Racist and xenophobic attitudes were the norm when women began agitating for the vote, and suffragists were not immune to these prejudices. Many suffragists viewed "Votes for Women" as extending solely to white, educated, middle-to-upper class women.
While certainly typical of its time, the racism of the suffrage movement is particularly distressing, because the American suffrage movement grew out of the movement to free African American slaves. Ironically, in light of their own later bigotry, the first suffragists were ardent abolitionists. These women abolitionists, Black and white, sought a more active role in the anti-slavery movement -- including speaking in public, which was considered shockingly unfeminine behavior at the time. Faced with disapproval and resistance from most men (including male abolitionists), female abolitionists began to champion rights for women as well as for slaves.
Two of the most prominent of these early abolitionist/feminists -- Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth -- were African Americans, and current scholarship is revealing many additional Black women abolitionists whose contributions have previously been ignored. The Jewish immigrant Ernestine Rose began fighting for women's rights before Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and though largely forgotten today, was more famous in her time than either of these feminist icons.
Following the Civil War, however, non-white women were largely excluded from the suffrage movement. Not only did white women feminists share the prevailing racist attitudes, they also harbored specific resentments against Blacks and immigrants:
In southern states, woman suffrage was seen as a way to maintain white supremacy, because white women outnumbered all African Americans in the region. The pro-suffrage Southern States Woman Suffrage Conference, formed in 1913 in Louisiana, adopted the motto "Make the South White Again" -- and emblazoned it on the front cover of every issue of the organization's journal The New Southern Citizen.
These sentiments were not limited to the South. Many Northern suffragists shared these racist attitudes . Even those suffragists who were not themselves overtly racist often favored excluding African Americans to avoid alienating the South. State suffrage organizations were allowed to segregate and advocate for votes for white women only.
White suffragists also tapped into the growing backlash against immigration, which peaked in the early 20th century, to advance their own cause.
Despite these formidable barriers, many African Americans and immigrants made invaluable contributions to the suffrage movement, often working outside the mainstream suffrage movement. Without the support of these groups, the 19th Amendment could not have passed when it did. For tips on how to determine if your African American or immigrant ancestors helped secure voting rights for women, use the African American Suffragists and Working Class and Immigrant Suffragists tabs, above.
Cartoon clipping, National American Woman Suffrage Association papers, Manuscripts Division, NYPL
In addition to racism and anti-immigrant sentiment within the suffrage movement, external demographic characteristics likely influenced the way your ancestors interacted with the suffrage movement.
While these types of patterns of course do not apply across the board, they may provide a starting point for investigating your ancestors' attitudes toward voting rights for women.
There was a common perception among white middle-class suffragists that certain immigrant groups were ethnically opposed to women voting -- in particular, Germans, Irish and Italians. It was believed that:
More recent scholarship suggests that many of these stereotypes do not survive close scrutiny. However, a 1985 study of the demographic voting patterns in the suffrage referendums of six key states confirmed the following voting patterns:
The opposition of the "liquor interests" to women's suffrage is also well documented. Regardless of ethnicity, men who were involved in the liquor industry, or strongly opposed Prohibition, were more likely to oppose suffrage. On the other hand, supporters of temperance, both male and female, were more likely to support suffrage, especially those who were active in temperance organizations such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union and the (male) Anti-Saloon League.
Religion also exerted an influence on attitudes towards women's rights generally, and suffrage in particular. For example, a disproportionate number of suffragists were Quakers, a religion which had remarkably progressive ideas about women from its outset. Included in their number were some of the suffrage movement's most prominent leaders: Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, and Alice Paul. At the opposite spectrum, the Catholic Church was strongly opposed to women's suffrage, which discourage devout Catholics from supporting the suffrage movement or becoming active suffragists.
These types of generalizations, even where confirmed by research, can never answer questions about specific individuals. But they can give you clues for further investigation. For example, if your ancestor was a German brewer, see if you can discover whether he had ties to a local brewers' organization, or to the German-American Alliance, an organization that was vehemently opposed to suffrage. Look for newspaper articles that may describe anti-suffrage activities of these organizations in your ancestors' communities. On the other hand, if you have Scandinavian ancestors who immigrated to America before women won the right to vote, you may want to look for possible links to the Scandinavian Woman Suffrage Association, which was headquartered in Minnesota but also rallied ethnic support for suffrage in other states.
You may also want to investigate whether your ancestors had ties to other organizations that supported or opposed woman suffrage, such as temperance, abolition, and/or Civil War aid societies.
Source: McDonagh, Eileen L. and H. Douglas Price. 1985. "Woman Suffrage in the Progressive Era: Patterns of Opposition and Support in Referenda Voting, 1910-1918." American Political Science Review 79: 415-435.
If you are researching New York City ancestors, you may also want to consider a more narrowly focused study which examined the demographics of voters within the five boroughs. After analyzing the results of the New York suffrage referendums of 1915 and 1917, the author (Elinor Lerner) found that:
Overall, Lerner concluded that male voters' support for women's suffrage was related to their personal and structural connections to women -- the stronger these connections, the more likely male voters were to support votes for women. Among the factors Lerner identifies are:
Using these factors can help you analyze your ancestors' possible relationship to the suffrage movement, and provide a useful focus for searching for further clues in newspaper articles and other sources.
Source: Lerner, Elinor, Immigrant and Working Class Involvement in the New York City Woman Suffrage Movement, 1905-1917: A Study in Progressive Era Politics (dissertation, University of California, Berkeley 1981).
Like early white suffragists, early Black suffragists first became activists in the anti-slavery movement. The most famous examples are Sojurner Truth and Harriet Tubman, but recent scholarship has uncovered many other African American women who contributed to the anti-slavery movement. Maybe your ancestors will be among them!
Of course, prior to the Civil War, slavery was an insurmountable barrier to activism for most African American women. Following the Civil War, the number of African American suffragists began to grow, but racism prevented most Black women from direct participation in the mainstream suffrage movement.
Although some Black women continued to work alongside white suffragists in the established suffrage organizations, many others formed separate African American clubs and organizations. Suffrage was often just one of the issues advocated, as part of a larger political agenda to improve the situation of blacks generally. As historian Susan Goodier remarks, "The multitude of problems and challenges that black women and the black community faced [lynching, anti-miscegnation laws, Jim Crow legislation, etc.] was such that to concentrate exclusively on woman suffrage was a luxury few could afford" (Women will vote: winning suffrage in New York State, p. 76).
Black women were also active in the Women's Christian Temperance Union, whose members often supported votes for women as well. In addition to these women-specific organizations, Black women often advocated for women's voting rights through African American church organizations, or those devoted to education.
In sum, if you are trying to connect a Black ancestor to the suffrage movement, cast a wide net! Don't limit your searches to African American suffragists -- look for women who were active in other benevolent associations, including those identified above. Finding records of Black women activists can be challenging, but this topic is ripe for new discoveries. Maybe yours will be next!
Anti-immigrant sentiment dominated the suffrage movement -- as it did the country at large -- into the 20th century. But as the suffrage movement dragged on, with little to show for its efforts, some suffrage leaders began to view the great influx of immigrant laborers into New York City and other urban areas in a different light. It had finally dawned on suffragists that immigrants could be a powerful source of support in their struggle to win the vote.
A number of circumstances contributed to this change of heart:
Meanwhile, the largely white, middle-class suffrage movement was stagnating in a period of inertia often described by historians as the "doldrums." A new generation of suffrage leaders felt that attracting working women into the suffrage movement would energize it, and also realized that without the support of the working class, women would never achieve the vote.
In the early 1900's, these shifting circumstances and attitudes led New York suffragists to begin actively recruiting working-class women -- many of them immigrants -- into the movement. By 1907, the newsletter of the National American Woman Suffrage Association predicted that votes for women would not be won by "the educated workers, the college women, the men's association for equal suffrage;" instead, "the people who are fighting for industrial freedom . . . will be our vital force at the finish."
Were your immigrant ancestors a part of this "vital force?" Many immigrant suffragists were drawn into the movement through contact with the settlement houses and/or the labor movement. So if your ancestors immigrated to America around the beginning of the 20th century, it makes sense to start your research by looking for family ties to these types of organizations.
Was there a settlement house in the neighborhood where your ancestors lived? These charitable establishments began to appear in the U.S. in the late nineteenth century. Settlements derived their name from the fact that the workers -- predominantly middle-class women -- “settled” in the poor neighborhoods they sought to serve, living there not only as benefactors, but as friends and neighbors. Because many settlement workers were also suffragists, they helped to attract immigrant workers into the suffrage movement. At the same time, as champions for immigrant women, settlement workers also helped to ameliorate the anti-foreign attitudes of middle-class, native born suffragists. In this way, settlement workers served to bridge the wide cultural gap separating recent immigrants and established feminists.
If your ancestors were associated with the settlement houses, either as workers or as beneficiaries, they may well have supported the suffrage movement as well. The following are just a few of many settlement houses established in New York City:
There were also settlement houses in other New York City neighborhoods; for listings, check the Brooklyn Daily Eagle Almanac.
Few membership records for settlement houses survive, but there are exceptions. The Library holds the Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement Records which includes some rosters and membership lists. To locate additional settlement house records at other institutions, try searching ArchiveGrid, a free online catalog that searches the archival collections of more than a thousand libraries and other repositories
Many of the female immigrants who poured into New York City in the late 19th century were employed in the garment industry. The appalling conditions under which they worked spurred numbers of these women workers to become activists in the labor movement. Middle-class reformers -- many of them suffragists -- were also interested in improving working conditions for working-class women, and this resulted in the formation of organizations that supported both suffrage and the labor movement. Among the most important were the following:
If your female ancestors were industrial workers, they may well have been involved with one of these organizations. Although membership records are scarce, if you believe your ancestors were affiliated with a union, it's worth searching for them in ArchiveGrid. For example, a search for Ladies Garment Workers turned up a collection of dues books from the Amalgamated Ladies' Garment Cutters' Union in New York, New York. Be aware that collections held by university libraries may not be publicly available.
Union periodicals are also a good source of information about both individuals and any suffrage activities that these unions may have engaged in. For tips on how to locate these, see the Additional Resources tab above.
This page identifies resources relating specifically to African American, immigrant and working-class women and their involvement in the suffrage movement. You should also consult the How to Learn More page for a complete overview of sources that can be used to find information on suffragists generally.
For resources relating to post-suffrage African American women activists, you may also want to consult Black Feminism Introductory Research Guide, a libguide created by NYPL's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
As scholars focus more attention on non-white suffragists, the number of dissertations and scholarly articles on African American, immigrant and working class suffragists continue to grow. These scholarly resources can provide useful background information, along with details and resources that can help researchers identify local suffrage activity occurring outside the mainstream suffrage movement. Representative titles include:
For more information on locating dissertations online, see the How to Learn More page.
NYPL also offers on-site access to a number of databases that researchers can use to find additional titles. A few to try:
You may be able to find articles identifying African American suffrage activities and leaders in African American newspapers (for example, Colored Women as Voters, an article by Black suffragist Adella Hunt Logan, was published in The Crisis, September 1912). Some African American newspapers have been digitized and can be accessed in databases available at NYPL, including the following:
For contemporaneous reports on immigrant workers support for the suffrage movement, try searching in women's labor journals and in settlement house periodicals. The following titles are available at NYPL:
To locate materials in our online catalog, try experimenting with both keyword and subject searches.
Representative titles include the following:
To locate additional materials relating to African American suffragists, try browsing our online catalog with the following subject headings:
There are few unified subject headings dealing with these topics, but here are a few relevant titles relating to:
For resources that may help you connect your ancestors to other organizations that opposed or supported suffrage, see the How to Learn More page.