A drab broadside in the collection of the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library at the New-York Historical Society has enjoyed pride of place in two exhibitions: Women March, on view when we reopen the Museum on Sept. 11, and the 2017–2018 show Hotbed. It might not look like much, but it’s actually a crucial document in women’s history, illustrating the intertwined racist, classist, and nativist ideas that were part of activism for suffrage. One of the most persistent and contentious issues that divided suffragists was the question of race. Instead of advocating for universal suffrage, many white suffragists saw the vote as a means of strengthening white power, or at least used a language of supremacy to try to win over the white men they needed to support suffrage referenda and amendments.
Unpacking this broadside shows how some suffragists believed educated white women would be a counterweight to Black and immigrant voters.The small poster declares “Votes for Women will Improve the Electorate.” Bar graphs illustrate claims that the vote would “more than double the native white majority,” “make [the electorate] more law-abiding and moral,” and “make [the electorate] more intelligent.” In other words, white, benevolent, educated women needed the vote to secure a white majority and reduce the influence of Black, immigrant, and uneducated men.
The broadside’s assertion that women would make the electorate more “intelligent” has roots in the concept of “educated suffrage,” which in turn was a reaction to the 14th and 15th Amendments of the 1860s. The split of women’s rights groups over the amendments has been well documented: Some white women balked at the idea that Black men might be granted the vote before they were, epitomized by Susan B. Anthony infamously claiming, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.” When Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton founded The Revolution in 1868, the paper opposed the amendments, instead calling for “educated suffrage irrespective of sex and color.” With the possibility that educated men and women of color might be qualified voters, Stanton and Anthony left themselves some wiggle room against charges that they were against Black suffrage, even while they did not advocate for improved access to education. As Reconstruction ended, states were forbidden from banning Black men from the polls outright but new state laws included rhetoric about “educated” voters. For example, men who sought to register to vote in Mississippi after 1890 were required to interpret the new state constitution. Black registrants were given difficult sections, while whites were asked simple questions. In response, activists within the growing Black women’s club movement embraced both suffrage and education as tools to fight Jim Crow.
The broadside’s claim that women were more “law abiding and moral” draws on deeply held ideas about women’s moral influence rooted in Protestant revivals of the early 19th century. Women reformers embraced this concept as they fought slavery and Indian Removal, built hospitals and schools, and formed labor unions. Decades later, many suffrage groups— both Black and white—insisted that women would “clean up” politics, resist war, and bring their mothering instincts to public policy. But in using this language of moral reform in the service of a racist and xenophobic message, the broadside ignored the ongoing community building of immigrant and Black women.
With its category of “foreign born,” the broadside speaks to the nativism and elitism ingrained in other arguments for suffrage. Carrie Chapman Catt, who would later lead the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), spoke to a suffrage meeting in Iowa in 1894 about a “great danger” facing the nation. Stoking white, middle-class anxieties about immigration and labor unrest, she claimed this danger lay “…in the votes possessed by the males in the slums of the cities, and the ignorant foreign vote…” Her solution? “It will be readily seen that granting the vote to woman and cutting off the vote of the slums, if it could not be otherwise controlled, would result at once in good to the nation.” Given this invective, it is no surprise that many working-class and immigrant women formed their own suffrage groups, such as the Wage Earner’s Suffrage League.
But in light of the image of suffragists as standard bearers of progress, perhaps the most striking of all the bogus claims jammed into this small poster is the direct connection between suffrage and white supremacy. This is clear in the words of suffragists such as Kate Gordon and Belle Kearney. Gordon, a New Orleans suffrage activist appointed in 1901 to a national position within NAWSA, told a newspaper that “the question of white supremacy is one that will only be decided by giving the right of the ballot to the educated intelligent white women of the South.” Kearney, who would later become the first woman elected to the Mississippi state senate, gave the keynote address at the 1903 NAWSA convention, arguing that restrictions on the Black vote were an incentive for Black men to become educated and obtain property. She warned that this would end in the “unspeakable culmination” of humiliating poor white men. Nowhere did Kearney consider Black women, who had been shut out of the convention even though they were working for suffrage, education, and community “uplift” throughout the country. Instead, Kearny suggested, “enfranchisement of women would settle the race question in politics:”
“The enfranchisement of women would ensure immediate and durable white supremacy….in every southern state but one there are more educated women than all the illiterate voters, white and black, native and foreign, combined.”
The idea that this “southern strategy” would sway white men to support woman suffrage was so tempting that the delegates to that 1903 convention adopted a statement “leaving to each state the terms upon which the extension of suffrage to women shall be requested of the respective state legislatures.”
That support did not materialize, and by the time this poster was printed by another (unknown) group, NAWSA had largely pulled away from overt messages of supremacy. The organization’s posters, broadsides, and magazines, while focused on white women, did not use racially divisive images or language, and NAWSA pressed Alice Paul to allow Black marchers into the 1913 suffrage parade in Washington D.C. (they marched, but were instructed to remain segregated). But its leaders still felt a need to placate Southern suffragists and state legislatures. Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, who directed the organization from 1904-1915, claimed that Black Americans didn’t want the vote, prompting W. E. B. DuBois to call her out for this “extraordinary statement.” And Carrie Chapman Catt, who replaced Shaw in 1915, echoed the broadside’s supremacist argument in an essay. Using Census data, she wrote that if white women were to vote in the South, white votes would easily outnumber those of Black voters, and put a sharp point on her argument with “If the South really wants White Supremacy, it will urge the enfranchisement of women.”
The broadside claims “Equal Suffrage is Right in Principle and a Success in Practice.” This Orwellian use of “equal” was not ironic; in their focus on the vote for themselves, many white suffragists systematically denied that equality to others. Some saw their role as sustaining white power, while others saw appeals to white men’s racism as expedient. Either way, the history of restricting who votes based on education, national origin, and race left a pernicious legacy. Despite the promise of the 19th Amendment, voting continued to be restricted for many citizens until the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Moreover those restrictions persist in the form of closed polls in poor neighborhoods, restrictive ID laws, and limits on absentee ballots. The history of nativism and supremacy continues to haunt us today.
Read more from our suffrage centennial series:
- Commemorating an Incomplete Victory: The 19th Amendment at 100
- Why Suffrage? A Broader Look At Women’s Collective Action in the 19th Century
- The Many “Official” Colors of the Suffrage Movement
- “Girls in Caps and Gowns”: The Deltas March for Suffrage
- Obstacles to Suffrage after 1920
- “Get Ready to Vote:” Black Women after the Voting Rights Act
- Fighting Back: Women of Color and the Ongoing Struggle for Citizenship Beyond the Vote
- Many Fronts, One Struggle: Native American Women’s Activism Since the 19th Amendment
- The Suffrage Centennial: Righting, and Rewriting, Historical Wrongs
Written by Sarah Gordon, Curatorial Scholar in Women’s History, Center for Women’s History