Women’s Suffrage Movement In The United States
The Women’s Suffrage Movement (WSM) changed not only the course of American history, but that of the world as well.
This reform movement centered on extending women the right to vote.
Although New Zealand was the first country to extend suffrage to women, the beginnings of the WSM most often are traced back to the United States, with the ending of the Seneca Falls Convention (Beck, Dorsey & Stutters).
As such, this paper will focus on the WSM within the United States.
Specifically, how the movement was promoted will be explored, with a focus between the years of 1910 through 1915.
As mentioned, the WSM sought to secure women’s right to vote. In addition, as Beck, Dorsey and Stutters note, the movement also “addressed issues of women’s subordinate position in society, family and education; the right of women to hold privileges extended to men, including property ownership, divorce, and child custody; and women’s enfranchisement, or right to vote.” Prior to the WSM, women were second class citizens, often seen as little better than common chattel.
It was a male-dominated system and the WSM simply wanted women to have the same rights and voice as their male counterparts. Emma Willard, one of the most celebrated educator of women, summed it up eloquently, in her public letter which asked, “Why should women be any longer regarded as incapable of judging of their own rights and responsibilities; and of those of the future nation, of which, if men are the fathers, women are the mothers? Why should the national family be deprived of maternal counsels?” (qtd. Offen). There were a variety of actions taken to facilitate this historical reform, including the early feminist rhetorical strategy of woman suffrage parades. However, were these parades effective strategies?
Shortly after the beginning of the twentieth century suffragists began to utilize a new strategy – the suffrage parade. This tactic was the beginning of an important shift in the collective action repertoire for suffragists. The WSM moved from simply being discussed in parlors to out in the open, boldly in the streets, the same type of public venue where they wished to have a political voice.
Marching down the city streets by the hundreds, sometimes thousands, not only allowed women to claim the streets as women’s terrain, but the parades also permitted women to lay symbolic claim to the polity as they demanded the right to vote. Their use of this tactic helped the suffragists redefine themselves as men’s equals in the public sphere (McCammon).
Women in the WSM were in a uniquely difficult position. Because of their gender, women had significant limitations placed on the rhetoric they could use to promote the WSM.
As Borda surmises, there was a variety of methods women used to promote the movement, to get around these limitations. These alternative rhetorical strategies included the public letter, the press, and political cartoons, all as methods for surmounting cultural constraints. Some suffragists even took to holding informal open-air meeting. These street speeches had women standing on soapboxes on street corners, or in the backs of open automobiles (McCammon). However, these strategies too had their limitations in the promotion of social change. Although far from a panacea to addressing the cultural limitations facing women in the promotion of the WSM, woman suffrage parades were an effective means of promoting the WSM, during the years between 1910 and 1915.
McCammon theorizes that organizational readiness and political opportunities often lead to major changes in strategies implemented by social movements.
Yet, McCammon notes that the WSM’s change in tactic that led some states to employ suffrage parades had little to do with organizational readiness and political opportunities.
Instead, the change in strategy occurred for a variety of other reasons.
The WSM was made up of a diverse assortment of organizations, and at the time of the implementation of parades, it was less centrally structured. In addition, conflict existed in the movement, and they had recently experienced significant political defeat. Lastly, the movement was trying to raise funds for its efforts. All of these facets came together to help form the parade strategy. Political opportunities alone simply do not have as much power to affect the strategic changes of a social movement. “Further, organizational readiness may mean adequate resources but may not necessarily provide the spark that produces a shift in tactics (McCammon).
McCammon utilized event-history models to examine the role of political opportunities and defeats, as well as organizational readiness, and a diverse, decentralized and fractionalized movement in the strategical changes. As noted earlier, women were limited in their public activities. This was due to the emergence of the separate-spheres ideology, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Any active engagement in these public arenas, including the workplace, political forums, and public spaces in general was seen as completely inappropriate.
The only exception to this was amongst poor women who were compelled to work outside the home and for middle and upper class women who performed charity work.
Yet, the separate-spheres ideology clearly specified women’s duties, dictating that women should focus on home life, while men concerned themselves with public life. For this reason, women gathering and marching in public for suffrage parades was an incredibly bold step.
Prior to 1910, women had utilized a variety of tactics in an effort to persuade both the public and politicians to join their cause. In the early years, a primary strategy was educational, with annual suffrage conventions and suffrage social events were held. However, suffragists rarely utilized more assertive actions, in the early years. In the 1870s, when a handful of suffragists attempted to vote, illegally, only then did they utilize a more militant tactic to bring public attention to their movement.
Yet, for most of the nineteenth century the WSM consisted mostly of meetings amongst sympathetic women, as a means of increasing membership, and also discretely lobbying state legislators.
Persuasion by influential voters, via their personal contact with legislators, as well as educating potential supporters, was used in place of an overt public campaign (McCammon).
At then end of the nineteenth century, the WSM appeared to be making important headway with women winning full suffrage in Colorado in 1893, Utah in 1895, and Idaho in 1896. However, this progress quickly stalled and the next victory wouldn’t come until Washington, in 1910, as noted by McCammon. It was this lack of progression though that would help the WSM reinvent itself. The suffrage leaders began to understand they needed new strategies if they ever were going to garner support to fully secure women’s rights across the entire United States (McCammon).
Were Woman Suffrage Parades an Effective Means of Promoting the Women’s Suffrage Movement?:
Borda quotes Harriot Stanton Blatch in a 1912 statement written for the New York Tribune, regarding the effectiveness of the woman suffrage parades. In her statement she says, “Men and women (…) are moved by seeing marching groups of people and by hearing music far more than by listening to the most careful argument.” Blatch had a full understanding of the rhetorical power of a parade, when used for social change. Parades had long been used for celebration and for American civic ceremony, Borda continues, yet Blatch and other parade supporter saw the woman suffrage parades as a means of taking suffrage politics out into public spaces.
By utilizing parades, the WSM showed a public expression of solidarity. As Borda surmises, “Suffrage women’s very presence in the city streets decisively challenged traditional notions of femininity and subsequent restrictions on women’s conduct.”
The parades were a means of visually demonstrating the women’s suffragists’ disputing of the rules and roles society had placed on them. As such, the annual woman suffrage parade was seen as both a means of social protest, as well as a demonstration that women could be involved in politics, and also as a celebration.
Street speaking was the first step in suffrage parades. Although street speaking had occurred in the late 1800s, it became to be used more frequently near 1908.
This was the first time women claimed public space. Suffrage parades would take this idea one step further, on a much broader scale, according to McCammon, due to the large number of suffragists that participated in the parades. Where street speaking often involved one or two suffragists speaking in front of a small crowd, suffrage parades involved hundreds to thousands of suffragists and an even greater number of spectators.
Large numbers of women were brought into the streets, with suffrage parades, demonstrating for their right for greater political inclusion in society.
Five thousand suffragists marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, in Washington D.C., on March 3, 1913, the nation’s first national woman’s suffrage parade, with a half million onlookers watching the spectacle (Lumsden). “One of the largest parades was in New York City, in 1915 with approximately 20,000 to 25,000 suffragists marching through the streets with 57 marching bands, 74 women riding horseback, and 145 decorated automobiles” (McCammon). This public visibility had an extremely positive effect on the movement, reaching people their more passive campaign would never have touched.
Needless to say, the strategy of marching in the streets was not one typically associated with normal female behavior. Yet, through this brazen tactic, suffragists were able to elevate their public image to a position where they were seen as legitimate participants in the public political arena. Onlookers began to see suffragists as serious and dignified, and as individuals who had courage to make public appearances, presenting themselves to onlookers (McCammon). Much of the effectiveness of these parades was due to the manner in which they were held.
As McCammon notes, woman suffrage parades were neither festive nor frivolous. The women typically marched in formation. They wore white dresses and carried signs and banners stating reasons why women should have the right to vote. In eastern parades, primarily, a variety of women from all social levels were found participating in the parades, from working class women to professional women, to college women, to society women.
In fact, some women even brought their children to march in the parades. This solidarity of women was an effective means of attracting the attention of the press, with newspapers regularly reporting on the parades.
Even when the media coverage was less than favorable, it still helped the suffragists spread the word about the movement.
During the first half century of the WSM word was spread in small groups, in living rooms and churches. Supporters could express “their belief by signing petitions, giving money, buying suffrage souvenirs and literature, and working as organizers” (Borda). The time for education was over. and, once women took to the streets en mass support of suffrage became even more popular, as it raised the consciousness of a nation.
Woman suffrage parades were effective because they took the movement one step further from it’s traditionally more passive activities. It was a natural evolution of development for the social movement. As King, Cornwall and Dahlin note, American political change is not a single, discrete outcome. There is a sequence of stages that must occur in order for the ultimate success of the change. At first, suffrage needed to educate key members of society and the political world in the most socially acceptable means possible. However, once that education had reached its maximum potential only by stepping their campaigns up a notch, and actually taking action contrary to the accepted social norms, by putting themselves into the public space via suffrage parades, could the WSM continue to make headway in their campaign. These parades allowed society to see women in action, in the exact political forum they were discussing. They also reached a wider variety of people and allowed potential supporters to see the plethora of people who already supported the movement.
In the end, the women’s suffrage movement eventually successfully garnered women the right to vote, as well as other rights for women, in America.
Yet, it was a process that was accomplished in stages.
During the beginning of the movement, suffragists focused on education and persuasion of key political individuals through personal connections. and, this did work, until the end of the 19th century. The beginning of the 20th century saw a need for a change to the suffragists’ strategies. Although it was socially unacceptable for women to actively participate in public arenas, once women entered this sphere through street speeches, it was only a matter of time before they were holding organized marches with hundreds and even thousands of marchers, and even more spectators, each step in their parade a step closer to women securing the right to vote.
Beck, E., Dorsey, E., & Stutters, a. “The Women’s Suffrage Movement: Lessons for Social Action.” Journal of Community Practice 11(3) 2003: p. 13-33. Academic Search Premier database. EBSCOHost. University of Phoenix, Phoenix, AZ. March 9, 2008 http://web.ebscohost.com.
Borda, J. “The Woman Suffrage Parades of 1910-1913.” Western Journal of Communication 66(1) Winter 2002: p. 25-52. Academic Search Premier database. EBSCOHost. University of Phoenix, Phoenix, AZ. March 9, 2008 http://web.ebscohost.com.
King, B. Cornwall, M., & Dahlin, E. “Winning Woman Suffrage One Step at a Time.” Social Forces 83(3) Mar 2005: p. 1211-1234. Academic Search Premier database. EBSCOHost. University of Phoenix, Phoenix, AZ. March 9, 2008 http://web.ebscohost.com.
Lumsden, L. “Beauty and the Beasts: Significance of Press Coverage of the 1913 National Suffrage Parade.” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly. 77(3) Autumn 2000: p. 593-611. Academic Search Premier database. EBSCOHost. University of Phoenix, Phoenix, AZ. March 9, 2008 http://web.ebscohost.com.
McCammon, H. “Out of the Parlors and into the Streets.” Social Forces 81(3) Mar 2003: p. 787-818. Academic Search Premier database. EBSCOHost. University of Phoenix, Phoenix, AZ. March 9, 2008 http://web.ebscohost.com.
Offen, K. “Women and the question of ‘universal’ suffrage in 1848.” NWSA Journal 11(1) Spring 1999: p. 150-177. Academic Search Premier database. EBSCOHost. University of Phoenix, Phoenix, AZ. March 9, 2008 http://web.ebscohost.com.
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