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How to Find Your Suffragist / Suffragette Ancestors: Overview

Use this guide to connect your ancestors, their neighborhoods, and/or the places you live now to a revolutionary social movement! Not just for genealogy, this guide can be used by anyone who wants to uncover "ordinary" people who changed the world.

Did your ancestors help women win the right to vote? Is your neighborhood a former hotbed of suffrage activity? What are the best sources for discovering African American and working class suffragists? Use this guide to unlock your personal connections to the suffrage movement.

 

Most of us appreciate, in an abstract way, the importance of the women's suffrage movement and the work of those who participated in it (were they suffragists or suffragettes? use both terms for the reasons explained here).

Like other schoolbook lessons, we've absorbed as historical commonplace that until the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920, women did not have a right to vote under the U.S. Constitution.

But for us, women's voting rights are an accomplished fact, not an event unfolding in time. Like other life-changing historical movements, it’s hard to picture the suffrage movement as something that actually happened.

 

Illustration from the Woman's Voter, January 1916

 

If your ancestors were in America a century ago, though, suffrage was as hotly contested as any divisive issue you could name today People -- ordinary people, people like your relatives, people who in fact were your relatives! -- talked about it, fought about it, marched for and against it, read about it, and mainly just absorbed it as part of their normal, everyday lives. As acclaimed historian David McCullough has said, “The past after all is only another name for someone else’s present.”

Even if you didn't have ancestors in the United States at the time of the suffrage movement, if you live here now, have visited, or plan to visit in the future, there's a good chance your neighborhoods and/or favorite sites played a role in the suffrage movement. Finding these connections is a rewarding way to enter your historical community and enhance your appreciation of the current environment.

Was your neighborhood a hotbed of suffrage activity? Did your ancestors support women’s suffrage, or were they against it? Did they attend suffrage (or anti-suffrage) meetings, march in (or jeer at) parades, pass out pamphlets, and/or sign petitions? Even if they didn’t actively participate in suffrage activities (for or against), you can be pretty sure that any relatives who were alive 100 years ago discussed and had an opinion about whether women should be granted the right to vote. And not just your female relatives -- after all, only men could cast a vote for or against extending the right to vote for women. Even if your female ancestors were not active participants in the suffrage movement, your male ancestors probably did play a part in this great political drama.

As author Robert J. Cooney points out,

You need not be a feminist, female, or even political to enjoy learning about the suffrage movement. For while the subject is woman suffrage, the larger story is about democracy, and how a powerless class in America won concessions and guarantees from those in power without threatening them with violence or death.

Investigating your ancestors’ involvement with the suffrage movement provides a unique opportunity to connect with the past in a very personal way. 

Image credits: Illustration from The Woman Voter, January 1916

People studying at NYPL's Seward Park Adult ReferenceThis guide provides the basic background information you need to start connecting your ancestors to the women's suffrage movement, and identifies resources you can use to continue your investigation. 

  • The guide is organized into topics, which appear in the tabs across the top. 
  • Each topic is divided into subsections that appear only on the page for that topic. 

The topics represent specific aspects of the suffrage movement and are designed to focus your research on your ancestors and to appreciate their involvement in the larger context of a watershed historical event. To help you navigate through the topics, here is a brief overview (you can link from the headings or use the tabs above):

  • Suffragette or Suffragist? Terms to Know
    • A primer on important suffrage terms and organizations
  • Mapping the Movement
    • When did the suffrage movement spread to your ancestors' neighborhoods?
  • How Diverse Were Suffragists? 
    • Use race, class and other demographic factors to guide your research, and evaluate how prejudice may have effected your ancestors' role in the suffrage movement
  • New York Suffragists
    • As the headquarters of the national suffrage movement, New York suffragists exerted an influence on suffrage campaigns across the country
  • Find Their Local Organizations 
    • Learn how to identify suffrage organizations that were active in your ancestors' neighborhoods, a key component in connecting them to the suffrage movement
  • Find Their Local Leaders
    • One of the best ways to personalize the suffrage movement is to identify and research local suffrage leaders
  • Did They Vote For Or Against?
    • Did your ancestors and their neighbors vote for or against women's suffrage?
  • Were They Anti-Suffragists?
    • It's more likely that your ancestors opposed voting rights for women than supported them, even if they were female
  • Don't Forget Your Male Ancestors!
    • Your male ancestors had the final say on whether to extend the right to vote to women. Were they "suffragents" or "Anti-suffragents?"
  • How to Learn More
    • There is an ever-growing array of resources available to help you connect your ancestors to the suffrage movement

Librarian

Susan Kriete's picture
Susan Kriete
Contact:
Irma and Paul Milstein Division of
U.S. History, Local History and Genealogy
Room 121
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building
Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, New York, NY