Week 6: The Struggle for Women's Suffrage in U.S. Colonies


Photo of Queen Lili‘uokalani, last sovereign of the Hawaiian Kingdom
A 1901 portrait of Queen Lili‘uokalani, the last sovereign of the Hawaiian kingdom (source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, DC).


“Now, to avoid any collision of armed forces and perhaps loss of life, I do, under this protest, and impelled by said forces, yield my authority until such time as the Government of the United States shall, upon the facts being presented to it, undo the action of its representative and reinstate me in the authority which I claim as the constitutional sovereign of the Hawaiian Islands.”
– From Queen Lili‘uokalani’s conditional surrender to the United States, 1893


Petition against U.S. annexation of Hawaii
(Mouse over to zoom)

In 1897, the Hawaiian Patriotic League, the Indigenous Hawaiian organization that formed after the United States deposed Queen Lili‘uokalani, successfully petitioned Congress to reject a treaty authorizing U.S. annexation of the Hawaiian Islands as a territory. The women’s division of the league, the Hui Hawaii Aloha Aina o Na Wahine (the Women’s Hawaiian Patriotic League of the Hawaiian Island) prepared this page, which shows some of the thousands of signatures they helped to gather (source: Record Group 46, Records of the U.S. Senate, Record Group 46, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC).


Colonial and anti-colonial imperatives influenced the arguments, strategies, and alliances that suffrage activists pursued in sites of U.S. territorial intervention. Native Hawaiian women’s support for territorial suffrage, for instance, was not an endorsement of recent U.S. annexation. Rather, it was an expression of the anti-colonial position that both Queen Lili‘uokalani and petition organizers had similarly advanced. The 19th Amendment excluded women of the United States’ unincorporated territories. In their continued suffrage demands, women of these territories often crafted alliances with white suffragists in the United States to access powerful networks. Women in Latin America also pursued such fraught alliances, while building their own Pan-American networks grounded in alternative visions of rights and citizenship.



Story Maps: Voting Rights in Current and Former US Colonies

Story Map: Foreign in a Domestic Sense
Explore this interactive map for an overview of key dates in women’s voting rights in contemporary U.S. colonies.
Story Map: Women's Voting Rights in Former US Colonies
During the late 19th and 20th centuries, the United States occupied multiple nations that subsequently obtained or reasserted their independence. Explore this interactive map for an overview of key dates in women’s voting rights in these nations.

Secondary Readings

Prieto, Laura. “Votes for Colonized Women.” Process: A Blog for American History, May 28, 2020.

Prieto provides an overview of the histories of women’s struggles for voting rights in Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Marino, Katherine. Feminism for the Americas: The Making of an International Human Rights Movement. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019.

Marino explores the transnational feminism of Latin American and Caribbean female activists in the 20th century. The book opens with a 1931 conflict between U.S. suffragist Doris Stevens and Cuban lawyer and activist Ofelia Dominguez Navarro following the Sixth Pan-American Conference held in Havana. At the 1928 conference, which is detailed in Chapter 2, Stevens and Navarro worked with a “network” of feminists (popularly referred to as La Vanguardia) from throughout the Western Hemisphere. Examining these women’s correspondence, Marino draws out the tensions between early 20th-century fights for suffrage in the United States and its colonies as well as the ways in which many feminists of the Pan-American movement rejected a focus on electoral politics. They instead spearheaded an international movement for women’s rights across the Americas and more broadly across the world.

Prieto, Laura. “‘A Delicate Subject’: Clemencia López, Civilized Womanhood, and the Politics of Anti-Imperialism.” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (April 2013): 199–233.

Prieto examines the 1902 journey of an elite Filipina, Clemencia López, who came to the United States to plead for her brother’s release from exile. In doing so, López used American ideas about her gender and race not only to plead her brother’s case, but also to argue for Filipino political and legal autonomy outside of U.S. control. She displayed “feminine refinement” in order to counter U.S. beliefs about Filipino inferiority and to demonstrate Filipinos as capable of self-government. This allowed López to use her gender to discuss national autonomy in ways Filipino men could not.

Roces, Mina. “Is the suffragist an American colonial construct? Defining ‘the Filipino woman’ in colonial Philippines.” In Women’s Suffrage in Asia: Gender, Nationalism and Democracy, edited by Louise Edward and Mina Roces, 24–58. London: Routledge, 2004.

Roces traces 20th-century Filipina suffragists’ reliance on intersecting nationalist and traditional ideas about womanhood to secure voting rights. Many argued that in order for Filipinas to be “moral guardians,” they needed access to education and public causes beyond the home, which the right to vote would help them secure. Filipina suffragists were also careful to wear traditionally Filipina clothing, such as the terno and pañuelo, both to illustrate their alignment with Filipino nationalism and to emphasize their commitment to traditional female roles in their communities.

Yasutake, Rumi. “Re-Franchising Women of Hawaiʻi, 1912–1920: The Politics of Gender, Sovereignty, Race, and Rank at the Crossroads of the Pacific.” In Gendering the Trans-Pacific World, edited by Catherine Ceniza Choy and Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, 114–139. Boston: Brill, 2017.

Yasutake examines how elite native Hawaiian and mixed-Hawaiian women spearheaded women’s suffrage activism in Hawai‘i during the 20th century, while both white women and men downplayed women’s suffrage in large measure because they feared the potential political power of the Asian and Native Hawaiian majority. Nevertheless, high-ranking Native Hawaiian women pursued alliances with white women to gain support for the voting rights of all women in Hawai‘i.

Jiménez-Muñoz, Gladys. “‘So We Decided to Come and Ask You Ourselves’: The 1928 U.S. Congressional Hearing on Women's Suffrage in Puerto Rico.” In Puerto Rican Jam: Essays on Culture and Politics, edited by Frances Negrón and Ramón Grosfoguel, 140–165. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

This article analyzes the women of the Liga Social Sufragista’s appearance before Congress in 1928 to argue for women’s suffrage in Puerto Rico. Jiménez-Muñoz highlights the collaboration with the Nationalist Women’s Party and the ways that Puerto Rican suffragists employed the colonial relationship to compel men on the island to enfranchise elite women.

Primary Sources

Capetillo, Luisa. A Nation of Women: An Early Feminist Speaks Out/Mi opinión sobre las libertades, derechos y deberes de la mujer (1911). Translated by Alan West-Duran. Introduction by Felix V. Matos Rodriguez. Houston: Arte Publica Press, 2004.

Luisa Capetillo was a feminist, labor organizer, and political activist during the early 20th century. This 1911 book, the first feminist treatise written in Puerto Rico, explains her ideas about free love, anticlericalism, labor organization, police brutality, education for women, and the importance of women’s sexuality. While she does not mention suffrage outright, this treatise illustrates that Capetillo understood that working-class women could not achieve emancipation through the vote alone and thus called for a complete change in the economic, social, and political systems that kept them oppressed.

Encarnacion, Alonza. “Shall the Filipina Women Vote?” ("¿Deberán Votar Las Mujeres Filipinas?"). Philippine Review, January 1919, 35-38.

Encarnacion’s 1919 article for the Philippine Review contends that Filipinas should have the right to vote because women’s suffrage is crucial to Philippine democracy and to the well-being of its communities. The article echoes maternalists’ arguments for women’s suffrage, affirming the validity of gender roles and women’s supposedly innate qualities. On this basis, she asserts that political participation, rather than undermining women’s innate love for the family and home, will benefit the state. She cites her own example as a woman industrious in every aspect of society.

Kellogg, Laura Cornelius. Our Democracy and the American Indian and Other Works, edited by Kristina Ackley and Christina Stanciu Syracuse, 63–108. New York: Syracuse University Press, 2015.

In 1920, the year of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, Kellogg published Our Democracy and the American Indian. The Oneida activist emphasizes the origins of U.S. democracy in the Iroquois Constitution’s confederacy of Six Nations. She outlines a plan for Native American self-government and economic self-sufficiency grounded in this model.

Additional Readings

Jiménez-Muñoz, Gladys. “Re-Thinking the History of Puerto Rican Women's Suffrage.” Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños. VII, no. 1 (Winter 1994/Spring 1995): 96–106.

Silva, Noenoe K. Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance to American Colonialism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.

Stoner, Kathryn Lynn. From the House to the Streets: The Cuban Woman’s Movement for Legal Reform, 1898-1940. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991. See esp. Chapter 6).

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