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Hindsight: Regionalism, Race, And The Right To Vote

Jordan Kirtley / KMUW

In 1915, the American humor magazine Puck, known for its political cartoons and satire, published a special edition, guest edited by New York State suffrage groups, in anticipation of the upcoming statewide referendum on women’s suffrage.

The centerfold illustration, called “The Awakening” and drawn by Henry Mayer, depicts Lady Liberty, with the slogan "Votes for Women" emblazoned on her tunic, awakening the nation to women’s desire for suffrage, walking across the already-enfranchised American West, toward the East, where women were reaching up, clamoring to be saved by her.

Printed just below Mayer’s illustration is a five-stanza poem by Alice Duer Miller. Less famous now, Miller was a popular poet and writer of the early 20th century who was part of Dorothy Parker’s famous Algonquin Round Table and often captured the mood of the movement with an irreverent quick wit and skill.

Untitled, this poem is a call to arms for women across the nation to take up the cause of suffrage:

Look forward, women, always; utterly cast away The memory of hate and struggle and bitterness; Bonds may endure for a night, but freedom come with a day, And the free must remember nothing less.

Combined, this centerfold and the magazine’s special edition were meant to capture the contemporary spirit of the late 19th and early 20th centuries most current, democratic movement: women’s suffrage. While signaling a new dawn for the nation, in many ways it also harkens back to John Gast’s 1872 painting American Progress, which depicts a winged, white, ghost-like woman sweeping westward settlement, capitalism, and Native and African American displacement — all the trappings of American progress. Now, she’s bringing the vote—the key to citizenship and democracy—back to her eastern sisters. 

Mayer’s illustration provides an intriguing depiction of the American suffrage movement but doesn’t tell the whole story. Not even close.

By the end of 1914, more than 4 million women had voting rights equal to men in 11 states, all in the West, leaving women elsewhere still reaching for the light of Liberty's torch of freedom. By the time the suffrage amendment was ratified in 1920, women in 27 states, 56% of the nation, held full voting rights. Nearly all of those states were in the West and the Midwest. But for many suffragists and their supporters, the real prize was New York, the most populous state, the state that would signal the domino-like toppling of all the other stalwart states.

Several times since the beginning of the women’s rights campaign, suffragists had presented the New York state legislature with the opportunity to extend voting rights to women. Each time they voted it down… if it even left committee. While many of the initial women’s rights activists came from New York, women’s suffrage found its initial successes not in the Empire State, but in the West and Midwest.

From the vantage point of hindsight, these western victories can look deceptive, easily won as the torch of liberty strides over them toward the East. But that’s not really the case. The suffrage victories in the West and the Midwest came in stages, sometimes—as in the case of Washington—were repealed, and centered on local and regional conversations about immigration, temperance, and citizenship. When we add in Southern suffrage, a post-war addition to the national suffrage movement, the very real conversations on race, the 15th Amendment, and the role of women in the franchise come to light.

No matter what Henry Mayer depicted in his centerfold in Puck, not a single one of the state suffrage campaigns was easy. Each one was individual and relied on local suffragists who, more times than not, supported suffrage for reasons that conflicted with the national message of the National American Women Suffrage Association. For a national movement, these regional differences often caused conflict, and made it nearly impossible to craft a single message of women’s suffrage that reflected the true diversity of American women.

On this episode of Hindsight, we will dive deeper into the roles that regionalism and race played in the development and evolution of the suffrage movement and in the campaigns to win suffrage state-by-state. 

For further exploration:

This episode contains portions of "Transient" and "Steps" by Podington Bear
From the Free Music Archive

Dr. Robin C. Henry holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Indiana University and is an associate professor in the history department at Wichita State University. Her research examines the intersections among sexuality, law, and regional identity in the 19th- and early 20th-century United States.