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Suffrage at 100: A Visual History

August 19, 2020

From The New York Times – Aug. 17, 2020
Text by Jennifer Harlan
Introduction by Veronica Chambers, Jennifer Harlan and Jennifer Schuessler

On May 18, 1915, crowds streamed into the Polo Grounds in Manhattan to watch the New York Giants take on the Chicago Cubs. But beyond the diamond, a bigger contest was brewing.

The state of New York was gearing up to hold a referendum, putting the question of women’s suffrage to its (all-male) electorate. Supporters of the cause organized a “suffrage day” game, luring potential voters with the offer of a piece of chocolate cake with every ticket purchased at their headquarters. They festooned the stadium with yellow banners and printed baseball-themed fliers, with exhortations like “Fans, Fair Play” and “Make a Home Run for Suffrage.”

Everybody, The New York Times noted, “had a ‘lovely’ time.” But the festive mood would fizzle out come November: The men of New York rejected the suffrage measure, and its women would have to work another two years for the right to vote.

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.

The Wyoming Territory was the first place in the United States to pass a women’s suffrage measure, in 1869. Officials there stood firm in their commitment to suffrage, even when it later threatened their petition for statehood. “We will remain out of the Union one hundred years rather than come in without the women,” they told Congress, which relented and admitted them in 1890 (as shown on this postcard, circa 1910).














For Black suffragists, the fight did not end with the 19th Amendment. On the night before Election Day in 1920, members of the Ku Klux Klan came to a Black girls’ school in Daytona, Fla., to intimidate its founder, Mary McLeod Bethune, and other Black women in the community from voting. Bethune, pictured circa 1905, was undeterred and cast her vote the next day. Still, many Black women — and Black men — across the South would effectively be barred from the ballot by Jim Crow policies, violence and other forms of suppression for decades to come. State Archives of Florida





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