Breaking Boundaries: The Role of Gender in the Suffrage Movement

When I began working for the NWP, I quickly became interested in the complex ways that gender and sexuality influenced the woman suffrage movement. As a historian by training, and a feminist by heart, I dedicated myself to learning and understanding more about the role of gender constructs in the fight for women’s right to vote during the 19th and 20th centuries. In many ways, suffragists were challenging gender norms, while simultaneously using them to their advantage to advance their cause. They were staking their claim to the public sphere and demanding that their voices be heard in a world that tried to marginalize them. However, many suffragists also indulged in existing gender norms, emphasizing their femininity to make the idea of voting women more palatable to the opposition.

Women leaders such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, became more outspoken about women’s equality after attending the World Anti-Slavery Convention of 1840 in London, England. Delegates of the convention asked the women in attendance, all dedicated abolitionists, to sit separately and hidden from the men—blocking their ability to participate and have a voice. Discrimination based on their sex inspired them to advocate for equality and organize the first women’s rights convention in 1848, known as the Seneca Falls Convention. The convention produced the “Declaration of Sentiments,” outlining women’s entitlement to equal citizenship. Interestingly enough, the only item on the convention’s agenda that did not unanimously pass was women’s right to vote. This right was viewed as too controversial and potentially harmful to the movement’s ability to gain widespread support. After much debate, including persuasive arguments from Frederick Douglass, the resolution for women’s right to vote was passed, marking the beginning of an organized campaign for woman suffrage in the United States. This new movement called into question ideas of gender roles, femininity, and masculinity.

In the 19th century, traditional Victorian beliefs of true womanhood policed gender roles—women were expected to be submissive, passive, delicate, feminine, obedient, and dutiful daughters, mothers, and wives. However, not all suffragists had the desire to uphold traditional Victorian beliefs and remain limited to the domestic sphere. In order to live the life they wanted and pursue the change they wanted to see in the world, they had to be outspoken and make their opinions known. As a result, women suffragists were labeled as mannish or “gender inappropriate,”[1] because they wished for a place alongside men. The media began depicting suffragists as masculine to deter more women from joining the suffrage movement, especially if they wanted to be eligible for a husband. Victorian constructs limited women’s ability to make their own living or income, independently own property, or have equal access to everyday opportunities, thus finding a husband was often a matter of social and economic security for many women. This defamation of suffragists in the media created a toxic and hostile environment for women, promoting a false dichotomy—suffrage and equality, or traditional womanhood and confinement to the paradigm of a conventional, marriage.

from the Ann Lewis collection

from the Ann Lewis collection

Militant tactics used by suffragists challenged every notion of femininity and traditional Victorian ideals, causing contention even within the movement. Anna Howard Shaw, President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was “powerfully assertive when passivity was the norm for women.”[2] Publicly known for her whimsical persona, smart and sound mind and feminine charm, antisuffragists were threatened by Anna because of the challenges she posed, proving that a woman could be feminine, assertive, powerful, and successful alongside men.[3] Anna used her abilities to shape NAWSA into the “good cop,” of the movement, making diplomatic speeches to reluctant supporters who were “already terrified by the uncontrolled potential of women that suffrage seemed to threaten.”[4] Despite Anna’s preference to defy femininity in her private life, she publicly shaped her persona to be feminine by growing out her short hair after negative remarks. Her public appearance was a deliberate tactic to use femininity as an asset to achieve suffrage.[5] On the other hand, the National Woman’s Party, led by Alice Paul, used tactics that were considered aggressive and militant at the time and in contradiction to ideals of femininity. This tension resulted in a divided movement, with NAWSA viewing the NWP as reinforcing the antisuffragist propaganda that portrayed suffragists as masculine and uncivilized.

“Changing Fashions—She Used to Be Satisfied with So Little”  by Nina Allender, March 13, 1915

“Changing Fashions—She Used to Be Satisfied with So Little” by Nina Allender, March 13, 1915

The NWP pushed back on the depiction of suffragists as mannish, unattractive and rowdy by publishing political cartoons from 1914–1927 using the “Allender Girl.” Portrayed as feminine, young, slender, energetic and capable, the Allender Girl was opposite of the mainstream media’s propaganda. Moreover, the Allender Girl represented a variety of women—feminists, wives, mothers, students, and activists. Use of the political cartoons gave the NWP the ability to take back their narrative and provided women with a positive, self-respecting, and independent role model.[6] 

Challenges to traditional gender roles and Victorian ideals stretched beyond political cartoons, conventions, and the media. By the late 19th century, women were increasingly becoming college-educated and expanding their economic opportunities. Many of these women remained unwed after graduation and moved to the nation’s largest cities, becoming involved in political activism such as the suffrage movement. Moreover, many women practiced same-sex love and desire—maintaining successful same-sex partnerships that helped elevate their cause. The acts of receiving higher education, attaining economic independence, remaining single, and building same-sex partnerships dismantled almost every notion of traditional Victorian beliefs and popular ideals of true womanhood.

            Reflecting on the suffrage movement using modern ideas about gender and sexuality, this blog series will continue to explore how women of the suffrage movement challenged normative gender constructs of their time. Gender and sexuality impacted every social, personal, and political component of the suffrage movement that parallels to contemporary women’s equality movements. I hope that the inclusion of this diverse history will provide an alternative perspective to the suffrage movement and connect with LGBTQ+ audiences by highlighting a non-heteronormative, non-binary past.

By: Ivy Albright, Digital Media & Public Programs Assistant 

[1] Lillian Faderman, “To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have done for America- A History,” (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999), 17.

[2] Faderman, 42.

[3] Faderman, 40.

[4] Faderman, 55.

[5] Faderman, 41.