Diverse Women, Diverse Paths: Woman Suffrage and Equal Citizenship in Modern America

Endorsed by the Committee on the Status of African American, Latino/a, Asian American, and Native American (ALANA) Historians and ALANA Histories

Saturday, April 4, 2020, 8:00 AM - 9:30 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Biography/Memoir; Politics; Women's History


2020 marks the centennial of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, which enfranchised many—but not all—American women. In the aftermath of the 19th Amendment, many activist women, recognizing both the remaining limitations on women’s rights and the new possibilities created by woman suffrage, intensified their efforts to gain truly equal citizenship and to use their newly-won rights to address remaining inequalities both at home and abroad.

Each of the papers in this panel examines the diverse ways in which women sought equality and influence in the 1920s and 1930s. Ann Short Chirhart examines Mary McLeod Bethune’s campaign to use black women’s voting power to contest white supremacy and racial violence in the American South. Anya Jabour explores Sophonisba Breckinridge’s work with the League of Women Voters, the U.S. Children’s Bureau, and the Immigrants’ Protective League to promote what she called “true equality” by insisting on equal rights, special protections, and independent citizenship for working women, poor mothers, and female immigrants. Caroline Waldron Merithew focuses on transnational networks of women who built on relationships forged in the suffrage movement to combat fascism in Italy. In different ways, these discussions of women’s activism demonstrate that women activists built upon the feminist networks created during the suffrage movement to sustain multifaceted and multigenerational organizing.

These papers also call attention to the diverse backgrounds, beliefs, and strategies of women activists. Lacking support from white feminists, Bethune and other African American women built their own networks to campaign—often unsuccessfully—for voting rights for black women. Although they collaborated with liberal and progressive activists, transnational activists tended toward radical or socialist politics. Breckinridge, who never married, instead spending forty-five years in a committed same-sex relationship, functioned predominantly in single-sex women’s organizations and women’s networks but also collaborated with male politicians, unionists, and social workers.

Collectively, these papers highlight both the diversity of women activists and the diversity of the issues that engaged their interests in modern America.

Papers Presented

“’Effective Equality": Sophonisba Breckinridge’s Campaign for Social Justice in Modern America

In 1912, the Woman’s Journal, the official publication of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, ran a profile of Sophonisba Breckinridge, the Kentucky-born, Chicago-based social work educator who had recently been elected vice president of the organization. Characterizing Breckinridge as “a champion of the championless,” the article lauded what it termed her “many-sided work,” noting that “Miss Breckinridge’s activities are manifold.” Indeed, Breckinridge’s entry into the national woman suffrage movement coincided with her residence in Hull House and her participation in a range of Progressive reforms. Her keen interest in the problems of working women, poor mothers, and female immigrants informed not only her work for woman suffrage but also her continuing campaigns for social justice in the 1920s and 1930s. At the same time that she campaigned against the equal rights amendment in a bitter battle that, according to some scholarly accounts, pitted advocates of “equality” against acknowledgments of “difference,” Breckinridge championed what she termed “an effective equality of opportunity and protection,” fighting to preserve so-called protective legislation for working women, protect “mothers’ pensions” and subsidized health care for poor mothers, and pave the way to citizenship for immigrant women. Although Breckinridge, who never married and instead engaged in a life partnership with fellow social work educator Edith Abbott, worked primarily in single-sex organizations, she also utilized her relationships with male social workers, trade unionists, and politicians to translate her vision of “true equality” for women into public policy during the New Deal.

Presented By
Anya Jabour, University of Montana

After Suffrage: Transnational Feminist Networks for Equality

Eight days after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidential victory on November 8, 1932, Alice Park penned a letter to her suffrage friend, Sylvia Pankhurst. Park waited until after the election to respond to Pankhurst’s request for help to support Italian women under Benito Mussolini’s regime. Park told Pankhurst that she needed “recovery” time for the “election phantasmagoria” of that month. Squarely in Roosevelt’s camp, she was shaken by the attempt that was made to blow up Herbert Hoover’s train in Palo Alto, her city. On November 16, she got back to work. After a limited number of women had been enfranchised in the United States, Great Britain, and elsewhere in the 1920s, Park, Pankhurst, and others had more to do.

My argument traces how transnational suffrage networks challenged fascism’s antifeminist policies after women had won the right to vote. While worldwide equal suffrage was still on their minds, women were also fighting hypernationalist policies that undermined equality and threatened to roll back progress. Many had been in Rome in 1923 for the International Suffrage Alliance meeting and were optimistic when Mussolini promised female enfranchisement. Could it be that the gradual path to women’s equality, started in liberal democracies, was continuing under fascism? By 1932, this hope was gone. Political leaders in the United States refused to engage. Thus Pankhurst’s call on Park and other American women whose networks were strong, and whose votes were counted equally.

Through archival research in the United States, England, and Italy, my work shows how women’s networks continued “after suffrage.”

Presented By
Caroline Merithew Waldron, University of Dayton

“A Place at the Front Ranks": Mary McLeod Bethune and the Campaign for Voting Rights in the South

For African American women such as educator and reformer Mary McLeod Bethune, the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment on August 18, 1920 provided an opportunity to implement strategies that she and other members of the National Association of Colored Women developed during and immediately after World War I: educate, organize, register, and vote. To her, presidential and local elections on November 2, 1920 represented the potential for southern black women to gain “a place at the front ranks,” so she organized other black women in Florida to challenge white supremacy and violence by voting for candidates who would halt Ku Klux Klan violence. From the time she arrived in Daytona, Florida, in 1904 to her presidency of the Southeastern Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs in 1920, Bethune worked with African Americans, her students, and white moderates in her advocacy for citizenship and voting rights.

Yet her tactics often failed beyond Daytona’s city limits. In this paper, I argue that Bethune’s early strategies led to her belief in 1935 that a national organization such as the National Council of Negro Women and her fight for black women’s roles in Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1936 were indispensable for political rights. Always a negotiator and consummate diplomat, she recognized that national organizations and support from the federal government offered the best possibilities for equal citizenship and voting rights for African Americans and black women in particular.

Presented By
Ann Short Chirhart, U.S. Twentieth Century, Gender History, African American History

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Cherisse Jones-Branch, Arkansas State University
Cherisse Jones-Branch is the James and Wanda Lee Vaughn Endowed Professor of History and Director of the ASTATE Digital Press at Arkansas State University-Jonesboro. She has published Crossing the Line: Women and Interracial Activism in South Carolina during and after World War II, and is the co-editor of Arkansas Women: Their Lives and Times. She is completing a second monograph, Better Living By Their Own Bootstraps: Rural Black Women's Activism in Arkansas, 1913-1965.

Presenter: Ann Short Chirhart, U.S. Twentieth Century, Gender History, African American History
My interests in women’s history, African American history, and history of the United States South converged when I began my doctor of philosophy program at Emory University in American Studies. After graduating in 1997, I eventually took a tenure-track position in the Department of History at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Indiana. I published two articles on African American and white women educators in Georgia including an article about African American educator Beulah Rucker Oliver in the Georgia Historical Quarterly in 1998 that drew from oral histories I gathered from her family, former students, and friends. The University of Georgia Press offered me an advanced contract for the publication of my revised dissertation called Torches of Light: Georgia Teachers and the Coming of the Modern South that was published in 2005. From 1999 to 2005, I wrote two additional articles: “Gender, Jim Crow, and Eugene Talmadge: The Politics of Social Policy,” in The New Deal and Beyond: Social Welfare in the South since 1930, ed. by Elna Green and published by the University of Georgia Press in 2003 and “‘Better for Us than It Was for Her’: African-American Families, Communities, and Reform in Georgia,” Journal of Family History 28 (October 2003), an article that was requested from me by historian Joan Cashin who edited this special issue on the family in the United States’ South. I also wrote several articles on teachers for several encyclopedias, presented several conference papers at major historical conferences, and wrote numerous book reviews.
Tenured and promoted to associate professor in 2006, the University of Georgia Press asked me to be a co-editor for a two-volume collection of essays on Georgia Women as part of the Southern Women: Their Lives and Times series. Volume One was published in 2009, and Volume Two in 2014. I wrote an article on Lugenia Burns Hope for volume two, wrote an article on Charlotte Hawkins Brown for North Carolina Women: Their Lives and Times, and the article on teachers for the Encyclopedia of the South volumes. During this time, I began to focus on another book project—a biography of Mary McLeod Bethune, a leading educator, civil rights advocate, and activist during the first half of the twentieth century. Based on my publications, service, and outstanding teaching, I received a promotion to full professor in 2015. Throughout my career, my interests centered on the ways in which political culture and political economy impacted the lives of women, notably African American women.

Presenter: Anya Jabour, University of Montana
Anya Jabour is Regents Professor of History and past Co-Director of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Montana, where she has taught U.S. women's history since 1995 and has received several awards for scholarship, teaching, and mentoring. She has published extensively on the history of women, families, and children in the nineteenth-century South. Her research for Marriage in the Early Republic: Elizabeth and William Wirt and the Companionate Ideal (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998); Scarlett’s Sisters: Young Women in the Old South (University of North Carolina Press, 2007); and Topsy-Turvy: How the Civil War Turned the World Upside Down for Southern Children (Ivan R. Dee, 2010) informed her work as a script reviewer, on-set historical advisor, and blog contributor for the PBS Civil War docudrama, Mercy Street, in 2016 and 2017. Her more recent publications, focusing on women’s reform activities in the Progressive Era and the New Deal, include “Prostitution Politics and Feminist Activism in Modern America: Sophonisba Breckinridge and the Morals Court in Prohibition-Era Chicago,” in the Journal of Women’s History (Fall 2013); “’Uphill All the Way’: Grace Abbott and Women’s Work in Building the Welfare State” in the Social Service Review (2016); and “100 Years of the ‘Gender Gap’ in American Politics,” in The Conversation (2016), which was reprinted in numerous publications, including Newsweek. She was the curator of a traveling exhibit on the history of the suffrage movement in Montana in 2014 in honor of the state centennial of woman suffrage and is currently the state coordinator for a crowdsourcing project to produce an online biographical encyclopedia of suffrage activists through the Center for the Study of Women and Gender at SUNY Binghamton. Her biography of Sophonisba Breckinridge is forthcoming from the University of Illinois Press in September 2019.

Commentator: Sara J. Sundberg, University of Central Missouri
Sara Brooks Sundberg is a professor of history at the University of Central Missouri (UCM) where she teaches courses in U.S. women’s history and early American history. She earned herPh.D. from Louisiana State University. Her research focuses on ordinary women’s lives in early America and their connection to larger themes in American history. She has written numerousarticles, and she co-authored Farm Women on the Prairie Frontier: A Sourcebook for Canada and the United States. She is currently writing a book manuscript Voices from a Legal Crossroads: Women and the Civil Law in early Louisiana. She serves as project director for the “Centennial of Women’s Suffrage Speaker and Event Series” at UCM, a series sponsored by a grant from the Missouri Humanities Council. During summer 2018, she participated in the National Endowment for the Humanities seminar “Women’s Suffrage in the Americas.”

Presenter: Caroline Merithew Waldron, University of Dayton
Caroline Waldron Merithew is Associate Professor of History and Human Rights Fellow at the University of Dayton. She specializes in immigration, labor, and women’s history. Her current research focuses on transnational feminism and antifascism to explore women’s central role in the fight against Italy’s colonial quest and invasion of Ethiopia, 1920s-1940s. On this subject, she has published the article: “'O Mother Race': Race, Italian Colonialism and the Fight to Keep Ethiopia Independent, Zapruder World: An International Journal for the History of Social Conflict (2018). Her earlier publications include: "Navigating Body, Class, and Disability in the Life of Agnes Burns Wieck," in the Journal of Historical Biography (2013); “Domesticating the Diaspora: Remember the Life of Katie DeRorre,” in Intimacy and Italian Migration: Gender and Domestic Lives in a Mobile World (Fordham 2011); “‘We Were Not Ladies’: Gender, Class, and a Woman’s Auxiliary’s Battle for Mining Unionism,” in the Journal of Women’s History (2006), awarded the Anita S. Goodstein Junior Scholar Prize for the best article published in the field of American Women’s History, University of the South; “Anarchist Motherhood,” in Women, Gender, and Transnational Lives (2002); and “‘Lynch-Law Must Go!’” in the Journal of American Ethnic History (2000). She has been in leadership roles at the University of Dayton focused on fair employment. Waldron Merithew was the first Special Advisor to the Provost on Gender, Equity, and Climate. And, she has recently been named Equity Advisor in the School of Engineering. She is the Co-PI of an NEH Humanities Connections Grant (2018-2019) focused on Humanities and Health Sciences with her colleague, Dr. Carissa Krane (Biology). She was a participant in the NEH Summer Institute: Suffrage in the Americas (2018) which undergirds the paper she proposes for the 2020 OAH.