A Portrait of Persistence

The crusade for women’s suffrage is among the longest reform movements in American history. Between 1832 and 1920, women citizens organized for the right to vote, agitating first in their states or territories and then through petitioning for a federal amendment. Eventually, the movement culminated in the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.

Earlier histories of suffrage and women’s activism tend to overlook the work of African Americans and other women of color. Leading up to the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment, this exhibition seeks to tell a more complete story of the movement through portraits of women who represent different races, ages, and fields of endeavor.

Radical Women 1832–1869
The American suffrage movement has its roots in the radical women reformers of the anti-slavery movement. Until the mid-nineteenth century, state law placed a married woman’s earnings and property under her husband’s control, and married women were not allowed to legally own and manage a business. As the awareness of such inequalities increased among abolitionist women, they banded together. Newly empowered, they set a radical goal: universal enfranchisement.

Suffragists faced searing losses in 1868 and 1870 when the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment protections applied only to male citizens. Seeing formerly enslaved, illiterate black men earn the right to vote before them left many educated white women feeling appalled. Consequently, the suffrage movement split into two factions. One, the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), led by Lucy Stone, supported universal suffrage for all. The other, the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), was organized by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton; both of whom— when forced to choose—preferred suffrage for white women.

Lucy Stone helped found the American Equal Rights Association in 1866. After competing suffrage priorities split the movement in 1870, Stone became the leader of the American Woman Suffrage Association. AWSA was dedicated to achieving woman suffrage through state-level legislation, while at the same time it supported African American civil rights.

Sojourner Truth participated in the debates over which group should get suffrage first—black men or women. In 1867, the former slave declared: “If colored men get their rights, and not colored women theirs, you see the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before.” Having experienced unequal pay due to her gender, she became concerned with women’s economic prosperity.

Harriet Tubman advocated for women, including their right to suffrage. This biography, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, features a woodcut portrait as the frontispiece. With her hands on the barrel of a rifle, Tubman’s pose reflects her service during the Civil War as a spy for the Union Army. Like Sojourner Truth, she fought for women’s financial freedom. In 1899, she petitioned Congress for her military pension.

Sarah Parker Remond participated in the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society, the Essex County Anti-Slavery Society, and the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. All of these groups helped her understand her rights. After being forcibly ejected from her seat in a Boston theater in 1853 because she was black, Remond sued and was awarded $500 by the First District Court of Essex. In winning, she recognized the power of her words, and in 1856, she joined her brother Charles as a lecturing agent of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, where she thrived. Audiences revered her. Her message was distinct because she drew on her demeanor as a “lady” while recounting episodes of ghastly, forced sexual exploitation of women slaves.

The writer and suffragist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper addressed both racism and women’s oppression. She observed of her fellow suffragists: “I do not believe that giving the woman the ballot is immediately going to cure all the ills of life. I do not believe that white women are dew-drops just exhaled from the skies. I think that like men they may be divided into three classes, the good, the bad, and the indifferent.” Her statement reinforced Frederick Douglass’s argument that voting rights for black men should be prioritized because they represented “a question of life and death.”

Women Activists 1870–1892
During the 1871 elections, women marched to the polls in an attempt to vote. This daring new style of activism was called the “New Departure.” The plan was: go vote, get arrested, and argue your theories in court.  Roadblocks set up to counter the New Departure forced suffragists down other avenues of bold activism.  Activists traveled the lecture circuit, promoting abolition, education reform and women’s rights.  Others chose to defy society’s expectations of women by harnessing the power of the press, running for public office and public protest.  

Widowed at twenty-two years of age, Belva Ann Lockwood used her inheritance to educate herself in law. Lockwood became the first woman to campaign for the presidency (1884 and 1888). Her platform focused on women’s rights issues, particularly suffrage, temperance, and reform for divorce and marriage laws. In 1880, at the age of forty-eight, Lockwood became the first woman to appear before the Supreme Court of the United States and successfully argued for Cherokee land rights.

In 1884, the journalist Ida B. Wells filed a lawsuit against the Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern Railroad after being forcibly removed from the ladies’ train car because she was black. Wells won the trial in Shelby County but lost the appeal at the Tennessee Supreme Court. After this, she focused on advocating for the civil rights of African Americans—including suffrage. In 1913, at the suffrage parade in Washington, D.C., she famously refused to march in the back with the other African American women. Instead, she marched at the front of the Illinois suffrage delegation.

The controversial, wealthy banker Victoria Woodhull announced her candidacy for President of the United States in 1870. Subsequently, she presented a memorandum to Congress requesting the right to “vote without regard to sex,” shocking many Americans. In response to Woodhull’s testimony, nineteen antisuffragists— all women—published their opposition in the Godey’s Lady’s Book, a magazine promoting traditional ideals of womanhood. A number of suffragists disapproved of Woodhull, too, and her fiery rhetoric did nothing to boost her popularity.

Anna Elizabeth Dickinson enchanted the antebellum United States with her passion for justice. When she was just eighteen years old, Dickinson addressed the Pennsylvania Antislavery Society with a speech entitled “The Rights and Wrongs of Women.” It launched a wildly successful career on the lecture circuit. In 1864, she became the first woman to address the House of Representatives. Her lecture, “What Shall We Do with Our Daughters?” analyzed societal standards for young girls, specifically their education and required dress. Dickinson’s spellbinding lectures moved many women and men to further women’s rights.

The New Woman 1893–1912
In the 1890s, the New Woman emerged as a radical social force in American society. College educated, independent, and devoted to progressive reform—including suffrage—she awakened others to gender inequality. The suffrage movement gained traction out West and through state-by-state referendums, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, and Washington granted women’s suffrage. Meanwhile, women of color did not have the privilege of a single-issue. Yet African American women saw themselves as responsible agitators for change. They gained a public voice through their education and banded together to address basic human rights. Other women of color, including Native Americans, did not have U.S. citizenship and lobbied intensively to obtain it.  

After her childhood friend, Thomas Moss, was lynched in 1892, Mary Church Terrell devoted her life to activism. She served in various capacities within the National Association of Colored Women, becoming its first president in 1896. In that role, Terrell spoke to the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1898 about black women’s activism within their homes and communities. She described their efforts as: “lifting as we climb, onward and upward we go, struggling and striving, and hoping that the buds and blossoms of our desires will burst into glorious fruition ere long.”

Anna Julia Haywood Cooper, who was born into slavery and helped pioneer a path for educated black women when she graduated from Oberlin College in 1884. She published her first book, A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South, in 1892, wherein she voiced radical ideas of inclusion and equality.

While teaching at several schools in South Carolina and Florida in the 1890s, Mary McLeod Bethune became acutely aware of the dual oppression that African American girls faced. Bethune founded the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Training Negro Girls in 1904. The classical liberal education provided students with the tools they needed to become community leaders. Outside of the Institute, Bethune organized black voters and worked to elect officials who would address the needs of her community.

Compelling Tactics 1913–1916
On March 3, 1913, thousands of American women made history as the first nonviolent political group to march on the capital en masse. Alice Paul introduced militancy to the women’s suffrage movement with compelling tactics like parades and protests. Her group split off from the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and formed what eventually was called the National Woman’s Party (NWP). Paul and her followers focused on lobbying nationally for a federal amendment. By contrast, Carrie Chapman Catt, the leader of NAWSA, pursued the strategy of state-by-state referendums. Both groups continued to exclude women of color, who in turn persevered to work within their own frameworks for universal citizenship rights.

Susan B. Anthony groomed Carrie Chapman Catt to lead the suffrage movement. Catt was a brilliant organizer who, after attending her first meeting in 1890, soon became indispensable to the National American Woman Suffrage Association. After 909 campaigns conducted by three generations of women, Catt led the last charge. She organized campaigns to gain the necessary approvals from thirty-six states, including the final one in Tennessee.

Alice Paul was a genius political tactician. Inspired by the British suffragettes, whose use of spectacle and the media were highly effective, she introduced tactics like parades to the American women’s suffrage movement. Paul felt that suffragists would be most effective if they pushed for a federal amendment to the Constitution.

Deeply involved in organizing for suffrage, Jeannette Rankin helped women win the vote in Montana in 1914. Two years later, she became the first woman elected to Congress. When the suffrage amendment was proposed in 1918, she opened the first House Floor debate, asking, “How shall we explain to them the meaning of democracy if the same Congress that voted for war to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?”

During the early 1900s, suffragists argued that getting the right to vote was a reform measure born out of democracy, and they developed visual culture to reinforce this idea. Suffragists held up states in the West and California in particular as models for an awakening of democracy. In this illustration, an allegorical figure representing liberty holds a torch as she strides across a map of the country, symbolizing the movement’s state-by-state progress. Starting in the western states that already had granted women full suffrage, Lady Liberty advances toward the East Coast, enfranchising women as she crosses the nation.

Many women’s organizations turned toward publicity and art to galvanize support. In 1911, the San Francisco College Equal Suffrage League held a poster contest for the best illustration supporting women’s voting rights. The winning design by Bertha Margaret Boyé depicts a female figure holding a “Votes for Women” banner at her waistline while the sun forms a halo around her head. Two rising mountains, reminiscent of the Golden Gate Strait, frame her shoulders. Boyé’s lithograph, which was reproduced through 1913, creates a symbolic parallel between California’s famous seaside hills and women’s rights.

On March 3, 1913, American women marched on the capital before a crowd of more than 500,000. The procession concluded with the tableau Liberty and Her Attendants. Dedicated to the ideals of American womanhood, the performance took place on the steps of the Treasury Building. As trumpets sounded, Columbia, the female personification of the United States, summoned allegorical figures including Liberty, Justice, Charity, Peace, Plenty, and Hope.

Militancy in the American Suffragist Movement 1917–1919
After the success of the 1913 Suffrage Procession, Alice Paul knew more parades and protests would draw media attention.  Suffragists began protesting outside the White House in early 1917. By resisting and defying authority, these women distinguished themselves as nonviolent radicals. By targeting the White House, the suffragist picketers placed enormous pressure on President Woodrow Wilson.  At the same time, the suffrage movement continued to perpetuate discrimination, not allowing African American women to take part in the militant actions. The picketers, through creating a relentless public presence, eventually won American sympathy, and Wilson finally offered public support. By late June 1919, both the House of Representatives and the Senate approved the federal suffrage amendment. 

“Silent Sentinels” were the first to picket the White House, and they assembled every day from January 10, 1917, until the amendment was ratified on August 18, 1920. Their purple, cream, and gold banners were highly recognizable. For the first few months, the picketers amused President Wilson. However, after the United States entered World War I in April 1917, their presence had become embarrassing. The suffragists pointed out the hypocrisy of fighting for democracy and freedom in Europe while denying the vote to women at home. Beginning in June, District of Columbia police began arresting the suffragist picketers.

The National Woman’s Party (NWP) organized the picket line into themed groups for newly designated occasions, including Patriot Day, College Day, and State Day. On College Day, women wore sashes emblazoned with the name of their alma mater. To counter assumptions that they were of ill repute, they emphasized their high degree of education. Representative graduates of Bryn Mawr, Oberlin, Smith, Stanford, Swarthmore, the University of Kansas, and Washington College of Law participated, carrying banners.

The Nineteenth Amendment and Its Legacy
The history of American women’s suffrage exposes deep social divisions along racial lines as well as a flawed and convoluted history of American governance. Although women of color were repeatedly ignored by white suffragists, they kept fighting for their own rights. Native American activists lobbied for decades for U.S. citizenship, which they finally received in 1924. Similarly, Puerto Rican women gained full suffrage in 1935. African Americans and other people of color could not vote unimpeded until 1965.   Even today, restrictive voter identification laws target African American and Native American citizens in specific regions. Yet as the 2016 Presidential election and the 2017 United States Senate special election in Alabama have demonstrated, the collective vote of specific blocks of women has come to wield enormous influence in American governance. Moreover, women, who had no political voice one hundred years ago, now serve in the American government in historic numbers. Today, more than 120 women are serving in the 116th Congress.

Upon the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, illustrator Elmer Andrews Bushnell represented the opportunities now open to enfranchised women. A young working class woman suddenly has access to a future she never had before. She looks up from the base of a ladder that ascends toward the sky. The bottom rungs, labeled “Slavery” and “House Drudgery,” are the subject’s first hurdles. The next rungs are labeled with careers typical for women in the early twentieth century. At the top, the last step delineates what, for many American women, symbolizes the pinnacle of political equality: “Presidency.”

In 1877, Susette La Flesche Tibbles witnessed the forced removal of the Ponca from Nebraska and the imprisonment of Ponca Chief Standing Bear, and others, who attempted to return to their homeland. Bilingual and bicultural, Tibbles served as an expert witness in the ensuing trial and also worked as an interpreter in other court cases that Native peoples brought against the federal government. Like other people of color, Native women did not have the privilege of a single issue focus. As activists, they lobbied strenuously to improve conditions on reservations and for U.S. citizenship.

Zitkala-Sa was a pioneer for Indian rights activists who had graduated from mission and government schools, where children were forbidden from speaking their indigenous native languages. Working together, these intellectual activists used their formal educations and flawless English to fight U.S. federal Indian policy and demand social justice. The Society of American Indians, founded in 1907, was the first national all-Indian organization to advocate for Indian rights. As one of its leaders, Zitkala-Sa fought for Native American citizenship rights. Zitkala-Sa later founded one of the most important Native rights organizations, The National Council of American Indians.

The Nineteenth Amendment did not remove racist Jim Crow laws that sought to obstruct African American civil rights. In 1961, Fannie Lou Hamer and seventeen others went to the courthouse in Indianola, Mississippi, to vote. They were told that they could only register two at a time and they would need to pass a literacy test to vote. Hamer, who had left school at age twelve to work to help support her family, failed the literacy test. She gained national attention for her eloquent testimony before the credentials committee of the 1964 Democratic National Convention, which brought the issue of African American civil rights to a national television audience. Her speech also galvanized President Lyndon B. Johnson to sign the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The National Portrait Gallery invited The Pudding, whose online publication uses visual essays to explain ideas debated in culture, to consider how the political voice of American women has changed since the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. Drawing from research conducted by the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara, The Pudding analyzed nearly one hundred documents from the platforms of political parties. The study spans 1840 through 2016, includes all parties that have received electoral votes.

Votes for Women

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