Schuster Institute Senior Fellow Brooke Kroeger’s forthcoming book, “Suffragents: How Women Used Men to Get the Vote,” reveals the untold story of the Men’s League for Woman Suffrage, whose members acted as willing foot soldiers to advance the suffrage campaign. What started as 150 founding members in New York grew to a force of thousands across 35 states. These men worked behind the scenes advocating for women’s rights to legislative and executive branches of government, the press, and the public. Kroger details how National American Woman Suffrage Association accepted this offer of organized help, and how by working together, the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920. The book trailer follows the excerpt below.
Suffragents Book Trailer
To gain a fuller context of issues important to women, we look to the past as well as the present.
Watch our newsmaker interviews here with Sen. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.) and Fredie Kay, Esq., founder and president of the Women’s Suffrage Celebration Coalition of Massachusetts.
And scroll down to learn more about the “suffragents” who helped women gain the right to vote and to watch a book trailer.
Adapted with permission from Chapter Ten, 1917, pages 227-231, of The Suffragents: How Women Used Men to Get the Vote by Brooke Kroeger (Excelsior Editions: SUNY Press)
Imagine the emotional intensity of the days before the New York ballot on Tuesday, November 6, 1917. In Washington, more than a score of women from Alice Paul’s party were threatening to storm the Washington district jail, demanding that their still incarcerated sisters be classified political prisoners, not criminals. After sixty days in jail, a third of which they had spent in solitary confinement, most of the women were released November 3, but not Paul, who remained in the jail’s psychiatric wing, despite no evidence of mental imbalance during professional evaluations.
In Chicago, Max Eastman caused a kerfuffle with the words he spoke in support of the White House picketers, whom the Chicago Political Equality League, Eastman’s host, had already gone on record to denounce. “Just Can’t Keep Out of a Scrap,” the Chicago Tribune tut-tutted in a headline. “Merely Mentions Those White House Pickets and—Zowie!!”
W.E.B. Du Bois again appealed to “every single black voter” in New York and throughout the United States to support the suffrage amendment, despite the abiding bitterness that black voters might harbor toward white women, and despite the “naïve assumption” among white women “that the height of his ambition is to marry them,” their “artificially-inspired fear of every dark face, which leads to frightful accusations and suspicions,” and their “sometimes insulting behavior toward him in public places.”
At the eleventh hour, newspapers like the New York Tribune helped make the case for state suffrage. Women were not seeking the ballot as a reward for the patriotic service they had provided, the newspaper said, but “as a further means of rendering service.” War work, in fact, had to a great extent overtaken the suffragists’ ability to campaign for the referendum, making the rallying efforts of 1917 so different—and who knew if less or more effective—than those that had failed in 1915. This round, the Tribune said, the “fireworks” and “trappings” that had made the previous round such a “brilliant demonstration” were left behind in favor of “canvasses and street meetings and hosts of small meetings before every kind of audience under the sun. There’s nothing spectacular about a hearing before a church committee, but the suffragists have had plenty of them, and they unquestionably make votes.” New in 1917 was the courting of soldiers, which took campaigners into homes and on personal visits to military camps.
A two-column ad touting the high-level political support for suffrage ran in all of the newspapers the day before the election, placed by Vira Boarman Whitehouse’s New York State Woman Suffrage Committee. It featured Woodrow Wilson, Theodore
Roosevelt, Governor Charles S. Whitman, Mayor John Purroy Mitchel—prominent figures of all the political parties—and offered sharp expressions of amendment support. In the same ad was listed a twenty-member “Men’s Advisory Board,” chaired by the banker Frank Vanderlip. It included two names that had been on the Men’s League roster since the start: the philanthropist George Foster Peabody and the attorney, Samuel Untermyer.
The New York State amendment giving women the vote passed in a “sweeping victory,” granting suffrage to every eligible woman citizen in New York over the age of twenty-one as of January 1, 1918. The New York Sun put the winning majority at more than ninety thousand votes. New York became the fourteenth state in the union to endorse women’s suffrage and a pivotal one for dispelling the East Coast hex.
To the New York State Woman Suffrage Party and its many section leaders, the New York Tribune accorded the greatest credit. Among those acknowledged were two of the Men’s League’s most loyal members: the financier James Lees Laidlaw, who had “worked side by side with his wife during the long struggle,” and Vanderlip, who headed the Men’s Advisory Committee and had “stood beside Mrs. Vanderlip since the beginning in her fight for the vote.”
Although a similar suffrage referendum in Ohio failed that day, the strength of the New York victory especially, along with wins in North Dakota, Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska, and Rhode Island, had local leaders predicting—accurately, as it turned out—that the results would influence Congress in favor of hastening acceptance of the federal measure.
Even the hostile New York Times flashed news of the victory from its “signal lights,” although its editorial board could not have been more grudging or ungenerous in its response to the win. It attributed the referendum’s success to the low turnout, the limits of the candidates on the ballot for several offices, and “the indifference of the opposition and the enthusiasm of the faithful.” The editorial also noted by how great a margin this “startling innovation in the polity of the State” had been rejected in 1915, whereas in 1917, “by a much smaller one, when the world is afire, it seems to have been adopted.” The editorial added in conclusion:
"The Times will not pretend to rejoice at the result to which it made no effort to contribute. May the experiment, if it is to be made, disappoint the fears and predictions of its adversaries. May the women justify by their behavior their fitness for the ballot. And, all division removed, may the feminists give henceforth the full measure of their strength and energy to the cause of freedom and democracy!"
And so the feminists did, with the full measure of their strength and energy. For a rally at Cooper Union the next day, on the platform sat the women to whom so much was owed, among them Anna Howard Shaw, Carrie ChapmanCatt, and Whitehouse. Also on stage were Laidlaw, representing the Men’s League and clearly held in equivalent esteem, and the featured speaker, Judge William H. Wadhams, another movement supporter.
New York State Suffrage Party campaign ad in all the newspapers. (New York Sun, November 5, 1917, p. 2, Chronicling America, Library of Congress)
It was possibly the largest crowd ever to pour into that ever-crowded venue by 1917, a gathering that set a new high for enthusiasm and elation, the New York Times said, in a place “where emotion is not usually mute or unexpressed.” Unanimously, clamorously, and in short order, those assembled adopted three resolutions: first, to renew the appeal to Congress to submit the federal suffrage amendment to the states; second, to thank President Wilson for his help in the New York campaign, and to “urge him to extend further aid to our cause,” specifically by including a statement in favor of the amendment in his annual message to Congress; and third, to thank the press for “its valuable service.”
And what of the legions of volunteers, the workers? Ida Harper’s history of the movement concedes that it would have been impossible to record accurately the names of the thousands upon thousands of women who had served the movement during its New York campaigns, “and it would be equally impossible to mention the names of the men who helped. Behind many a woman who worked there was a man aiding and sustaining her with money and personal sacrifice.” The New York campaign, the history adds, had made the moniker “suffrage husbands” a “title of distinction.”
At Cooper Union, Gertrude Brown, of the state party, sparked “a burst of cheers” as she introduced Laidlaw as “the head of those men who have given their lives, their efforts and their fortunes to this cause.” His response perfectly summarized a decade of concerted male engagement expressly on behalf of women, organized action that has proved to be an historical phenomenon, one without precedent or anywhere near as effective a contemporary parallel. “Mrs. Brown is right,” Laidlaw told the crowd. “The women did it. But not by any heroic action, but by hard, steady grinding and good organization.”
“We men, too, have learned something,” he said, “we who were auxiliaries to the great woman’s suffrage party.
“We have learned to be auxiliaries.”
Brooke Kroeger is a Senior Fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism