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How to Find Your Suffragist / Suffragette Ancestors: How to Learn More

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.

The tabs below will help you navigate the ever expanding resources available to make personal connections to the suffrage movement.

SOURCES FOR RESEARCH

Newspapers

There simply is no better source for recreating the suffrage movement than historic newspapers. Local papers reported on suffrage meetings and events taking place in the area of publication, and on locally-active organizations and leaders. Not only do newspaper articles provide the facts and details to help you connect your ancestors to the suffrage movement, they also convey the atmosphere in which it was unfolding.

Digitized newspapers

Digitized newspaper databases can bring you into instant contact with the suffrage activities in your ancestors' neighborhoods.

NYPL subscribes to a number of historic newspaper databases that can be used to search for relevant articles, including the following:

All of the databases listed above are available on-site at all NYPL locations. A complete list of NYPL's historic newspaper databases is available on our Articles and Databases page. 

Some newspaper databases are also available at home for free, including:

Additional free New York newspaper databases are available through New York State Historic Newspapers.

Free digitized newspapers published outside of New York are available on the Library of Congress website Chronicling America. Many states also have developed their own free digitized newspaper websites (one of many examples is Illinois Digital Newspapers). To locate these, try a Google search for "digitized newspapers [name of state]."

To effectively search for newspaper articles, try experimenting with various keywords.

  • Use the information in this libguide and the resources it identifies to pick up details you can use as keywords, such as the names of local suffrage organizations and leaders that were active in the area where your ancestors lived.
  • Remember that women who were married often went by their husband's names, so try variations (for a helpful list, see the New Jersey State Library research guide Votes for Women!).
Non-digitized newspapers

Although the number continues to grow, only a small fraction of the newspapers published in this time period are available online. Local newspapers -- the ones most likely to include details relevant to your individual ancestors -- are the least likely to be digitized. 

Once you have exhausted online newspaper resources, you can dig deeper by looking for local papers that have not yet been digitized. To identify and locate newspapers published in your ancestors' localities, consult the U.S. Newspaper Directory on the Chronicling America/Library of Congress website. You may also want to check with your local library and/or historical society, which are likely to have the most extensive holdings of local newspapers.

Since you won't be able to keyword search non-digitized newspapers, you'll need to use the Mapping the Movement tabs to identify the dates when suffrage activity most likely occurred in the places where your ancestors resided. You can then browse through newspapers in that time period on microfilm or in print. It's certainly more labor intensive than searching online, but with luck it could be more rewarding as well.

Magazines and Journals

The 19th century saw the rise of the magazine as a popular form of journalism. Both "ladies magazines" and news magazines. such as the influential Harper's Weekly, published articles by and about suffragists and their fight for voting rights.

Although less likely than newspapers to include details about local suffrage activities, magazine articles can can be an excellent source for taking the temperature of the suffrage movement. These popular publications were read by many of your ancestors read, so their coverage of the suffrage movement can illuminate the attitudes they held toward suffrage.

NYPL provides access to numerous historic magazine databases, including the following:

Suffrage Periodicals

The larger suffrage organizations published their own periodicals. Other suffrage periodicals were produced independently by suffrage supporters. These publications often include details about meetings, events, and organizing activities. Here are a few of the most useful titles:

  • The Woman Voter, available online through HathiTrust
    • This was the official journal of the New York Woman Suffrage Party. It is an invaluable tool for researching local suffrage activities. Published monthly between 1910 and 1917, it covered news of the campaign for suffrage in each district in New York City, including local meetings and events. It also listed the officers of each chapter of the Women’s Suffrage Party within the city, reported the results of party elections, and featured profiles of individual suffragists. 
  • The Woman's Journal, available online through the Schlesinger Library at Radcliff Institute, Harvard
    • Published in Boston from 1870 to 1917. In 1910, it became the official organ of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).
  • The Woman Citizen, available online through HathiTrust 
    • in 1917, the Woman Voter and Woman's Journal merged to become the Woman Citizen, the new official organ of NAWSA 
  • The Woman's tribune, digital resource in Proquest Research Library (available at home with a valid NYPL card)
    • Began publication in Nebraska in 1883. In addition to article about suffrage activities, the paper chronicles the concerns and local activities of rural, frontier women,  such as sewing circles, teacher associations, and births, deaths, and marriages

To locate additional suffrage journals held by NYPL, try browsing our online catalg with the following subject headings:

Annual Convention Reports

Both national and state suffrage organizations held annual conventions and published their proceedings. These convention reports often also include reports by suffrage delegates on local suffrage activities.

Some convention reports are available at NYPL, and many are also freely available online.

National conventions

Published reports of national convention proceedings at NYPL include the following:

For information about online sources for convention proceedings, see Additional Resources on the Mapping the Movement page.

State conventions

NYPL also holds published proceedings of the New York State Woman Suffrage Association and a few other state proceedings:

To see if state-level suffrage conventions were held in the states where your ancestors lived, try contacting your local library or historical society.

Other Suffrage Publications

A wealth of material for and against voting rights for women was published during the suffrage movement, which can help you understand the mindset with which your ancestors approached this watershed issue.

NYPL holds an extensive collection of these valuable historical documents, but it can be tricky to identify them in our online catalog. Try the following strategies: 

  • experiment with keyword searches limited by date range:
    • use the "Advanced Search" page of our catalog
    • enter search terms in the "any field" box (set by default)
    • scroll to the bottom of the page and type a date range in the "Within" boxes (for example, from 1850 to 1920)

 

 

Digital Libraries

Many books and other materials that are no longer copyrighted (those published before 1924) are freely available online through three digital libraries:

Links to digitized resources such as suffrage publications and convention proceedings have been provided elsewhere in this guide. But it's also worth experimenting with keyword searches on these sites to see what other materials you might find. It's difficult to generalize about the types of material available, but here are a few examples of valuable information we were able to locate with the keyword search suffrage clubs:

  • Congressional Record 1919 through GoogleBooks -- includes extensive list of Illinois suffrage clubs supporting a federal suffrage amendment at p. 1073
  • The History of Equal Suffrage in Colorado through Internet Archive -- identifies suffrage organizations and leaders in the state along with much other useful information
  • Suffrage Yearbook 1917 through HathiTrust -- identifies the leaders of all state branches of the National American Woman Suffrage Association at pp. 70-73  

 

Free Websites

The centennial of the 19th Amendment has sparked an explosion of websites celebrating the history of the suffrage movement. Governments, libraries, historical societies, universities, and individual scholars have all made a wealth of material freely available online.

It's impossible to list more than a fraction of the resources available; the list below is meant only as a representative sampling of the types of materials you may be able to find.

General Interest Websites

Women's Suffrage and the Media, created by members of the American Journalism Historians Organization

American Women: Topical Essays, Library of Congress

State-Specific Websites

Alabama:

Arkansas:

Delaware:

Georgia

Iowa:

Kansas:

Minnesota:

New Jersey:

New York:

Pennsylvania:

  • In Her Own Right, project of the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL)

South Dakota

Vermont:

Virginia

Utah

Wyoming

Traditional genealogy sources are as invaluable for exploring your ancestors' connections to the suffrage movement as they are for every other aspect of researching family history.

Voting Records

Finding evidence that your ancestors were registered to vote is an exciting way to forge a direct link between your family and the suffrage movement.

Did your female ancestors register to vote as soon as they were eligible? If so, they are more likely to have been suffragists, who would certainly have registered to vote at the earliest opportunity.

  • While not every woman who registered to vote as soon as possible was an active suffragist, those who took advantage of their right to vote at the outset most likely supported the suffrage movement, in spirit if not in action.
  • The first Presidential election that all American women could vote in was the 1920 election
  • Voting rights were extended to women in a number of states prior to passage of the 19th amendment; see Mapping the Suffrage Movement for details.

If your ancestors lived in a state where voting rights for women were proposed prior to passage of the 19th amendment, you may also want to investigate whether your male relatives were registered to vote at the time.

Voting registration lists are generally held at the local level, and can be difficult to locate (if they have survived at all). Check with the Board of Elections in the county where your ancestors resided, or at local libraries and historical societies.

Other sources that may be helpful:

New York City Voter Registration Records

Finding your New York City ancestor(s) on a list of registered voters is a two-step process. The first step is to determine whether election registers exist for the relevant year(s) and borough(s). The second step is to determine the election district in which your ancestor resided. 

Locating the records

New York City required annual voter registration until 1957. NYPL holds New York City voter registration records for the years 1884-1954 (with some gaps). For a complete list of the years available, browse our online catalog with the subject heading Voting registers -- New York (State) -- New York -- Periodicals

  • NYPL holds voter registration lists for 1918 (the first year New York women were eligible to vote) 
    • Note that these records are stored off-site and must be requested in advance
    • Digitized versions are available online through HathiTrust (links provided below)
    • historians may also be interested in the total number of women who registered to vote in New York City in 1918 -- statistics are available online through HathiTrust in the Annual Report of the Board of Elections of the City of New York City, 1918-1923 (begins on p. 20)
    • 1918 voter registration lists for the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island are also available online through HathiTrust
  • NYPL holds voter registration lists for 1917 (the year New York men voted to extend voting rights to women under the New York State Constitution) for  the boroughs of Brooklyn and the Bronx

Some New York City voting lists (including the 1918 voting lists) are also available online:

The  Municipal Archives also holds voter registration records for New York City, and may have years that are not available at NYPL.​

Borough offices of the Board of Elections hold the following voter registration lists:

  • Bronx | 1897-Present
  • Brooklyn | 1890-Present
  • Manhattan | 1916-1920; 1923-Present
  • Queens | 1949-Present
  • Richmond | 1957-Present

Locating names within the records

The List of Enrolled Voters is an index to the actual Voter Registration, arranged by:

  • Assembly District; then
  • Election District; then
  • address and name

This means that to locate a specific person in the lists, researchers need to have the following information:

  • The street address of the individual (use directories and census records)
  • The Assembly District and Election District in which the address is located. Maps showing the Assembly districts of New York City are available at NYPL (hit "view additional records" to access a full list of all years
    •  Note that these maps are stored off-site and must be requested in advance

 

Census Records, Directories and Maps

These resources can help you connect local suffrage leaders and organizations to your ancestors. Perhaps a suffrage leader lived next door to your ancestors, and/or a local suffrage organization held its meetings on the block where your ancestors lived or worked. Discovering these details will help you to understand how your ancestors may have come into contact with the suffrage movement, and give you clues about whether and how they may have been involved with it.

Dissertations

​Increasingly, academic dissertations are being made available online. As growing attention is turned to women's history, the number of dissertations focused on the suffrage movement have increased exponentially. In particular, new scholarship has been focused on:

  • African Americans and other groups traditionally excluded from the history of the woman suffrage movement
  • Activities of state and local suffrage leaders and organizations

Here are a few of the many free online sources for digitized dissertations:

Schools in the states where your ancestors lived are more likely to produce dissertations dealing with suffrage activity in their locality. To see if these schools offer online access to dissertations, try a search for the name of the state or school and "Scholarly Commons."

Look for titles that relate to specific places, people or subjects that are relevant to your ancestors. A few examples:

It's easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of information available online, but if you limit yourself to these types of titles, you can find a gold mine of information about local suffrage activities.

Scholarly journals

Beginning shortly after the 19th Amendment was passed, and continuing to the present day, participants and historians have published articles recounting the suffrage movement. These articles can contain a goldmine of detailed information about local suffrage organizations and leaders. We recommend starting with the database JSTOR (available on-site at all NYPL locations).

Some scholarly articles are freely available online, so it's worth trying a Google search with keywords such as [your state] woman suffrage and similar variations. Examples of articles we found include:

Although the suffrage movement was neglected by historians for many years, interest in the suffrage movement, and in women's studies generally, has exploded in recent years.

Recent scholarship has produced many titles relating to specific aspects of the suffrage, which are identified on the pages of this libguide dealing with those topics. In addition, below we've identified a few general histories of the suffrage movement -- a small sampling of the many excellent titles currently available. While these generalized resources are less useful for making specific connections to your ancestors, they will enhance your understanding of the historical context and may well give you ideas for additional avenues of research into your ancestors' experiences.

General Histories of the Suffrage Movement

Listed below are some representative titles that provide detailed overviews of the American woman suffrage movement, and are available on-site at NYPL (links are to catalog records):

To identify additional titles, try experimenting with keyword searches, including the following:

These are just a few suggestions to get you started -- you should try many more! once you identify a book or other item that is relevant, you can open the record and use the subject headings to find related titles.

For a useful online overview that places woman's suffrage in the larger context of American history, see Woman's Suffrage, Chapter 6 in The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States.

Local public libraries and historical societies are often invaluable sources for gathering information about local suffrage activities. Although traditionally these resources have been difficult to locate, the centennial of woman suffrage amendments, both nationally and in individual states, has focused attention on materials relating to women's voting rights.

Among the resources that may be available are local newspapers, voting records, papers of local suffragists, and records of local suffrage organizations. Increasing numbers of public libraries and historical societies now have webpages devoted to local aspects of the suffrage movement and/or women's history (two good examples are Women's Suffrage in Minnesota and the New Jersey State Library's Votes for Women). Almost all of these institutions also have online catalogs that can be used to search for relevant resources. 

You may also want to experiment with keyword searches in ArchiveGrid, a free online catalog of archival materials in over a thousand repositories around the US and the rest of the globe. Some terms to try: 

  • [name of state] suffrage
  • [name of suffrage organization]
  • [name of suffragists]

The Library of Congress has also created a useful overview of its manuscript collections relating to women's suffrage.

Some university libraries have also created libguides identifying resources for suffrage in the state where they are located. A few examples:

Many women who joined the suffrage movement were initially, or also, active in other women's organizations. Through these organizations, women gained experience and confidence in managing affairs outside the household, and had the opportunity to share dissatisfaction over their circumscribed public roles. 

Connecting your ancestor(s) to an organization that may have supported or opposed votes for women can provide tangential evidence about their attitude toward suffrage. Although a complete treatment of the topic is beyond the scope of this guide, here is a quick overview to get you started.

Women's Relief Societies (Civil War)

If your ancestors were in the United States during the Civil War, female family members may well have been involved in a local woman's relief society. The following online resources may help you to investigate this possibility:

When black soldiers began serving in the Union Army, free black women also formed separate relief societies, including the following:

  • Colored Women's Sanitary Commission (Philadelphia)
  • Ladies Sanitary Association of St. Thomas Episcopal Church (Philadelphia)
  • Ladies Union Association (Philadelphia)
  • Soldiers’ Relief Association (Philadelphi; met at Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church)
  • Ladies Aid Association (Carlisle, Pennsylvania)

A good starting point for research on this topic is African American women during the Civil War.

For additional resources about women's aid societies during the Civil War, try a keyword search for women's sanitary commission in our online catalog.

Abolition Societies

There are many free online sources of information about women abolitionists. To give you an idea of the scope of material available, here is a small sampling:

To locate material about women abolitionists in NYPL's collections, try browsing our online catalog with the following subject headings:

Temperance Societies

Scholarly journal databases such as JSTOR are a good place to start research on the connection between temperance societies, such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union ("WCTU"), and women's suffrage. You may also want to search ArchiveGrid or check with your local historical society to see if you can locate membership records from a local temperance group. 

Men who were members of organizations that supported temperance, such as the Anti-Saloon League, were also more likely to support suffrage.

To locate relevant materials at NYPL, try browsing our online catalog with the following subject headings:

Brewers' and Liquor Associations

Fearing that women would support Prohibition, the so-called "liquor interests" opposed women's suffrage. Both the United States Brewers Organization and the National Retail Liquor Association explicitly opposed votes for women, and many other industry organizations adopted more stealthy means to oppose suffrage, such as misinformation campaigns -- the suffrage movement's "fake news."

Use the resources identified for Temperance Societies. For materials held by NYPL, try browsing our online catalog by: