Both the suffrage movement and the women’s club movement were vital to the unfolding of feminism in the early 1900s. It’s true that many suffragists were married, and there were clubwomen who joined the suffrage parades, but I chose the title To March or to Marry for my historical novel (now available from Amazon.com) to highlight the often conflicting worlds of these two profoundly influential groups of women.
There’s no doubt the suffragettes were flashier and more memorable, while the once hugely popular women’s clubs have disappeared from public consciousness. Suffrage leader Harriot Stanton Blatch made sure her cause made attention-grabbing headlines through activities such as campaigning at an amusement park, as the The Brooklyn Times reported on August 8, 1913:
“’Votes for women’ was the cry at Luna Park yesterday. Fifteen hundred suffragists invaded the place, and the cry resounded from shoot-the-chutes, the Dragon’s Gorge, the Crazy City and some even imagined that the little tots in the the infant incubators gently cooed ‘Votes for women.’”
Most of the clubs, on the other hand, tended to regard public protest as an unfeminine activity. They were more interested in either studying culture or improving their communities:
“The Long Island Council of Women’s Clubs…adopted a resolution protesting against building any more elevated railroads in Brooklyn.”–The Chat, February 6, 1915
“[In Hempstead, Long Island], great progress is being made on the work at Harper Park, and what was once an unsightly marsh will soon assume the aspect of a beautiful park. Credit for this is entirely due to the Hempstead Women’s Club, through whose efforts sufficient money was raised to carry on the project.”–The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 15, 1913
Although the clubs held a domestic vision of femininity, they changed men’s attitudes toward women and women’s understanding of what they were capable of achieving. Many clubwomen went into business and politics after clubs gave them practice in research, writing, public speaking, and lobbying.
New York Governor Charles Whitman acknowledged this progress when he addressed the General Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1915, stating, “I won’t dispute the dictum that woman’s place is in the home, but the State has entered the home, and woman must take an active interest in the State to care for the home. Much of the outside work is mothering on a large scale.”—New York Times, May 15, 1915
What the news articles fail to reveal is the crises in women’s lives that propelled them to take action. Why would a suffragist risk arrest by picketing in front of the White House? What led a clubwoman to write a paper on the illegality of giving birth control advice to women? These personal stories bring the life and times of our foremothers into sharp focus in To March or to Marry, now on sale in softcover and ebook.