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New Arguments and New Constituencies Previous Next
Digital History ID 3205


In 1890, the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). The new organization's leaders were more pragmatic than their predecessors. Instead of arguing for suffrage in terms of equal rights, they increasingly emphasized arguments based on utility, contending that the vote for women was necessary to clean up politics and fight social evil.

One pro-suffrage cartoon pictured a man sitting on a pier holding a life preserver while women identified as sweatshop workers and "white slaves," who had been forced into prostitution, drown. Sitting at the man's side is a woman labeled as anti-suffrage. The cartoon's caption: "When all women want it, I will throw it to them."

At times, some suffrage supporters made the ugly argument that giving the vote to women would guarantee that white, native-born voters would outnumber immigrant and non-white voters. Particularly in the South, the struggle for the vote was linked to the issue of race. In Florida, a leader in the suffrage movement argued that "letting the women vote will double the number of white voters and make the colored seem rather small." In the end, four Southern states did ratify the amendment: Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Texas.

In the North, some suffragists questioned why women could not vote while illiterate and immigrant men could. In 19th century America, immigrants who had declared their intention of becoming citizens were allowed to vote in most states.

After 1900, the suffrage campaign developed a new, broader constituency, drawing support from many women who had received a college education or who held white collar jobs. Beginning in 1910, a new wave of states adopted women's suffrage. As in the past, all the states were in the West, including Arizona, California, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. By 1916, eleven Western states had given women the right to vote.

In 1915, Carrie Chapman Catt became head of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. The Iowa-born former schoolteacher had paid her own way through Iowa State College, where she was the valedictorian and the only woman in her class. She married a journalist and after he died, a civil engineer. When she married her second husband, she negotiated a prenuptial agreement that allowed her to work on the suffrage movement away from home four months a year.

Catt developed a new political strategy to win the vote. Called the "Winning Plan," it involved fighting on two fronts: for state laws that would give women the vote and for ratification of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Her strategy called for referenda campaigns in six states east of the Mississippi River, the defeat of several key senators, and the identification of supporters ready to lobby in every state legislative district in the country.

Meanwhile, a group of younger women grew impatient with the slow pace of change and the cautious approach of the NAWSA and adopted more confrontational tactics. Many of these women had received graduate education abroad, held professional jobs, and were influenced by the example of the militant British suffrage movement. They were led by Alice Paul, a Philadelphia Quaker who formed the National Woman's Party. Its strategies included picketing, marches, outdoor rallies, and hunger strikes in jail.

On the day of Woodrow Wilson's inauguration in 1913, Alice Paul organized a protest of 5,000 women, who marched up Pennsylvania Avenue while 100,000 spectators watched. Protesters crossed the barriers that had been set up along the march's route, heckled the suffragists, and blocked their march. Police refused to come to their aid. Finally, cavalry were called in to allow the march to proceed.

In 1915, some 40,000 women and men marched in a suffrage parade in New York, the largest parade that had ever been held in the city. In January 1917, Alice Paul and her supporters began to picket the White House--the first time this had ever taken place. Six days a week, picketers marched in front of the White House, regardless of the hour or the weather. They carried banners that read: "How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty" and "Mr. President, What Will You Do for Woman Suffrage."

The picketers were physically attacked. In June 1917, some 168 picketers were arrested for obstructing traffic and sentenced to up to six months in jail. When 30 prisoners went on hunger strikes, they were force-fed three times a day with tubes. In 1918, an appeals court struck down the convictions.

The combination of Catt's careful organizing and Paul's militant tactics, which included publicly burning copies of speeches by President Wilson, helped to make suffrage an inescapable issue. By 1916, a million American women already had the vote in national elections and were an influential force.

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