Suffrage and the City: New York Women Battle for the Ballot
Reviewed by Susan Goodier
Just when we thought there simply couldn’t be another thing to say about the New York women’s suffrage movement, Lauren Santangelo presents us with an immaculately researched, well-written book that adds a new and provocative dimension to the topic. At the center of this monograph is New York City itself, with its myriad public spaces and its fascinating complexity, and Santangelo draws us into her rendition of suffragism in the city that never sleeps. Suffrage and the City does not presume to replace the historiography of the movement, but it raises the bar for casting a wide net for sources, for contextualization of a social movement, and for bringing a historical period (in this case, the Gilded Age and Progressive Era) to life. She convincingly argues that the city—Manhattan in particular—is more than a setting; it is an essential part of the drama of the women’s suffrage movement.
This monograph is as deeply and competently researched as it is dense in its prose. Covering the period from the founding of the New York City Woman Suffrage League in 1870 to the successful suffrage referendum in 1917, Santangelo has made excellent use of many manuscript collections, newspaper articles and editorials, and the journals and publications of the suffragists themselves. She utilizes a wide range of secondary sources, many of which have been published in the last decade. Most fascinatingly, she has drawn from the field of urban studies, locating the headquarters of the several suffrage organizations that existed between 1870 and 1917 (a period that saw a 273% population growth) in their proximity to important sites and landmarks in the city. The book is divided into six chapters, with an introduction, an epilogue, and a helpful appendix listing fifteen or more suffrage organizations, with name changes. She has articulated the conflicts stimulating the founding of these organizations, as well as change over time, as suffragists “feminized” the streets and buildings of the city and claimed the once-dangerous metropolis for themselves. Suffrage and the City is efficient, engaging, and entertaining.
The star of this performance is most definitely New York City. To avoid upstaging the central character, Santangelo focuses on only a select few suffrage leaders, including Lillie Devereux Blake, Maud Malone, Carrie Chapman Catt, Mary Garrett Hay, and a handful of others. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton make only brief appearances, as when Blake and Anthony disagree on the strategies necessary to gain suffrage support in the city, clearly Blake’s stomping ground, not the more rural Anthony’s. These women are mentioned only as necessary; groups of suffragists divided by class or status, or as professional nurses, actresses, or teachers, play a greater role. Despite having a common goal—women’s enfranchisement—leaders argued about philosophy, strategies, and proper behavior for women. In addition to highlighting tensions Blake and Anthony, Santangelo shows strains in the next generation of leadership, such as between Catt and Harriot Stanton Blatch. She also illuminates the problems between the rural upstate and the urban downstate, pointing out that their disagreements often diminished the resources suffragists had available, yet seem to have been a common trend of the movement.
Nevertheless, these women and their arguments are only supporting the main attraction: Gotham. It is during this period that the five boroughs joined to become Greater New York, and Santangelo shows how this merger affected suffrage activism and expanded women’s legislative opportunities. Sites of suffrage meetings relocated from private homes and the stodgy Masonic, Chickering, or Steinway convention halls where they met in early years, to a bolder expression of social cachet at fine hotels such as the Waldorf-Astoria or Sherry’s. Eventually they moved to the Ladies’ Mile with its beguiling and convenient department stores. Many of these suffrage sites exist today. We can easily imagine those spaces reverberating with myriad women’s voices demanding the right to vote. In addition, suffragists appropriated the streets of New York for their parades, speeches, and public displays.
The crux of the book is Chapter 4, “Geographies of Suffrage, 1910-1913,” and is Santangelo’s best contribution to our understanding of the topic. Suffragists learned to negotiate the city as the spaces appropriate for women to occupy without the protection of men expanded. Santangelo shows that suffragists vied for physical position by changing the addresses of their headquarters as their influence grew. They relocated from rooms (or entire floors) in the Metropolitan Tower, for example, to street-level store fronts in their effort to reach increasing numbers of male supporters. By 1910, Manhattan clearly emerged as the capital of the movement, the location of the first of many suffrage parades, and home to more than a dozen suffrage organizations. To illustrate this, Santangelo offers a fascinating map clearly marked with the location of the headquarters of several suffrage associations in the Murray Hill area. The juxtaposition of one suffrage organization in relation to another mirrors the ways suffrage leaders jockeyed for prominence. It would have been interesting to also know where the nearby anti-suffrage establishment located itself, since the author does not neglect discussions of the women who organized to oppose their enfranchisement elsewhere in the book.
Ultimately, suffrage activists redefined what it meant to “be a lady” in the city. As suffrage activists learned to organize around political districts, mimicking Tammany Hall, they sometimes “violated metropolitan gender etiquette,” yet often netted more supporters in the process. Sometimes suffragists invaded urban spaces too masculine to make much headway, as when one bold suffragist attempted to interrupt a boxing match and narrowly avoided physical harm. Throughout the book, readers will find many other amusing stories, such as when suffragists established a Bureau of Laughter or planned a women’s strike that never happened. Over time, suffragists learned to reach out to members of Russian, Italian, Irish, Chinese, and other ethnic groups, crossing cultural differences with greater or lesser success. They also traveled into the San Juan district to canvass African American families, determined to reach as many voters as possible. Meanwhile, suffragists dazzled spectators on the streets of New York with their parades, open air meetings, door-to-door canvasing for votes for the 1915 referendum, and their theater performances and films.
As suffragists appropriated opulent spaces, and freedom to traverse public streets expanded, they challenged the old assumptions of suffragists as masculine and unattractive. In the process, Santangelo argues, women became the heroines of their stories, not the victims of circumstance. Yet, suffrage activism took place in a “pressure cooker” of social, political, economic, and socialist upheavals, affecting the process of women’s enfranchisement. Unfortunately, suffragists had no initial strategy when it came to the upheaval of the Great War in Europe; anti-suffragists responded far more quickly to the patriotism demanded of war preparedness in the years before the United States entered it. But suffragists eventually devised strategies with appropriate political acumen. Patriotism, not protest, moved to the fore. Then, as Santangelo shows, suffragists “opened their urban toolbox” to rescue the city during the polio epidemic which infected 9000 people in 1916, offering an enlightening discussion of an overlooked topic. Suffragists worked with members of the Board of Health to distribute information about the virus, linking suffrage to maternalism, government aid, and disease control. The suffrage campaign shifted from “glitz to gravitas” and the enfranchisement of women literally “won in the city” in 1917.
Suffrage and the City is one more jewel in the crown of informative writing on the suffrage movement. Santangelo offers fresh and interesting perspectives in her focus on urban spaces, covering oft-tread ground with a bright new analysis. Her book sets a high standard for future scholars who focus on women’s rights, organizations, and activism, and it reminds us how fascinating the topics remain.
Susan Goodier is Lecturer of History at SUNY Oneonta and the co-author, with Karen Pastorello, of Women Will Vote: Winning Suffrage in New York State (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017).