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Women’s Sites of Struggles for Self-Determination: Rethinking the Long History of Woman Suffrage through Multidimensional Mobilizations (1800s-1970s)

The Legacy of the Nineteenth Amendment Centennial

Allison K. Lange

Résumés

Le centenaire du xixe amendement en 2020 a été l’occasion de dynamiser la recherche historique et de proposer une multitude de projets de recherches s’adressant au grand public. Ces travaux ont permis de modifier les représentations habituelles concernant l’histoire du droit de vote des femmes, qui se focalisaient sur les femmes blanches, leurs organisations et les récits qu’elles avaient établis dans les premières histoires du mouvement publiées par leurs soins. Même si la pandémie a modifié ces projets, les commémorations du centenaire ont donné naissance à une abondance de nouvelles sources et à une communauté intellectuelle dynamique.

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1The Nineteenth Amendment centennial in 2020 invigorated the academic field of women’s history and attracted significant public interest. For years, many historians and organizations planned for this moment to recognize the long, ongoing fight for women’s rights, especially the vote. We designed public programs, drafted books, curated exhibitions, and organized conferences to highlight this milestone. Scholars interrogated the familiar histories and explored new directions that fueled numerous public-facing works telling an updated story. The pandemic forced many of these projects to become digital, including online exhibitions, conferences, lectures, and more. The shift to digital left a legacy of rich resources for teaching and learning about women’s voting rights. The collaborations and conversations prompted by this milestone sparked a vital scholarly community that seeks to foster conversations about women and the vote beyond the centennial.

How Recent Research Perspectives Shaped the Centennial

2The field of women’s voting rights started to shift leading up to 2020. For many years, the most popular narratives of the suffrage movement began with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 and ended with the Nineteenth Amendment’s passage in 1920. Books, textbooks, documentaries, movies, exhibitions, and historical sites aimed at broad audiences emphasized elite white female leaders and organizations based in the Northeast. However, historians had begun to focus on the movement’s earlier origins, different organizations, women of color, and a range of new source materials. In the 2010s, books including Faye Dudden’s Fighting Chance (2011), Treva Lindsey’s Colored No More (2017), and Lisa Tetrault’s The Myth of Seneca Falls (2014) pointed to a broader suffrage movement with diverse leaders that began years before the Seneca Falls Convention and continued beyond 1920. Eager to set aside the long-dominant narrative initially crafted by early suffragists, scholars viewed the centennial as an opportunity to further develop this fresh story and share it with broad audiences.

3Fortunately, some suffrage programs occurred before the pandemic. They helped create a community around the Nineteenth Amendment centennial. For example, exhibitions like the Smithsonian Institution National Portrait Gallery’s Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence was on display from March 2019 through January 2020. Curated by Kate Clarke Lemay, the major exhibition attracted publicity to the centennial and prompted others to plan their own commemorations. In April 2019, Lemay and her colleagues hosted a conference to facilitate discussions among historians from various institutions. Similarly, in January 2020, Hélène Quanquin and her colleagues at the Université de Lille, along with Claire Delahaye at Université Gustave Eiffel (Marne-la-Vallée) sponsored an international conference that similarly convened scholars and public historians. Conferences like these highlighted new research and provided opportunities for historians to discuss the ways they hoped the centennial would change the familiar story of women’s voting rights.

4Historians incorporated a range of approaches to tell a narrative composed of new turning points, leaders, and issues. Always aware of dates, many sought to shift the traditional timeline for women’s voting rights to start in the early nineteenth century and end long after the Nineteenth Amendment’s passage. The six-volume History of Woman Suffrage (the first volume of which was published in 1881) edited by Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and others had positioned the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention as the movement’s start and the 1920 ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment as its end. Research begun even before the centennial’s approach became central to this updated story. Historians demonstrated that organizing for women’s voting rights started earlier and pointed to women’s activism led by Black churches, local groups of female petitioners, and female antislavery and moral reformers that precipitated the Seneca Falls Convention (Ginzberg; Jones; Zaeske; Zagarri).

5New scholarship prompted by the Nineteenth Amendment’s centennial ironically (and yet correctly) often sought to de-emphasize this milestone as the end of the women’s voting rights movement. Additionally, although popular stories often suggested that all women won the vote in 1920, scholars noted that the Nineteenth Amendment did not guarantee women the ballot. Instead, it prohibited voter discrimination based on sex. The milestone legislation was part of a longer story of voting access. The year 2020 was also the 150th anniversary of the Fifteenth Amendment, which prohibited voter discrimination based on race. Women’s historians stress that the Nineteenth Amendment, just like the Fifteenth Amendment, allowed other restrictions to prevent women—especially women of color and poorer women—from voting. Citizenship laws, poll taxes, and literacy tests stopped Native American women, Puerto Rican women, Southern Black women, and more from the vote. Many scholars pointed to the 1965 Voting Rights Act as another major milestone and regularly mentioned current debates about ballot access during centennial programs (Cahill; Jones; Prieto).

6Historians also emphasized the significance of often overlooked organizations and contemporaneous social causes that drove the movement. The 1869 establishment of the single-issue American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) and National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), and their 1890 merger into the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) had loomed large in the traditional suffrage narrative. However, recent works illustrate the range of women’s rights organizations and issues that proved central to the fight. Many suffragists advocated for a range of measures, from antislavery and moral reform to temperance, pacifism, and anti-lynching laws. For example, the American Equal Rights Association (AERA), though it collapsed in 1869, signaled the promise and failure of a universal suffrage coalition (Dudden; Free; Tetrault). Additionally, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which became the largest women’s organization in the late nineteenth century and endorsed women’s voting rights, became the blueprint for many of the era’s national women’s groups. The NAWSA adapted the WCTU’s infrastructure as well as its publicity model to reach its members and the public (Lange 127-145). The National Association of Colored Women (NACW), founded in 1896, built on this model and organized Black women to fight for the vote, against lynching, and in support of their communities (Cooper; Lindsey; Jones; Terborg-Penn).

7By highlighting a range of organizations and social justice issues, recent histories illuminate a broader understanding of who voting rights activists were. Race emerged as a central theme across new voting rights literature. Books like Martha Jones’ Vanguard (2020) demonstrates the leadership of Black women who organized in early nineteenth-century churches and continue to work for access to the vote today. Similarly, Cathleen Cahill’s Recasting the Vote (2020) emphasizes the many female leaders of color who led the movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, from Native Americans Zitkala-Ša, Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin, and Laura Cornelius Kellogg to Chinese American Mabel Ping-Hua Lee. Histories of women’s suffrage that feature women of color highlight different turning points, organizations, and individuals who once rarely appeared in widespread narratives (Jones). For example, Jones spotlights the activism of Black African Methodist Episcopal churchwomen who organized against slavery and in support of equality within their religious communities as central to early nineteenth-century women’s rights activism. As part of a shift toward a more inclusive history of women’s voting rights, scholars also pointed out that even the term “women’s suffrage” often tends to refer to an exclusive, white women-led movement like the one described by Stanton and Anthony in the History of Woman Suffrage series. Connecting the histories of white women’s voting rights with those of women of color remains central to the field.

8In addition to featuring a more racially diverse cast of activists, scholars also sought new paths for research. Recent literature highlights the work of less-known suffragists (Hamlin), male suffragists (Kroeger; Quanquin), the sexuality of reformers (Jabour; Rouse), and the representation of older women in the movement (Field), or focuses on often overlooked, yet strategically crucial factors like the role of money in the movement (Johnson; Neuman). Historians also focus on the development of women’s activism in regions outside of the Northeast (Cahill; Scharff), where some women voted long before the Nineteenth Amendment’s passage, and as part of the broader American empire (Prieto). Scholars examine less consulted sources too—from cartoons and photographic portraits (Lange; Lemay) to material culture items like cookbooks and clothes (Derleth; Rabinovitch-Fox; Ware)—to provide a broader understanding of the ways that Americans—especially those who were not activists—encountered the movement in their daily lives. Narratives also demonstrate the power of male and female opponents to women’s voting rights (Goodier). In the twenty-first century, female voters are not very controversial; but, by integrating anti-suffrage activism into suffrage history, modern audiences gain a better understanding of the movement’s significance. Several edited collections highlight these topics and more (Gaskell; “On Their Shoulders”; Taranto and Zarnow).

9These fresh scholarly conversations shaped the development of projects for the Nineteenth Amendment centennial. Essay collections and podcasts, like those created by the US Congress’s Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission, cover topics that include activism in the West, the work of Chinese American activist Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, and the sexualities of female reformers. Exhibitions, both in-person and digital ones hosted by national and local institutions, featured Black activists and the challenges of antisuffragists. PBS documentaries tracked women’s voting rights in different states and detailed the contributions of less known suffragists, including working-class women and women of color. For more examples and links to these projects, see the list at the end of this essay.

The COVID-19 Pandemic and the Shift to Digital Centennial Commemorations

10Starting in March 2020, in-person programs were postponed and then adapted for the virtual world. The cancellations seemed to decrease the number of party-like events designed to celebrate the Nineteenth Amendment as an unqualified success. Instead, online discussions offered opportunities to question the limits of the legislation. For example, the Massachusetts Historical Society’s conference “‘Shall Not Be Denied’: The 15th and 19th Amendments at the Sesquicentennial and Centennial of their Ratifications” shifted formats. Originally planned to be an in-person gathering in Boston that lasted for a weekend, the program became a recorded online conference with almost a full week of afternoon panels that attracted participants from all over.

11The shift to digital formats led to new opportunities and the production of a range of freely available resources that likely would not have been created. Since the pandemic dramatically limited opportunities for in-person programs, early suffrage conferences proved especially formative. Social media—especially Twitter—became an important platform for continued discussions among historians. New book releases prompted question and answer sessions, and fellow scholars posted about their talks and new suffrage resources. Historians delivered numerous talks online. Many speaking engagements at local historical institutions attracted far larger audiences than an in-person program would typically attract, at times hundreds of attendees. People joined online sessions from other countries. Host institutions regularly recorded the talks and made them freely available. Many of these recordings remain accessible, and teachers can incorporate them into classes.

12In addition to videos of talks, we have a variety of innovative digital content. In the years leading up to the centennial, major institutions invested significant resources into women’s history, perhaps an unprecedented amount. They intended to design in-person exhibition and programs. However, the pandemic forced them to transition much of the content online. They created interactive websites, blog-style peer-reviewed essay collections, online exhibitions, primary source databases, podcasts, and documentaries. While some institutions focused on a national story, others told more local narratives using every format from documentaries and exhibitions to websites and lesson plans. The end of this essay provides a partial list of new, freely accessible digital resources on women’s voting rights on a national level and some resources on more local histories.

13Because scholars also spent less time traveling to deliver talks, we had more flexibility to deliver additional virtual talks, speak to journalists, and participate in public history projects. Together, we shared a current, scholarly version of the movement’s history to a far broader public. For example, numerous historians collaborated with journalists at The New York Times to create a spotlight series, published in August 2020, on the history of women’s voting rights (“Suffrage at 100”). Historians assisted with articles that covered topics ranging from queer and Native American suffragists to strategies behind visual representations of suffragists as feminine and maternal. These fruitful conversations highlighted new research and produced a complex yet accessible history of the women’s voting rights movement.

14Although the pandemic limited the opportunities for organizations and scholars to engage with audiences, many worked hard to take advantage of the nearly all digital world to tell a new history of women’s voting rights. Widespread interest in the fall 2020 presidential election and renewed conversations about ballot access also spurred widespread interest in the Nineteenth Amendment centennial. It is impossible to imagine how conversations about women’s activism would have changed with the benefit of in-person conferences and events. Nonetheless, the centennial significantly altered the field of women’s history and facilitated a vibrant scholarly community that I hope continues for years to come.

Sample Resources Produced for the Nineteenth Amendment Centennial

Essays and articles

Documentaries

Performances

Podcasts

Websites

Digital exhibitions

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Bibliographie

CAHILL, Cathleen D. Recasting the Vote: How Women of Color Transformed the Suffrage Movement. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020.

COOPER, Brittney C. Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017.

DERLETH, Jessica. “‘Kneading Politics’: Cookery and the American Woman Suffrage Movement.” The Journal of the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, vol. 17, no. 3, 2018, p. 450-474.

DUDDEN, Faye E. Fighting Chance: The Struggle over Woman Suffrage and Black Suffrage in Reconstruction America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

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GOODIER, Susan. No Votes for Women: The New York State Anti-Suffrage Movement. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013.

HAMLIN, Kimberly. Free Thinker: Sex, Suffrage, and the Extraordinary Life of Helen Hamilton Gardener. New York: W.W. Norton, 2020.

JABOUR, Anya. Sophonisba Breckinridge: Championing Women’s Activism in Modern America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2019.

JOHNSON, Joan Marie. Funding Feminism: Monied Women, Philanthropy, and the Women’s Movement, 1870-1967. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017.

JONES, Martha S. Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All. New York: Basic Books, 2020.

KROEGER, Brooke. The Suffragents: How Women Used Men to Get the Vote. Albany: Excelsior Editions, 2017.

LANGE, Allison K. Picturing Political Power: Images in the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020.

LEMAY, Kate Clarke, ed. Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019.

LINDSEY, Treva B. Colored No More: Reinventing Black Womanhood in Washington, D.C. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017.

NEUMAN, Johanna. Gilded Suffragists: The New York Socialites Who Fought for Women’s Right to Vote. New York: New York University Press, 2017.

“On Their Shoulders: The Radical Stories of Women’s Fight for the Vote.” National Park Service, 2020. www.nps.gov/articles/series.htm?id=D908AE3C-A627-E454-A77BA5334A954A83. Accessed 8 April 2022.

PRIETO, Laura. “Votes for Colonized Women.” Process: A Blog for American History, 28 May 2020. www.processhistory.org/prieto-votes-colonized. Accessed 5 May 2022.

QUANQUIN, Hélène. Men in the American Women’s Rights Movement, 1830-1890: Cumbersome Allies. London: Routledge, 2020.

RABINOVITCH-FOX, Einav. Dressed for Freedom: The Fashionable Politics of American Feminism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2021.

ROUSE, Wendy. “The Very Queer History of the Suffrage Movement.” Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission. www.womensvote100.org/the-suff-buffs-blog/2020/6/9/the-very-queer-history-of-the-suffrage-movement. Accessed 23 June 2020.

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TARANTO, Stacie, and Leandra ZARNOW, eds. Suffrage at 100: Women in American Politics since 1920. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020.

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WARE, Susan. Why They Marched: Untold Stories of the Women Who Fought for the Right to Vote. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019.

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ZAGARRI, Rosemarie. Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

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Allison K. Lange, « The Legacy of the Nineteenth Amendment Centennial »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2022, mis en ligne le 26 mai 2022, consulté le 10 août 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/18373 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/transatlantica.18373

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Allison K. Lange

Wentworth Institute of Technology

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Creative Commons - Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International - CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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