“Although the proposition that women should vote is seriously and profoundly true, it will at first be established…much as the virtues of a breakfast cereal are established, by affirmation.”–suffrage leader Harriot Stanton Blatch, daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Picture a poor neighborhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1914. A horse tows a former lunch van down the street, and the wagon is parked at a corner. Young women emerge, bearing a banner that says “Votes for Women,” and one of them shouts out a speech that attracts passersby, who gather to listen and to examine the truck. Across the van’s pull-down side panel, another woman is selling, for pennies apiece, suffrage literature, suffrage pencils, and suffrage cigarettes.
The “roving store” was just one of one many gimmicks that Harriot Blatch of the Women’s Political Union (WPU) devised as she sought to infiltrate the hearts of U.S. citizens and convert them to the cause of suffrage. Blatch was no lightweight. She gloried in battling with legislators as she urged them to support a New York State referendum on giving women the vote. But she also recognized that the most effective pressure on politicians came from their constituents.
Exploiting the new technology of moving pictures, the WPU collaborated with a Manhattan film company to produce a movie entitled “The Suffragette and the Man,” in which a young woman is forced to choose between her suffrage stance and her fiancé. She sticks to her principles but eventually wins over the fellow as well, taking him back from an anti-suffrage rival.
Parades were another method of rousing popular enthusiasm for the cause, and suffrage parades were organized in great detail, down to the colors worn by marchers. Leading up to the May 1913 New York City parade, Blatch announced a contest in which prominent male artists judged suffrage hats decorated by individual women. As Blatch’s biographer, Ellen Carol DuBois observes, this attention-getting stunt not only rewarded creativity but also made fun of the enormous hats worn by wealthy women and criticized by suffragists for limiting mobility.
When Alice Paul organized the first Washington DC parade in 1913, the day before the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson, she arranged a tableau of dancers representing Liberty, Charity, Justice, and other noble principles. The women performed at the plaza in front of the Treasury Building as the parade passed by.
Paul’s ultimate and most serious stunt was the silent picketing of the White House to protest the president’s refusal to endorse national suffrage. Like the British suffs both Paul and Blatch had learned from, U.S. protestors were eventually arrested, and many of them went on hunger strike while in prison. The protests, which continued after the U.S. had entered World War I, were widely criticized as unpatriotic and childish, but they led to increases in membership and donations to Paul’s organization, the National Woman’s Party. Newspaper reports on the treatment of imprisoned women proved embarrassing to the administration.
When Wilson finally came out in favor of suffrage, he said women had proved their worth by taking over the work of men who had gone off to war. But there was no doubt in the minds of suffragists that publicity about their protests had contributed to the president’s change of position.
Violet Snow is writing a historical novel, To March or to Marry, about suffrage and the women’s club movement.