Online Biographical Dictionary of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the United States:
Introduction (Sept. 2020)
By Thomas Dublin and Kathryn Kish Sklar
With the recent centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment in August 2020 historians, and Americans more generally, are becoming increasingly aware of the significance of the struggle for woman suffrage that stretched for more than 72 years. Beginning at Seneca Falls in July 1848, a social movement emerged that aimed to secure for women full citizenship rights that included the right to vote. Drawing on the founding mantra of the Revolutionary Era, women reformers echoed the earlier demand, “No Taxation Without Representation.” Their claims, moreover, extended far beyond simply the right to vote and by 1923 the more encompassing demand for full equality emerged with the call for an Equal Rights Amendment, still not secured almost after almost another century.
Beginning with the 1959 publication of Eleanor Flexner’s Century of Struggle, an enormous literature has appeared over six decades illuminating the emergence, first, of the Woman’s Rights Movement and then a more focused woman suffrage movement. There have been national and state-level studies, biographies of the movement’s leaders, and studies of women’s steady advance into American politics. And yet, despite all the continuing scholarship, we have not reached a new consensus that goes significantly beyond the synthesis that Eleanor Flexner offered in 1959.
This Online Biographical Dictionary is an effort to construct a resource that may help us find our way to a new overarching synthesis. Here we are commissioning and publishing biographical sketches of about 3,700 grassroots women suffrage activists, drawn principally from the period 1890-1920 as the struggle for woman suffrage took its final form. As the database now reaches (as of June 2020) more than 2,600 activists, it will be helpful to describe the evolution of this project, for in that process we made decisions that have shaped the final database.
Work for this project began in 2008 as Tom Dublin approached Rosalyn Terborg-Penn with a proposal to assemble on the online journal and database, WOMEN AND SOCIAL MOVEMENTS IN THE UNITED STATES, 1600-2000 (WASM), an archive of the writings of Black women suffragists. The work proceeded slowly, but in March 2014 we published online the first installment of a collection of writings by and about Black women suffragists which has now reached more than 2,100 items.
At the same time that we were constructing the Writings of Black Women Suffragists, the historian Jill D. Zahniser learned about our work and approached us with a proposal to publish on the website a database of militant suffragists who picketed the White House in 1917-1919 under the banner of the National Woman’s Party in the final push for passage of the 19th Amendment. She shared with us an excel spreadsheet of 224 women active in that campaign. She also expressed the idea that we might build on the NWP and Black Suffragists groups and develop an American version of Elizabeth Crawford’s fine British resource, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide, 1866-1928 (1999).
We responded favorably to her ideas, but added a new element that we should reach out to our readers and the public more generally to crowdsource biographical sketches of these militant suffragists to post on WASM. Dr. Zahniser prepared six biographical sketches to serve as examples, which we published in March 2015 along with an introduction, the initial database, and a call for volunteers to complete about 200 additional sketches.
To expand beyond these two groups we also needed to include mainstream suffragists in our work and began a search for a likely source or sources for additional names of activists. In the course of this work, we discovered that volume 6 of the History of Woman Suffrage (1922) consisted of about 700 pages of reports describing women suffrage activities between 1900 and 1920 in all 48 states and the District of Columbia. These reports were written by leaders in each of the states and contain some 2,800 names of state-level suffrage activists in the campaigns of those decades. Published by the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), this volume identified the grassroots activists of the almost entirely white state affiliates of NAWSA, thus complementing the Black suffragists and militant white NWP activists we had been working with in our two initial suffrage projects. The project had grown exponentially in this process, but we now felt we had a strategy to offer a representative view of the very diverse woman suffrage movement that emerged in the two decades before passage of the 19th Amendment.
As we published calls for volunteers our three groups of suffragists grew significantly. After the initial publication of scholarly essays and writings of Black women suffragists, we decided to crowdsource biographical sketches for Black activists for whom there were no readily-available sketches in major reference works. As we researched the initial 70 suffragists we had culled from Rosalyn Terborg-Penn’s research and looked for additional writings, we identified many new Black suffragists. By now (June 2020) that number has grown to almost 400 suffragists to be included in the Online Biographical Dictionary. Similarly, our NWP militant suffragists group grew from 224 to 420 as Jill D. Zahniser and our volunteers kept finding new activists and additional NWP demonstrations beyond Washington, D.C. Lastly, as we secured state coordinators for crowdsourcing the massive NAWSA-affiliated group, these volunteers identified additional important suffragists overlooked by the contributors to volume 6 of the History of Woman Suffrage. As of this writing (June 2020), that group has grown to 2,930 suffrage activists. There are duplicates across the three groups—NWP militants who also worked with NAWSA; Black suffragists active in the NWP or in some of the NAWSA state affiliates; NAWSA activists whose names appear in two or more state reports—but we still anticipate our final database will include about 3,700 women suffrage activists.
This fourth installment of the Online Biographical Dictionary includes about 2,600 biographical sketches of NAWSA mainstream suffragists, Black women suffragists, and NWP militant suffragists. We are posting this resource on two websites—first, a freely-accessible version of the database accessible at https://documents.alexanderstreet.com/VOTESforWOMEN; second, as part of the online database, Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000, accessible through the database sections of websites at more than 400 subscribing academic libraries. We plan to add another 400-500 biographical sketches every six months, expecting that the Dictionary will be largely completed by December 2021. This resource is a work in progress and we ask your patience as we add activists and functionality to the website in the coming months.
In the meantime, as of this writing, we still need volunteers who are interested in contributing to the database’s completion. If you would like to write a biographical sketch, or copyedit and fact check sketches, or do genealogical research to help us find birth, marriage, and death dates for suffragists, please email the Dictionary’s editor, Tom Dublin, at email@example.com. He will put you in touch with a state coordinator or be able to find ways for you to work on the project as it moves to completion in 2021. Thank you in advance for any support you can give.
Black Women Suffragists (BWS) – Brief Overview
Our compilation of biographical sketches on black women suffragists began in 2008 with a list of seventy suffragists who appeared in Rosalyn Terborg-Penn’s pathbreaking 1998 book, African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920. Biographical sketches of many in this group appeared in the encyclopedias Notable American Women and Dictionary of American Negro Biography. We have obtained permission to include those sketches here. We then commissioned new sketches for activists not included in these encyclopedias.
During the past decade we pursued further research, much in black newspapers newly available online, which allowed us to identify more than 300 additional black women suffragists. For some we had only their names and where they lived; for others we had more information, such as their participation in church or community organizations. Excited about how this new group could expand our historical knowledge of black women in the suffrage movement, we decided to commission volunteers to research and write biographical sketches of them. Our crowd-sourcing call for volunteers has been enormously successful. Generous researchers and writers have created biographical sketches that shed new light on black women suffragists and their communities.
We began our research on black women suffragists by assembling their published writings. As part of The Writings of Black Women Suffragists, we created an individual page for each suffragist with links to writings by and about her. In March 2014 we published the first online installment of these pages, which now are hyperlinked to about 2,100 writings by and about black women suffragists.
We are now creating individual pages for the newly-identified black women suffragists, adding them to the earlier collection derived from the work of Professor Terborg-Penn. We have renamed the expanded project The Black Women Suffragists Collection. Although many individual pages do not now include links to writings, we will add such links as we discover writings of these additional suffrage activists. Currently, this Black Women Suffragists section includes 290 biographical sketches. More will follow at regular intervals until the OBD is completed in late 2021.
Militant Woman Suffragists – Brief Overview
Our collection of biographical sketches of militant suffragists affiliated with the National Woman’s Party (NWP) began with a document project prepared for Women and Social Movements by historian Jill Zahniser. Published in March 2015, that project included a database of 224 women who picketed the White House in 1917-1919 in the final push for passage of the 19th Amendment. Many were arrested and imprisoned and force-fed when they engaged in a hunger strike. To this project Dr. Zahniser added six biographical sketches of women in this database. We have included the biographical sketches of militant activists treated in Notable American Women and other published sources for which we secured permissions. For those militant suffragists without published sketches, we reached out to our readers and other networks to crowdsource biographical sketches for the remaining activists. That outreach generated more research and the militant group has now grown from 224 to 420, as Jill Zahniser and others found new activists and additional NWP demonstrations beyond Washington, D.C.
Mainstream Woman Suffragists – Brief Overview
With these two suffragist projects launched, we decided to include mainstream suffragists in our work. We discovered the source that made that possible in volume 6 of the History of Woman Suffrage (1922), which consisted of about 700 pages of reports describing women suffrage activities between 1900 and 1920 in all 48 states and the District of Columbia. Published by the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), and compiled by leaders in each of the states, these reports contained the names of some 2,700 state-level suffrage activists in the campaigns of those decades. These grassroots activists were affiliated with the predominantly white state affiliates of NAWSA, thus complementing the black suffragists and militant white NWP activists of our two initial suffrage groups.
As with our earlier suffragists, we published calls for volunteers and have worked with teams in every state to research and write biographical sketches of thousands of women whose stories have not previously been gathered into public view. As with our two other groups, this research generated additional suffrage leaders overlooked by the contributors to volume 6 of the History of Woman Suffrage. As of this writing (June 2020), that group has grown to 2,930 suffrage activists.
The project has expanded significantly as we have worked on it. While it includes women active in the early decades from 1850 to 1900, it is especially strong in its coverage of activists who built the large and diverse woman suffrage movement during the final two decades before passage of the 19th Amendment.
There are duplicates across the three groups—NWP militants who also worked with NAWSA; black suffragists active in the NWP or in some of the NAWSA state affiliates; NAWSA activists whose names appear in two or more state reports—but we still anticipate the final database will include about 3,700 women suffrage activists, most of whom are new to historians and students of history.