When Belle Squire joined the fight for suffrage, she not only wanted the vote, she wanted to smash what we now call “the patriarchy.” In 1910, she led the "No Vote, No Tax League," inspiring at least 5,000 women in Cook County, Illinois, to refuse to pay their taxes until women were granted the right to vote. Squire also made a bold statement against the oppression of women by publicly declaring her refusal to marry. She explained that she would rather have a vote than a husband because “with a vote a woman’s wages, dignity and position are raised; with a husband they may be lowered.” Squire insisted that what women really want from men is to be recognized as “an individual, an equal, maybe, a human being even, as they themselves are.” She declared that as an unmarried woman she deserved the same respect that married women enjoyed and insisted on being referred to with the honorific title of “Mrs. Squire” rather than “Miss Squire,” because she believed that single women should be afforded the same respect as married women.
One such suffragist, New York philanthropist Annie Tinker (1884-1924), refused to conform to gendered notions of how a woman should act and dress. In the present day, Tinker might have described herself as non-binary, gender fluid, or butch. But in the 1910s, those words were not in general usage. Instead, people labeled women like Tinker as “mannish.” Tinker proudly formed a “cavalry of suffragists” to ride on horseback in New York City suffrage parades. In the 1913 parade, Tinker dressed in riding boots, breeches, a man’s coat, and silk top hat that elicited much comment from parade-goers and the press. The New York Times described her “mannish garb” as “distinctive.” A gossip columnist for the society tabloid Town Topics was less kind, snidely remarking on her “oddities” and expressing his intense dislike for “the masculine fashion in which she handled her hat.” But Tinker was determined to be who she wanted to be and fight for others who desired the same right.
Anti-suffrage critics used terms like “mannish” and “abnormal” to denigrate suffragists like Tinker and Chung. Gender-defying suffragists faced pressure to conform to heteronormative standards of beauty and behavior not only from their critics, but also from inside the suffrage movement. Leaders of major suffrage organizations recommended that the women in their ranks wear fashionable feminine dresses and hats. They were exhorted to present themselves “as attractive, as charming and as lovable” as possible in order to win men’s support for suffrage. By adhering to the expectations of proper feminine appearance and behavior of the early twentieth century, suffrage leaders hoped to create at least a public front of “respectability.” But many suffragists didn’t conform to the gendered rules of the day and frequently defied the mainstream movement’s gendered expectations.
In addition to transgressing gendered boundaries, many suffragists also challenged the view that heterosexual marriage between one man and one woman was the only acceptable form of relationship. Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1875-1935) was an African-American writer and activist who worked as an organizer for the Congressional Union (which would become the National Woman’s Party after 1916). The CU focused on lobbying for a federal women’s suffrage amendment and sent field organizers out to rally support, forming local branches in cities throughout the nation. Dunbar-Nelson toured Pennsylvania and New Jersey, appealing to black and white audiences to support women’s right to vote. As a member of the National Association of Colored Women, she advocated for women’s rights while also fighting against racial discrimination and violence against the Black community. Publicly, she cultivated a respectable image as “Mrs. Paul Laurence Dunbar, widow of the famous poet.” Even after she was remarried to Robert Nelson in 1916, she retained Dunbar’s name for the status it afforded her and was thereafter known as Alice Dunbar-Nelson. Although she maintained this public face of respectable heterosexuality, privately, she engaged in romantic and sexual relationships with men and women throughout her single and married life. She wrote about the details of some of these relationships in her diary, revealing a thriving lesbian and bisexual subculture among Black suffragists and clubwomen.
Boston marriages were also common among lesser-known women in the movement. Leona Huntzinger and Elizabeth Hopkinson were working-class women who met at a lace curtain factory in Philadelphia. In 1917, they left their jobs hoping to “get out and see the world” by traveling west toward Chicago. They stopped for a week or two in each town to work before moving on to the next one. Along the way, they purchased a Ford and accepted a job traveling through New York State stumping for women’s suffrage. They drove throughout the Northeast on a six-month tour, camping out of the car and delivering stirring suffrage speeches standing in the backseat. These “pals,” as they dubbed themselves, were inseparable. After the campaign was over, the two women settled down together on a small farm in Pennsylvania where they lived out their lives in a committed loving relationship.
But Laughlin did not forget Sperry. She kept her partner’s ashes with her for life and when she died in 1952, she requested that their remains be interred together in the same grave with both of their names etched on a single marker. This simple brass marker continues to commemorate their life together and their commitment to each other in this world and beyond.
Queer suffragists thus were fighting for much more than the right to vote. They were fighting for a world where they could be free to be who they were and love who they wanted to love.
Oh, and pockets. They really wanted pockets too.
Deconstructing | To examine (something, such as a work of literature) using the methods of deconstruction.
Dominant narrative | Traditional way of telling the story.
Gendered | Reflecting the experience, prejudices, or orientations of one sex more than the other.
Gender fluid | Of, relating to, or being a person whose gender identity is not fixed.
Heteronormative | Of, relating to, or based on the attitude that heterosexuality is the only normal and natural expression of sexuality.
LGBTQ+ | Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning (one's sexual or gender identity).
Non-binary | Relating to or being a person who identifies with or expresses a gender identity that is neither entirely male nor entirely female.
Normative | Of, relating to, or determining norms or standards.
Queering | To consider or interpret (something) from a perspective that rejects traditional categories of gender and sexuality : to apply ideas from queer theory to (something).
Wendy Rouse is an Associate Professor of History at San Jose State University whose scholarly research focuses on the history of women and children in the United States during the Progressive-Era. Her latest book, Her Own Hero: The Origins of the Women’s Self Defense Movement published by NYU Press, examines the political and physical empowerment of women through the practice of boxing and jiu-jitsu in the early twentieth century. She is presently working on a manuscript project called "Queering the History of the Women's Suffrage Movement.”
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