Political Rhetoric and Personal Relationships: Sophonisba Breckinridge and the Suffrage Movement

Sunday, January 5, 2020: 9:10 AM
Gramercy West (New York Hilton)
Anya Jabour, University of Montana
In 1911, Chicago social work educator Sophonisba Breckinridge became vice president of the United States’ mainstream suffrage organization, the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Like other members of the organization, Breckinridge promoted woman suffrage by appealing to conventional ideals of femininity, suggesting that women would use political rights to “clean up” politics and address the needs of families and children. While Breckinridge advanced the woman suffrage movement by using language that emphasized women’s domestic responsibilities and maternal roles, she simultaneously participated in same-sex relationships that promoted her own professional success and political efficacy. Indeed, at the same time that Breckinridge became a national spokeswoman for woman suffrage, she was engaged in what might be termed a “lesbian love triangle” in which two other women vied for her affection. Based on Breckinridge’s published and private writings, this paper explores the irony of her use of conventional heteronormative rhetoric at the same time that she lived an unconventional homosocial life.