More Than the Vote
The Atlantic|January - February 2021
The suffragists’ struggle produced undaunted trailblazers, Black and white, who continued to pursue social reform.
Deborah Cohen

Women’s-suffrage campaigners and their equally adamant opponents were in full agreement on one fundamental point: Giving women the vote would change everything. It would end poverty, and wars, too! So promised Britain’s militant suffragists, envisioning a civilization in which the patriarchy was upended and society’s evils were largely vanquished. A Greek chorus of “antis” foretold a different future. The death of the family! The destruction of morality! After most British women over the age of 30 won the vote, in 1918, the Liberal politician and diplomat Lord Esher saw a watershed moment at hand. An “avalanche of women has been hurled into the political chaos,” he wrote. “Institutions as well as ideas will have to be re-sorted.”

Twenty years later, on the brink of the Second World War, the surprise was how little women’s suffrage had disturbed the status quo, either at home or abroad. In Britain, the Conservative Party’s substantial parliamentary majorities were likely undergirded by the women’s vote. In the United States, where female turnout was low, if women voted at all they tended to vote like their husbands. The sense that the franchise was an anticlimax, even a disappointment, was widespread among those who had taken part in the cause, like Virginia Woolf. She’d gotten the right to vote at the same time that she’d inherited a legacy from her aunt. “Of the two—the vote and the money—the money, I own, seemed infinitely the more important,” Woolf reflected.

The idea that suffrage didn’t measure up to its promise echoed through the centenary celebrations. The recognition accorded to feminist pioneers such as Carrie Chapman Catt, the head of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and the radical suffragist Alice Paul, the leader of the National Woman’s Party, has been accompanied by a serious and overdue public reckoning with what the historian Martha S. Jones calls their “dirty” compromises. Those included a willingness to do deals with white supremacists to exclude Black voters. For Black women in the Jim Crow South, the Nineteenth Amendment arrived practically as a dead letter. Neither the National Woman’s Party nor the newly formed League of Women Voters was willing to take up the problem of Black disenfranchisement.

The best way to appreciate the suffrage movement’s legacy is to look beyond suffrage itself. Lacking the vote, women had already embraced political participation by other means, such as petitioning and editorial- writing; they’d been active in 19th-century reform efforts, including abolition and temperance. In the heat of the suffrage campaigns, they learned how to perform on the hustings; land rhetorical blows; recruit allies in unlikely places; and bend the machinery of the statehouse, the church synod, and the union council to their purposes. The struggle for the vote decanted into public life a large number of women who had thought rigorously about injustice as both an individual and a systemic matter. Battle-hardened, unafraid of infighting, they were prepared to meet the obstacles in their way and forge on. Nowhere is this process more evident than in the career of Britain’s Sylvia Pankhurst and in the veterans of the American Black-suffragist movement.

As Rachel Holmes recounts in her new biography, Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel, Sylvia and her sister Christabel had been “teen radicals,” the Greta Thunbergs of their day. Together with their mother, Emmeline, they launched a militant suffrage campaign in 1903. Under the banner of “Deeds Not Words,” the Pankhursts pushed their disciples to attention-grabbing acts of defiance and violence. As the women’s franchise got bogged down in parliamentary finagling, the suffragists ramped up their campaign, torching country houses, smashing plate-glass department- store windows, slashing paintings at the National Gallery, and—sticking it to the gentlemen where it really hurt—wrecking golf courses.

Police officers manhandled them, pinching them hard on the buttocks or breasts, twisting their arms, tying their skirts over their heads when they were arrested, throwing them in jail. When imprisoned suffragists started hunger striking, the British state responded with a savage force-feeding program. Sylvia went to jail nine times, serving 65 days; she and her mother, as she put it, were “chasing each other in and out of prison, as though it had been a race between us.” At one point in 1913, she was being restrained, a tube thrust down her throat or jammed up her nose, twice daily.

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