By Brooke Kroeger
Forget the distaste of men like Woodrow Wilson for those "masculinized women" of the votes for women campaign. No less a champion of equal rights than Nellie Bly flunked them on appearance, too. By 1896, with the struggling movement about to turn fifty, Bly urged her suffrage sisters to get themselves a stylist.
Sharp observations laced with personal asides lifted the byline of "Nellie Bly" into the headline of every story she ever wrote. So the bite in her full-page New York World dispatch from the 1896 national women's suffrage convention was no departure. As a movement sympathizer, what Bly witnessed on the platform at the Church of Our Father in Washington, DC, was an appalling succession of her era's most egregious "Glamour Don'ts."
No, no, no, was her reaction to the corset-free garments that most of the speakers chose to wear. In Bly's view, "the shapeless rage of dress reform" was a truly unfortunate late Victorian trend, the grandmother of the mid-century sack and muu-muu. To Bly of the self-celebrated "wasp-waist," a dress without body-skimming contours was no dress at all.
Bly thought Charlotte Perkins Stetson's oratorical prowess and dainty "high-bred" face served her well as she lectured on "The Spiritual Significance of Democracy and Woman's Relationship to It." But not that poorly tailored outfit in a dreadful shade of mud. "Mrs. Stetson could have preached to all men and won favor," Bly said, "if she only dressed becomingly."
The chocolate-colored skirt of Elizabeth A. Yates "hung like a bag" and whatever had possessed Emma Smith De Voe of South Dakota to keep on her large black plumed hat? "In striving to gain rights held selfishly by men," Bly said, "it might be well to copy some of their few good points."
The ensemble of the movement's leader, Susan B. Anthony, got a pass from Bly (who, incidentally, snared an interview with Anthony during the convention. The Sunday profile she produced still has place in the annals for the personal details the great suffrage leader revealed.) And the dark green tailor-made suit of Anthony's eventual successor, the Rev. Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, at least fit that "little dumpling of a woman."
Bly's point was this: intellectual or not, for a woman, neglect of appearance is a weakness, not a strength. "And in working for a cause," she went on, "I think it is wise to show the men that its influence does not make woman any the less attractive." Even more to the point, she said, "Dress is a great weapon in the hands of a woman if rightly applied. It is a weapon men lack, so women should make the most of it. Why not use the powerful means of pretty clothes?"
However questionable Bly's critique might seem from any number of contemporary vantage points, it did prove prescient. As the 1900s turned to the 1910s, the suffrage movement's public image underwent a dramatic change, largely thanks to two late-breaking developments in the campaign's final decade: one, the eye-popping parades and pageants the leadership produced, and two, the strong new support of elegant, influential, socially prominent New Yorkers, including celebrities, powerful men in professional, academic, and religious life, and fashionable society and smart set dames and gents. Both brought the cause fresh energy and oomph. Press coverage improved and dubious or indifferent members of the public did a sharp double-take.
At a lavish luncheon at the Hotel Astor in January 1909, the movement introduced Mackay in her new guise. The Times dutifully quoted in full from her speech to the "500 women and a few men (who, naturally, did not count)" who were present. No doubt because the newspaper's readers — the article appeared in the news, not the women's section — would also want to know, the reporter offered a full paragraph of description of the guest of honor's "handsome gown of a soft gold-color chiffon velvet with old gold lace and a large brown hat with lace and brown plumes."
In mid-March of 1909, Harper's Weekly emoted over its new portrait of Mackay in a head-turning gown trimmed in Alençon lace. The writer gushed over how quickly she had become influential in "bringing the question of Woman Suffrage into general prominence." Along with Mackay's portrait were four images just as fetching of some of her fashion-conscious recruits. Pictured were the treasurer, Mrs. Helen Wise Miller; Rita de Acosta Lydig, known at the time as "the most picturesque woman in America" and the wife of Capt. Philip Lydig; Anne L. Ide Cockran, the wife of US Representative W. Bourke Cockran; and Edith Kingdon Gould, the actress wife of the financier George Jay Gould.
In late July of 1909, summer students at Columbia University filled Hamilton Hall to the doors for the opening event in a suffrage speaker series Mackay had organized. Even with the eminent philosopher John Dewey giving the lecture, the Boston Globe reporter seemed far more taken with Mackay in her "picturesque frock of cream lace with a high girdle of black satin" and a "new shaped French toque with a big bunch of aigrettes ticking perkily up the back."
Speaking of aigrettes, they gave Alva Vanderbilt Belmont a little trouble in one instance. Her Political Equality League formed at about the same time as Mackay's society, but encouraged a broader membership. For instance, Belmont recruited actively among African American women, which was one of many aspects of her work and largess cited favorably in the press. Late in 1909, after she was quoted expressing a hyperbolic wish to horsewhip men from time to time, the front page of the Williamsport Gazette-Bulletin of Pennsylvania carried her photograph in an ominous-looking hat of the dark spikey feathers, which, the caption said, required the capture of live mother birds to snatch the long plumes, leaving their young to starve in the nest.
The 1911 New York suffrage parade brought into public view the first organized brigade of men representing the year-old Men's League for Woman Suffrage of the State of New York, gentlemen all, and all counted among Gotham's most prominent and influential figures.
By this point the suffrage makeover was complete. A movement that for decades had been dismissed as dowdy had become downright dazzling.
Bly's instinct was right. Since the suffrage cause was a women's movement, fashion and style notes would follow, even when the references veered well off point. At the end of March 1912, Mackay and Shaw sparred publicly on the stage in Carnegie Hall over Mackay's expressed contention that American men held women in great reverence. The New York Tribune's reporter found it relevant to highlight Mackay's "low-necked tunic gown of black velvet over white lace spangled with silver, with tuberoses at her breast" against Shaw's "white hair and square-set face showing above a plain dark dress."
Just over a month later, as a curtain-raiser to the 1912 Suffrage Day parade in early May, the Tribune asked Harriot Stanton Blatch to explain why the movement placed so much emphasis on producing lavish spectacles. Blatch had several talking points, among them, how critical it was for a movement that lacked political power to be able to demonstrate arresting style, or as she put it, "that we have a sense of form and color."
In fact, each parade and pageant was masterful in presentation. There were bands and banners denoting every marching group; college graduates in caps and gowns; elaborate historic costumes for symbolic tableaux and re-enactments; and flowing Grecian gowns. Harmonious flow on the avenue was a breath-taking given, as participants responded to the day's color call in rivers of white; or white, purple, green; or yellow; or white and gold. Shirtwaist workers, after the Triangle factory tragedy of 1909, strikingly strode the avenue in mourners' black.
For the 1913 parade in Washington DC, Bly herself appeared on horseback in the dual role of designated parade "herald" and reporter for the New York Evening Journal. She had followed her World colleague and friend, Arthur Brisbane, a suffragist himself, from Joseph Pulitzer's World to William Randolph Hearst's New York competitor. Once again, Bly's fixation on appearance — this time, her own — was on full display, right from her opening paragraph:
"Why all the green?" Milholland père asked Bly, she reported, encouraging him in reply to stare at the features on either side of her nose. "If I could copyright your smile," he replied, "I could make a million dollars on it." This published exchange was vintage Bly, who understood how such a random reportorial flourish could capture and hold a casual reader's attention — color, clothes, jewelry, revealing personal interaction; a little flirtation—a personality-driven means of getting a story's more important points across.
In December of 1913, again in Washington, the suffragists convened for their annual convention at the Bellevue Hotel. The New York Tribune's unnamed reporter seemed surprised to find "so many beautifully gowned women" at the opening reception, adding that several delegates showed up in short hair, the mode of the moment for women, and of those, all but two were men. As the delegates arrived, the reporter expressed approval of Anna Shaw's gown of "shimmering gray silk" — she, too, had apparently gotten the message—and shared in print a conversation overhead before the opening dinner at the New Willard and a comment:
HE — Want to vote, these women, do they? Well, they’d better learn how to dress.
SHE — Yes! How can a woman help being a frump when she’s bothering about the vote?
And just then Mrs. Laidlaw appeared, a radiant refutation of that criticism.
The reporter meant the "gorgeous pale purple velvet" of Harriet Burton Laidlaw, one of the chief organizers of the New York State campaign and one of those hardworking movement intellectuals. She was also a New York Blue Book socialite, the wife of the investment banker, James Lees Laidlaw with his daunting colonial lineage, and matron of Hazeldean Manor, their summer mansion in Sands Point, Long Island. Laidlaw was also the president of the National Men's League for Woman Suffrage and an important movement figure in his own right throughout the decade.
Laidlaw's men, in top hats or bowlers or fedoras, marched as an ever-larger brigade in every New York parade except the first one in 1910, when the League was just getting organized. They showed up in force for the Washington DC parade in 1913. As military preparedness overpowered the national mood in 1914, no parade was staged, but the Men's League did sponsor a pageant at the 71st Street Regiment Armory. Image generated ink in this instance, too. The newspapers found it amusing that for one Colonial tableau, organizers had to struggle to find a man with legs shapely enough for white silk stockings until the lovely Inez Milholland's husband, Eugen Boissevain, stepped into the role.
Image mattered just as much as the war years darkly progressed, overshadowing the concurrent needs of the suffrage campaign. By 1916, it was not a suffrage parade the movement organized but a " Great Preparedness Parade," a "Parade for Defence," as the New York Sun put it in five columns across the top of its front page of May 14. "Women Walk to Show Mettle of America." The brigades of marchers came out in force, as did the crowds once again, even without the promise of costumes and high colors.
In April of 1917, the United States sent its forces into the conflict. The suffragists read the tea leaves correctly. At the end of October, two short weeks before the successful second New York referendum on the suffrage amendment — a 1915 ballot initiative had failed to pass — they staged a parade. "Patriotism not propaganda" was its theme. "Country First is Keynote of Suffragists," the New York Tribune headline read. It was exactly the right image to project. The measure passed at last on November 6 by a winning margin of some ninety thousand votes. By January of 1918, the word "male" had been excised from the state constitution's provision on eligible voters over the age of twenty-one.
In the absence of electoral or legislative power, spectacle, as Blatch had explained to the Tribune back in 1912, was a movement's most potent weapon. "Logic and sermons never convince," she told the reporter. There was need to convey an appreciation for music, the ability to swell emotion, the wonder of marching groups of people, a show of strength in numbers, and a demonstration of prowess in organizational ability and grand design.
All of that was crucial to any hope of success, along with a clear grasp of color and form, even the muted display appropriate to a people at war. The suffrage parades and pageants were certainly that. Thy also fed the enthusiasm of the suffrage "army," Blatch added, and, just as importantly, they generated excellent publicity.
And so did the well-dressed socialites who came on board in this period as they provided their own welcome fillip to a 70-year slog. Both developments helped bring the movement better publicity, wider public acceptance, and a smoother path to the ballot box.
As if to underscore the accuracy of Blatch's explanation, the Tribune blared her remarks across two columns at the top of the day's front page.