Why They Marched
A walk through suffrage history
For far too long, the history of how American women won the right to vote has been told as the tale of a few iconic leaders, all white and native-born. In Why They Marched: Untold Stories of the Women Who Fought for the Right to Vote Susan Ware uncovered a much broader and more diverse story waiting to be told. Why They Marched is a tribute to the many women who worked tirelessly in communities across the nation, out of the spotlight, protesting, petitioning, and insisting on their right to full citizenship.
Ware tells her story through the lives of nineteen activists, most of whom have long been overlooked. Ware’s deeply moving stories provide a fresh account of one of the most significant moments of political mobilization in American history. The dramatic, often joyous experiences of these women resonate powerfully today, as a new generation of young women demands to be heard. Read an excerpt from the Prologue below.
In the spring of 1919, just as suffrage leaders were facing the final, arduous process of winning ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, Carrie Chapman Catt and her longtime companion and fellow suffragist Mary Garrett Hay bought a farm in Westchester county called Juniper Ledge. The estate in Briarcliff Manor, which featured a twenty-room house on seventeen acres of land, was an easy ninety-minute train ride from New York City. Hay disliked being so far away from the city, but Catt, who had served as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) since 1915, relished life in the country when she could tear herself away from suffrage politics: “I am in love with the place. It is isolated, quiet, restful, and gives promise of fun. There isn’t much of any level land; God designed it for tired nerves not profit.” Soon she came up with a creative use for the hilly terrain.
Suffragists had a deep sense of history. They started collecting documents to chronicle their decades-long movement well before its ultimate conclusion was assured. In many ways they were our first women’s historians. Juniper Ledge testified to that historical sense. Soon after moving in, Catt commissioned a series of twelve metal tree plaques to memorialize the giants of the suffrage movement. Later that summer, she carefully installed them throughout the property. Taking a walk in the woods with Carrie Chapman Catt was like taking a course in suffrage history. The placement of the plaques reflected both the lay of the land and Catt’s estimation of her favorite foremothers. Starting out from a cow pasture, the path followed a lane towards a high rock above a small brook, which Catt conceived of as an altar. Right behind the altar were four majestic trees, with the one in the middle being especially noble. Catt chose that tree for the Susan B. Anthony plaque, which said simply “To Susan B. Anthony — Who Led the Way, 1820–1906.” To her immediate right went the plaque for Anna Howard Shaw — “Who Convinced the World, 1847–1919.” This plaque must have been especially poignant, since Shaw had just died that summer, exhausted by her wartime service on top of her years of suffrage activism. To Anthony’s left was the plaque for her dear friend and lifelong collaborator, Elizabeth Cady Stanton — “The Fearless Defender of Her Sex, 1815–1902.” Rounding out the altar was a plaque to Lillie Deveraux Blake — “Brave Champion of New York Women, 1835–1913.” Not as well-known as the trilogy of Anthony, Stanton, and Shaw, Lillie Deveraux Blake, the longtime president of the New York State Woman Suffrage Association, still earned pride of place in Catt’s suffrage ramble.
After leaving the altar and descending towards the brook, visitors next encountered plaques recognizing the international dimensions of the suffrage movement. First was Dr. Aletta Jacobs, “Who led the women of Holland to Political Liberty.” Across the brook and back into the cow pasture was a parallel inscription to Millicent Garrett Fawcett, “Who led British women to Political Liberty,” followed by Frau Minna Cauer, “Who led the way for Political Freedom for German Women.” Those three leaders, with whom Catt had often collaborated during her years of international work, reminded those meandering in the woods that the suffrage struggle truly was a worldwide phenomenon.
Then it was back to suffragists who had toiled on American soil, starting with the abolitionist Abby Kelley, “Who Inspired Women to Break Their Silence.” She was joined by two other towering figures of suffrage history: Lucy Stone, “Who Blazed a Trail,” and Lucretia Mott, “Who said ‘Truth for Authority not Authority for Truth.’” As part of this tableau, Catt chose for Angelina and Sarah Grimké twin trees “handsome and tall” which were joined at the base but separated into individual trunks higher up. The plaque for the Grimké sisters read, “Who Refused Taxation without Representation,” a somewhat odd choice given that they were best known for their linkage of antislavery activism and women’s rights. At least they were part of the pantheon.
One final spot was chosen with elaborate care. Behind the altar, a small group of pine trees formed a semi-circle. Here, on her own, Catt placed temperance leader Frances Willard, “The Woman of Widest Vision.” Befitting someone whose motto was “Do Everything,” the plaque saluted the breadth of Willard’s vision, which linked temperance to a range of issues, including suffrage. It also gave another nod to the international dimensions of women’s activism by recognizing Willard’s leadership of the World Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.
Catt’s carefully curated mini-tour of suffrage history was not quite finished. A final plaque, commissioned by the recently formed League of Women Voters of New York City and added in 1922, celebrated none other than Catt herself. The inscription was in Latin — “dux femina facti,” which roughly translates as “a woman who was leader of the exploit.” No documentation exists to show where this plaque was placed — presumably not on the altar, but maybe across the brook with Abby Kelley or Lucy Stone? Or maybe Catt tucked it away off the beaten path, hesitant to take her place alongside the other suffrage pioneers. Truth be told, she deserved to be on the altar alongside Anthony, Stanton, and Shaw. Today, her plaque and eight others reside in the archives of the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Radcliffe.
There are many ways to tell the history of woman suffrage, but I want to follow Carrie Chapman Catt’s lead and tell it through people, places, and objects. Too often, the necessity to cover the relentless chronological sweep from Seneca Falls in 1848 to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 flattens the story, rendering it lifeless. Biography makes it come alive. To bring the story of the American woman suffrage movement to life, I have organized the narrative as a prosopography featuring nineteen discrete but overlapping biographical stories. This approach allows me to recapture the breadth and spirit of the movement through individual lives while providing an overview of the larger suffrage story. As Carrie Chapman Catt’s tree plaques suggest, things tell stories too. Along with photographs and illustrations, objects and artifacts bring another dimension to the history of the suffrage crusade. To make that connection explicit, in each biographical chapter, an object or image sets up the suffrage story that follows. Sojourner Truth’s carte de visite, the commemorative pin given to Hazel Hunkins in 1919 by the National Woman’s Party, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s death mask, and the 1909Washington Women’s Cook Book with “Votes for Women / Good Things to Eat” on its cover — all are characters in their own right in a book of suffrage stories.
The stories show the variety of places where the suffrage movement unfolded, starting with Carrie Chapman Catt’s Juniper Ledge estate. Suffrage activism happened not only in church parlors, meeting rooms, and the halls of Congress, but also in graveyards on the outskirts of college campuses, on the steps of the Treasury Building in Washington, DC, at international conferences in Berlin and Budapest, and even on top of Mount Rainier. Few corners of the United States were untouched by suffrage activism. Especially after 1910, the suffrage movement was impossible to escape.
As charming as Carrie Chapman Catt’s woodland tableau is, it provides an imperfect model for this project, which aims to probe more deeply into some of the more complex and hidden pockets of suffrage history than suffragists at the time were willing to acknowledge. Racism is an obvious place to start. Consistent with the deep-seated prejudices held by most white suffragists, Catt included no plaques to commemorate the thousands of African American women who participated in the struggle. Then there is Eurocentrism: the international suffragists honored in Catt’s suffrage forest were all from western European countries, not from countries in South America, Asia, or Africa, which Catt condescendingly believed needed to look to First World women for guidance. Regional chauvinism was present as well: all the domestic suffragists were from the East Coast, with New York State heavily overrepresented. There was no one from California or the West and no one from the South, unless you count the Grimké sisters, who were born there but left because of their abhorrence of slavery. Finally, there is a clear personal snub: she commissioned no plaque for her rival Alice Paul, whose National Woman’s Party caused much consternation for Catt and NAWSA in the final stages of the suffrage fight but whose militancy was critical to the movement’s ultimate victory.
For too long, the history of woman suffrage has put forward a version that closely parallels Carrie Chapman Catt’s suffrage forest: a top-heavy story dominated by a few iconic leaders, all white and native-born, and the national organizations they founded and led. Moving decisively away from that outdated approach uncovers a much broader, more diverse suffrage history waiting to be told. This new history shifts the frame of reference away from the national leadership to highlight the women — and occasionally the men — who made woman suffrage happen through actions large and small, courageous and quirky, in states and communities across the nation. Telling these suffrage stories captures the broad-based movement where it actually happened — on the ground.
Over the long durée of the suffrage campaign, women who had never before participated in politics suddenly found themselves doing things they never would have thought possible — filing lawsuits, holding public protests, collecting signatures on petitions, lobbying members of Congress, marching in suffrage parades, and even risking arrest and imprisonment for the cause. Women may not have fundamentally changed politics when they began to exercise the franchise (does anyone ever hold men to that standard?) but many women’s lives were profoundly altered by participation in the struggle to win the vote. This narrative captures those personal and political transformations.
Material culture is central to recreating and contextualizing women’s suffrage experiences. History is not just made up of written documents and texts; objects and artifacts play key roles as well, especially in the creation of personal and group identities. This insight is particularly relevant for a social movement like suffrage, which came to embrace popular culture and public spectacle as a primary strategy to win support for its cause. Highlighting suffrage artifacts allows us to imagine how these messages were packaged, circulated, and received at the time, and demonstrates how innovative and politically savvy the women were who spearheaded the movement. Besides that larger cultural and political work, suffrage objects are especially evocative in connecting everyday lives with the broader movement. In many cases, they literally were “the things they carried.”
This diverse cast of characters, broadly defined to include both human actors and inanimate objects, hints at the richness of suffrage history waiting to be tapped. The stories cover the span of the suffrage struggle, but with a definite tilt towards the twentieth century. The profiles and objects from the West, South, and Midwest promise a more representative national story, and the inclusion of African American and working-class suffrage stories and artifacts reminds us that the movement was not only white and middle-class. The biographical line-up includes a best-selling writer who published a suffrage novel that tanked; a polygamist Mormon wife who was an avid suffragist; two prominent sisters who were on opposite sides of the suffrage divide; an artist who gave up her painting career to become a suffrage cartoonist; an African American activist who refused to march in a segregated suffrage parade; and fourteen more. With the exception of Susan B. Anthony, none of them held a top-tier leadership position. Instead, they represent the broad diversity of rank-and-file suffragism.
Focusing on individual suffragists does not mean sacrificing the larger picture — far from it. The lives of the characters overlap and connect in repeated but often serendipitous ways. In several instances, such as the 1913 suffrage parade in Washington, multiple characters were in the same place at the same time. Even though each story and its accompanying object can stand on its own, when read together, they provide a synthetic and surprisingly comprehensive history of the entire movement. If I have chosen my nineteen subjects and objects well, the whole truly will add up to more than the sum of its parts.
Susan Ware is an independent scholar who specializes in twentieth century U.S. history, women’s history, and biography. Ware has published widely in the field of 20th century American women’s history. Her books include Beyond Suffrage: Women in the New Deal (1981); Holding Their Own: American Women in the 1930s (1982); and, most recently, American Women’s History: A Very Short Introduction (2015). She has written biographies of New Deal politician Molly Dewson, aviator Amelia Earhart, radio pioneer Mary Margaret McBride, and tennis great Billie Jean King, as well as a collective biography, Letter to the World: Seven Women Who Shaped the American Century (1998). Why They Marched: Untold Stories of the Women Who Fought For the Right to Vote is available on the Harvard University Press website here and on Amazon here.