The history of the US woman suffrage movement is usually told as a national one. It begins with the 1848 Seneca Falls convention; follows numerous state campaigns, court battles, and petitions to Congress; and culminates in the marches and protests that led to the Nineteenth Amendment. This narrative, however, overlooks how profoundly international the struggle was from the start. Suffragists from the United States and other parts of the world collaborated across national borders. They wrote to each other; shared strategies and encouragement; and spearheaded international organizations, conferences, and publications that in turn spread information and ideas. Many were internationalist, understanding the right to vote as a global goal.
Enlightenment concepts, socialism, and the abolitionist movement helped US suffragists universalize women’s rights long before Seneca Falls. They drew their inspiration not only from the American Revolution, but from the French and Haitian Revolutions, and later from the Mexican and Russian Revolutions. Many were immigrants who brought ideas from their homelands. Others capitalized on the Spanish-American War and the First World War to underscore contradictions between the United States’ growing global power and its denial of woman suffrage. A number of women of color used the international stage to challenge US claims to democracy, not only in terms of women’s rights but also in terms of racism in the United States and in the suffrage movement itself. The complex international connections and strategies that suffragists cultivated reveal tensions in feminist organizing that reverberated in later movements and are instructive today.
These multiple, and sometimes conflicting, international strands worked in synergy, bolstering the suffrage cause and expanding the women’s rights agenda. The resources that women shared with each other across national borders allowed suffrage movements to overcome political marginalization and hostility in their own countries. A radical challenge to power, the US movement for women’s voting rights required transnational support to thrive.
Abolitionism and the Transnational Origins of Women’s Rights
Although the American Revolution and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), which circulated in the United States, activated discussion of women’s rights, it was the transatlantic crucible of abolitionism that truly galvanized the US women’s rights movement. The antislavery movement, which Frederick Douglass called “peculiarly woman’s cause,” provided broad ideals of “liberty” as well as key political strategies that suffragists would use for the next fifty years—the mass petition, public speaking, and the boycott. Transatlantic networks of organizations, conferences, and publications drove abolitionism. Women in the United States looked to their British sisters, who in 1826 made the first formal demand for an immediate rather than gradual end to slavery.
Boston reformer and African American abolitionist Maria Stewart, one of the first US women to publicly call for women’s rights before a mixed-race and mixed-sex audience, embraced a diasporic vision of freedom when she asked in 1832, “How long shall the fair daughters of Africa be compelled to bury their minds and talents beneath a load of iron pots and kettles?” Her vision of rights for African American women, specifically, in the face of economic marginalization, segregation, and slavery, drew upon universal rights that she found expressed not only in the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence but in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Haitian Revolution, the largest slave uprising, from 1791 to 1804.
The resulting 1848 Seneca Falls Convention and its demands for women’s rights were only possible because of abolitionists’ groundwork and the broad meanings of emancipation flourishing in the United States and in Europe, where revolutions had broken out that year. Stanton’s idea to include the right to vote in the convention’s Declaration of Sentiments was directly inspired by calls for universal suffrage made by British Chartists, the first mass working-class movement in England. Quaker minister and abolitionist Lucretia Mott explicitly connected the Declaration to the 1848 abolition of slavery in the French West Indies, opposition to the US war with Mexico, and Native American rights. She and Stanton also found models in the matrilineal communities of the Seneca people, in which women held political power. The right to vote proved to be the convention’s most controversial demand, and abolitionist Frederick Douglass was one of its most avid proponents.
The right to vote became key to the many US women’s rights conventions that Seneca Falls set into motion, inspiring and drawing on the support of women in Europe and elsewhere, including immigrant women in the United States. In 1851, from Paris jail cells, revolutionary women’s rights activists cheered US women’s activism. In March 1852, German immigrant and socialist Mathilde Anneke started the first women’s rights journal in the United States published by a woman, the Deutsche Frauen-Zeitung. After the Prussian victory over Germany she had fled to the United States, where she became a friend of Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Polish-born immigrant and abolitionist Ernestine Rose expressed her global vision for suffrage in 1851: “We are not contending for the rights of women in New England, or of old England, but of the world.”
Such ideas resonated with Sarah Parker Remond, whose life reflects the overlapping transnational abolitionist and woman suffrage movements. In 1832 she helped found the first female antislavery group in Salem, Massachusetts. In 1859, while on an antislavery speaking tour in England, Remond reported, “I have been received here as a sister by white women for the first time in my life. . . . I have received a sympathy I never was offered before.” For Remond, transnational connections became a concrete way to escape racism in the United States. She settled permanently in Italy, where she became a physician. In 1866, Remond affixed her name to John Stuart Mill’s petition to the British Parliament for woman suffrage. (Figure 1)
Transnational connections initiated by the nineteenth-century abolitionist movement only grew in the following decades. After construction of the first transatlantic telegraph lines in the 1860s, communications, travel, and transnational print culture helped produce the first international organizations for women’s rights that drew significantly on US women: the World’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), founded in 1884 by US temperance leader Frances Willard; the International Council of Women (ICW), founded in 1888 by Stanton and Anthony; the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA, later renamed the International Alliance of Women), founded in 1904 and presided over by Carrie Chapman Catt (then-president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association); and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), founded by US social settlement worker Jane Addams in 1915.
Alongside each organization’s particular focus—international arbitration, universal disarmament, temperance, married women’s civil rights, anti-trafficking of women, equal pay for equal work, among others—a global goal of women’s political equality drove them. These organizations connected women across the lines of nation, culture, and language and had overlapping memberships. They hosted international conferences, and they helped spearhead publications such as the IACW’s Jus Sufffragii and the ICW’s Bulletin, which shared information about suffrage organizing in Asia, Latin America, Europe, and other parts of the world.
Of the four, the WCTU inspired the most dramatic grassroots suffrage activism, becoming the largest women’s organization in the world, with over forty national affiliates. An outgrowth of the US Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (1874), the WCTU argued that women could use their vote to promote temperance and end men’s alcohol-infused violence. The organization transformed the goal of woman suffrage into a legible and compelling one for large numbers of women. Spearheading the first organized suffrage efforts in the white British colonies of South Africa, New Zealand, and South Australia, the WCTU was responsible for the world’s first national suffrage victory in New Zealand in 1893, and in Australia in 1902. (Figure 2)
Although these groups spoke of “global sisterhood,” their memberships were predominantly Anglo-American and European, and their publications usually only published in French, English, and German, in spite of demands to expand beyond these languages from women in Spanish-speaking countries and other parts of the world. These international groups generally marginalized or excluded, and in the WCTU’s case segregated, US women of color.
These groups often reflected what historians have called “imperial feminism”—a belief that white, Western women will “uplift” women in “uncivilized” parts of the world. This logic went hand in hand with some suffrage efforts. WCTU missionaries in Hawai'i who sought to secure woman suffrage there in the 1890s, allied with white US business and military interests establishing imperial control over the island. Suffragists also demanded the vote in the United States’ imperial acquisitions from the 1898 Spanish-American War—the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba—both as part of a civilizing mission and to force discussion of a federal suffrage amendment in the United States. Meanwhile, while celebrating early suffrage victories within the western United States in the same period, most white suffragists overlooked the fact that these states denied the right to vote accorded native-born white women to many Asian American, Mexican American, and Native American women.
African American suffragists powerfully critiqued Anglo-American dominance on the international stage and within the US suffrage movement as they made important contributions to it. They also continued to connect global ideals of “freedom” with local women’s rights issues, expanding the international agenda to address such goals as universal suffrage for men and women, anti-lynching, and education. Former abolitionist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a pivotal African American civil rights and women’s rights leader, spoke at the 1888 founding of the ICW and oversaw the formation of many “colored WCTU” groups that contributed to school suffrage victories in several states in the 1890s. On a speaking tour in England, the anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells brought global attention to WCTU president Frances Willard’s failure to defend African American men lynched on false rape accusations. Wells went on to found the most vital African American woman suffrage group in the country, the Alpha Suffrage Club, in Chicago, and at the 1913 suffrage March on Washington, she refused to be relegated to the back of the procession, reserved for African American women. In 1904, Mary Church Terrell, the first president of the National Association of Colored Women, spoke in fluent German at the ICW meeting in Berlin, pointing out that a global women’s rights agenda must include attention to Black women’s unequal access to many rights, including education and employment. Newspapers in Germany, France, Norway, and Austria lauded her speech.
At the end of the nineteenth century, a more modern and militant suffrage internationalism emerged. A growing embrace of the term “feminism”—implying a movement that demanded women’s full autonomy—along with working women’s strong public presence, international socialism, and the Russian Revolution, contributed to the idea of a new womanhood breaking free from old constraints.
International socialism had long upheld universal, direct, and equal suffrage as a demand, but in the 1890s, German socialist firebrand Clara Zetkin revived the goal, spearheading the inclusion of woman suffrage in the 1889 Second International in Paris. This gathering of socialist and labor parties from twenty countries in turn fostered vigorous women’s movements in Germany, France, and elsewhere in Europe. In Finland, socialist feminists and the Social Democratic Party were critical to the country’s, also Europe’s first, woman suffrage victory in 1906.
Socialism, and the growing numbers of working women it inspired, breathed new life into the US suffrage movement. In 1909, women workers in New York demanded women’s right to vote, launching what became International Women’s Day. Over the next six years, working women exploded in labor militancy, viewing the vote as a tool against unjust working conditions and for what Polish-born labor organizer and suffragist Rose Schneiderman called “bread and roses.” The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that claimed the lives of 145 workers, most of whom were young, immigrant women, made suffrage more urgent. Collaborations with middle-class reformers helped spread many of the tactics that suffragists later employed on a wider scale: mass meetings, marches, and open-air street speaking.
Immigrants and women from throughout the Americas were key to these efforts, and to connecting suffrage to broad social justice goals. In cigar factories in Tampa, Florida, the Puerto Rican anti-imperialist, anarchist, and feminist Luisa Capetillo inspired African American, Cuban American, and Italian American women workers with calls for woman suffrage, and for free love, workers’ rights, and vegetarianism. From Texas, Mexican-born feminist Teresa Villarreal, who had fled the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, supported the Mexican Revolution, the Socialist Party, and woman suffrage, publishing with her sister Andrea that state’s first feminist newspaper, La Mujer Moderna (The Modern Woman) and starting the publication El Obrero (The Worker). (Figure 3) In 1911, after the First Mexican Congress in Laredo, Texas, journalist Jovita Idar praised woman suffrage in La Crónica (The Chronicle) connecting it to her longstanding demands for Mexican American civil rights.
Socialist, working-class suffrage militancy in England also galvanized the British Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst. This group became the driving force in the British movement for nearly two decades, influencing militant suffrage activism around the world, including in China. After the US suffragist Alice Paul, one of Pankhurst’s followers, was arrested in London in 1912, she helped organize the 1913 suffrage march in Washington, DC, and founded the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, later renamed the National Woman’s Party (NWP), that focused on a federal constitutional suffrage amendment. Its sash of purple, white, and yellow was modeled on the British purple, white, and green one, and its confrontational suffrage strategies of civil disobedience and picketing government buildings were inspired in large part by WSPU activism.
The First World War, and a wave of suffrage legislation in Europe, further accelerated the US suffrage movement. In the five years after 1914, suffrage passed in Denmark, Iceland, Russia, Canada, Austria, Germany, Poland, and England. Although the NWP had already been picketing the White House for several months, it was only when they embarrassed President Woodrow Wilson in front of a visiting Russian delegation, whose wartime cooperation he was trying to secure, that the first six suffragists were arrested. These women, held on charges of obstructing traffic, were followed by a long line of US women imprisoned for suffrage activism. The violence they faced on the picket line (for holding signs saying “Kaiser Wilson” amid rabid anti-German sentiment) and in jail, with forced feedings during hunger strikes, became international news. International pressure helped compel Wilson’s January 1918 announcement of support for suffrage, as he promoted the Unites States as a beacon of democracy. By this time, the House had already passed the suffrage amendment (the Senate would still vote against it), but Wilson’s endorsement was significant to US and international public opinion. In Uruguay, suffragists utilized Wilson’s support to push their legislators toward suffrage. (Figure 4)
Two more years of federal and state lobbying and organizing led to ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in August 1920. For Crystal Eastman, a pacifist, enthusiast of the Russian Revolution, and cofounder of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), this accomplishment represented not an end, but a new beginning—one with internationalist significance: “Now [feminists] can say what they are really after,” she announced, “and what they are after, in common with all the rest of the struggling world, is freedom.”
Struggles for women’s voting rights did not end with ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which failed to eliminate the residency requirements, poll taxes, and literacy tests in the South that denied African American men and women the vote. African American women would not achieve this right until the 1965 Voting Rights Act. For many, lack of rights in the United States drove new transnational activism. In the 1920s and ’30s, African American women collaborated with women from Africa, the Caribbean, and around the globe in the International Council of Women of the Darker Races (1922) and in Pan-Africanist and leftist organizing that connected demands for women’s political autonomy with those for antiracism, anticolonialism, Black nationalism, specifically viewing Black women’s self-determination as critical to broad and transformative social justice.
US women’s involvement in Pan-American feminism was also an outgrowth of the US suffrage movement. In 1928, US and Cuban feminists created the Inter-American Commission of Women, the first intergovernmental organization in the world. Initially led by NWP suffrage veteran Doris Stevens, the commission forced an international treaty for women’s civil and political equal right into Pan-American and League of Nations congresses. A heterogeneous group of Latin American feminists, however, also recognized continuing efforts of US women to dominate the movement and developed their own anti-imperialist Pan-Hispanic feminism that demanded the vote. They asserted their own leadership over Pan-American feminism and used it to call for derechos humanos, which implied women’s political, civil, social, and economic rights alongside anti-imperialism and anti-fascism. At the 1945 San Francisco meeting that created the United Nations, Latin American female delegates, led by Brazilian feminist Bertha Lutz, drew on this movement to push women’s rights into the UN Charter and proposed what became the UN Commission on the Status of Women. In the wake of these events, numerous Latin American countries passed woman suffrage. (Figure 5)
The transnational legacies of the suffrage movement are evident in US women’s ongoing quests for full citizenship today. Then as now, fights for women’s rights are connected to global movements for human rights—for immigrant, racial, labor, and feminist justice. The internationalist history of the woman suffrage movement shows us that activists and movements outside the United States, and a broad range of diverse, international goals, were critical to organizing for that right deemed so quintessentially American—the right to vote. It reminds us how much we in the United States have to learn from feminist struggles around the world.
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