Suffragists and Suffragettes

By Mike Wallace

The twenty-third of October, 1915, was a crisp fall day, splashed with sunshine, perfect for a parade. In midafternoon tens of thousands of women clad in white dresses and yellow sashes stepped out of Washington Square. They strode up Fifth Avenue arrayed in delegations of assorted age and station — letter carriers’ wives from Queens, schoolgirls from Washington Irving High, ILGWU seamstresses, Henry Street settlement workers. Vendors hawked yellow pennants, yellow balloons, chrysanthemums of yellow paper. A quarter-million onlookers lined the sidewalks.

As the marchers passed Mayor Mitchel’s reviewing stand at the public library, they hoisted high their banners.


It took till moonrise for the last of the demonstrators to reach the finish line. The final contingent consisted of 2,000 men singing (to the tune of “John Brown’s Body”) “We will vote for Suffrage, / We will vote for Suffrage, / On next Election Day.”

Whether a majority of the city’s (and state’s) men would join them in supporting female enfranchisement in the upcoming November 1915 referendum remained an open question. But win or lose, the city’s suffrage movement — and hence the nation’s — had been utterly transformed since its doldrum days twenty years earlier.

Adapted from GREATER GOTHAM: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919 by Mike Wallace.
Copyright © 2017 by Mike Wallace and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

Suffragette Mothers on the March in New York [PR068, Box 10, Folder: People: Women: Suffrage (1)] New-York Historical Society

Suffragette Mothers on the March in New York [PR068, Box 10, Folder: People: Women: Suffrage (1)] New-York Historical Society

In 1894 the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), its roots dating back to 1869, was still under the control of its now-septuagenarian founders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who set out to reenergize the stalled enterprise by tying it to New York’s political reform movement. In particular, they urged the state constitutional convention of 1894 to pass a woman suffrage amendment, arguing in part that respectable elite ladies, once enfranchised, could help their husbands counter immigrant-backed bosses and bring domestic virtue to public life. Without the vote, the prominent proponent Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi noted, women — “no matter how well born, how well educated, how intelligent, how rich, how serviceable to the State” — were the political inferiors of all men, “no matter how base-born, how poverty stricken, how ignorant, how vicious, how brutal.”

Other women, however, of similar social standing and educational and professional attainment, opposed granting their sex the right to vote. They reaffirmed the traditional gender order — the respective domains of women (the home) and men (the state) were “divinely ordered” — and they denounced the call for the ballot as a selfish, individualistic demand, one incompatible with the selfless role of a true woman. Elite female “antis,” as they were called, insisted that domesticity need not straitjacket women. They applauded and sought an extension of female higher education and access to the professions, goals for which the ballot was not deemed essential. And they argued that upper- and middle-class women had already emerged as a political force, by establishing reform organizations like the Woman’s Municipal League, under whose banner — and clothed in domestic virtue and political nonpartisanship — females had been doing door-to-door canvassing in Tammany districts on behalf of reform campaigns. Elite women had in effect extended their sphere into the public arena, and antis believed that voting, and the consequent inevitable involvement in party politics, would only diminish their influence, not enhance it.

Antis also noted that women had been granted a variety of privileges and protections, which might be lost if they demanded political equality. They believed, too, that they already had the ear of power — their husbands — and were loath to dilute that influence. Crucially, they pounced on the fatal flaw in the suffragists’ argument that voting would strengthen elite reformers. If the suffrage was granted, working-class women would vote, too, and the ranks of “the ignorant” would double. Dr. Jacobi assured the convention that elite women would be able to “so guide ignorant women voters that they could be made to counterbalance, when necessary, the votes of ignorant and interested men.” But this was hardly a sure thing. Even less compelling was Stanton’s politically preposterous proposal to restrict the ballot to educated or propertied women.

In the end, the all-male delegates voted female suffrage down by 98–58, with the majority led by such paladins as Elihu Root, who argued that “in politics there is struggle, strife, contention, bitterness, heart-burning, excitement, agitation, everything which is adverse to the true character of woman.” As a result, enfranchised women would become “hard, harsh, unlovable, repulsive; as far removed from that gentle creature to whom we all owe allegiance
and to whom we confess submission, as the heaven is removed from earth.” It was the convention’s duty to spare them this awful fate.

With this setback, the movement seemed to have reached an impasse.


A suggested new departure emerged from an unlikely quarter: Stanton’s own daughter. Harriot Stanton Blatch publicly rejected NAWSA’s unwillingness to include wage-earning women in either its vision or its strategy. Blatch wrote dismissively that the older group’s effort “was being wasted on its supporters in private drawing rooms and in public halls where friends, drummed up and harried by the ardent, listlessly heard the same old arguments.” She urged ladies of the “well-dressed movement” to make common cause with laboring women — maids, salesgirls, factory workers. Not that Blatch was disaffected from parlor society. She had married into a wealthy British family and had lived in England for many years. But she had also participated in the Fabian socialist and suffrage movements and gained a profound appreciation for the political and intellectual capabilities of working people.

When the elderly leadership recoiled from this approach, Blatch abandoned the suffrage movement. In 1905 she joined a more congenial group, the Women’s Trade Union League. Blatch conducted investigations, organized mass meetings, and developed close relations with working-class leaders, especially Leonora O’Reilly and Rose Schneiderman. Their responsiveness to the suffrage issue strengthened Blatch’s determination to wrest control of
the stagnant movement from rich clubwomen.

In January 1907, with her mother and Anthony now in their graves, Blatch founded the Equality League of Self-Supporting Women (EL). It embraced college-educated professionals, doctors, lawyers, social workers, government employees, and reformers like Florence Kelley and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Blatch considered these women the natural leaders of their sex. The EL also included milliners, shirt makers, and salesgirls — equally entitled to political voice, and, crucially, capable of affording access to working-class men (the majority, after all, of the electorate). Jewish working women on the Lower East Side were a prime target; the EL’s first mass meeting, at Cooper Union on April 4, 1907, featured such speakers as Rose Schneiderman, Joseph Barondess, and Rabbi Stephen Wise.

With a changed constituency came a change in tactics. Blatch called for aggressive activism. Her model in part was the WTUL. Still greater inspiration came from the British suffrage movement led by Blatch’s comrade from her Fabian days, Emmeline Pankhurst. In December 1907 the Equality League sponsored a talk by Anne Cobden-Sanderson, a visiting “suffragette.” A packed house at Cooper Union thrilled to her report on the new tactics of civil disobedience practiced in London by the Women’s Social and Political Union (formed in 1903), which were drawn from old working-class and Irish nationalist practice. Cobden-Sanderson had been one of the first to be arrested for the suffrage cause.

Cobden-Sanderson’s visit catalyzed the New York movement. Days later, on December 31, 1907, an existing left-wing municipal reform group of actresses, artists, writers, teachers, and social welfare workers stole a march on Blatch. Led by librarian Maude Malone, president of the Harlem Equal Rights League (1905), and Bettina Borrman Wells, a visiting English suffragette, they organized a Progressive Woman Suffrage Union and started up a journal called the American Suffragette. Using the continental term rather than the conventional “suffragist” designation signaled militant intentions on which they swiftly made good, holding an open-air meeting in Madison Square, a shocking departure for heretofore parlorbound suffrage workers. Six weeks later they held New York’s first all-woman parade, despite denial of a police permit. Though the tiny contingent of twenty-three women was dwarfed by the crowd of sympathetic workingmen looking on, it garnered enormous publicity. A followup march through Wall Street brought ruder treatment. Men jeered, hurled hard rolls and wet sponges. Undaunted, the group renounced “tea-table and drawing-room chat” forever, declaring: “The Suffragette is unwilling to wait for the ballot another sixty years. She wants it now and she wants it quick!”

Blatch’s group followed suit and slipped the constraints of respectable femininity. The EL held open-air meetings all around the city and organized the first sizable parade. In an interview with the Times, Blatch said it was imperative to reach men where they were, lauded the “value of publicity” as an aide to doing that, and argued that her “wide awake” methods had given a “brand new” sheen to the movement. In particular she pressed ahead with incorporating working women. She changed the EL’s name to the Women’s Political Union (WPU) — to be more welcoming to those who were not “self supporting,” and also to underscore her affinity for the British suffragette organization (even adopting its colors — purple, green, and white — rather than the American jonquil yellow)....

For all the growing visibility afforded by vigorous public action techniques, the path to suffrage ran unavoidably through the formal political process, and the entity dedicated to winning legislative approbation was the New York City Woman Suffrage Party, the creation of Carrie Chapman Catt. When Susan B. Anthony had retired from the presidency of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1900, she had chosen Catt as her successor, in large part because she’d shown a great flair for organizing. Catt had resigned the presidency in 1904, to care for her ailing husband, and after his death in 1905 had confined herself to the international suffrage movement, spending much of her time abroad. But in 1907 she turned her considerable talents to New York and set out to build a women’s equivalent of Tammany Hall. First she took command of the Interurban Suffrage Council, a coalition of a few of the many small groups that had sprung up around the metropolis. Then she pulled in many more, established a headquarters (at the Martha Washington Hotel), and set up caucuses in every assembly district. These gatherings in turn chose 804 delegates to a Convention of Disfranchised Women, which, on October 29, 1909, at a giant Carnegie Hall meeting, founded the New York City Woman Suffrage Party (WSP). Though a subset of the relatively conservative national and state organizations, the WSP also included virtually every suffrage group in the city (including that of Blatch). While a substantial minority of the new organization’s leadership were Social Register ladies, the cadre also included numerous union organizers and settlement house workers (Lillian Wald was honorary vice chairman) and constituted a virtual Who’s Who of Gotham’s feminist political community.


Catt’s strategy was to use Charlie Murphy’s tactics — methods hitherto deemed degrading and undignified—to press for the ballot. In February 1910 the party set up headquarters in the Metropolitan Life tower, started a journal (the Woman Voter), and hit the bricks — getting petitions signed on the street, canvassing door to door, organizing mass meetings, and taking charge of the mounting of Fifth Avenue parades. Its first, on May 21, 1910, novelly featured demonstrators riding in ninety automobiles, draped in yellow, followed by several thousand marchers carrying banners like NEW YORK DENIES THE VOTE TO LUNATICS, IDIOTS, CRIMINALS — AND WOMEN. The parade ended up at a rally in Union Square. With an estimated 10,000 participants, it was the largest women’s suffrage demonstration ever mounted in the United States.

Catt’s Woman Suffrage Party welcomed socialists for their access to working women but kept their leaders at arm’s length, lest they alienate wealthy backers. The socialists were themselves divided on the issue. The party had been the only political organization to accept women members and back women’s rights. Debs (nationally) and Hillquit (locally) had championed female suffrage. Yet many in the party were lackadaisical in support, considering it at best a secondary issue. Some actively suspected a movement that for so long had denigrated immigrants.

Even after the mainstream turned around in 1907, some socialists, pointing to Belmont’s participation, persisted in branding it an affair of rich faddists. (Wobbly syndicalists like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn were at first even less sympathetic, believing the vote largely irrelevant to working-class women, who should concentrate on winning power at the workplace; Flynn also feared it might set working-class women at odds with working-class men.)

In 1908 the national Socialist Party backed suffrage, the only major party to do so. And in 1909 US socialist women celebrated a “National Woman’s Day” — with about women turning out to hear speakers like Leonora O’Reilly, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Rose Schneiderman. The Second International adopted the idea of such a celebration in 1910 and held its own in 1911. Meanwhile, socialist women forged an autonomous network of socialist suffrage clubs in all five boroughs and threw themselves into the struggle. The New York Call covered their activities extensively.

From 1910 on, the broader movement expanded its range of advocacy techniques, from old-fashioned ward canvassing, to up-to-the-minute devices pioneered in the city’s emerging mass-culture industry. Lavish society events drew the most press coverage: a suffrage card party and dance at the Hotel Astor; Louisine Havemeyer’s benefit exhibit of her painting collection at the Knoedler gallery; exclusive balls; formal dress dinners at private homes and clubs. These aimed to establish the movement’s respectability, influence wealthy men and politicians, and raise money. But the great bulk of work was done in middle- and working-class communities, where the votes lay.... Campaigners sought out New Yorkers at play as well as work. The WSP sponsored Suffrage Days at baseball games. They draped banners across Polo Grounds boxes, sold suffrage candies, and held post-game open-air rallies. “Sandwich girls” walked the beach at Coney Island, advertising meetings. Suffragettes appeared as novelty attractions on the vaudeville stage and gave speeches between acts. At legitimate theaters they performed tableaux at matinees and sponsored suffrage plays. And they invaded the movie houses, not as protestors but as producers....

The women allied with labor groups. In 1911 the WSP and WTUL teamed up to organize a New York Wage Earners’ League for Suffrage and also created an Industrial Section within the WSP. Leonora O’Reilly presided over both. Rose Schneiderman, Mary Dreier, Rose Pastor Stokes, Florence Kelley, and ILGWU heroine Clara Lemlich (vice president of the WTUL) spoke at union meetings and factory gates. Margaret Hinchey, a rugged Irishwoman who worked in steam laundries, sought out workingmen in workshops, in subway excavations, and along the North River piers.

Speakers argued that votes for women were an “industrial necessity.” Female workers could use the ballot to abolish the sweatshop, raise their wages, stop police harassment, win protective legislation, bring down food and housing costs, end child labor, and expand educational opportunities.

They made the same points in print. Suffrage groups ran off and distributed literature on a scale not seen since abolitionist days. Millions of small pamphlets, leaflets, and fliers were printed, in large type, on bright paper, in German, Italian, Yiddish, Scandinavian, and Bohemian, which were distributed with the help of settlement workers. The WSP also got suffrage news into the ethnic press....

The New York organization became the vanguard of anti-suffragists throughout the United States, receiving a steady flow of requests for information, advice, or assistance from women in at least twenty different states.... The suffrage blitz climaxed with the magnificent parade on October 23 [1915]... roughly two weeks before the [first state] referendum.

But the referendum lost. Big-time. New York’s men defeated female suffrage 57–43 percent statewide and by a virtually identical margin in Gotham. Suffrage lost in all five boroughs. 238,098 voted in favor, 320,853 against, leaving an adverse majority of 82,755....

Two days after the election, the WSP and NAWSA held a mass meeting at Cooper Union, where speeches were made and $100,000 pledged for a new campaign fund. The spirit of the members was shown in the words of a leader who wrote: “We know that we have gained over half a million voters in the State, that we have many new workers, have learned valuable lessons and with the knowledge obtained and undiminished courage we are again in the field of action.”

The next referendum was slated for 1917.

Mike Wallace is Distinguished Professor of History at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and the founder of The Gotham Center.

To learn more about his new book,
Greater Gotham, the long-awaited sequel to the Pulitzer-winning Gotham, click here.