Becoming a “Lover of the Metropolis”: Gotham and the Suffrage Movement, 1870–1907

Sunday, January 6, 2013: 8:50 AM
Chamber Ballroom I (Roosevelt New Orleans)
Lauren C. Santangelo, City University of New York, Graduate Center
This paper traces the relationship between New York City suffragists and their metropolis from 1870 to 1907. Using diaries, newspapers, and novels, it argues that suffragists moved from understanding the nation’s most prominent city as a place of dangers to celebrating it as a place of possibilities. Their reinterpretation of the city proved pivotal for the eventual success of the enfranchisement campaign.

For many, the most perilous place for a respectable, single woman in 19th century America was on the streets of a large city, especially New York City. Advocates of woman’s rights accepted and perpetuated this belief that urban living exposed women to vice and physical danger. “The streets were very full of men,” Lillie Devereux Blake, the leader of Manhattan’s suffrage movement, despaired in her novel, “Among all these strong, pushing, busy men, there seemed no place, and no hope for a woman to expect justice or mercy.” By the late 19th century, however, activists began to re-imagine and develop a more empowering interpretation of Manhattan. Wealthy women’s participation and use of prestigious spaces during the 1894 Constitutional Convention campaign alerted leaders to the potential resources available in the metropolis.  Moreover, the growing number of professional women and their freer interaction with the city supplied all female residents, including suffragists, with a different way to think about urban living. In the process of fighting for the vote, suffragists themselves helped to open up Manhattan to women by demanding unfettered access to restaurants and hotels. As a result, even Blake began to describe herself as “a lover of the metropolis” by the early 20th century.  The next generation of suffragists inherited this new, more empowering understanding and was thus able more effectively to use Gotham’s resources to catapult the cause to success.