Socialist Worker

Untold voices from struggle for women’s suffrage in US

by Jan Nielsen
Issue No. 2656

Suffragists parade in New York in 1917

Suffragists parade in New York in 1917

The women’s suffrage movement in the US preceded others in Europe and the scale of it was enormous. It was well organised, and European activists looked to their American sisters as an example.

Susan Ware’s book sets out to tell the stories of the less well known women who worked tirelessly in communities across the US to make the movement the success that it was.

At the time of the struggle, women in the US were in a better economic and legal position than women in many European countries. Yet they didn’t have access to higher education, and played no part in the professions.

Married women could not sign contracts or own property or retain their earnings.

In the southern states divorce was effectively impossible.


In the late eighteenth and early ­nineteenth centuries there was a rough kind of equality in frontier society with its shortage of women and its wide range of female occupations.

But this was being replaced by the increasing sophistication of an urban society. The ideal of the frontier woman in partnership with men in many spheres of life was replaced by the cult of “true womanhood”. This saw the ideal woman as pious, submissive and domesticated.

Many of the women Ware profiles have not been featured by most suffrage historians. These are the unsung heroes working so often out of the limelight.

Women like Mary Church Terell are featured. She was a black activist in the abolitionist movement. She was born in 1863 in Memphis, Tennessee, to former slaves who made enough money to afford their daughter an education denied her contemporaries.

Terrell was a fluent speaker of French and German who travelled to Berlin in 1904 to the International Council of Women. She was a wonderful example of a woman who fought both racism and sexism.

Often Terrell had to do this inside the movement as well as outside. As she put it, “However much the white woman of the country need suffrage, coloured women need it more.”


Yet the white woman suffrage movement consistently refused to make votes for black women a priority.

Mary’s profile is accompanied by others such as Molly Dewson and Polly Porter, two lesbian farmer suffragists.

It’s a good example of how the suffrage movement supported a variety of living and working arrangements that fell outside the limits of expected norms.

There are dancers, journalists and mountaineers featured here although I would have liked to see more profiles of the working class women who also too often truly remain hidden from history.

Ware’s final chapter, “leaving all to younger hands”, addresses the importance of the suffragist legacy for the #MeToo generation.

As we see abortion rights attacked so fiercely in the US, this book is a reminder that winning the vote was not the end of the fight. It was the beginning of a continuing battle for real equality.

Why They Marched by Susan Ware, published by Harvard University Press. £14

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