demanding the right to vote (c. March 3, 1913). (Washington Area Spark)

“‘Buy-a-Bale’ ‘Buy-a-Doll’ and Use the Cotton Up”

In July 1914, World War I broke out in Europe, crushing European demand for American cotton. Southern cotton farmers saw their goods languishing in the marketplace and feared total collapse of the market. The 1914 crop had been the biggest in U.S. history and millions of bales of cotton suddenly seemed near valueless.2 Cotton farmers and buyers quickly developed an agreement: this cotton would be withheld from the market. Politicians, businessmen, and housewives alike agreed to a flat rate of ten cents per pound for cotton bales and all buyers agreed not to sell their bales for at least a year. Buyers who supported the movement were told that they might even turn a profit on their “distress cotton.”3 Many organizations, including the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), saw the campaign as a chance to show their support for the Southern economy. For years, NAWSA had been working to court Southern suffragists and endorsement of the “buy-a-bale” movement seemed like a perfect opportunity.

NAWSA president Dr. Anna Howard Shaw led the national organization’s official “buy-a-bale” campaign, sending checks to fourteen affiliated state associations to support the purchase of cotton bales. These state chapters were instructed to “buy a bale of cotton and hold it until the market recovered.”4 Many associations urged their own membership to increase their cotton purchasing, not necessarily as an investment, but as a product to use in the home.5 Lillian Whitteker designed the doll in this context, as a tool to support the Southern economy and celebrate the maternalism of suffragists as they protected the cotton market and the little children.

Moral Mothers Against Child Labor

Image of a cotton pattern for making the Little Suffragist Doll. The doll is wearing a yellow dress and yellow roses and has a pennant reading ‘Votes for Women’ on its chest. Instructions for making the doll are printed on the bottom right of the sheet of cotton.
Lillian E. Whitteker, “Little Suffragist Doll,” pattern on cotton fabric. (Breckenridge Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress/08.00.00)

This maternalism was strategic. Not only was it an argument against antisuffragist propaganda that characterized suffragists as failed mothers or, worse still, women who would seek to abandon motherhood completely, it also established a way for suffragists to voice their concerns about child labor. Suffrage organizers used the “buy-a-bale” campaign as a way to enable their own interventions into discussions of Southern labor practices. The Kentucky Equal Rights Association (KERA) bought a bale of cotton and shared at the NAWSA convention that they “call … upon the cotton manufacturers to abolish the blot of child labor from the industry in the South, if they desire the mothers of Southern children to stand by the cotton industry.”6 They framed their intervention as the concern of mothers for children. The Little Suffragist Doll was a part of this strategy; a copy of the pattern is in the collection of Madeline McDowell Breckenridge, president of the KERA in 1914.7

Suffrage activists often spoke about the evils of child labor, and cotton mills were a common example. Florence Kelley, vice president of NAWSA, decried the mills in South Carolina for “greedily claim[ing] children” as young as six, arguing that voting mothers could make child labor concerns national issues.8 Other activists targeted the labor practices in Georgia’s cotton mills, arguing that empowering women to take part in policymaking would help ensure the end of child labor.9 Members of the St. Louis Equal Suffrage League used a cotton bale as a podium for their speeches; the “buy-a-bale” movement was a literal and figurative platform for suffragists to wield their maternal influence.10

The Little Suffragist Doll, then, was not simply a vehicle for assuaging the economic concerns of Southern suffragists, but also a way to represent idealized childhood, protected by an imagined female electorate. Her plump arms, smooth skin, and neat dress all marked this girl as exempted from labor. She was made to be stuffed with cotton, softened by it, not to have any hand in its production. She represented the object of suffragist protection: a little white girl ready to support her (white) mother’s right to vote.

Suffrage and White Supremacy

While “buy-a-bale” suffragists sought to ensure that their interventions in the cotton market might make it safer for children, they turned a blind eye to the fact that the protections of the movement were almost exclusively extended to white laborers. When Black farmers brought their cotton to market in 1914, many found themselves abandoned by buyers.11 Politicians and businessmen had worked to create agreements with many big cotton mills that only employed white workers and ensured that other white planters would be protected. Black farmers, more likely to be tenant farmers and sharecroppers, had been left in the cold. While farmers who owned their land might be able to weather a drop in prices, sharecroppers could not and those who did find buyers for their crop might never see profits.12 The campaign made white planters the objects of concern, leaving Black workers in a state worse than freefall. Not only were they excluded from external support measures, but their efforts at self-support were actively thwarted by the same officials who supported the campaign.13

Shaw saw the “buy-a-bale” campaign as a way to court Southern suffragists, who were concerned that Northern suffragists would “force upon [Southern suffragists] … the social equality of Black and white women.”14 She worked to reassure Southern suffragists that racial equality would not be a central part of NAWSA’s mission. When a Black delegate to the 1911 NAWSA convention in Louisville, Kentucky, attempted to pass a resolution against disenfranchisement on the basis of sex and race, Shaw quashed it, saying “I am in favor of colored people voting, but white women have no enemy in the world who does more to defeat our amendment … than colored men.”15 Although Shaw blocked a 1906 proposal from Southern suffragists for an all-white suffrage organization, her presidency was marked by a growing capitulation to white supremacy.16 That same year, Laura Clay (KERA president until 1912) wrote, “[NAWSA] has always recognized the usefulness of woman suffrage … as a means of legally preserving white supremacy in the South.”17

In 1903, Shaw addressed the NAWSA convention, bemoaning the “humiliation” that white women in the South faced as “the ballot [was put] in the hands of … black men, thus making them the political superiors of … white women.”18 And in 1914, NAWSA demonstrated its continued willingness to subsume questions of racial equality and amplify fears of white victimization. This language of white victimization animated the machinations of white supremacy; framed as maternal protection, the “buy-a-bale” campaign gave material and rhetorical support to racist exclusion and violence.

The cotton bale was a podium to advocate for child protection and white supremacy, both brought to life by the specter of whiteness under threat. The Little Suffragist Doll, her pale skin ready to be plumped by the buoyant whiteness of cotton, framed women’s suffrage as a protective force, one that might be directed towards (white) children, struggling (white) farmers, and (white) women seeking empowerment in the South. The suffrage movement was diverse and polyvocal, but this effort sought to freeze the object of mainstream suffrage organizing, bounded in the image of the vulnerable, white child.

Notes

  1. Lillian E. Whitteker “Little Suffragist Doll.” 1914. Pattern in cotton fabric with accompanying Buy-a-Bale card. Breckinridge Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (080.00.00). Return to text.
  2. James L. McCorkle, Jr., “The Louisiana ‘Buy-A-Bale’ of Cotton Movement, 1914,” Louisiana History 15, no. 2 (Spring 1974): 133–52. Return to text.
  3. McCorkle, 133. Return to text.
  4. Sybil Oldfield, ed., International Woman Suffrage Jus Sufragii, Vol. 2: November 1914–September 1916, (Routledge, 2003), 185. Return to text.
  5. National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), Handbook of the National American Suffrage Association and Proceedings of the Forty-Sixth Annual Convention (N.W.S. Publishing Company, 1914), 51–2, 169. Return to text.
  6. NAWSA 46th convention, 169. Return to text.
  7. Melba Porter Hay, Madeline McDowell Breckinridge and the Battle for a New South (University Press of Kentucky, 2009), 171. Breckinridge was also known for her activism on the part of children working in cotton mills; see Hay, 111. Return to text.
  8. Florence Kelley, “The Abolition of Child Labor,” in Pamphlets in Favor of Woman Suffrage, National American Woman Suffrage Association (Princeton University Press, 1912), 3. Return to text.
  9. Cliff Kuhn, Contesting the New South Order: The 1914–1915 Strike at Atlanta’s Fulton Mills (University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 46. Return to text.
  10. Floyd Calvin Shoemaker, “History of Woman Suffrage in Missouri: ‘The Part of the St. Louis Equal Suffrage League in the Campaign for Equal Suffrage’ by Althea Somerville Grossman (Mrs. E.M. Grossman),” Missouri Historical Review (1920), 306–20. Return to text.
  11. Manning Marable, “The Politics of Black Land Tenure: 1877–1915,” Agricultural History 53, no. 1 (January 1979): 142–52. Still others were workers on white-owned cotton farms, often for devastatingly low wages. See Steven Anthony, “The Elaine Riot of 1919: Race, Class, and Labor in the Arkansas Delta,” (PhD diss., University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, 2019), 33–4. Return to text.
  12. Jonathan Robbins, “The Cotton Crisis: Globalization and Empire in the Atlantic World, 1902–1920” (PhD diss., University of Rochester, 2010), 57-8. See also Lee E. Williams, Anatomy of Four Race Riots; Racial Conflict in Knoxville, Elaine (Arkansas), Tulsa, and Chicago, 1919-1921, (University and College Press of Mississippi, 1972), 39–40. Steven Anthony writes that “in 1890, 78 percent of black farmers in the United States were tenants in the sharecropping system. The number increased from 429,000 in 1890, to 557,000 in 1900, to almost 673,000 in 1910.” See Anthony, 38. Return to text.
  13. Black tenant farmers and sharecroppers were often thwarted and even persecuted for their efforts at unionization and labor solidarity. For example, the Elaine massacre in 1919, in which Black farmers working to unionize were massacred by a white mob, illuminates the extent to which the state would go to prevent Black workers from organizing. The same state officials who condoned the actions of the white mob, even calling in troops to support them, also endorsed the “buy-a-bale” program, which they clearly envisioned as a means of support for white farmers. For more, see Williams, 38–56 and Anthony, 23. Return to text.
  14. Anna Howard Shaw and Elizabeth Jordan, The Story of a Pioneer (Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1915), 311. Return to text.
  15. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850–1920 (Indiana University Press, 1998), 117. Return to text.
  16. Trisha Franzen, Anna Howard Shaw: The Work of Woman Suffrage (University of Illinois Press, 2014), 109. Ironically, Shaw is often remembered as challenging NAWSA’s “Southern Strategy” from the 1890s and for relying on her abolitionist upbringing, but she consistently undercut Black women from gaining traction and centrality in the movement and capitulated to white supremacist suffragists in the South. Return to text.
  17. Aileen Kraditor, The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement, 1890–1920 (Columbia University Press, 1965), 138. Return to text.
  18. Shaw and Jordan, 312–13. Return to text.

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2 Comments

Richard Gruner

Well done, Mariah. Perhaps a contributing factor to the Black Migration of the same period?

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