The Real Legacy of the Suffrage Movement

illustration of collaged suffrage and voting photos
Illustration by Valerie Chiang; images from Hulton Archive / Shel Hershorn / Gado / Getty; Associated Press

This article was published online on December 20, 2020.

Women’s-suffrage campaigners and their equally adamant opponents were in full agreement on one fundamental point: Giving women the vote would change everything. It would end poverty, and wars, too! So promised Britain’s militant suffragists, envisioning a civilization in which the patriarchy was upended and society’s evils were largely vanquished. A Greek chorus of “antis” foretold a different future. The death of the family! The destruction of morality! After most British women over the age of 30 won the vote, in 1918, the Liberal politician and diplomat Lord Esher saw a watershed moment at hand. An “avalanche of women has been hurled into the political chaos,” he wrote. “Institutions as well as ideas will have to be re-sorted.”

Twenty years later, on the brink of the Second World War, the surprise was how little women’s suffrage had disturbed the status quo, either at home or abroad. In Britain, the Conservative Party’s substantial parliamentary majorities were likely undergirded by the women’s vote. In the United States, where female turnout was low, if women voted at all they tended to vote like their husbands. The sense that the franchise was an anticlimax, even a disappointment, was widespread among those who had taken part in the cause, like Virginia Woolf. She’d gotten the right to vote at the same time that she’d inherited a legacy from her aunt. “Of the two—the vote and the money—the money, I own, seemed infinitely the more important,” Woolf reflected.

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The idea that suffrage didn’t measure up to its promise echoed through the centenary celebrations. The recognition accorded to feminist pioneers such as Carrie Chapman Catt, the head of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and the radical suffragist Alice Paul, the leader of the National Woman’s Party, has been accompanied by a serious and overdue public reckoning with what the historian Martha S. Jones calls their “dirty” compromises. Those included a willingness to do deals with white supremacists to exclude Black voters. For Black women in the Jim Crow South, the Nineteenth Amendment arrived practically as a dead letter. Neither the National Woman’s Party nor the newly formed League of Women Voters was willing to take up the problem of Black disenfranchisement.

The best way to appreciate the suffrage movement’s legacy is to look beyond suffrage itself. Lacking the vote, women had already embraced political participation by other means, such as petitioning and editorial-writing; they’d been active in 19th-century reform efforts, including abolition and temperance. In the heat of the suffrage campaigns, they learned how to perform on the hustings; land rhetorical blows; recruit allies in unlikely places; and bend the machinery of the statehouse, the church synod, and the union council to their purposes. The struggle for the vote decanted into public life a large number of women who had thought rigorously about injustice as both an individual and a systemic matter. Battle-hardened, unafraid of infighting, they were prepared to meet the obstacles in their way and forge on. Nowhere is this process more evident than in the career of Britain’s Sylvia Pankhurst and in the veterans of the American Black-suffragist movement.

As Rachel Holmes recounts in her new biography, Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel, Sylvia and her sister Christabel had been “teen radicals,” the Greta Thunbergs of their day. Together with their mother, Emmeline, they launched a militant suffrage campaign in 1903. Under the banner of “Deeds Not Words,” the Pankhursts pushed their disciples to attention-grabbing acts of defiance and violence. As the women’s franchise got bogged down in parliamentary finagling, the suffragists ramped up their campaign, torching country houses, smashing plate-glass department-store windows, slashing paintings at the National Gallery, and—sticking it to the gentlemen where it really hurt—wrecking golf courses.

Police officers manhandled them, pinching them hard on the buttocks or breasts, twisting their arms, tying their skirts over their heads when they were arrested, throwing them in jail. When imprisoned suffragists started hunger striking, the British state responded with a savage force-feeding program. Sylvia went to jail nine times, serving 65 days; she and her mother, as she put it, were “chasing each other in and out of prison, as though it had been a race between us.” At one point in 1913, she was being restrained, a tube thrust down her throat or jammed up her nose, twice daily.

Sylvia drew on this experience in her showdown with Vladimir Lenin seven years later. By then, she’d already broken with both her mother and her sister. Christabel had come to see men as the enemy, crusading under the slogan “Votes for women and chastity for men.” For Christabel, as for her mother, the singular issue was suffrage, and women would have to go it alone. Sylvia, by contrast, had a white-hot social conscience and was committed to the class struggle; during World War I, she’d become a pacifist as well. She took as her lover Keir Hardie, a founder of Britain’s Labour Party. The women’s movement, as Sylvia saw it, was inseparable from the socialist crusade.

Her Workers’ Suffrage Federation had been among the first of Britain’s socialist groups to establish relations with Moscow after the revolution. At the Kremlin for the meeting of the Communist International, Sylvia sized up the Russian leader. He was no fan of women, she deduced. Nor did he share her tactical sense. Lenin thought that British communism needed to work through Parliament and with the Labour Party; amalgamation and centralization were in order. Sylvia disagreed: “Though I am a socialist, I have fought a long, long time in the suffrage movement and I have seen how important it is to be extreme.” Lenin’s pamphlet about her position, “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, commemorated the quarrel for all time.

Sylvia lost her fight with Lenin and was ejected from the Communist Party. She went on to devote her life to anti-racist, anti-imperial causes. Often overshadowed by her early years as a suffragist, these later campaigns are where Holmes rightly lays her emphasis. Her Sylvia is a Cassandra, foresighted but rarely heeded, who as early as 1923 raised the alarm about fascism. When, in 1935, the Italians invaded Ethiopia, she launched a press campaign to urge the British government to stand up to Mussolini. “Unless the peoples of Europe will rise to the menace overhanging them, another greater catastrophe will shortly follow,” she admonished.

To each of these endeavors, Pankhurst applied the lessons she’d learned as a suffragist. She’d emerged from the movement a dogged opponent of authority not founded on the consent of the governed; she believed in the power of the press and the importance of action rather than talking. “Dictatorship is the absolute negation of the women’s movement, the death of progress,” she explained. Why? she was asked. “Because it rests on force” was her answer. She loathed violence but wasn’t frightened off by it. Denouncing Joseph Stalin—she was an early, trenchant critic—she publicized evidence of his purges in the New Times and Ethiopia News, the paper she founded.

She was, the playwright George Bernard Shaw said, a latter-day Joan of Arc, hurling herself full-tilt against the entirety of society. Her approach wasn’t a recipe for popularity: “This horrid old harridan should be choked to death with her own pamphlets,” one British diplomat groused. But Pankhurst had long since dispensed with a womanly need for approbation. That included the good opinion of her mother and sister. To her quarrels with them about pacifism and socialism, she added the indignity (as her family saw it) of an illegitimate son, the product of her union with an Italian anarchist. The gulf among the Pankhursts grew ever wider. Emmeline campaigned for Parliament as a Conservative. Christabel moved to California and became a Second Adventist preacher.

Sylvia, meanwhile, kept company with the leading lights of anti-colonial nationalism, including Kwame Nkrumah, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Jomo Kenyatta. A young Nkrumah, later the president of Ghana, dubbed Sylvia’s house in a northeastern London suburb “The Village.” Her feminism drove her internationalism. “I make no distinction between mother love, whether it be in Africa or Europe,” she proclaimed. When she was 74 years old, she accepted the invitation of Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia, to immigrate to Addis Ababa. Once there, she pressed him on the need for democratization.

The dispute that divided the Pankhursts confronted suffrage campaigners everywhere. Should suffragists make common cause with other political movements, or should they continue their struggle apart? Was the goal an improvement in women’s status or social transformation writ large? For Black suffragists in the United States, separating the fights for racial justice and voting rights was impossible. Trailblazing a path, these women developed an analysis of oppression that linked suffrage to other movements for social change, including education, prison reform, and workers’ rights. That is the argument of Martha S. Jones’s Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All.

Suffrage figures in Jones’s account as just one episode in a much longer story of emancipation. She begins in the early 19th century, with Black women’s struggles for autonomy and power in their churches, and continues through the antislavery movement and then to suffrage and its long aftermath. From the start, the American women’s-suffrage campaign was riddled with exclusions. A joint effort to secure voting rights for both Black Americans and women fell apart when Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton opposed the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave Black men the right to vote. As the Black suffragist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper said in the 1860s, “You white women speak of rights. I speak of wrongs.”

The idea that Black women needed their own, independent organization came to fruition in the 1890s, with the founding of the National Association of Colored Women. Its motto was “Lifting as we climb,” and by the early 1920s, it had nearly 100,000 members. Black women, Jones notes, were setting an anchor in American political culture even as the architects of Jim Crow sought to remove Black men from public life. The stakes couldn’t have been higher. In the Senate, Mississippi’s James K. Vardaman led an effort to use women’s suffrage as the lever to repeal the Fifteenth Amendment. White women could have the vote, but only at the expense of Black men and women. Vardaman’s maneuver failed, but not before garnering more than a quarter of senators’ votes.

Jones’s long chronology serves to illuminate the connection between the Black suffragists’ campaign and the civil-rights movement. After the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, Black women rushed to register to vote. Their struggles to overcome Jim Crow barriers helped bring about the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The effort was ceaseless, and largely invisible. On a hot day in August 1965, a local photographer captured 68-year-old Joe Ella Moore, dressed in a beribboned straw hat, registering to vote. This was Moore’s eighth attempt. On each of her seven previous tries, Mississippi authorities had turned her away.

One of the satisfactions of Jones’s book is her attention to unheralded figures such as Moore and the organizer Diane Nash, an architect of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s “Selma strategy,” the well-remembered marches for voting rights. Or the three women, handbags hooked on their arms, who were photographed with Lyndon B. Johnson, Ralph Abernathy, and Martin Luther King Jr. at the signing of the Voting Rights Act. The picture is famous, yet despite occupying a third of the frame, the women are hardly ever identified. They are Patricia Roberts Harris, a Howard University law professor, who went on to become the first Black woman to hold a Cabinet post, in the Carter administration; Vivian Malone, a Department of Justice staffer on the Voter Education Project who had, in 1963, defied Governor George Wallace to integrate the University of Alabama; and Zephyr Wright, who worked as the Johnson family’s cook, from whom LBJ had heard firsthand about experiences of discrimination. Remember their names, too.

Anniversaries focus on the single-issue standouts: the Emmeline Pankhursts or the Alice Pauls, leading the parades of women in white. But for most suffragists, the campaign for the vote was simply a stop on a road with many turns. From there, they went on to lobby for improved maternity and infant care, collective bargaining, protections for women workers, access to professions, and municipal reform, among many other causes. Scratch a trailblazing woman in the 20th century and you’re likely to find a suffragist past: the first woman elected to the House of Representatives (Jeannette Rankin), the first woman Cabinet member (Frances Perkins), the first woman to win a case before the Supreme Court (Florence King), the first woman journalist to have a political column (Dorothy Thompson).

This was the outcome that the early opponents of women’s suffrage had imagined with horror: an avalanche of activist women and a world remodeled along feminist lines. But for the first 70 years after suffrage, women didn’t vote as a bloc, as the suffragists had hoped. The moral fervor that powered their campaign just as easily tilted into right-leaning crusades in defense of the “traditional” family. Starting in the early 1990s, though, American women’s partisan preferences consolidated in favor of the Democratic Party. Since 2014, that gender gap has only widened. This divergence owes as much to men—especially white men—leaving the Democratic ranks as to women joining them.

One party for white men, another party for women of all kinds: That wasn’t the world that Sylvia Pankhurst wanted. Like the Black women in Jones’s book, she had no time for the “sex antagonism” her sister had preached. Her vision was utopian, but when it came to the machinations of power politics, Pankhurst was a hardheaded realist. She’d scarcely be surprised that today, the men who hold the cards are no more eager to surrender their power than they’d been a century earlier. “Why are women so patient?” Sylvia’s father asked his wife and daughters. “Why don’t you scratch our eyes out?”


This article appears in the January/February 2021 print edition with the headline “More Than the Vote.”