WMC News & Features

With Hillary's nomination, lots of interest in suffrage movement, but did media get the facts right?

Silent Sentinals 1917

With the nomination of Hillary Clinton for the U.S. presidency, commentators have felt compelled to fill in historical background and say something about the fight for political power, especially for women’s right to vote, that preceded her. A flick of the finger on Internet search engines or a quick visit to the photo archives has, however, resulted in a torrent of “information” about the suffrage movement with holes as wide as Bella Abzug’s hat.

So here, for the next producers of suffrage chatter, are a few things to keep in mind.

1. The United States is not England. An ocean sits between the two. “Suffragette” was a derisive term used by the British press. In a verbal turnabout, English women adopted the term, but Americans generally preferred to call themselves the less sexy “suffragist.” The Brits (some) attacked private property with bricks and torches; Americans heckled public officials, and some eventually stood silent vigil at the White House gates. Check your captions to be sure the images do not come from across the pond.

2. Seneca Falls is a prompt, not a movement. That town in northern New York state was the site of a meeting in 1848, where black abolitionist Frederick Douglass urged Elizabeth Cady Stanton to add “the right to vote” to a list of rights she would argue for. The attendees were local people, mostly family groups. Susan B. Anthony was not there, but Quaker Lucretia Mott was.

While Seneca Falls may have been “the shot heard round the world” for women’s rights, it did not lead to anything nearly as quick or as unified as the American Revolution. It led, in fact, to more than seven decades of political sprawl, with groups of distinct interests and ideologies, all part of “the suffrage movement.”

3. 1848 is not 1920. The original tactic, for winning a variety of rights, was organizing state by state, holding large indoor “conventions” and collecting petitions. Stanton died in 1902 and Anthony in 1906, with the big dream of federal voting rights unfulfilled.

The 20th century was different. The industrial economy produced a class of exploited workers, especially in sweatshops, who viewed the vote, and the promise of reforms it could bring, with a new urgency. “We don’t want the vote, we need the vote,” as laundry worker Leonora O’Reilly said.

By 1912, there were suffrage clubs, leagues, associations, and unions everywhere in the country, made up of millionaires and milliners, making up a “woman suffrage movement” with little in common except the goal of winning the vote. New tactics came into play, horrifying the old guard: suffragists took to the streets, aiming to influence the public rather than legislative bodies and elected officials. They organized mammoth marches, whose images you can find with a Google search. Most of these photos were taken in New York City, media capital of the country, and preserved—usually with the generic caption “suffrage march”—in the archives of major news services.

The year Anthony died, Alice Paul, a New Jersey Quaker, returned home from England, believing in civil disobedience and the need for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to ensure voting rights for women. In 1913, on the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, against the judgment of more conservative wings of the movement, she organized an extravaganza in Washington, D.C., including floats, pageantry, banners, and thousands of women on foot, to demand that amendment.

Every time you mention Stanton and Anthony, glance at these names too: Matilda Joslyn Gage, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Carrie Chapman Catt, Jeannette Rankin, Mary Church Terrell, Harriot Stanton Blatch, Alice Paul, Frances Perkins, Lucy Burns.

4. About white dresses: Yes, suffragists wore white at times. They also wore many other colors and styles, depending on the time, the place, and the women.

The white pantsuit Hilary Clinton wore at her speech accepting the Democratic Party nomination set off a frenzy of speculation about whether her clothes were chosen to honor the suffrage movement. Out came the standard images.

The 1913 parade in Washington, D.C. had featured socialist lawyer Inez Milholland, white-cloaked and astride a white horse, at its head. The event turned into a mob melee, reported across the world. (If it bleeds, it leads, even in 1913.) But two months later, Milholland led a New York City suffrage parade, now astride a brown horse, wearing a brown outfit resembling one of Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Ten thousand marchers filled Fifth Avenue, and nobody was hurt. That image almost never pops up when you search, but another crowd favorite does—a poster based on the Washington parade, idealizing her features, enhancing the white horse and costume, turning her into a Joan of Arc lookalike.


Suffrage leader Inez Milholland, March 1913, Washington, D.C.

Inez Milholland, March 1913, Washington, D.C.

Milholland, May 1913, New York City.

Milholland, May 1913, New York City.

Poster depicting an idealized view of Milholland, created after her death.

Poster depicting an idealized view of Milholland, created after her death.


After Clinton’s speech, Milholland came back from the grave, flooding digital space. Her only competition for most popular image was a 1912 Fifth Avenue parade led by young women in white dresses pushing baby carriages. This piece of street theater was a witty riposte to the sinking of the Titanic that year and the ensuing argument that “women and children first,” the law of the sea, was, perversely, an argument against women’s equal voting rights.

The images were misleading slices of time meant to stand for the whole seventy-plus years of a national mass movement. “Explainers” tripped over themselves trying to sort out the origins of suffrage white. Some sources, including the New York Times, went with Alice Paul’s Congressional Union‘s “mission statement,” connecting their purple, white, and green colored banners to the Pankhurst-led British militants, who had so influenced her. But no one explained that the lines of women marching in white dresses that they showed were not allies of Alice Paul, whom they considered too radical for their tastes.

Earlier in the century, suffrage street demonstrations had a large working-class presence, where people wore a variety of clothing styles and colors and carried placards of many hues. As “branding” and appealing for broad public support became a suffrage strategy, the idea of uniform costuming and military-style postures and marching in ranks took over. And so did wearing white, an expedient choice—most women owned white dresses—whose symbolism has turned out to have different meanings for different constituencies.

5. The bottom line: If the history of America’s largest mass movement were actually taken seriously, with names and dates as well known as the details of “our” wars are, the campaign of the first female major-party presidential candidate could be an opportunity to understand the complexity and evolution of the long fight for women’s rights. We might come to associate her pantsuit with the controversial Bloomer costume of the 1840s and honor the suffrage pioneers without believing that Stanton and Anthony got the 19th Amendment passed in 1920, which is like saying that Abraham Lincoln led the march in Selma. History matters. Attention must be paid.

More articles by Category: Feminism, Politics
More articles by Tag: Women's leadership



Sign up for our Newsletter

Learn more about topics like these by signing up for Women’s Media Center’s newsletter.