Justice  /  Retrieval

How the Spanish Flu Almost Upended Women's Suffrage

Canceled rallies. A looming election. A stretched health care system with a predominantly female face. Women’s frustrations then resonate loud and clear today.

In October 1918, Carrie Chapman Catt, the president of one of America’s national women’s suffrage movements, lay sick in bed in New York.

“She was stricken with influenza,” wrote Catt’s friend and biographer, Mary Gray Peck, referring to the Spanish flu pandemic that was rapidly tearing across the country and, by some accounts, killed close to 200,000 people in October alone.

“Chained to her bed like St. Lawrence to the gridiron. She looked and was extremely ill.”

Catt was, however, concerned with issues beyond — but not unrelated to — the pains of the flu, according to Peck.

The invisible, unpredictable force of the pandemic risked derailing her carefully planned campaign to secure women’s right to vote. The 19th Amendment was, at that moment, hanging by a thread in Congress. And the national suffrage movement, led in large part by two organizations — Catt’s National American Woman Suffrage Association and the National Woman’s Party — had managed to drum up immense momentum only to see it quickly dissipate as the country shut down public gatherings and ordered people to stay home.

“These are sad times for the whole world, grown unexpectedly sadder by the sudden and sweeping epidemic of Influenza,” Catt wrote in a letter to suffrage workers across the country. “This new affliction is bringing sorrow into many suffrage homes and is presenting a serious new obstacle in our referendum campaigns and in the Congressional and Senatorial campaigns.”

What Catt didn’t realize when she sent the letter was that the flu, along with World War I, would end up helping the suffragists’ cause, enshrining women’s right to vote in the American Constitution in 1920.

Building up good will

When the United States entered the First World War in April 1917, many suffragists across the country, particularly the National American Woman Suffrage Association, quickly aligned themselves with President Woodrow Wilson’s decision, helping to mobilize for the war effort, noted Allison Lange, a history professor at the Wentworth Institute of Technology and author of a new book on the images of the suffrage movement. Tens of thousands of nurses served in the Army and Navy Nurse corps in the United States and on the front lines of the war in Europe. Millions more women volunteered for organizations like the American Red Cross, helping roll bandages, prepare meals, pack and ship supplies, and organize fund-raisers.