Suffrage, Scholars, and Sentinels: University Women in the 19th Amendment Campaign

Saturday, January 6, 2018
Atrium (Marriott Wardman Park)
Kelly Marino, Binghamton University, State University of New York
In recent decades, scholars have identified many seminal factors that shaped the women’s suffrage campaign in the United States, from progressive reform movements to race, class, and regional differences. However, two central elements that remain understudied are age and education. This poster explores the participation of college-educated women in federal amendment activism for women’s right to vote in Washington DC during the last three years of the campaign. Images and text compare the activities of two distinct groups headed by university women in the nation’s capital from 1917–1920: the College Equal Suffrage League (CESL), an affiliate of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) with a DC section, and the National Woman’s Party (NWP), a separate organization for legislative work in the city. In the final three years of the suffrage movement, both groups were committed to winning the vote for women, but adopted different means of doing so. The NAWSA-backed CESL focused on forming alliances with men and women of the upper classes to secure electoral support for the federal amendment using bold yet socially acceptable methods. To achieve this, they allied with local progressives in urban reform campaigns, backed improvements for women in professions like teaching, and directed suffrage schools to train interested women in skilled activism. The NWP members similarly geared their campaigns towards the upper classes, particularly the president and politicians. However, they harnessed the power of their college supporters by situating them front and center in public protests, such as White House picketing. University students had less to risk if arrested than their older counterparts did because of their young age, “elite” status, and sound physical condition. Thus, they filled the prisons.

Despite the different approaches to their campaigns, both groups recognized the convincing influence of pleas from the educated youth. By involving university women at the forefront of activism, they made the women’s suffrage cause more respectable and more difficult for prominent men to ignore and anti-suffragists to dismiss. They reframed winning women’s right to vote as a goal of future generations. Increasingly, it was the daughters, wives, sisters, and friends of male politicians and voters who pushed for the franchise in the twentieth century, rather than the alleged “spinsters” of prior eras. Thus, women’s suffrage became a more viable issue. As this poster shows, university women’s involvement in suffrage activism not only helped to secure the Nineteenth Amendment’s passage in 1920 by creating a new, reputable, and scholarly voice for the campaign, but it also set important precedents for women’s activism by initiating the trends of youth mobilization for women’s rights and organized campus campaigning, which continue to this day.

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