Suffrage and the War

By Johanna Neuman

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For almost a decade, the women’s suffrage parade had been an exuberant feature of Progressive Era New York, an iconic image of the polyglot nature of the city and the mingling of classes around the idea of government reform. Beginning in 1909, thousands of women of various occupations and professions — and a few brave men who withstood jeers from onlookers — marched along Fifth Avenue in a public affirmation of citizenship.

But in October 1917 the nation’s sons were fighting in what would come to be called the Great War, and the themes of patriotism that suffused that year’s parade suggest the lengths to which suffrage leaders went to rebut any notion that women, banned from serving as soldiers, were unworthy of the franchise. If casualties required a parade of less exuberance, they would march with sobriety. And if pursuing the vote during war seemed disloyal — even though a referendum was on the ballot in New York that November — they would call the vote a war measure, marching for its passage not as suffragists but as female patriots.

Carrie Chapman Catt, head of the largest suffrage organization in the country, the two-million-member National American Woman Suffrage Association, had earlier joined Jane Addams in forming the Women's Peace Party.[1] Theodore Roosevelt, that champion of maleness, had derided them as “hysterical pacifists,” unsuited for the rough and tumble of the male polity.[2] Now, to the chagrin of her friends, Catt rejected pacifism in favor of volunteerism. Cast out by the Peace Party, she planned a parade calculated to sell suffrage as a necessary piece of victory abroad. Patriotism radiated from marchers’ attire, and their signs.

“There was none of the dash and color of the banner parade two years before,” recalled one marcher. “The mood was serious... Dark clothes were worn instead of white.”[3] A slogan committee insured that the messaging was rigorous, with the effect that “from first banner to last sigh,” the parade had all the appearance of “a walking speech.”[4] One series of boards contained the signatures of one million New York women, collected in painstaking, foot-leather canvassing in state districts. Another placard reported raising $7.1 million for the Liberty Loan campaign, proof, said the New York Times, of “the patriotic contributions of women.” One delegation featured women whose sons, husbands or brothers were serving in the military, and when it passed, it “stirred the people to greatest applause.” Another contingent included nurses and Red Cross workers in uniform, women serving in war. Often a critic of women’s suffrage, the Times now placed the story on page one, giving it the same gravitas as news that U.S. troops had entered the trenches in France.[5]

Scholars have long argued that World War I proved the tipping point for the enfranchisement of American women, convincing male voters that women were patriotic enough to be trusted with the ballot. As one MIT historian recently put it, “Women's voluntarism was indispensable to suffrage victory.”[6] But having studied this period for my new book, Gilded Suffragists: The New York Socialites Who Fought for Women’s Right to Vote, I think it can be equally argued that suffragists won the vote not because of their war service itself but because fighting for their cause during wartime forced them to make wrenching choices between pacifism and patriotism that hardened them as political actors. Suffrage in the end was not a gift from male lawmakers for female war service. It came not because they served in war but because they excelled in displaying that service in the public square. War had given them a platform, not a guarantee. How they performed was riveting.

Of all the contests between principle and politics, none was as poignant as that of Jeannette Rankin, a pacifist Republican from Montana who had just been elected as the first female member of the U.S. Congress. Arriving in Washington, Rankin was courted, and claimed, by both sides in the suffrage wars. Catt was privately appalled that an “unlettered” woman had been elected as the first female member of Congress. Publicly, she was celebratory, calling Rankin “the savior of suffrage”[7] and hosting a breakfast in her honor at the Shoreham Hotel, sitting to her right. On Rankin’s left sat Alice Paul, the darling of militants, many pacifists, who put cause above all else. Paul gave Rankin a bouquet of purple, white and yellow flowers, color scheme of her National Women’s Party, and urged her to vote against war.[8] Caught between her allegiance to suffrage and her belief that war was wrong, sandwiched between the pragmatic Catt and the fiery Paul, Rankin was positioned quite literally between the two. Conversation was no doubt strained.

Jeannette Rankin (right) at National American Woman Suffrage Association headquarters

Jeannette Rankin (right) at National American Woman Suffrage Association headquarters

That evening Woodrow Wilson, who campaigned in 1916 on the slogan “He kept us out of war,” asked Congress to join the fight. His opening line was, “Gentlemen of the Congress.”[9] But in fact all eyes were on the Lady from Montana. Attention fell on Rankin not because her vote would make any difference — the Senate acceded quickly, 82-6, and the House tally four days later was 373-50 — but because her decision in the first vote ever cast by a woman in the U.S. Congress was rife with gendered politics. Could a woman, not qualified to serve in the military, send others to die? Did she have a right to say no?

Wellington Rankin urged his sister “to vote a man’s vote,” warning that otherwise she risked backlash from male voters who would see in her opposition what they most feared: the feminization of politics.[10] Harriet and James Lees Laidlaw, New York activists who had befriended Rankin when they hired her to work for suffrage years earlier, also urged a yes vote, on grounds that without women’s support for war, men would dismiss females as too weak to fight and too unpatriotic to vote. They lobbied Jeannette hard.

“Jeannette felt very close to them and very much in their debt,” wrote congressional aide Belle Fligelman Winestine. “They pleaded with her to put aside her own feelings and vote for entry into the war. It was a very difficult and emotional time for her. I could not imagine her voting for war; neither could I imagine her letting her friends down.”[11] The Laidlaws “pleaded with her not to betray the cause of suffrage.” As Rankin said, “The hardest part of the vote was the fact that the suffragists were divided and many of my beloved friends said that you will ruin the suffrage movement if you vote against war.”[12] She voted no, decided two years later to seek the Senate instead of re-election, and was defeated.

Greatly complicating the efforts of mainstream suffragists was the more militant tactics of Alice Paul and her National Woman’s Party protestors, who began picketing the White House in early 1917. They picketed in shifts of three hours,[13] every day of the week, except Sundays, “in all kinds of weather, in rain and in sleet, in hail and in snow” for eighteen months.[14] At first authorities looked the other way, eager not to turn them into martyrs for a cause. They were unpopular enough already among those thought it unseemly to seek personal rights during mobilization. Sailors ripped at their signs, unimpeded by police, as onlookers shouted, “Send them over to the Kaiser!”[15] As the nation muscled up for war against Germany, authorities began arrests, on charges of obstructing sidewalk traffic. Over the course of the next year and a half, by one estimate 2,000 American women had joined the protest line, 500 were arrested, and 170 jailed.[16]

Picketing the White House

Picketing the White House

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Theirs was the first political protest ever conducted at the gates of the White House, troubling to a political establishment that held sacred the address of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as a symbol of national identity.[17]The Baltimore Sun said the picketing demonstrated “the unfitness of those who take part in it to participate in public affairs. Why should the nation call to its aid such selfish and unpatriotic counselors as these? When they seek to harass and embarrass the President in the face of national dangers and duties such as he confronts at present, with what patience can their claims to citizenship be considered?”[18] The Charlotte Observer put it more succinctly, suggesting that “the keeper of the White House grounds might put those ‘silent sentinels’ to flight by releasing a few mice in their direction.”[19] Even the Boston Globe, a pro-suffrage party, argued that the picketers had “harmed the cause.”[20] And the Washington Post reported that “even the friends of suffrage among senators and representatives now have cold feet and feel that the cause of suffrage has received a setback from which it cannot recover during the present session.”[21]

In New York, suffrage leaders were so alarmed by Paul’s breach of wartime patriotism that they urged newspaper editors not to confuse their efforts with those of the protesters. “We have a distinct feeling of shame that the only notable record of… disloyalty in this heterogeneous melting pot of nation… should emanate from the suffragists,” said Harriet Laidlaw.[22] She observed wryly that if Alice Paul had truly “transplanted” British tactics to the United States, she would have signed up for war service.[23]

The war took its toll on anti-suffragists as well. As early as 1915, when German subs sank the RMS Lusitania, Josephine Jewell Dodge had called on suffragists to accept a truce, explaining she wanted to spend the entire $15,000 budget of the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage on war service. Suffragists accused her of grandstanding.[24] Following suit, Alice Chittenden, president of the New York branch, committed her organization to Wilson’s preparedness campaign, raising $46,000 for the Red Cross.[25] Described as “the most dynamic of the antis,”[26]Chittenden had inherited a gift for politics from her grandfather, a New York congressman, and her mother, who in the 1890s brought Alice to anti-suffrage rallies. Now she protested the movement’s attempt to conflate suffrage with patriotism. “A truly patriotic woman wants no reward for her work,” she said. “The suggestion that (the state) shall offer women the political payment of a vote for war services is a direct slur on woman’s patriotism.”[27] Later it would be said that this all-or-nothing view of patriotism cost antis the 1917 election, as they left the public stage to suffragists.[28]

Ten days after the parade, for the second time in three years, male voters in New York would go to the polls to decide whether to enfranchise their wives, their mothers, their sisters and their daughters. By this time, women had won suffrage in twelve states, and had provided the margin of difference in President Woodrow Wilson’s re-election campaign.[29] In October, Vira Whitehouse, president of the New York State Woman Suffrage Party, led a delegation to the White House. The president, a southerner who had long insisted that women’s suffrage was an issue for the states to decide, now sounded like any politician in thrall to a special interest. “The whole country has appreciated the way in which the women have risen to this great occasion,” he said, urging New Yorkers “to show the world... that they are fighting for democracy because they believe in it.”[30]

As the election neared, the New York Times again editorialized against the referendum, as it had in 1915, but this time its rationale suggested that suffrage forces were gaining momentum. “The amendment should be rejected this year by a majority sufficiently emphatic to put an end to the agitation at least during the period when the minds of the people are preoccupied with the grave concerns of war,”[31] concluded the paper. This argument — one of timing — was echoed by men who worried about the feminization of politics at a time of combat. “First let us finish the war and rid the world of its tyrant nations,” said Henry Wise Wood in a letter to the Times. “Then will it be safe for us to consider the effeminization [sic] of our electorate.”[32]

On election night, “the streets felt a new election thrill.” Newsboys hawked late night editions with the clatter of favorable headlines. “Each woman felt that the victory belonged to her,” wrote Gertrude Foster Brown. “The next day women were seen everywhere, wearing suffrage buttons,” greeting one another with “ ‘Ain’t it just grand that we won?’ ” In the end, the city had won the day, the measure losing upstate by 1,519 votes but carrying but carrying New York City by 103,863. In a celebration, Catt opened her remarks by saying “Fellow citizens.” The audience exploded in cheers. “For a long time she could go no further,” recalled Brown. “The packed auditorium was in a tumult of joy. Women cheered themselves hoarse and men cheered with them.”[33]

Suffrage came not as a gift from male politicians or as a reward for war service. It came because women had learned to frame their war service — or their pacifism — as an act of citizenship that merited equality. Choosing to position suffrage as a war measure was a brilliant stroke that undercut anti-suffragists. Distancing themselves from pacifists and picketers proved popular with the public, valuable for mainstreaming the issue. But protesting in the face of such patriotic winds, speaking out for peace to avoid another War To End All Wars — these tactics of radical activists helped force the issue too.

In short, suffragists gained the vote not by the good graces of male politicos but by becoming politicians themselves, mastering both the new science of public relations and the hard choices of real politik. Some played the inside game, working the halls of power, while others picketed, throwing rhetorical rocks at the establishment. For all, the war had stiffened their spines and honed their skills at manipulating that fickle creature known as public opinion. And in that transition — from private clubwomen to public figures, from social leaders to practiced politicians — they won the right to vote.


Johanna Neuman, award-winning journalist and historian, is author of
Gilded Suffragists: The New York Socialites Who Fought for Women’s Right to Vote (NYU Press), from which this post is excerpted. The book was hailed by Publishers’ Weekly as one of the top books this fall from independent presses.


[1] Joyce Blackwell, No Peace Without Freedom: Race and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, 1915-1975 (SIU Press, 2004), 39

[2] James M. Volo, A History of War Resistance in America (Greenwood, 2010), 321

[3] Gertrude Foster Brown, Suffrage and Music – My First Eighty Years, unpublished manuscript, Gertrude Foster Brown Papers, Schlesinger Library, 171

[4] “The Woman’s Parade,” The Woman Citizen, November 3, 1917

[5] “20,000 March in Suffrage Line,” New York Times, October 28, 1917, 1

[6] Christopher Capozzola Uncle Sam Wants You: World War 1 and the Making of the Modern American Citizen (Oxford University Press, 2008) 103.

[7] James J. Lopach and Jean A. Luckowski, Jeannette Rankin: A Political Woman (University Press of Colorado, 2005), 6.

[8] Cynthia A. Julian Visuality in Woman Suffrage Discourse & the Construction of Jeannette Ranking as National Symbol of Enfranchised American Womanhood, MA Thesis, Empire State College, SUNY, 2011, 119

[9] Woodrow Wilson, War Messages, 65th Cong., 1st Sess. Senate Doc. No. 5, Serial No. 7264, Washington, D.C., 1917; pp. 3-8, passim.

[10] Josephson. Jeannette Rankin, 76; see also Norma Smith, Jeannette Rankin, America’s Conscience (Helena: Montana Historical Society, 2002), 127.

[11] Belle Fligelman Winestine, “Mother Was Shocked,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Summing, 1974), 75

[12] Lopach and Luckowski, Jeannette Rankin, 148-9

[13] “ ‘Silent Sentinels’ Picketed Near White House, Chanute (Ks.) Daily Tribune, January 10, 1917, 1

[14] Inez Haynes Irwin, The Story of Alice Paul and the National Women’s Party (Fairfax, VA: Denlingers’ Publishers, Limited, 1977), 203

[15] Linda J. Lumsden, Rampant Women: Suffragists and the Right of Assembly(Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997), 125

[16] Doris Stevens, Jailed for Freedom (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920), v

[17] Stevens, Jailed for Freedom, 200, quotes “a successful young Harvard engineer as telling her, “I don’t believe you realize how much men objected to your picketing the White House.”

[18] “Women Who Injure Their Own Case,” Baltimore Sun, February 12, 1917, 6

[19] “Newspaper Sentiment,” Charlotte Observer, January 22, 1917, 4

[20] “Wrong Method of Pleading Their Cause,” Boston Daily Globe, June 21, 1917

[21] “Brave Third Day Out,” The Washington Post, June 22, 1917, 1

[22] “Resent Pickets ‘Disloyalty,’” New York Times, June 23, 1917

[23] Linda Ford, Iron-Jawed Angels: The Suffrage Militancy of the National Woman’s Party, 1912-1920 (Lantham, MD: University Press of America, 1991), 157

[24] Susan Goodier, No Votes for Women: The New York State Anti-Suffrage Movement (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 93

[25] Susan Goodier “Anti-Suffragists,” New York State Archives, Fall 2007, 24.

[26] Goodier, No Votes for Women, 75

[27] Alice Hill Chittenden “Woman’s Service or Woman Suffrage,” Woman’s Protest 11, no. 1 (May 1917)

[28]) Goodier, No Votes for Women, 93-94

[29] Christine A. Lunardini and Thomas J. Knock “Woodrow Wilson and Woman Suffrage: A New Look,” Political Science Quarterly, Volume 95, Number 4, Winter 1980-81, 663

[30] Vira Boarman Whitehouse Papers, 15f, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute

[31] “The Woman Suffrage Amendment,” New York Times, November 3, 1917, 14

[32] “Man Suffrage for War,” New York Times, November 2, 1917, 14

[33] Brown, “Suffrage and Music,” 174