Suffrage in the 20th Century: Introduction

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Before suffragists began arguing for legislation that would guarantee women the right to vote, governments assumed that women's interests should be and were represented by their husbands, fathers, or brothers. In the last decades of the nineteenth century the movement for women's right to vote gathered momentum. Led by such charismatic figures as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Christabel, Emmeline, and Sylvia Pankhurst, many women organized into groups, the largest of which were the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA), the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), and the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Such groups participated in public demonstrations, parades, marches, and meetings, and circulated literature designed to call attention to their cause and demand equal treatment under the law. Despite strong opposition from those opposed to suffrage and the suffragists's own wide-ranging differences in interests, beliefs, methodology, and ideology, women around the world were successful in increasing awareness of and support for equal treatment of women under the law, as well as for labor reform and other social issues.

Because of the efforts of members of the WCTU, women of European descent in Australia gained suffrage in 1902. Susan B. Anthony established the International Woman Suffrage Alliance in Berlin, Germany, in 1904, and Finnish women gained suffrage and the right to hold public office in 1906. Between 1900 and the beginning of World War I in 1914, British suffrage groups such as the WSPU, led by Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst, engaged in militant tactics to enact social and legislative change. They interrupted political meetings, held public demonstrations, and subjected themselves to hunger strikes, arrest, and imprisonment. The British movement was divided mainly along class lines, with some suffragists calling for support of working-class issues and others focusing on the issue of suffrage alone, but there were also disagreements over politics (particularly socialism), and peaceful, lawful protests versus militant, sometimes violent protests. These divisions deepened as Great Britain entered World War I. Members of the WSPU and other groups left to form other special-interest groups, such as the Women's Peace Army, founded by Sylvia Pankhurst and Charlotte Despard, while the WSPU focused its efforts primarily on supporting the war, rather than on women's suffrage. Women in the United Kingdom were granted suffrage in 1918.

The American suffrage movement was also somewhat fragmented: women of color, women trade workers, and women advocating temperance pushed for more activism in support of racial equality, temperance, and labor reforms in addition to pursuing suffrage, and suffragists disagreed over both ideology and overall strategy. The right to suffrage was divided along geographic lines as well, as women in the western United States gained suffrage much earlier than women in other parts of the country. In 1913, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, who had been active in militant protests with British suffragists and who disagreed with NAWSA leadership over the most effective course of action, formed the Congressional Union of Woman Suffrage, a branch of NAWSA that became an independent organization the following year. Paul and Burns led many protests, including one in front of the White House, and a well-publicized hunger strike that brought widespread public attention to the suffragists's cause. They formed the National Women's Party in 1916, the same year that NAWSA President Carrie Chapman Catt delivered a speech entitled "The Crisis," in which she revealed what she called her "winning plan" to focus the group's efforts on a national campaign (versus separate, state-wide campaigns) for a Constitutional amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote. In 1918 President Wilson delivered a speech pleading for the passage of women's vote legislation as an emergency measure, arguing that the full support of women's groups was an essential component of the anti-war effort. Victory came in 1920 with the ratification of the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing women the right to vote nationwide in all elections. After the amendment was signed into law, the NAWSA was reorganized and named the League of Women Voters.

The suffrage movement generated critical commentary beginning in the late nineteenth century, and continues to receive widespread scholarly attention. One recent trend has centered on exploring the global dimensions of the suffrage movement, especially the formal and informal international coalitions formed by suffragists. Scholars analyze the suffrage movement in the context of Progressive Era politics in general, identifying how it influenced and was, in turn, influenced by other events of that time period. Modern scholarship also focuses on the role of women of color and working-class women in the movement, and biographical research has led to revisionist biographies of some of the key figures of the suffrage movement. Historians continue to explore the effect of the movement on later labor and social legislation. Literary scholars examine both written responses to suffrage issues, the representation of women's issues in literature, and suffragist authors's use of imagery and symbolism as a means of influencing public sentiment in favor of their cause.

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Suffrage in the 20th Century: Introduction

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