Alternate Universe: Where We’d Be if Suffragettes Had Been Modern Feminists

Universal female suffrage is still a goal for many American women, generations of whom have worked for elective franchise for women for 160 years, since the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention in 1848. The history of that pursuit is worthy of analysis because it can reveal how American women can streamline their strategies, and avoid the mistakes of the past. The women’s movement was once a strong force to be reckoned with in this country, but along the way something went terribly wrong.

For the first 15 years of the 20th century female suffragists had been working on a 50-state strategy. The idea was to campaign for suffrage using new Western states, many of which granted women the right to vote in state elections, as examples to build a consensus, state by state, to allow women to vote. Once all fifty states allowed women to vote, surely the national government would have to concede the national vote as well, they reasoned. Alice Paul and Lucy Burns thought that plan would take too long, and the only way to effectively accomplish the rest of the goals of the women’s movement was to achieve full, national, and immediate suffrage rights for women.

Ultimately, the 50-staters won out, which is why women still can’t vote in states like Alabama, Mississipi, and Texas, even as late as 2008. To understand how we got here, let’s take a look at how this era of history went down.

Radicalized in England under the influence of Emmeline Pankhurst, Alice Paul returned to the United States in 1910 to join the fight for women’s equality. Six years later, frustrated by American Suffragist’s 50-state strategy, Paul, with her friend Lucy Burns, formed the National Women’s Party. There they began to employ some of the more radical tactics they had learned in England. They staged parades, mass meetings, and hunger watches, among other, sometimes even criminal, undertakings.

People hated these newly empowered women. They were vilified, jailed, and eventually beaten. Popular opinion won out: bitter ladies are ineffective for political change, and impotent without the vote to boot. Suffragist leaders continued to attempt to gain national exposure by petitioning every elected Progressive Party member in the land. This strategy was a bit short-sighted, however, as the Progressive Party fell apart in the election of 1916, and they were left with just random elected officials, largely from Western states.

Most suffragists refused to petition Republicans and Democrats, who were the major parties, because they disagreed with many of their policies. Liberal suffragists thought the Republican Party was the party of financial corruption, and conservative suffragists thought the Democratic Party was the party of electoral corruption. These were probably accurate reflections of where the parties were at the time, though in no way indicated the sum total of their work.

Paul and Burns continued to petition every elected official in the land, and to stage “stunts” designed to bring attention to the cause. They were probably the two most hated women in America: They suffered   sexist mistreatment in the streets, and were equally vilified by other suffragist leaders. These suffragist leaders had very serious and complicated moral standards, and they did not see the use in working with people they disagreed with, even toward ends where they may have agreed, such as universal suffrage. Eventually tortured by their universal outcast status, Paul and Burns gave up in 1929, the year the stock market crashed. Burns died shortly thereafter, and Paul ended her life as a destitute. She died in 1954; the cause of death was malnutrition.

Finally Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected, and women rejoiced. Surely this man, with his wonderfully progressive wife, would finally deign to enfranchise women. When Carrie Chapman Catt petitioned him, however, he said what he said to every constituency that petitioned him: You’ve convinced me; now MAKE me. Unlike other constituencies, however, Catt could offer FDR no voting block, since women could not vote nationally. Suffragists were in what we would call today a “catch-22 situation.” They would have to continue with their 50 state strategy, which is still the strategy in place today.

As of 2008, only 36 states have granted women the right to vote, six of which allow women to vote in local elections only. As a result, few women have been elected to national Congress, none in the Senate, and women  have made few inroads at the state level. While there has been the occasional western Suffragist star, such as State Senator Jeannette Rankin from Montana, to date there have only been four female members of congress, all Representatives. There has never been a female senator. No woman has ever run for the highest offices in the land, the Presidential and Vice Presidential offices, and no women have been appointed to the Supreme Court. There is currently only one women serving in congress, Representative Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-New York). Rodham Clinton was previously the First Lady, and is married to former President Bill Clinton.


The young women of today—free to study, to speak, to write, to choose their occupation —should remember that every inch of this freedom was bought for them at a great price… the debt that each generation owes to the past, it must pay to the future.

~ Abigail Scott Dunaway


30 comments on “Alternate Universe: Where We’d Be if Suffragettes Had Been Modern Feminists

  1. annabellep says:

    Can you hear me now?

    This is an open thread.

    Check it out, folks! A PUMA put the DONC up for sale on Ebay!

  2. Lorey says:

    Do thery put dead things for sale on E-bay cause the DNC is deceased, at least as a democratic institution.

  3. Chevalier says:

    Omg. The scary part about this post is that it sounds so …possible!

  4. annabellep says:

    Thanks, Chevalier. I’ve edited it to make it seem even more plausible, I think. I published it an hour or so too soon, but I was excited by the concept.

    And yes, I guess necrophilia is okay with ebay, Lorey! Heh.

  5. Yankee Hope says:

    The main reason so many women are having a hard time is because they insist on being Democrats. Republicans FOUGHT the Democrats to ensure women’s rights. Why the hell would a women want to belong to a party whose history suppressed their views and whose present does the same?

  6. carpetride says:

    you annabellep,
    i am glad you posted this after MS steinem’s drivel yesterday…it’s time for a new women’s movement. past time…

    The Elephant in the Room.

    This describes me in a nutcase-shell…I can’t believe I have loosened the reins of the Dim-ocratic Party’s shackles,
    and have jumped into the Lion’s den of the Republican camp.
    Just testing the water, and so far, the peanuts are the same…except for…SARAH PALIN…
    finally a woman on the top ticket. Yes, I am that kind of feminist.

  7. clem greco says:

    the suffragettes had one goal …..for women to be treated as equals….there were no questions of pty affilation
    or a litmus test on issues.

    to quote susan b anthony ”it was we the people.not we the white male citizens…nor yet we, the male citizens…but we the wholE people, who formed the union.”..




  8. LSekhmet says:

    This is an outstanding piece of writing, Anna Belle. Thank you.

    Just can’t get over how many feminists have abandoned Hillary Clinton — they truly sicken me, and have forgotten what we’re all fighting for IMNSHO.

  9. annabellep says:

    Thanks LSekhmet.

    This piece is apparently reaching people, because it’s had over 400 hits since I first posted it around noon today, and that’s more traffic than I usually see in one day.

    If you have a blog, please feel free to steal this piece and post it there. It needs to be seen by as many people as possible. I’ll be leaving it up here all weekend.

  10. sister of ye says:

    Great post. I agree that it’s far too plausible.

    I’m new here; I think I first followed a link from The Confluence. But I have you bookmarked, and so far it’s looking like I’ll be a daily visitor, maybe throwing in the odd comment or two. (I specialize in odd comments.)

    Once again, a tip of my cap to you.

  11. Lynne McCullagh says:

    The Democats chose a black male over a woman as Fredrick Douglas chose his right to vote over Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady-Stantons right to vote. Now that the Republicans have a woman V.P. Obama has the nerve to ask Hillary to come out and help him. He didn’t pick her for V.P. but he wants her help now! He is using her and dosn’t really care about women. Once again men put themselves first! Do women have to wait fifty years till a woman can be a V.P. or a President? like we had to wait fifty years after Frederick Douglas made Susan B Anthony and all women wait to vote!
    The Democratic party dosn’t practice what they preach and have the nerve to say sexist things about Palin! Democrats are hypocrits who use women to keep the men in office. The women do alot of hard work and are loyal to only be kept in there place! The dems are liars, users, and abusers of women!
    I am voting for Mcain-Palin.

  12. Sunshinelvr says:

    Again excellent piece of work! And again Hillary is allowing herself to be used. I don’t know why I expected Hillary and Geraldine Ferraro to be strong enough to tell that bunch of hypocrits to shove off, but I guess I did. It saddens me greatly to see two such wonderful women allowing themselves to be used like this! I will be voting for Sarah Palin & John McCain and am proud to say so! I don’t know if I will ever go back to the Democratic party. Their actions (and in-actions) this year have sickened me.

  13. Elaine says:

    Many of our PUMAs and related groups, who refuse to support Obama, are doing EXACTLY what Alice Paul and Lucy Burns did to get women the vote: they refused to support either political party. The winning strategies included refusing to endorse the Democrats in 1914 and 1916 even though they were told that the Democrats would fight for issues important to women, like peace. This strategy was based not just on what they learned from the Parkhursts, but also from the influence of Ghandi. Alice Paul was a Quaker, and non-violent protest was a crucial part of her successful strategy. We could use a national voice like Alice Paul’s, urging us to stay together to REFUSE to support any party or candidate that does not support our right to vote. Which I would argue we still don’t have. Ok, we technically can vote; but how much longer till we get our votes counted?

    Today, the Democrats say that we should support a candidate who was selected by a process that disenfranchised many women and other groups. But, that shouldn’t matter to us, because the Democrats will fight for other issues important to us, like peace and abortion. Yet, if we support a party that won’t count our votes, we won’t get our votes counted for generations to come.

    Visit my web site on PUMAs and Suffragists:

  14. annabellep says:

    Thanks for the comment and the link Elaine. I’ll check your place out.

    I do want to clarify one thing for my readers. I hope you don’t mind.

    While it’s true that Alice Paul and the suffragists working on the cause during the 19-teen years refused to support either party, they were willing to work with any party that would work to give them the vote. They could not yet vote, so of course they couldn’t support any party, and they also refused endorsement, but they never once said “this party is too corrupt to petition.” They tried every avenue for years and years.

  15. annabellep says:

    Oh, and I couldn’t agree more with your point about us needing a national voice like Paul’s. I thought Hillary might be it, but obviously not. Paul would have never accepted what Hillary’s accepted.

  16. creeper says:

    Sadly, I have come to the conclusion that Hillary Clinton may never have another shot at the White House. In caving to the Obama party, Clinton has marginalized her own importance and compromised any claim she might have to being an agent of change herself.

    Those of us who do not place party first are already moving on. Many of us will vote Republican this fall, for the first time in years, because of the respect expressed for women in the nomination of Sarah Palin.

    We are women first and Democrats (or Independents now) second. This is the choice thrust on us by Barack Obama, with Hillary’s co-operation. Much as I like and respect her I will not reward her corrupt party with my vote.

  17. Anna says:

    Much as I sympathize with much that has been said here – I have to ask – Palin’s political beliefs, values are what? I’ve been an ardent feminist my whole life & very much wanted Hilary to win. Yes – Obama should have picked her. Now he’s paying for it. However, what Palin & McCain stand for is at odds with my personal value, belief system. Yes – Palin is a woman. But from everything I have heard thus far – she will not necessarily be an advocate for other women or for issues that matter to women. At least not me. As a feminist I believe in supporting all women – not just one woman candidate. And I support her quest to be VP. However – in that quest she must prove herself to be the most qualified person for the job. In my own job – I have to meet certain expectations that have nothing to do with my sex.

    Thanks for the very thought provoking post. There is much to learn from the American & British suffragettes – sadly not taught in schools. Perhaps if it were – we would finally raise a different generation of both young women & young men – one that valued the incredible contributions of women to human history. Sadly, most curriculums are still totally male centered. In light of this – is our current “Hilary-less” situation any surprise? No. Sadly, no.

    Thanks for reminding the blogosphere about the suffragettes.

  18. Vicki Davisson says:

    I am shocked to see the squalid lies thrown at Governor Sarah Palin. I used to be a Democrat, but switched to Republican years ago. I’m pretty conservative and have focused on the Republican race, hoping for Mitt Romney but I was OK with McCain. BUT, I am actually quite ashamed of not speaking up for Hillary, even though she has views I strongly disagree with. Still, she is a patriot and loyal (probably why she reflexively agreed to help Obama), probably to a fault. I’ll always feel badly I didn’t try to help her more, especially faced with the slander and libel she endured. I really admire her now. I hope she does as little as possible, or nothing, to help Obama. I did hear that her campaign said her schedule is “full for the next two months.”

    Bless you all!


  19. annabellep says:

    Anna, thanks for the thoughtful tone, and for the legitimate questions. I can’t answer them in this one comment (the answers are way too long and complicated, plus I’m tired from lack of sleep), but I encourage you to come back tomorrow afternoon sometime, as I am currently working on a post called The Logic of Voting for Sarah Palin. I think it will answer many of your questions.

    Thanks for your comments as well, creeper and Vicki. And welcome from PUMApac Sunshinelvr!

  20. Elaine says:


    Yes, the Suffragists did support a party that supported them. By 1916, and I thi+nk 1914, some women could vote in some states and they had an impact on the election. Have you seen this book –Alice Paul and the American suffrage Campaign by Katherine H. Adams and Michael L. Keene? Just came out this year, and is excellent. Also the Alice paul center has been really helpful to me, and will copy material from their archives when they have the time.

    Later today, I’m going to post on my blog about my personal theory that Alice Paul today might well support the Republicans this year. If the basic issue is: “fair voting” as is the concept of our democracy, I see the Republicans as standing for that. Certainly not the Dems. this year. I look forward to more conversation with you on this topic!

  21. annabellep says:

    No, I hadn’t seen that book, and thanks for the tip. I’ll check it out. I’ll also be checking out your theory, for sure. Can’t wait. I think we may be on to something with this direction!

  22. virginiaharris says:

    Read this for your daughters!

    Senator Clinton and Governor Palin are proof that women can and do diverge on important issues.

    Even on the question of whether women should vote!

    Most people are totally in the dark about HOW the suffragettes won votes for women, and what life was REALLY like for women before they did.

    Suffragettes were opposed by many women who were what was known as ‘anti.’

    The most influential ‘anti’ lived in the White House. First Lady Edith Wilson was a wealthy Washington widow who married President Wilson in 1915.

    Her role in Wilson’s decision to jail and torture Alice Paul and hundreds of other suffragettes will never be fully known, but she was outraged that these women picketed her husband’s White House.

    I’d like to share a women’s history learning opportunity…

    “The Privilege of Voting” is a new free e-mail series that follows eight great women from 1912 – 1920 to reveal ALL that happened to set the stage for women to win the vote.

    It’s a real-life soap opera! And it’s ALL true!

    Powerful suffragettes Alice Paul and Emmeline Pankhurst are featured, along with TWO gorgeous presidential mistresses, First Lady Edith Wilson, Edith Wharton, Isadora Duncan and Alice Roosevelt.

    There are tons of heartache on the rocky road to the ballot box, but in the end, women WIN!

    Thanks to the suffragettes women have voices and choices!

    Exciting, sequential episodes are great to read on coffeebreaks, or anytime.

    Subscribe free at

  23. RoPiNi says:

    Nice alternate history of suffrage. I actually thought, and still think reading it, you are saying what would have happened if the people who “supported” Hillary this year had been around back then.

    And you are right, this is where we would be if women had abandoned their principles the second they didn’t get exactly what they wanted.

    It’s wonderful to see what the women here, on this blog, are doing with their hard earned votes….ignoring issues and voting for the woman.

    Nicely done, Susan would be so proud.

  24. annabellep says:

    Nice use of guilt and shame rhetoric to try control another person’s vote. Yes, Susan would be so proud. She’d also be voting for the Republican ticket this year.

  25. JB says:

    This is my first time to this blog, but despite the risk of possibly undermining my own credibility in the eyes of the regulars who read this blog, I’ll first say that I am a white male in my late 20s. Although I can’t cite one specific instance, I’ll concede that I probably have benefited from being a male at some point in my life. That being said, however, I can identify with the disenfranchised and disadvantaged probably more than most other males, since I have endured some pretty significant health problems on-and-off since childhood. I also live in a more rural part of the midwest, and have seen my fair share of bigotry. And let me tell you, I have seen my fair share of BIGOTED DEMOCRATS out here. I have a huge extended family, and most of my uncles (20 or more) are hard-core union members and democrats. And all their male friends are hardcore union members and democrats. While I have never seen anything to indicate any of them have ever abused their wives (in the traditional physical or verbal sense of the word), every single one of those union democrats are very sexist, and many are racist as well. In fact, I encouraged my younger sister to not ever marry any guy from anywhere around the own where I grew up — because I have seen in the local culture how *most* of them view and treat women. Luckily for me, my mother, who is a very strong woman, was the first in her family to get a college degree and the only to have graduate degrees. Probably as a result of her education in a large urban center, and being a career woman, my mother has always made it a priority to teach the my brother and I to respect women. Influencing me more than that, though, are her actual actions in this regard. She is a strong advocate for women’s equality, and has helped countless other women in my area to aspire to be more than local society would expect from them. However, my mother is very much opposed to abortion overall (with exceptions for health of mother at issue b/c of pregnancy) because she does consider this to be the killing of an innocent human life. My point is this: women, like most other subdivisions of various demographic groups, are NOT MONOLITHIC. They never were and they never will be. Just because some women oppose the legality of abortion does not mean that they are anti-woman or opposed to women’s equality; rather, it simply means that these women view abortion as unethical and murder – and murder trumps gender, regardless of
    one’s gender. I am not here to argue for or against abortion — it is simply an illustration. And, by the way, she is not one of these ultra evangelical moral-sob types who tries to shove their “holier-than-thou” religion on everyone else. In fact, none of us in my family can stand these religious zealots. I believe this is also related to my past distaste for some in the modern feminist movement, since I see a parallel between these evangelical types many of whom don’t tolerate any people with views different from their own (and indeed tend to look down upon those who have different views), and those feminists and so-called liberals who also don’t tolerate people with views different from their own. A perfect example of such intolerance is how the Obamabots have treated Hillary supporters. Another example is how many liberals and feminists on other blogs continue to treat you feminists & liberals who have decided that they would rather side with Palin/McCain than with Obama, for whatever various reasons you have (some don’t like how sexist Obama has been, other don’t think Obama has enough experience, and yet others simply don’t trust Obama b/c he has not been exactly forthcoming re: some of his rather unsavory associates and windows of time in his past that have not been accounted for, etc etc etc.).

    I’ve not particularly identified with modern feminists (not b/c I’m sexist, but b/c I’ve sometimes had a few problems with what I saw as blinding loyalty to one party, and not to the issues first — in short, I felt a while back that A VOCAL PURALITY of some feminists didn’t always seem to have ALL women’s interests at heart. This has been made public in how Obama & his supporters treated Hillary and her supporters.

    Kudos to those feminists who have shown their true intellectual honesty by telling it like it is re: Obama. Even I, as a male, was ABSOLUTELY DISGUSTED with all the sexist attacks on Hillary and not on Sarah Palin. Guliani may or may not have been sincere when he chided democrats for criticizing Palin for not choosing her family/kids (i.e., staying bare-foot and pregnant over her career) over her career. ABSOLUTELY DISGUSTED. Guliani was the only person to say what I had actually been thinking since announcement of Palin.

    Repubs are not perfect by any means, but having the willingness to openly support and to vote for an opposing party, when one’s original party does something wrong, is a mark of true intellectual honesty as opposed to simple party loyalty. And I give Kudos once again to those who can at least admit this, instead of those who continue to defend the abhorent behavior of Obama, his supporters, and the DNC. This is why I have been a registered Independent since turning 18!!!

    Nothing would ever get done for anyone in this country if people had been blindly loyal to one party for their entire life, right or left, throughout America’s history.

  26. annabellep says:

    Thanks for commenting, JB. Your gender doesn’t matter to us at P&L. It’s not a source of credibility one way or the other.

    Sounds like you’ve had some interesting experiences, and I thank you for being moved enough to share them here. Come back anytime. We won’t bite, I promise. 🙂

  27. Pat says:

    How can you say Palin is a feminist ?
    How can you be proud of her as a representative of women?

    She wanted to choose to keep her Downs syndrome baby (and had that right)
    She wants her unmarried daughter to keep her baby
    (and her daughter that right)

    But she wants to take AWAY the right to CHOOSE from every other woman.
    She wants abortion illegalized.
    EVEN in the cases of rape or incest!
    I certainly do not want the goverment taking away my personal choices

  28. […] Womens Suffrage (For Higher history)? Ok, so i'm a little worried. I have a nab coming up soon for higher history and one of the possible Women's Suffrage Qu's we never went over in class. It's along the lines of: ''Who did more to get women the vote- Suffragettes or Suffragists'' How would you suggest that i start this essay (what do i include in the intro? Do i discuss what women managed to achieve?),what should i make sure i include? I'm a little confused on the structure- we usually go over what each questions asks for, but never on this and i'm worried if it comes up i'll answer it all wrong. Any help is appreciated- cheers! ANSWER: here is a test you can take to help you… and read this it is a bit out of date now that hillary has run but a good article… […]

  29. […] Alternate Universe: Where We’d Be if Suffragettes Had Been Disaffected Hillary Clinton Support…: This post could also have been titled “Where We’d Be If Suffragettes Had Been Liberal Feminists” or “Where We’d Be If Suffragettes Had Been Modern Feminists.” I loved writing this piece because I love writing about history, and because I think it’s particularly useful in “showing” versus “telling” how modern politically active women have missed the lessons of our own history (if we even knew that history). […]

  30. […] view with regard to political allegiance and activism. What follows is not a real history report. A version of this article has been previously published […]

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