15 MARCH 2018

When I started writing a book on the fight for women’s votes in the United States, I did not realize that the activists would teach me about today’s political movements. Suffragists faced many challenges that still feel familiar. Advocates disagreed about the best tactics, met damning criticism, and often failed to pass legislation despite intense work. Through it all, these female leaders modeled strength and endurance. Studying them suggests a few ways to build movements that are even stronger than their own.

 Here are seven lessons I learned from the suffragists:

  1. Single-issue movements can be effective.

Although American women initially demanded a range of rights when they organized in the 1840s, by 1869 they focused on the vote. Soon after, women started winning the ballot in specific states and local elections. Even before women won the ballot at the national level with the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, suffragists enfranchised millions of women.

Voting rights united a coalition of people from diverse backgrounds to create momentum on all sides. Currently, the movement against sexual harassment—#MeToo—attracts similar support across the political spectrum. Although advocates have different visions of fresh policies, the widespread backing of this cause has prompted changes and promises more.

  1. Men can be feminists too.

In the US, we often honor female suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but men proved to be crucial allies in the struggle for equality. For example, in 1848, abolitionist Frederick Douglass endorsed the Declaration of Sentiments, the document authored by Stanton that signals the start of the US women’s rights movement. Henry Brown Blackwell helped found a national suffrage organization and its most successful newspaper with his wife Lucy Stone. And, of course, male voters and politicians passed legislation the officially granted women the ballot.

Honestly, sometimes it’s awkward to watch men advocate for women’s rights. Shouldn’t women represent the challenges they face? But women can’t change the world alone. We need to work together.

  1. Activists don’t just need to change men’s minds. They need to engage more women too.

Men and women supported suffrage. Men and women also opposed suffrage. In 1870, the popular writer Catharine Beecher declared that the ballot would be a form of “oppression” for women. In 1895, Massachusetts women started the first anti-suffrage organization and began to campaign.

In response to the #MeToo movement, female colleagues often declare to the public that accused male coworkers have not harassed them. In doing so, they undercut the legitimacy of the claims. Not all men are guilty of harassment, but grievances deserve investigation. Conversations must convince men and women to support such initiatives.

  1. Different forms of activism can coexist—and succeed.

Suffragists rarely agreed on strategies. American women worked alongside their militant British counterparts (like the Pankhursts) and brought their tactics back to the US. America’s main suffrage organization rejected the controversial strategies, but Alice Paul started the National Woman’s Party to implement them anyway. Paul’s group became the first to ever picket the White House. In contrast, many suffragists made substantial progress by lobbying, marching in parades, and posting persuasive posters. The combination of these tactics won publicity and changed the minds of those needed to pass legislation.

Today, people raise money, write books, speak on popular talk shows, pen letters to legislators, march in the streets, create art, and propose new laws to generate change. All forms of protest are valuable. Do what works best for you.

  1. Images matter.

Throughout the nineteenth century, cartoonists caricatured suffragists as ugly, masculine women who wanted to destroy American society. My forthcoming book, Picturing Political Power, demonstrates that suffragists countered sexist stereotypes by creating the first iconography of female political leaders. From Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth to Mary Church Terrell and Alice Paul, they transformed political women from punchlines into venerated leaders.

In the twenty-first century, we constantly engage with imagery of political women. Often, female politicians are still portrayed as less powerful figures than their male counterparts. This is not the case with the latest addition to Washington, DC’s National Portrait Gallery: the portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama. She looks like she is contemplating the path to take on the world. We need more positive pictures of leading women everywhere: in the news and museums, on currency, and as statues in our public spaces.

  1. Be inclusive.

In the US, middle- and upper-class white suffragists embraced racist, nativist, and classist arguments to justify women’s votes. By the 1890s, white suffrage organizations often excluded women of color and some advocated for literacy requirements to prevent less-privileged women from voting. After the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, leading black reformer Mary Church Terrell asked Alice Paul, the leader of the National Woman’s Party, to ensure that the new law allowed black women to vote. Paul refused to take on this challenge.

We’ll never know what Terrell and Paul could have accomplished together. By creating intersectional movements that address a range of society’s power structures, we can put together stronger coalitions than the suffragists could have imagined.

  1. Change takes time.

Most important, the suffrage movement taught me that change is slow. From Mary Wollstonecraft’s suggestion that women should vote in her 1792 to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, generations of women worked to secure the ballot. Women of color fought even longer to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which eliminated literacy tests and other discriminatory measures. These major turning points just seem like important ticks on a timeline, but they resulted from decades of work. The best advice suffragists can offer us is: keep going!


Allison K. Lange

Lange is currently completing Picturing Political Power: Images and the Fight for Women’s

Votes in the United States. She is an assistant professor at the Wentworth Institute of Technology. Learn more about her work at allisonklange.com.