Votes for women was a demand that was both radical and all-American. And the nearly century-long history of how women won that right is as colorful and kaleidoscopic as it is complicated and almost impossible to sum up.
Those who fought for it were heroes, but not always moral paragons. The suffrage movement, like other social movements before and after, often reflected the racism, nativism and other prejudices that pervaded America as a whole.
At the heart of the suffrage battle was a conundrum: Women gaining the vote required persuading men to share it with them. And there were many who dismissed the cause as ridiculous, if not downright dangerous.
“The benefits of woman suffrage are almost wholly imaginary,” The Times declared in 1913, in one of a long string of anti-suffrage editorials. “Its penalties will be real and hard to bear.”
To combat such attitudes, suffragists used every weapon in the arsenal, from petitions and speeches to pins, parades and attention-grabbing stunts. The rise of the movement coincided with the birth of photography, and the suffragists deployed the medium to put human faces on their struggle. “They knew how to build a visual identity,” the historian Susan Ware said, “and use it for a political purpose.”
The fight for the vote was the fight for democracy. No history can sum it all up. But these images help bring into focus how the largest enfranchisement in American history came to pass, and the generations of women who made it happen.
Suffragists fought for the vote in every corner of the country
The story of the suffrage movement usually starts like this: In July 1848, a group of people got together in Seneca Falls, N.Y., and set forth a series of demands for women’s rights, including the right to vote. But the history of women and voting in the United States extends well before, and beyond, Seneca Falls. In the years after the American Revolution, there were women who voted — in New Jersey. The state’s original constitution assigned voting rights to all free, property-owning residents — regardless of gender or race — and some women, and African-Americans, there voted until 1807, when the state passed a law limiting the franchise to white men. And while the campaign for women’s suffrage may have formally kicked off in Seneca Falls, it quickly expanded across the country.