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How to Find Your Suffragist / Suffragette Ancestors: Don't Leave Out the Men!

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.

Don't forget the gentlemen! The decision on whether to extend voting right to women was ultimately in the hands of men, including your male ancestors.

Unless your male ancestors were member of Congress or state legislators, they did not vote directly on the 19th Amendment. 

  • A proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution must first be passed by two-thirds of both houses of Congress
  • After that hurdle, the amendment must be ratified by 3/4 of the states -- but only members of the state legislatures vote on proposed amendments. 

​However, your male ancestors may have voted for or against a proposal to amend the constitution of their own state. If your ancestors lived in a state that passed -- or defeated -- an amendment to allow women the right to vote, you may want to see if you can locate voting records that will reflect whether your male ancestors were registered to vote at the time.

  • The procedure for amending state constitutions varies by state, but in most states a constitutional amendment is eventually submitted directly to state voters, who can ratify or reject it.
  • For tips on tracking down voting records, see Voting Records and Other Genealogical Resources on the How to Learn More page.

 

 

Ballot, New York Suffrage Amendment

 

Voting records will not record how your ancestors voted, but finding evidence that that they did vote is still an exciting discovery -- one that provides a direct link between your family and one of the most dramatic episodes in American history! And although not all voter registration records have survived, you should be able to find out how the residents in your ancestors' neighborhoods voted on state suffrage referendums. For details, see the How Did They Vote? tab.

Which States Passed or Defeated Suffrage Referendums?

The states and territories that gave women full or partial suffrage before the Nineteenth Amendment was passed in 1920 are listed on the Mapping the Movement tabs. 

Male voters defeated proposals for women's suffrage in the following states and territories:

  • Michigan (1874)
  • Rhode Island (1887)
  • South Dakota (1890)
  • New Hampshire (1902)
  • Oregon (1906)
  • Oregon (1908)
  • Oklahoma (1910)
  • South Dakota (1910)
  • Wisconsin (1912)
  • South Dakota (1914)
  • Massachusetts (1915)
  • New York (1915)
  • West Virginia (1915)
  • Iowa (1916)
  • South Dakota (1916)
  • Texas (1919)

Image credits:

New York Suffrage Referendum ballot, 1915, Irma and Paul Milstein Division of U.S. History, Local History and Genealogy, IRGN n.c. 1914-1916.

"Why Not Go the Limit?," illustration by Harry Grant Dart published in Puck magazine on March 18, 1908, reflecting male anxieties over changing sex roles and power dynamics.

Some men went beyond exercising their voting rights, and became active participants in the suffrage and anti-suffrage movements. Could your male ancestors have been among these "suffragents"? Who were these men who sought to influence the outcome of the women's suffrage movement?

Frederick Douglass

On both sides of the coin, whether working for or against voting rights for women, men who were active in the suffrage movement were generally prominent members of society: wealthy, or influential, or both. Even if your ancestor doesn't fit into these categories, learning about some of the other general characteristics of the men who took a public stand for or against suffrage can give you some clues as to which position your ancestor was more likely to take.

Men who actively supported suffrage were likely to fit the old adage "behind every good man there's a good woman": they had wives, mothers, and/or daughters who were themselves ardent suffragists. These men were also likely to be "progressives" who supported other "reform" causes such as labor rights, municipal reform, anti-trust laws to break up monopolies, and prohibition.

Men who opposed suffrage, on the other hand, were more likely to be advocates for (or practitioners of) "big business." They feared that women voters would pass labor reforms, such as minimum wage and maximum-hour laws for women workers, health and safety regulations for factory workers, and abolish child labor. Certain industries were particularly opposed to women's suffrage:

  • Textile interests, whose factories relied heavily on the cheap labor of women and children
  • The "liquor interests," which associated women with the temperance movement
  • The railways, which feared women would seek to reform a business widely regarded as one of the most corrupt in American society.

Only a tiny percentage of American men joined organizations to support, or thwart, women's suffrage, so odds are that your ancestors were not among them. But exploring the arguments advanced by men on both side of the issue can shed light on the factors that influenced your male ancestors' views -- and votes. For background information, research tips, and resources, see the adjoining tabs. 

Image credit: NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 1708332 (Portrait of Frederick Douglass, one of the earliest male supporters of women's suffrage).

Although individual men supported women in the suffrage movement from its beginning, it wasn't until the 20th century that men organized in a sustained effort to help women win the vote.

 

 

Men's League for Woman Suffrage

In 1908, a group of prominent New York City men formed the Men's League for WomanSuffrage. Among the founding members were:

  • Oswald Garrison Villard -- editor of the New York Evening Post
  • Rabbi Stephn S. Wise -- early supporter of women's suffrage who remarked that America was "not a democracy" but a "manocracy" 
  • Max Eastman -- editor of socialist magazines, including The Masses, and brother of suffragist activist Crystal Eastman
  • John Dewey -- philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer
  • William A. Delano -- prominent architect

As historian Brooke Krueger points out in The suffragents : how women used men to get the voteit took considerable courage for men to publicly show their support for suffragists at the time. She describes, for example, the ridicule suffered by members of the Men's League for Women's Suffrage who marched in New York City's 1911 suffrage parade:

“Hold up your skirts, girls!” rowdy onlookers shouted. “You won’t get any dinner unless you march all the way, Vivian!” For all two miles of the walk, a newspaper clipping recounted, the men submitted to “jeers, whistles, ‘mea-a-ows,’ and such cries as ‘Take that handkerchief out of your cuff.’”

Nonetheless, the following year, one thousand men marched in the 1912 New  York suffrage parade. By this time, branches of the Men's League for Women's Suffrage had sprung up in places across the country. The earliest to organize was in Chicago, where a mass rally was held in 1909; other men's leagues were located in Iowa, Connecticut, and on the college campuses of Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth.

Most pro-suffrage men's organizations were referred to as "men's leagues" for woman suffrage. Try searching newspaper databases with this term and the names of your ancestors' states and cities to see if there was a local organization of men supporting women's suffrage. Examples include the following:

  • Men's Equal Suffrage League of Maine -- Robert Treat Whitehouse
  • Montana State Men's League for Woman Suffrage -- Wellington D. Rankin
  • Georgia Men's League for Woman Suffrage -- Leonard Grossman
  • Pittsburgh Men's League for Woman Suffrage 
  • Harvard Men's League for Women's Suffrage

For more information, see the Additional Resources tab.

Image credits:

NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 56590445 (Receipt for dues for membership in the Men's League for Woman Suffrage, 1914).

NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 1536868 (Mrs. Villard, seen here at the International Women's Rights Convention in Budapest, came up with the idea for the Men's League of Woman Suffrage -- naturally, it was the brainchild of a woman).

The Case Against Woman SuffrageThe majority of American men opposed votes for women -- as evidenced by the fact that it took women over 70 years to persuade the male electorate to finally pass the 19th Amendment. But only after the suffrage movement began to gain momentum did a few anti-suffrage men join forces and form organizations for the express purpose of opposing woman suffrage.

The Man-Suffrage Association Opposed to Extension of Political Suffrage for Women

In 1913, prominent New York lawyer Everett P. Wheeler organized The Man-Suffrage Association Opposed to Extension of Political Suffrage for Women. Its purpose, set forth in Publications issued by the Man-suffrage Association Opposed to Political Suffrage for Women, was to demonstrate:

that the giving of political suffrage generally would draw the attention and interest of women from home duties which they alone can discharge, would bring selfish and artful women into prominence, entice them by holding out political prizes, and would encourage freak legislation.

Everett ended with what may have passed as a witticism: "We call ourselves the home rule party.'"

Men in other states also formed anti-suffrage organizations, including the following:

  • Men's League Opposed to Woman Suffrage
  • Massachusetts Man Suffrage Association
  • Nebraska Men's Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage

The "Man-Suffrage" associations issued pamphlets, letters and speeches setting forth their arguments against voting rights for women. A good selection of these are available at NYPL; reading them can help you understand the mindset of your ancestors who may well have opposed woman suffrage. See the Additional Resources page for details.

Image credit: Cover, The case against woman suffrage.

Books and Pamphlets

NYPL holds publications issued by male supporters and male opponents of women's suffrage, along with a few general histories of men in the suffrage movement.

Pro-suffrage publications:
Anti-suffrage publications:
General Histories

Archival Collections 

Few papers documenting men's activism for and against the suffrage movement has survived. Individual documents are available in the following collections:

 

Image credit: NYPL Picture Collection ("All Those In Favor of Woman Suffrage Raise Their Hands," cartoon published in Life magazine, 1913).