The Epic Political Battle Over the Legacy of the Suffragettes

Activists on both sides of the abortion wars see themselves as inheritors of the early women’s movement—a history that’s become more contested than ever under Trump.

Lizzie Gill
Editor’s Note: Read more stories in our series about women and political power.

There she stood, smiling widely in suffragette white: Hillary Clinton, self-appointed glass-ceiling breaker, poised to carry the legacy of her feminist foremothers right into the Oval Office. That memorable night in June 2016, Clinton was celebrating her ascent as the presumptive Democratic nominee for president—the farthest a woman has ever gotten in a race for the White House. In her speech, she explicitly invoked the activists who won women the right to vote nearly a century ago. Her victory, she said, started generations earlier, “right here in New York, [in] a place called Seneca Falls, in 1848, when a small but determined group of women and men came together with the idea that women deserved equal rights.”

Clinton’s story, of course, did not turn out to be a clean metaphor for the forward march of women’s rights. As the country marks the 100th anniversary of women’s enfranchisement, it’s clear that the suffragists’ legacy is not neat and linear, either—at least not in the way that progressive feminists often claim.

A century after suffrage, the women’s movement is still fighting a battle over inheritance. Progressive feminists widely claim the mantle of suffrage activists, drawing on their imagery and channeling their energy in fights against Trump-era policies. But a range of conservative activists, especially in the anti-abortion movement, also identify with the early women’s movement. They see their values and ideas reflected in a version of feminism that predates, and remains separate from, the sexual revolution. In this tug-of-war over the suffragist legacy, both sides airbrush the parts of history that don’t fit their narrative, cramming suffragists into ideological boxes that simply didn’t exist in their time.

The movement for suffrage spanned from the mid-19th century to the early 20th, and was advanced by women with a range of political priorities and viewpoints. They were progressives, in the broadest sense of the word: They believed in pushing for social change and using politics for the betterment of humanity. Yet many of their views might seem shocking today, especially to Americans who identify with the same “progressive” movement of which suffrage activists were a part.

By and large, white American suffragists were racist, arguing that giving the vote to white women would cancel out the influence of newly enfranchised black men. This was as much a matter of political strategy as personal prejudice, says Liette Gidlow, an associate professor at Wayne State University who is working on an upcoming book on this subject. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and so-called grandfather clauses kept many black men away from the polls in the years following the Civil War, even after the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment gave them the vote. “Many leading … white suffragists were deeply afraid that … [if] the Susan B. Anthony amendment”—which proposed women’s suffrage—“would lead to the return of African Americans ... to the polls, that would damage support for the amendment,” Gidlow told me. Even after the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, many states passed laws limiting the voting rights of black Americans, including black women.

Many of the suffragists promoted temperance, or the banning of alcohol in pursuit of virtuous self-restraint—a principle that was enshrined in the Constitution around the same time as suffrage, although it was later reversed.

And many of these activists viewed the world through a gendered lens, believing that their distinctive, womanly insights would be an asset to the political realm. This is where suffragists diverge most sharply from today’s elite progressive feminists, who contest the idea that womanhood is distinctive and essential.

Some of the core causes of the contemporary women’s movement, such as abortion access, may have been puzzling or even unthinkable to women activists a century ago. Views on gender are one of the most electric dividing lines in American culture today, especially among women. Despite their familiarity with debates over women’s roles, if suffragists time-traveled to 2019, they wouldn’t have the language or intellectual framework to understand today’s controversies about the nature of gender.

Recent fights over public-restroom access for transgender people and legal protections against discrimination on the basis of sex reveal deep-seated cultural anxiety over the erosion of traditional gender roles. For most progressive feminists, the cause of women’s rights is closely associated with challenging stereotypes about gender roles and identities and securing equal rights for all people, regardless of sex or gender. “We believe in Gender Justice,” the leaders of the national Women’s March wrote in their most recent set of “unity principles.” “We must have the power to control our bodies and be free from gender norms, expectations, and stereotypes.” The Women’s March was held in part to honor prior civil-rights movements, they added, including the suffrage movement.

Other activists argue that pro-woman advocacy must come from a particular, gender-specific viewpoint. This position is most prevalent among self-identified feminists who advocate against abortion. “Coming back to these very foundations, that we believe that women and men are equal in dignity, but not necessarily the same, is very empowering,” says Jeanne Mancini, the head of March for Life, a major anti-abortion organization. In their advocacy work, anti-abortion groups frequently make this pitch: Feminism should prioritize women’s ability to be mothers and caretakers. Being pro-life is pro-woman, they argue, and also faithful to the goals of the early women’s movement. Lila Rose, the head of the anti-abortion activist group Live Action, has published several videos making this case. “True feminism seeks to promote all aspects of who a woman is: in her education, in her vocation, in her marriage,” she says in one video, “and in her motherhood.”

In the context of their time, suffragists made arguments for the distinctive contributions of women in politics, says Daniel Williams, a professor at the University of West Georgia who has written on the history of progressive anti-abortion activism. “Today, we tend to think of the campaign for women’s suffrage as a campaign for women’s equality,” he told me in an interview. “For a great many of the suffragists, there was a belief in separate spheres for men and women that motivated them to … have a moral influence on politics.” These activists believed that “women were, by nature, housekeepers, homemakers, and trainers of women’s virtue,” and “therefore had a unique perspective that should be brought into the political realm.”

Leaders of the women’s movement in subsequent generations sought to challenge this premise. The writer Betty Friedan is largely credited with kicking off the second-wave feminism of the 1960s and ’70s with The Feminine Mystique, her treatise on the downsides of the narrow domestic limitations imposed on women. Like the progressive feminists who would follow her, Friedan claimed the legacy of the suffragists: Tens of thousands of women gathered for Friedan’s massive Women’s Strike for Equality in 1970, organized to mark the 50th anniversary of suffrage.

As these major shifts were taking place, some women felt pushed out of the narrative of women’s empowerment, especially because of the abortion issue. As Williams wrote in his 2016 book, Defenders of the Unborn, many early anti-abortion activists in the 1960s and ’70s saw themselves as advocates for women’s rights, too. While they had a different profile from turn-of-the-century suffragists, they shared certain intellectual assumptions. “These women were Catholic, and nearly all of the progressives [and suffragists] were Protestant,” Williams told me. “Nearly all of them were married, whereas many of the progressive women were unmarried … But the view of gender and sexuality had a great deal of continuity.”

In recent years, anti-abortion activists have used this as a basis to claim the suffragists for their side—often with mixed results. Debates over suffragists’ views on abortion have mostly focused narrowly on Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the 19th-century architect of the suffrage movement, and Susan B. Anthony, her co-reformer, the namesake of Susan B. Anthony List, the prominent anti-abortion advocacy group. The women ran a newspaper, The Revolution, which published unsigned articles describing abortion as “child murder” and “infanticide.” Anti-abortion activists take this as evidence of Stanton’s and Anthony’s pro-life views, while pro-abortion-rights scholars and activists contend that their male co-editor, Parker Pillsbury, or another contributor wrote those articles.

Beginning in the early 1990s, Feminists for Life—an advocacy group promoting the view that “abortion is a reflection that our society has failed to meet the needs of women”—began publishing materials describing Stanton and Anthony, along with other early suffrage activists, as uniformly opposed to abortion. These arguments burrowed their way into political debate: Legislators have named anti-abortion bills in honor of Anthony, for example, and advocacy groups have invoked the suffragists in amicus briefs to the Supreme Court. Scholars who have attempted to disprove these claims have found them resilient: “That’s what concerns me,” says Tracy A. Thomas, a law professor at the University of Akron who has written extensively on this issue. When assertions about suffragists and abortion are entered into legal and legislative records, she told me, “they look like truth, or evidence, or facts.” She argues that Stanton supported “voluntary motherhood,” an idea that shares intellectual roots with the movement for abortion rights.

After facing significant criticism, Feminists for Life eventually acknowledged that “abortion was not an issue to which Anthony devoted much time.” This may be exactly the point: The abortion debate, which so thoroughly circumscribes feminism today, was effectively nonexistent during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when suffrage activists were agitating for access to the polls. Insofar as most suffragists had an opinion on abortion, Williams told me, they likely would have “viewed it as detrimental to women,” which “was a near-universal view in the late 19th century and even in the early 20th century,” he said. “The way people viewed abortion in the late 19th century is not all that different from the way we might view the street trade in heroin”—unsafe, unseemly, and hidden from public view.

So why are progressives and conservatives alike so preoccupied with claiming suffragists for their side on abortion? “To me, that grounds those progressive ideals in more truth,” said Thomas, who writes from a pro-abortion-rights point of view. Linking the feminists of today to the suffragists of the past suggests that activists’ ideals are rooted in a long-standing, universal notion of justice. “We’ve had almost 150 years of women at different time periods still coming back to these core ideals, these core truths based on their experience,” Thomas said. “These aren’t just uppity women, modern women.” Similarly, Sue Ellen Browder, the author of Subverted, about her time as a writer at Cosmopolitan and how she came to see contemporary feminism as bankrupt, told me the suffragists give “credibility” to the anti-abortion movement, establishing that “they have feminist roots.” “What pro-life feminists are objecting to is the false joining of … feminism with the sexual revolution,” she said. “Abortion is a sex-revolution demand, not a feminist demand.”

In many ways, this clamor for ownership of the suffragists is fundamentally American: The country’s history has always been told through appropriated narratives, as later generations align themselves with the moral victories of earlier generations. This is true of abolition and the Civil War; it’s true of the civil-rights movement; and it’s true of the movement for suffrage. “When people try to lay claim on a particular set of figures that their opponents have already claimed, it’s a sign that they feel attacked in the very area in which they think those historical figures would provide moral authority and justification,” Williams said. Conservative and anti-abortion women are often pushed out of stories about women’s empowerment, or made to be the villains. Alignment with the suffragists offers authenticity—a callback to an earlier, untainted era of feminism.

As progressives and conservatives wrestle over the legacy of the suffragists, however, both indulge the same historical error, effectively claiming a straight line between contemporary political movements and activism from decades ago. In reality, the women’s movement has zigzagged over time, coming to champion policies and worldviews that the suffragists might never have predicted. Ultimately, the legacy of the suffragists, says Dawn Langan Teele, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania whose latest book is about the legislative maneuvering behind women’s enfranchisement, is that politics is hard work, and the future of women’s rights in America will be defined by political victors.

“When we think of the success of the suffragists and the Nineteenth Amendment as being something that was inevitable and resting on cultural change, we do two things,” Teele told me. “First of all, we make it unnecessary to try and understand or study the way that this major legislative change happened.” Securing women’s voting rights required grueling years of single-minded political advocacy, with significant campaigns for support in Washington and advocacy in dozens of states to convince legislators to ratify an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The sheer effort should not be ignored, Teele said, because that feeds “into this idea that if only all of these excluded, downtrodden, marginalized groups could wait their turn or bide their time, then, miraculously, this change they’ve been waiting for will just appear.” From a pro-abortion-rights point of view, the significant abortion restrictions that have emerged during the Trump years have demonstrated that this is simply not the case, she said. It is not inevitable that a particular progressive vision of women’s rights will come to fruition.

This is actually where the anti-abortion movement most closely models the push for suffrage, Teele said: The movement is highly organized, locally focused, and single-minded. In 1848, when early activists signed the Declaration of Sentiments in Seneca Falls, chronicling female oppression and calling for civil rights for women across all spheres of life, suffrage was just one of their many demands. Over time, however, it became the sole focus of the movement, bringing discipline to women’s activism. “The only thing that really seems to replicate that—a target to shoot at, a single thing—is the anti-choice movement,” she told me. “Anti-choice is, in many ways, an umbrella for many other ideas about women being allowed, culturally, to work in the home, women being allowed to raise their families.”

For the purposes of today’s activists, the suffrage movement may be most instructive in its failures, rather than its defining victory. Suffrage activists, and their progressive compatriots, believed in the evitable march forward of history. Yet many of their closely held causes—including temperance, racial segregation, and eugenics—have now been tossed away as backwards or irrelevant. Looking back now, suffrage seems inevitable, precisely because the suffragists won. But the history of the women’s movement is still being written. In the battles ahead, over abortion and equality and the very definition of what it means to be a woman, there’s no guarantee that the self-styled progressive side will be the victor. With votes in hand, the American daughters of suffrage will continue to face off, each seeing the other side as the great destroyer of women’s rights and progress.

And they’ll all be wearing suffragette white.