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‘This Is Not a Boring History of Nagging Spinsters’

As the story is often told, the path to women’s suffrage began ​in Seneca Falls​ in 1848 and ended with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton​ were the leaders of the movement. It granted all women in America the right to vote.

And yet we are learning, slowly, that that telling is ​wildly incomplete. It was not simply Stanton and Anthony who led the movement​ for voting rights in this country​; ​women of color, working-class and immigrant women also paved the way.

The movement did not emerge out of nowhere in 1848; it had roots in the movement to abolish slavery. Many early suffragists were active in that fight.

And the 19th Amendment was not an end but a beginning: After its ratification, it would take four more years for many Native Americans even to be considered citizens with voting rights ​in this country, and for some Asian-Americans it would take even longer. Many Black women, while possessing suffrage on paper, could not freely exercise that right until 1965, when the Voting Rights Act barred racially discriminatory voting practices, such as literacy tests. Disenfranchisement at the polls, of course, still continues today.

As America nears the centennial of the 19th Amendment next month, ​The Times gathered seven scholars, authors and thinkers for a discussion about misconceptions, the women who were left out of the history books ​and just how much of what suffragists were fighting for is still relevant today.

​These are excerpts from that conversation (along with a few follow-ups). ​

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Credit...Sharon Attia/The New York Times

One of the things The Times is aiming to do in its coverage of the centennial — and in an upcoming book — is overturn some of the misconceptions about the path to voting rights in this country, and present readers with a more complete story. Where would you begin?

Susan Ware, historian: Can I raise an issue from the outset? It’s about terms. “Suffragette” is a fraught term. American suffragists never used it, only their detractors. One thing I hope might come out of this conversation is that when The New York Times publishes stories about suffrage you would not use the word “suffragette” — unless it were in quotes.

Elaine Weiss, journalist and author: The term was made up by a journalist in The Daily Mail in London. It was 1906, and he was making fun of the more militant suffragists in the U.K. — and so he used the diminutive “-ette” to belittle them. But then they turned around, as often happens in a movement, and they decided to own it. They said, “OK, you’re going to call us suffragettes? We’re going to call ourselves suffragettes.” But that was in Britain. The American press began using it too, just because it was cute, and expressed the disdain most American newspapers held for the movement. It’s easier to say, I have to admit it.

Ware: I tried to write to Hillary Clinton a few years back to tell her that she was using it incorrectly. I wrote this nice, long letter and I said, “I’m a Wellesley graduate,” and so on. I never heard anything back. That was really infuriating to me, because she has brought a lot of attention to the suffrage movement. And yet she calls them “suffragettes.”

Kate Clarke Lemay, historian and curator: I find it maddening that only two women’s names, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, are consistently taught in core history classes. Suffrage was a movement of thousands of women — including African-American women, who are often left completely out of the record. In fact, Anthony wasn’t even at the Seneca Falls convention in 1848, which so many still think of as the starting point of the movement. (The reason people think this, by the way, is because Stanton and Anthony called it as much when they later started writing a six-volume history of the suffrage movement. Because there was so little recorded history from that time, it was taken as fact.)

[Tune in live: On July 21, deputy politics editor Rachel Dry will host a conversation on the unfinished work of the suffrage movement]

Sally Roesch Wagner, historian: A lot of my work centers on the influence of Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, women on the movement. These are Indigenous women who, for a thousand years, had political voice in their sovereign nations — and continue to. The Haudenosaunee clan mothers decide the chiefs to represent their clan. They advise them and have the responsibility to remove them if they don’t live up to their responsibilities. One absolute rule is that a chief can’t have abused a woman or child. That sounds pretty good as a test of suitability for office, doesn’t it? The early suffragists knew Indigenous women had authority over their lives in their nations that U.S. women didn’t: rights to their bodies, their possessions and their children, safety and political voice. Having this model showed some suffragists that equality was possible.

Adele Logan Alexander, historian: Can I add something about time? Clearly this year’s centennial is a significant landmark, but it’s not the only date we should be thinking of. The federal Voting Rights Act, which became law in 1965, was incredibly important too, because the passage of that legislation supposedly guaranteed the franchise to African-American women — since even after ratification of the 19th Amendment, stifling Jim Crow regulations throughout the South had kept the vote from women, as much as they did for Black men.

Lemay: I think the way we talk about suffrage needs attention. It is so often described in a way that makes it seem kind of dowdy and dour — whereas in fact it is exciting and radical. Women staged one of the longest social reform movements in the history of the United States. This is not a boring history of nagging spinsters; it is a badass history of revolution staged by political geniuses. I think that because they were women, people have hesitated to credit them as such.

Credit...Sharon Attia/The New York Times
Credit...Sharon Attia/The New York Times

There is a misconception that drives us nuts, which is that women were “given” the right to vote — not that they fought for and won it. How do you describe what drove these women?

Tina Cassidy, author: A lot of what drove these women were practical ideas around their daily existence. We are talking about a time when women couldn’t own property; once they were married it belonged to their husbands. Women had no economic power. Getting divorced meant losing your kids. Even until the 1970s, many women could not get a credit card without a man signing for it.

Alexander: To me, there is an emotional connection to it. I have a visceral memory of the first time I went into a voting booth with my mother. I couldn’t have been more than 3, because the muscle memory says I was reaching up for her hand. We went down into the bowels of the Washington Heights Library, in Upper Manhattan, and there was the voting booth with its old-fashioned pull curtain. This was long before anybody ever said the word “suffrage” to me. But nearly 50 years later, when I started studying this stuff seriously in graduate school, I thought, “Yes, that’s what I remember.” Both of my grandmothers were Black Southern suffragists in the early 1900s, and their beliefs and activities remained important family legacies through several generations.

Credit...Sharon Attia/The New York Times

Those who learned anything about the suffrage movement in school probably learned about a handful of white, middle-class women from the Northeast: Stanton, Anthony, maybe Alice Paul. Who are some of the characters we may not know but should?

Erica Armstrong Dunbar, historian: I think of women like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Maria Stewart, Harriet Forten Purvis and Ida B. Wells-Barnett — African-American suffragists and abolitionists who advocated for the right to vote even when spurned by their white counterparts. These women were as committed to suffrage as their white counterparts, and yet their voices were often marginalized or silenced. Although the responsibilities of wage-earning work and domestic duties created a difficult balancing act, Black women found the time to advocate on multiple fronts: to end slavery, offer citizenship to African-Americans and to give Black men and women the right to vote.

Alexander: I would say it is not one person nor one event, but the scarcely recorded efforts of anonymous women of all races, educational and economic levels who, for decades, talked with neighbors, held meetings, challenged their fathers, sons, husbands and employers — often putting themselves in physical and economic jeopardy to do so. They are the unknown heroes of the movement.

Ware: I really hope we will get a lot more books and articles on what I call “queering the suffrage movement.” I think that as we diversify our understanding of the movement, making a place for queer people is really important.

Cassidy: It’s interesting, one of the first questions I always get about Alice Paul is, “Was she married?” Because people want to know, how did she have the time to dedicate her entire life to this? Was she gay? And I think that the truth is we don’t actually know the answer to that.

Weiss: She didn’t have a personal life!

Cassidy: Right, the fight for equality was her entire life. Also, she may have been asexual. I think there’s so much more contemporary language now to describe this.

Lemay: Also, being single was empowering for many of these women. A lot of them chose to be single.

Weiss: Legally, it was a better thing to do.

Lemay: For a long time, once a woman got married, she suddenly lost her rights. She lost her right to sign a contract, to own property, to sue — and in the rare case of divorce, she didn’t have rights to her own children. Which is mind-boggling to us today!

Cassidy: Yes, though I also think the assumption that all the women in the movement were lesbians is an annoying stereotype. It assumes that women had men to take care of all of their needs and why should they want the vote, too?

Wagner: As a lesbian, I want to out every damn one of ’em! What I find helpful is thinking about Adrienne Rich’s “lesbian continuum.” We tend to see the male sexualization of relationships as the model, and that’s not the way that lesbian relationships necessarily develop. Often, the emotional may have more importance. So then you look at, well, were these women doing it in bed? Well, does that even matter? What matters is that many of these women had lifelong emotional relationships that sustained them in their movement work.

Alice Dunbar-Nelson, a suffrage field organizer and the first Black woman to serve on Delaware’s Republican Committee, had several women lovers. Carrie Chapman Catt, a one-time president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and Mary Garrett Hay were an item; so were Dr. M. Carey Thomas, president of Bryn Mawr College, and Mary E. Garrett, who were major suffrage funders. There were dozens of these “Boston marriages” of economically privileged lesbian power couples in the movement.

Adele, your grandmother, the suffragist Adella Hunt Logan, was once denied the opportunity to speak about the plight of Black women at a conference honoring Susan B. Anthony — because Anthony feared her presence might offend some white politicians. How should we think about the flawed, complicated — and sometimes flatly racist — figures like Anthony who were also critical parts of a movement?

Alexander: One of the things that you see in many movements is that there is sort of a simplistic assumption that we must avoid, which is that progress moves forward in straight lines. And boy, does it ever not go in straight lines. It twists back, it doubles over itself. And it crosses many categories, such as economics, gender and race. That’s something that we may forget, and perhaps it goes against Dr. Martin Luther King’s precept that the arc of justice always bends forward.

Wagner: I think as a culture, we are really grappling with what I call the “both, and” of our historic figures. How do we both hold accountability and celebrate? The suffragists both did this passionate, incredibly important creation of democracy — which we didn’t have before — and they also need to be held accountable for furthering racist laws. How many African-American men’s lives would have been saved if they worked with Ida B. Wells-Barnett against lynching? What if they had worked against voter suppression laws, would people of color have had to wait until 1965 — and for some groups longer — to have a political voice? Where would we be today if our country had enjoyed the leadership and political voices of women of color for the last 100 years?

So much of this history feels so utterly relevant. How do you see the parallels of what these women were fighting for and what is happening today?

Weiss: One of the things that I try to emphasize is how many of these themes are in our headlines right now. We’re still fighting over voting rights, over citizenship rights and, yes, over women’s rights. We’re still grappling with inequality and racism — we’re in the streets — marching for justice.

Cassidy: When Black Lives Matter protesters were recently in Lafayette Park, I couldn’t help but think of the suffragists, led by Alice Paul, who burned President Wilson’s own words — from speeches he gave about democracy — in that same location more than a century ago. They were arrested for it.

Alexander: I often think of the women, my grandmother among them, who wore white dresses to protest the denial of their political empowerment. There were echoes of that symbolic garb during the campaigns of Shirley Chisholm, and in the glorious display of white pantsuits worn by the record number of multiracial, multicultural women who went to Congress as result of the 2018 election. I smiled when I saw them!

Lemay: Suffragists were the predecessors to the contemporary feminist activists who we esteem and admire today for speaking truth to power.

Credit...Sharon Attia/The New York Times
Credit...Sharon Attia/The New York Times

Many of you have talked about how the visual artifacts of suffrage — pins, posters, tea sets — have become a way of keeping the movement alive. Which artifacts are most meaningful to you?

Alexander: My suffragist grandmother feels close to me today because her portrait still hangs in my apartment. The poster from the first “Afro-American Women and the Vote” conference also hangs on my wall, a testament to Adella and others like her.

Dunbar: I have an original copy of Life from October 1920. The cover depicts what appears to be Lady Liberty offering a ballot to an American woman. Both women are white. What attracted me to this issue was what wasn’t depicted: the many nonwhite women who also fought for suffrage. Perhaps a more accurate representation is the March 5, 1913, edition of The Chicago Daily Tribune, which features Ida Wells-Barnett marching on Washington alongside white suffragists. When told that she and other Black women would have to march in the back of the parade, Wells-Barnett refused. She marched alongside her fellow suffragists from Illinois.

Ware: One of the artifacts in my book is a plaque from the suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt’s “suffrage forest.” This was an actual forest she had on her farm in New York, where she named 14 trees after movement leaders, each one with a bronze plaque. When my book came out, I decided that I would create my own suffrage forest at my home in New Hampshire. I had 19 bronze plaques made, one for each of the women in my chapters. So you walk from one tree to the next, and you just have this feeling of the women talking to each other. And for me, it’s such a powerful image of the diversity of the movement. How there can be all of these separate trees that are part of the forest. We don’t need to have a pedestal with two white women on it. It’s the sense of inclusion, of being part of something larger.

Adele Logan Alexander is a historian and author of “Princess of the Hither Isles: A Black Suffragist’s Story from the Jim Crow South​,” about her grandmother Adella Hunt Logan.

Tina Cassidy is the author of “Mr. President, How Long Must We Wait: Alice Paul, Woodrow Wilson and the Fight for the Right to Vote.”

Erica Armstrong Dunbar is a professor of African-American history at Rutgers University and the author of “She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman.”

Kate Clarke Lemay is a historian and curator at the National Portrait Gallery. She is a co-author of “Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence.”

Sally Roesch Wagner is a historian at Syracuse University and editor of “The Women’s Suffrage Movement.”

Susan Ware is a historian and the author of “Why They Marched: Untold Stories of the Women Who Fought for the Right to Vote.”

Elaine Weiss is a journalist and the author of “The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote.”

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