Q&A: Pitt Historian on Women’s Suffrage and Dueling Narratives

A century ago this month, the 19th Amendment was ratified, giving women the right to vote. On Aug. 18, 1920, Tennessee was the 36th and final state needed to secure the amendment. History shows that the road leading to women’s suffrage was a long one—it took decades filled with marches and activism.

To learn more about what lead to the historic vote, and to put it in today’s context, Pittwire reached out to Laura Lovett, associate professor in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences’ Department of History, who specializes in 20th-century United States women’s history and the history of childhood and youth. She is also the North American editor for Women’s History Review.

Lovett in a black and white tank topCurrently, Lovett is working on a series of critical biographies rooted in photographs taken by Diana Maria Henry at the 1977 National Women’s Conference. Said Lovett, “We chose to highlight the biographies of African American feminists. This was the place where the term ‘women of color’ is initially used—a little-known fact we discovered in the process of researching this project.”

Many history books mark the start of the women’s suffrage movement at the Seneca Falls Convention—the first women’s rights convention held in July 1848. Is this true?

The Seneca Falls Convention was about changing many different things in women’s lives. It emerged out the of the exclusion of women from participating in an abolitionist convention.

Political representation was a piece on the table, but it was not the only piece—women’s issues were and are so broad, so enormous. They were grappling with wage differentials between male and female teachers, whether women could own property, whether they have the rights to their children or any say in the family.

For instance, in one of my courses, I talk about Clara Bewick Colby, the publisher of the main suffrage newspaper, whose husband decides independently of her to adopt a daughter from a reservation, in an effort to force her to stop working for the vote. She had absolutely no say in the matter and wound up dying in poverty with her adopted Lakota daughter after he ran away with the child’s nursemaid and divorced her. She had no claims on the family’s money, even what she had brought into the marriage. So, it was not just political control; it was also legal, economic, social and even religious freedom at stake for women.

So, the Seneca Falls Convention did “start” the suffrage movement, but voting rights wasn’t the only issue on the table.

The Worcester Convention of 1850 was actually the first national convention for women. We remember Seneca Falls because, basically, the group that wanted recognition for their work got control of the historical narrative before they even got the vote. So, we think of that as the founding moment.

What do you mean “got control” of the narrative?

In the early 1880s, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton decided to co-author the history of the women’s movement. They didn’t have the vote yet, but they were already collecting the documents and writing the narrative of how they created the vote itself. Susan B Anthony wasn’t even at Seneca Falls, but she is seen as the co-founder of the suffrage movement because they knew how to frame the discussion—they were really looking ahead in terms of their history. And what that means is that although some groups may have been as active, innovative and expressive as Anthony and Stanton, because they did not make it into the first history, they were not immediately recognized as having the same importance or influence. In fact, Susan B. Anthony wasn’t even at the Seneca Falls Convention but because she

Can you talk more about the split in the movement?

There was a split in 1867 over whether or not Kansas would recognize women’s suffrage. At the time the 14th Amendment was up for ratification, which proposed to protect newly freed African Americans in the South. This amendment represented the first time “male” was articulated in the Constitution in conjunction with the right to vote.

When Anthony and Stanton, with the help of “Wizard of Oz” author L. Frank Baum’s mother-in-law, Matilde Joslyn Gage, were writing the history of this movement in the 1880s, they were writing it in a post-split, pre-vote moment. Famously, they disagreed over whether women or African Americans should be prioritized in campaigns to get the vote. And, because they collected together the historical narrative, their story is often the only one we remember. Stanton and Anthony led the campaign for Kansas to reject any constitutional prohibition of women’s suffrage. Lucy Stone, who had been at Seneca Falls, insisted that protecting Blacks was more important than opposing the exclusion of women’s vote, so you had a national split in the suffrage movement.

More on Laura Lovett’s work

In January 2021, Lovett’s latest work, “With Her Fist Raised: Dorothy Pitman Hughes and the Transformative Power of Black Community Activism,” will be published by Beacon Press. It will be the first biography of Dorothy Pitman Hughes, an African American childcare activist “whose work made children, race and welfare rights central to the women’s movement.”

In the biography, Lovett describes how Hughes, who was a better-known activist at the time, “literally talked Gloria Steinem into speaking in public,” and is still renowned for a famous photo in which she appears with Steinem, with their fists raised.

Today historians have revised the narrative of the way Susan B. Anthony conceded to Southern white supremacists in the latter part of the 19th century.

How so?

Many African American women activists weren’t widely recognized at the time as a part of this history.

For example, Sojourner Truth doesn’t start to get recognition until the 1970s. And there’s Ida B. Wells, who decides to march in the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade in Washington, D.C., in the front rather than at the back, which is where African American women had been requested to march because of segregation. Today, historians do not leave these women out of the story.

Let’s talk more about that march in 1913.

It was really a moment of historical pageantry. There was a pageant on the Treasury Building steps and march down Pennsylvania Avenue.

The women came from all over; it was very well-organized. They were led by Alice Paul, and decided to adopt a single color—white—and had the same motto: Votes for Women. They understood that you needed to get into the news and to be very, very clear about what you were calling for. They understood how the press worked. They were performing on the national stage before we had an established tradition of national marches. They organized their march as a huge performance.

It was actually quite dangerous for these women to be marching—there were probably about 10,000 of them, but there were even more anti-suffragists and protestors there. The march ended in violence as the police let anti-suffrage protestors, mostly men, block the parade route and disrupt the event. Over 200 people were injured.

I actually uncovered the script for part of the 1913 suffrage pageant when I was teaching at Dartmouth College. The script wasn't archived under the name of the woman who had helped create the pageant, Hazel MacKaye. It was under her brother's name, Benton MacKaye. When somebody dies, you have to imagine that their life, and therefore their papers, are important enough to put into an archive. Women’s lives were seldom seen to be as important as men’s.

Wow, what was it like to see those papers?

They were on very fine paper and had to be handled very tenderly. There were a lot of photographs and a plan for who was going to line up where. The script described how they were going to direct the pageant. It gave me an impression of how they were trying to convey themselves to the media, embody larger ideas and get their message out.

If the parade occurred in 1913, why did it take seven years for the 19th Amendment to get ratified?

The march in 1913 gave the movement a lot of momentum, and there were other marches throughout the country in the following years. But these organizers placed a moratorium on marches when President Wilson declared that we were going to enter what was then-called the Great War. Anti-war sentiment was huge in this country. Wilson walked over to Congress from the White House and said, basically, we're going to fight in Europe for the right of undeterred self-determination.

At this time, Alice Paul created the National Women's Party, which decided to hold the government accountable, because women did not have the right for self-determination. There was a standing picket outside the White House—women were getting arrested left and right. They were adopting more radical tactics of protest.

They constituted a more radical wing of the movement, which made it an easier “sell” suffrage to the public after the war.

What do you think the suffragists would say about women’s activism today?

I think Ida B. Wells would be leading the parade.

I think people understand that, if you want to make change, you have to push hard and call attention to what needs to be changed. Part of the decision behind Joe Biden selecting Kamala Harris—a female, woman of color as his vice president—is his recognition of the role that women, especially Black women, play politically today.

Of course, I think we still have a long way to go, and the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted many things we need to address. In 1972, we were on the verge of passing a comprehensive childcare bill, which Nixon vetoed. We have an incredible childcare crisis today, combined with a huge wage gap which I think will become an even larger problem if they are not addressed together in the near future.

We’ve come a long way—but we have a way to go.

Pitt Library System Offers Suffrage Resources and Displays      

Back in the 1970s, Miriam Meislik was a teenager in Sharon, Pennsylvania, and frequently took part in family discussions about elections and politics around the kitchen table.

“My grandfather and grandmother, my dad ... we talked about who we thought was the best candidate and why it was important to vote,” said Meislik, who is media coordinator for Pitt’s University Library System (ULS). “It was influential in my upbringing.”

An old newspaper that says Woman's Journal and Suffrage News at the top. The headline is Parade Struggle to Victory Despite Disgraceful Scenes

Now, decades later, Meislik is helping to build a LibGuide is on Women’s Suffrage.

Library Guides or LibGuides are web-based ULS handbooks that provide tips for finding resources, names of additional books on a topic, timelines and general help in conducting research on any one of hundreds of subjects.

The Women’s Suffrage guide provides research on key events and historic figures after the 1848 Seneca Falls conference. There’s a timeline of important events starting in 1776, an entire section on voting in Pennsylvania and a list of reading suggestions compiled by library and information sciences master’s student Julie Mozelewski. While not intended to be comprehensive, Meislik says the LibGuide helps put women’s suffrage in context and helps one “get their feet wet” on the topic.

It’s a work in progress, so she intends to add information on the men who were important to the suffrage movement as well as more about important women, particularly Black and Native American women. As the year continues, Meislik will add resources from other repositories, including the Detre Library & Archives at the Senator John Heinz History Center, and from Chatham University.

While the guide contains some information about what was happening in Pittsburgh during that time, Meislik recommends the PGH100 Women’s Suffrage website, built by the Pittsburgh Suffrage Centennial Committee, for more information on the local history.

And the ULS has more in store to mark the anniversary of when women won the right to vote: A virtual display called Voting is Power will showcase items from various collections related to voting rights history. A panel discussion will take place in September, as will a physical display on the ground floor of Hillman Library of books related to the topic—all available for checkout.

Meislik feels it’s important for everyone, especially university students, to understand that “a lot of people sacrificed a great deal to make sure that everyone has the ability to vote for the candidate of their choice.”

She said: “Voting is a way we can honor our foremothers who fought for the right for us to vote.”