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.
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
This 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 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):
Image credit: NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 100916