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Not Business As Usual: U.S. Suffrage Activists Gain a Voice

This post was authored by Lynn Weinstein, Business Reference Librarian in the Science, Technology, and Business Division.

The anniversary of women gaining full citizenship with the right to vote following the passage and ratification of the 19th amendment on August 20, 1920 has sparked a full year of commemoration at many institutions, including the Library of Congress. There will be exhibits, events, and displays to recognize the more than 70 years that women organized to gain the vote through advocacy work in small towns and large cities as well as statewide and nationally. To celebrate the centennial anniversary of the 19th amendment, the Library of Congress will have the exhibition, Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote.

As a business librarian, I became interested in understanding how the suffragettes functioned from a business perspective – how they organized, how they fundraised, and how they marketed themselves. Early organizing efforts for the Abolitionist and Temperance movements aided women in learning how to campaign.  Women applied skills learned in previous social movements and charity initiatives, teaching each other how to gives speeches, how to put on events, and how to fundraise for a cause.

Advertising mass meeting and band concert for August 21 – suffrage campaign days in Hackensack, NJ.

The Woman Suffrage Year Book of 1917 encouraged women to identify the prominent individuals, organizations, churches, chief industries, and newspapers, in their area and encouraged them to evaluate the strength of the political parties. The book explains how to run committees, including what was referred to as the Propaganda Committee which “should be alive to all opportunities for promoting suffrage sentiment.”  It encouraged women to seek out “ready-made audiences and arrange for suffrage speakers to address Women’s Clubs, Granges, Picnics and County Fairs, Teachers’ and Farmer’s Institutes, Labor Unions, Political Rallies, Moving Picture Show Audiences, etc.” Women held teas, lectures, and other events to spread the word and to raise money.

Suffragettes selling suffrage papers, N.Y., 1911.

The National American Woman Suffrage Association’s Literature Committee would buy and sell Suffrage Literature and Novelties as well as provide literature for sale and for free distribution at public meetings.  The Woman Suffrage Year Book details nearly 30 U.S. based suffrage publications, in addition to books of reference and study courses. Many suffrage organizations created cookbooks to raise funds and awareness, and these efforts in Washington state are detailed in “Pots and Politics: an Historical Cookbook: From Suffragists to the Equal Rights Amendment.” Women created private label teas and coffees to sell for the movement, including the  Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association’s Suffrage’s Fund Coffee and the Woman’s Suffrage Party in Northern California’s Equality Tea.

In the seventy years during which they fought for full citizenship, women needed to package themselves to grow their base of supporters. Cartoons often depicted the activists as uncaring, unfeminine, and manly. U.S. women needed to craft what was perceived as the appropriate image to gain support and influence among women and sympathetic men. Some movements did not want to associate with more militant British groups, and some groups, like suffragettes in California, strove to be more inclusive – reaching out to workers, immigrants, and minorities.

Inspired by the grit and tenacity of the suffragettes from over a hundred years ago, the lessons learned in the suffragette movement can apply to new advocacy movements.  There are currently 106 women in the U.S. House of Representatives comprising 23.4% of the voting members, led by Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and there are 25 women in the Senate. Advocacy models from the past are currently being applied as women seek out the “ready audiences of today to engage in important causes, including gender equality and women’s empowerment.”

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Suffrage exhibits in Washington, D.C.              

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