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How to Find Your Suffragist / Suffragette Ancestors: How Diverse Were Suffragists?

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.

Racism excluded many women from the mainstream suffrage movement, and nationality, religion and class influenced attitudes towards suffrage. These factors can be clues for discovering how ancestors of all ethnicities and backgrounds might have connected with the suffrage movement.

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.

Suffragists as Abolitionists

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.

Racism and Anti-Immigrant Sentiment

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:

  • With respect to African Americans, many white suffragists felt betrayed when instead of fighting for universal suffrage for all, regardless of race and gender, the post-Civil War abolitionists chose to champion voting rights for only Black men.
  • Suffragists also resented that "ignorant" immigrant men could vote, while native-born women could not -- and believed that most immigrant men voted against women's suffrage.

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. 

 

Caricature, This Man Can Vote, This Woman Cannot

 

Overcoming Barriers

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.

Image credits:

Cover of the New Southern Citizen, October 1914, Library of Congress (accessed through Wikipedia).

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.

  • Characteristics such as economic status, education level, religion, and ethnic and cultural traditions influenced the way people felt about the proper role of women and whether they should have the right to vote.
  • Political attitudes had an impact on how people viewed suffrage as well. In particular, because the suffrage movement had early ties with the temperance movement, it was widely believed that giving women the vote would result in Prohibition. As a result, those who opposed Prohibition were more likely to oppose women's suffrage as well

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. 

 

 

Demographic Studies of Suffrage Voters

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:

  • German and Irish voters feared that women voters would support Prohibition
  • Many immigrants, especially those from Germany and Ireland, were Catholics, and opposed suffrage because the Catholic church opposed suffrage
  • Italian and other southern European immigrants were seen as adhering to more traditional family patterns

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:

  • Germans, and particularly German Catholics, were more likely to oppose women's suffrage
  • Scandinavians and English immigrants had higher rates of support for suffrage

Twenty-Fifth National Convention Masters Brewers AssociationThe 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.

Demographic study of New York City suffrage voters

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: 

  • In both elections the largest, strongest and most consistent support came from the Jewish community, from Jews of all economic levels living in both Harlem and the Lower East Side.
  • The strongest and most consistent opposition came from working and middle class Irish communities
  • Italians were not unified on suffrage: most voted against the amendment but the heart of the Italian community in Greenwich Village was solidly and consistently pro-suffrage
  • Germans, and apparently some Slavic immigrants, in Yorkville were among the more anti anti-suffrage in both elections.
  • The Black community generally voted around the average amount of all voters

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:

  • High rates of marriage
  • Strong family structures
  • Connections to working women, especially women in unionized jobs 

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).

Image credits:

NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 5846592 (Printed pledge card of the National Christian Temperance Union).

NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 5242235 (Twenty Fifth National Convention Master Brewers Association of the United States, 1913).

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. 

 

 

Black Suffragists Form Their Own Organizations

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 Statep. 76). 

This means those who are researching the suffrage activity of African American ancestors need to look beyond suffrage-specific organizations. Make sure to also investigate any local branches of the many benevolent and political organizations formed by African American women. Here are a few of the most important:
 
  • Colored Women's Progressive Franchise Association -- Washington D.C., 1880
  • Woman's Loyal Union of New York and Brooklyn -- New York City, 1892
  • Equal Suffrage League of Brooklyn -- late 1880's
  • Woman's Era Club -- Boston, 1892
  • Colored Women's League -- Washington, DC
  • National Association of Colored Women's Clubs (originally National Association of Colored Women) -- Washington, DC, 1896
  • National Federation of Afro-American Women -- Boston
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe Equality League of Kings County -- Brooklyn, 1910
  • Phyllis Wheatley Club -- Buffalo
  • Susan B. Anthony Club for Colored Women -- Rochester, 1902
  • Woman's National Baptist Convention
  • DuBois Circle -- Baltimore, 1906
  • Equal Suffrage Club
  • Wage Earners League,, Negro Men's and Women's Branches
  • Alpha Suffrage Club
  • Fannie Jackson Coppin Club -- Oakland, California, 1899

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!

  • Finding your own ancestors may be a long-shot, but most researchers are likely to learn new information about the previously unheralded efforts of African American women in their communities by using the sources described under the Additional Resources tab above and on the How to Learn More page -- and will also forge a personal connection with their own history in the process.
  • Check your own attics! As historian Susan Goodier observes in her article Seeking and Seeing Black Women: Hester C. Jeffrey and Woman Suffrage Activism, records of Black women activists were less likely to be solicited from, or donated to, public institutions, and may still exist in private hands.
    • Goodier's article was published in the Fall/Winer 1917 issue of New York History, available on-site through the subscription database Project Muse)
  • For inspiration, you may want to start by consulting the article How Black Suffragists Fought for the Right to Vote and a Modicum of Respect, available in the online magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities (HUMANITIES, Summer 2019, Volume 40, Number 3). 

Image credits: 

Headquarters for Colored Women Voters in the Shivery family photograph collection.

NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 04schaj (Nannie Helen Burroughs, one of the founders of the Woman's National Baptist Convention).

 

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:

  • By 1900, 36% of the population of New York City was foreign-born, and by 1910 the number had grown to 40% 
  • The establishment of "settlement houses" in poor urban areas brought middle-class women reformers (the majority of whom were also suffragists) into close contact with poor immigrants, and these workers helped to bridge the wide cultural barriers between working class women and more privileged suffragists
  • Exposure of the inhuman working conditions immigrant women were forced to endure -- most notably by the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1913 -- led to increased sympathy for their plight
  • The struggle to unionize these immigrant workers politicized both working class women and the reformers who sought to assist them

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.

Settlement Houses

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:

  • University Settlement (originally Neighborhood Guild) -- 146 Forsyth Street, 1891
  • Henry Street Settlement House (originally  "Nurses Settlement") -- 265 Henry Street, 1893
  • Riis Settlement House (originally "King's Daughters' Settlement") -- 48 Henry Street, 1890
  • Greenwich House settlement -- 27 Barrow Street, 1902
  • Hudson Guild -- 441 West 26th Street, 1895

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

Labor Movement

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:

  • National Consumers' League -- New York City, 1890
  • Women's Trade Union League -- New York City, 1903
  • Equality League of Self-Supporting Women -- New York City, 1906
  • Industrial Section of the Woman's Suffrage Party -- New York City, 1911

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.

Image credits:

NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 733578F (Elizabeth Gurley Flynn speaking at I.W.W. Strike Headquarters on Water Street in Paterson, New Jersey).

NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 464301 (A visiting nurse showing Jewish mother how to care for the baby, East Side, New York, 1925).

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.

 

 

Online Resources

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.

Dissertations and Scholarly Articles

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:

Newspapers and journals

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:

Other Materials at NYPL

To locate materials in our online catalog, try experimenting with both keyword and subject searches.

African American Suffragists

Representative titles include the following:

To locate additional materials relating to African American suffragists, try browsing our online catalog with the following subject headings:

Immigrant and Working Class Suffragists

There are few unified subject headings dealing with these topics, but here are a few relevant titles relating to:

Materials relating to temperance, abolition and civil war aid societies

For resources that may help you connect your ancestors to other organizations that opposed or supported suffrage, see the How to Learn More page.

Image credits:

NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 1227189 (Elise Johnson McDougald, suffragist, activist and author of the essay "The Double Task: The Struggle for Negro Women for Sex and Race Emancipation")

NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 833665 (Three Types of Immigrants).