Introduction to the Online Biographical Dictionary of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the United States
By Thomas Dublin and Kathryn Kish Sklar
As we approach the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment in August 2020 historians, and Americans more generally, are becoming increasingly aware of the significance of the struggle for woman suffrage that stretched for more than 72 years. Beginning at Seneca Falls in July 1848, a social movement emerged that aimed to secure for women full citizenship rights that included the right to vote. Drawing on the founding mantra of the Revolutionary Era, women reformers echoed the earlier demand, “No Taxation Without Representation.” Their claims, moreover, extended far beyond simply the right to vote and by 1923 the more encompassing demand for full equality emerged with the call for an Equal Rights Amendment, still not secured almost after almost another century.
Beginning with the 1959 publication of Eleanor Flexner’s Century of Struggle, an enormous literature has appeared over six decades illuminating the emergence, first, of the Woman’s Rights Movement and then a more focused woman suffrage movement. There have been national and state-level studies, biographies of the movement’s leaders, and studies of women’s steady advance into American politics. And yet, despite all the continuing scholarship, we have not reached a new consensus that goes significantly beyond the synthesis that Eleanor Flexner offered in 1959.
This Online Biographical Dictionary is an effort to construct a resource that may help us find our way to a new overarching synthesis. Here we propose to commission and publish biographical sketches of more than 3,500 grassroots women suffrage activists, drawn principally from the period 1890-1920 as the struggle for woman suffrage took its final form. As the database now reaches (in June 2020) more than 2,600 activists, it will be helpful to describe the evolution of this project, for in that process we made decisions that have shaped the final database.
Work for this project began in 2008 as Tom Dublin approached Rosalyn Terborg-Penn with a proposal to assemble on the online journal and database, WOMEN AND SOCIAL MOVEMENTS IN THE UNITED STATES, 1600-2000 (WASM), an archive of the writings of Black women suffragists. The work proceeded slowly, but in March 2014 we published online the first installment of a collection of writings by and about Black women suffragists which has now reached more than 2,000 items.
At the same time that we were constructing the Writings of Black Women Suffragists, the historian Jill D. Zahniser learned about our work and approached us with a proposal to publish on the website a database of militant suffragists who picketed the White House in 1917-1919 under the banner of the National Woman’s Party in the final push for passage of the 19th Amendment. She shared with us an excel spreadsheet of 224 women active in that campaign. She also expressed the idea that we might build on the NWP and Black Suffragists groups and develop an American version of Elizabeth Crawford’s fine British resource, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide, 1866-1928 (1999).
We responded favorably to her ideas, but added a new element that we should reach out to our readers and the public more generally to crowdsource biographical sketches of these militant suffragists to post on WASM. Dr. Zahniser prepared six biographical sketches to serve as examples, which we published in March 2015 along with an introduction, the initial database, and a call for volunteers to complete about 200 additional sketches.
To expand beyond these two groups we also needed to include mainstream suffragists in our work and began a search for a likely source or sources for additional names of activists. In the course of this work, we discovered that volume 6 of the History of Woman Suffrage (1922) consisted of about 700 pages of reports describing women suffrage activities between 1900 and 1920 in all 48 states and the District of Columbia. These reports were written by leaders in each of the states and contain some 2,800 names of state-level suffrage activists in the campaigns of those decades. Published by the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), this volume identified the grassroots activists of the almost entirely white state affiliates of NAWSA, thus complementing the Black suffragists and militant white NWP activists we had been working with in our two initial suffrage projects. The project had grown exponentially in this process, but we now felt we had a strategy to offer a representative view of the very diverse woman suffrage movement that emerged in the two decades before passage of the 19th Amendment.
As we published calls for volunteers our three groups of suffragists grew significantly. After the initial publication of scholarly essays and writings of Black women suffragists, we decided to crowdsource biographical sketches for Black activists for whom there were no readily-available sketches in major reference works. As we researched the initial 70 suffragists we had culled from Rosalyn Terborg-Penn’s research and looked for additional writings, we identified many new Black suffragists. By now (June 2020) that number has grown to almost 400 suffragists to be included in the Online Biographical Dictionary. Similarly, our NWP militant suffragists group grew from 224 to 420 as Jill D. Zahniser and our volunteers kept finding new activists and additional NWP demonstrations beyond Washington, D.C. Lastly, as we secured state coordinators for crowdsourcing the massive NAWSA-affiliated group, these volunteers identified additional important suffragists overlooked by the contributors to volume 6 of the History of Woman Suffrage. As of this writing (June 2020), that group has grown to more than 2,930 suffrage activists. There are duplicates across the three groups—NWP militants who also worked with NAWSA; Black suffragists active in the NWP or in some of the NAWSA state affiliates; NAWSA activists whose names appear in two or more state reports—but we still anticipate our final database will include more than 3,500 women suffrage activists.
This fourth installment of the Online Biographical Dictionary includes about 2,600 biographical sketches of NAWSA mainstream suffragists, Black women suffragists, and NWP militant suffragists. We are posting this resource on two websites—first, a freely-accessible version of the database accessible at https://documents.alexanderstreet.com/VOTESforWOMEN; second, as part of the online database, Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000, accessible through the database sections of websites at more than 400 subscribing academic libraries. We plan to add another 400-500 biographical sketches every six months, expecting that the Dictionary will be largely completed by June 2021. This resource is a work in progress and we ask your patience as we add activists and functionality to the website in the coming months.
In the meantime, as of this writing, we still need volunteers who are interested in contributing to the database’s completion. If you would like to write a biographical sketch, or copyedit and fact check sketches, or do genealogical research to help us find birth, marriage, and death dates for suffragists, please email the Dictionary’s editor, Tom Dublin, at email@example.com. He will put you in touch with a state coordinator or be able to find ways for you to work on the project as it moves to completion in 2021. Thank you in advance for any support you can give.