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Opinion | The Crooked Path to Women’s Suffrage



Given this resistance, the National American Woman Suffrage Association began to lobby state legislatures while also canvassing towns, wards and precincts. It abandoned its longstanding call for an education requirement for voting in order to broaden its reach beyond the middle class. Similarly, it forged alliances with trade unions, prompting Samuel Gompers, the conservative president of the American Federation of Labor, to support female suffrage.

But while expanding its networks, the association also argued that white women, armed with the franchise, would serve as a bulwark against black and immigrant votes. At the same time, though, Southern white opponents of women’s suffrage also made racial appeals by arguing that the movement would empower Southern black women, an absolutely unacceptable prospect at the height of Jim Crow.

Perhaps the most notable convert to woman’s suffrage was Theodore Roosevelt. In 1911, he wrote sympathetically to a leading opponent of suffrage that women “do not really need the suffrage although I do not think they would do any harm with it. Their needs are along entirely different lines, and their duties are along entirely different lines.” A year later, when Roosevelt sought to recapture the presidency on the new Progressive Party ticket, he reassured the social activist Jane Addams that he backed women’s suffrage “without qualification or equivocation.”

Equally important was the adoption of savvy techniques to advertise suffrage through billboards, newspapers, pamphlets, mass meetings and parades. By the early 1910s, America was awash in suffrage propaganda that kept the issue in the news. After a successful campaign in California in 1911, suffrage organizations flooded the public with maps in an effort to export the undeniable momentum in the West to rest of the country.

When The New York Times published one such suffrage map in 1913, a Massachusetts reader responded that “woman suffrage has been adopted only by the crude, raw, half-formed commonwealths of the sagebrush and the windy plains, whence have come in endless procession foolish and fanatical politics and policies for a generation or two.”

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