Feminism in Literature Essay - Suffrage in the 20th Century

Suffrage in the 20th Century


Before suffragists began arguing for legislation that would guarantee women the right to vote, governments assumed that women's interests should be and were represented by their husbands, fathers, or brothers. In the last decades of the nineteenth century the movement for women's right to vote gathered momentum. Led by such charismatic figures as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Christabel, Emmeline, and Sylvia Pankhurst, many women organized into groups, the largest of which were the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA), the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), and the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Such groups participated in public demonstrations, parades, marches, and meetings, and circulated literature designed to call attention to their cause and demand equal treatment under the law. Despite strong opposition from those opposed to suffrage and the suffragists's own wide-ranging differences in interests, beliefs, methodology, and ideology, women around the world were successful in increasing awareness of and support for equal treatment of women under the law, as well as for labor reform and other social issues.

Because of the efforts of members of the WCTU, women of European descent in Australia gained suffrage in 1902. Susan B. Anthony established the International Woman Suffrage Alliance in Berlin, Germany, in 1904, and Finnish women gained suffrage and the right to hold public office in 1906. Between 1900 and the beginning of World War I in 1914, British suffrage groups such as the WSPU, led by Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst, engaged in militant tactics to enact social and legislative change. They interrupted political meetings, held public demonstrations, and subjected themselves to hunger strikes, arrest, and imprisonment. The British movement was divided mainly along class lines, with some suffragists calling for support of working-class issues and others focusing on the issue of suffrage alone, but there were also disagreements over politics (particularly socialism), and peaceful, lawful protests versus militant, sometimes violent protests. These divisions deepened as Great Britain entered World War I. Members of the WSPU and other groups left to form other special-interest groups, such as the Women's Peace Army, founded by Sylvia Pankhurst and Charlotte Despard, while the WSPU focused its efforts primarily on supporting the war, rather than on women's suffrage. Women in the United Kingdom were granted suffrage in 1918.

The American suffrage movement was also somewhat fragmented: women of color, women trade workers, and women advocating temperance pushed for more activism in support of racial equality, temperance, and labor reforms in addition to pursuing suffrage, and suffragists disagreed over both ideology and overall strategy. The right to suffrage was divided along geographic lines as well, as women in the western United States gained suffrage much earlier than women in other parts of the country. In 1913, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, who had been active in militant protests with British suffragists and who disagreed with NAWSA leadership over the most effective course of action, formed the Congressional Union of Woman Suffrage, a branch of NAWSA that became an independent organization the following year. Paul and Burns led many protests, including one in front of the White House, and a well-publicized hunger strike that brought widespread public attention to the suffragists's cause. They formed the National Women's Party in 1916, the same year that NAWSA President Carrie Chapman Catt delivered a speech entitled "The Crisis," in which she revealed what she called her "winning plan" to focus the group's efforts on a national campaign (versus separate, state-wide campaigns) for a Constitutional amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote. In 1918 President Wilson delivered a speech pleading for the passage of women's vote legislation as an emergency measure, arguing that the full support of women's groups was an essential component of the anti-war effort. Victory came in 1920 with the ratification of the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing women the right to vote nationwide in all elections. After the amendment was signed into law, the NAWSA was reorganized and named the League of Women Voters.

The suffrage movement generated critical commentary beginning in the late nineteenth century, and continues to receive widespread scholarly attention. One recent trend has centered on exploring the global dimensions of the suffrage movement, especially the formal and informal international coalitions formed by suffragists. Scholars analyze the suffrage movement in the context of Progressive Era politics in general, identifying how it influenced and was, in turn, influenced by other events of that time period. Modern scholarship also focuses on the role of women of color and working-class women in the movement, and biographical research has led to revisionist biographies of some of the key figures of the suffrage movement. Historians continue to explore the effect of the movement on later labor and social legislation. Literary scholars examine both written responses to suffrage issues, the representation of women's issues in literature, and suffragist authors's use of imagery and symbolism as a means of influencing public sentiment in favor of their cause.

Representative Works

Mary Ritter Beard

A Short History of the American Labor Movement (history) 1920

On Understanding Women (nonfiction) 1931

Harriot Stanton Blatch

Mobilizing Woman-Power (nonfiction) 1918

A Woman's Point of View: Some Roads to Peace (nonfiction) 1920

Challenging Years [with Alma Lutz] (memoir) 1940

Carrie Chapman Catt

Woman Suffrage and Politics: The Inner Story of the Suffrage Movement [with Nettie Rogers Shuler] (nonfiction) 1923

Why Wars Must Cease [with Eleanor Roosevelt, Jane Addams, and others] (nonfiction) 1935

Charlotte Despard and Mabel Collins

Outlawed: A Novel on the Woman Suffrage Question (novel) 1908

G. Colmore

Suffragette Sally (novel) 1911

Cicely Hamilton

How the Vote Was Won (play) 1909

Inez Hayes Irwin

The Story of the Woman's Party (nonfiction) 1921

Christabel Pankhurst

The Great Scourge and How to End It (nonfiction) 1913

Elizabeth Robins

The Convert (novel) 1907

Evelyn Sharp


(The entire section is 165 words.)

Primary Sources

Carrie Chapman Catt, Anna Howard Shaw, Alice Stone Blackwell, And Ida Husted Harper (Essay Date 1904)

SOURCE: Catt, Carrie Chapman, Anna Howard Shaw, Alice Stone Blackwell, and Ida Husted Harper. "NAWSA Declaration of Principles." In History of Woman Suffrage, Ida Husted Harper, pp. 742-43. New York: J. J. Little and Ives, 1922.

The following is an excerpt from the 1904 declaration of principles by the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).

When our forefathers gained the victory in a seven years' war to establish the principle that representation should go hand in hand with taxation, they marked a new epoch in the history of man; but though our foremothers bore an equal part in that long conflict its triumph...

(The entire section is 339 words.)

Virginia B. Le Roy (Essay Date 15 October 1908)

SOURCE: Le Roy, Virginia B. "A Woman's Argument against Woman's Suffrage." The World To-Day (15 October 1908): pp.

In the following excerpt, Le Roy argues against suffrage, stating that social change and public responsibility are values that dig deeper than mere voting rights, and that women have been active participants in those activities for generations, with or without voting rights.

This age is developing an acute consciousness of the symptoms of our social disorders. Masterly and brilliant are the arraignments of our public corruptions; the pitiless searchlight of publicity illumines our most subtle perversities. We are,...

(The entire section is 2329 words.)

Dorothy Dix (Essay Date 1908)

SOURCE: Dix, Dorothy. "Dorothy Dix on Women's Suffrage." In Women in America, edited by Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer. N.p., 1908.

In the following excerpt, Dix (a pseudonym for Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer) makes a case for women's suffrage, listing reasons why women should have the right to vote.

Women Ought to Vote, Because—

Taxation without representation is tyranny, whether the individual who pays the taxes wears trousers or petticoats, and because all just government must rest upon the consent of the governed.

Women form one half of the population, and as long as they have no voice in...

(The entire section is 491 words.)

Carrie Chapman Catt (Essay Date 16 September 1916)

SOURCE: Catt, Carrie Chapman. "The Crisis." Rhetoric Society Quarterly 28, no. 3 (spring 1998): 52.

The following is an excerpt from Catt's famous 1916 presidential address to the National American Woman Suffrage Association. This excerpt is taken from a complete text compiled in Rhetoric Society Quarterly that combines versions of the address that were printed in The Women's Journal on September 16, 1916; the Catt papers in the New York Public Library; the Catt papers at the Library of Congress; and an article in the New York Times dated September 8, 1916.

The Crisis

I have...

(The entire section is 568 words.)

Woodrow Wilson (Speech Date 30 September 1918)

SOURCE: Wilson, Woodrow. "Appeal to the U.S. Senate to Submit the Federal Amendment for Woman Suffrage." 1918.

The following is an excerpt from President Woodrow Wilson's speech to the U.S. Senate on September 30, 1918, to grant the federal amendment for women's Suffrage.

This is a people's war and the people's thinking constitutes its atmosphere and morale, not the predilections of the drawing room or the political considerations of the caucus. If we be indeed democrats and wish to lead the world to democracy, we can ask other peoples to accept in proof of our sincerity and our ability to lead them whither they wish to be led,...

(The entire section is 1088 words.)

Alice Paul (Essay Date 1924)

SOURCE: Paul, Alice. "The Woman's Party and the Minimum Wage for Women." In Party Papers: 1913-1974. Glen Rock: Microfilming Corporation of America, 1978.

In the following excerpt, Paul clarifies the Woman's Party position on minimum wage laws as applied to women.

The Woman's Party takes no stand upon minimum wage legislation, except that it stands for the principle that wage legislation, if enacted, should be upon a non-sex basis, as is already the case in various foreign countries.

The Woman's Party opposes a sex basis for a minimum wage law, because it believes that establishing minimum wage laws which...

(The entire section is 742 words.)