With women’s history month having drawn to a close, it is a good time to reflect on the suffrage movement and, more particularly, on the role of the suffrage organizers. The suffrage organizers became the unsung heroines of the movement. We usually hear a great deal about suffrage leaders like Carrie Chapman Catt and Alice Paul, or of events like the 1913 suffrage parade that ended in a riot, or the picketing of the White House. But it was the day-to-day work of the organizers that made the movement a well-oiled machine.
Most of the suffrage organizers were college graduates, relatively young, and spent weeks on the road speaking and setting up local chapters of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) or the National Woman’s Party (NWP). Their schedules were grueling, getting up early or catching a late train to reach their next destination, sometimes several stops in one day. They often traveled hundreds or thousands of miles on these speaking tours. It was both thrilling and exhausting to engage in such work.
Open air meetings were quite common. From an automobile the organizers found a busy street corner, stopped, and then began speaking. Some of these were planned, but others were spontaneous. Alice Paul recalled that using an automobile was a cost effective way of organizing. All one needed to do was drive into a town, stop, and get up to speak – no need to rent a hall or theater. The vehicles themselves became the speaking platform. The organizers quickly learned how to deliver a speech with earnestness and humor. Some of the organizers were not very sure of themselves, but soon gained confidence and were sent out again and again.
A consistent issue that the organizers had to deal with was hecklers. Sara Bard Field, an organizer for the Congressional Union (CU, the precursor of the National Woman’s Party) told of how in one hall in Nevada, there were a number of giggling young men and women in a balcony, but they settled down as she captivated them with her speech. Mabel Vernon, another organizer for the CU and NWP, was well known for her ability to handle hecklers. In the open air meetings it was common for the pro-suffrage listeners to silence the anti-suffragists present.
Organizers kept their headquarters informed with telegrams, the text messages of that day and age, hand-written or typed notes and letters. Headquarters took details to use in their organization’s newspapers, NAWSA’s The Woman’s Journal and Suffrage News, and the NWP’s The Suffragist. The dramas and mishaps often made great stories that appeared in press releases. For while we may not know about the work of the suffrage organizers today, local newspapers at the time carried stories about organizers’ visits to towns.
Many of the organizers sacrificed jobs or forsook careers for which they had trained to become organizers. Elsie Hill, an organizer for the NWP, for example, gave up a teaching post to work for the passage of the suffrage amendment. Women who anticipated only doing a bit of work for suffrage found themselves agreeing to do much more, thanks to the gentle yet persuasive nudging of Alice Paul. Such was the case of Sara Bard Field, who wanted to start a new book of poetry in the fall of 1915, but Paul encouraged her to undertake a cross-country automobile journey for the CU to deliver a massive petition to Washington, D.C. instead. It was easier to find women willing to do this work for the NAWSA, since this organization had many more members and a lot more money to engage in these kinds of endeavors. However, the NWP had a couple of wealthy donors and those who specifically subsidized some of the organizer’s trips.
A large network of women who trained in the trenches as organizers emerged with an impressive set of skills. They became polished public speakers, who were adept at dealing with crises that arose along the trail. They learned how to quickly plan events and meetings. They learned how to write down details of their meetings and speeches for regular press releases. It is hard to find a story of a woman’s suffrage organizer who did not utilize those skills in their remaining lives.
Without their hard work and dedication, the suffrage movement would not have succeeded – and the activism that followed owed a great deal to their efforts and example.