Suffrage Campaign of 1916: A Battle of Narratives

By Jessica Konigsberg, Administration Manager

In recognition of election month and our pledge to vote campaign, we return to the historic election of November 1916, a political opportunity that the newly founded National Woman’s Party leveraged toward a single platform: the national enfranchisement of American women. By 1916, a considerable twelve states had won woman suffrage, an estimated total of 4,000,000 women voters and 91 electoral votes, according to the NWP. These votes could be amassed into a dramatic show of women’s political strength that would bring the national suffrage movement one step closer to victory and unite American women under a common political cause.

Like many of the National Woman’s Party’s unconventional strategies, the approach drew both admiration and ire from politicians, fellow suffragists, and the general public. Some were moved and impressed by the NWP’s uncompromising campaign to unite women voters against the incumbent President Wilson, an opponent of the proposed federal suffrage amendment. Some were angered or offended while others worried the campaign would be ineffective or harmful to the suffrage cause.

Few mediums captured the vibrant spectrum of opinions and attitudes more vividly than the wide-ranging news coverage at the time. NWP leader, Alva Belmont, documented much of this conversation in her suffrage scrapbooks, now housed in the NWP archives (learn more here). These anthologies tell a broad suffrage story that often contrasts with the story told by the NWP’s official newspaper The Suffragist—a publication that, unsurprisingly, celebrated and advocated for the policies of the National Woman’s Party.

To explore these different perspectives, we matched articles from The Suffragist with contrasting articles from Alva’s scrapbooks. The results were at times shocking, thought provoking, funny, and edifying. Striking differences in word choice across articles revealed vastly different views on women’s political and social roles at the time. For example, did the suffragists “antagonize” lawmakers with their demands, or merely exercise basic political participation? Did they “heckle” or simply lobby?

The matches explored topics such as suffrage valentines, the Suffrage Special, and candidate Hughes’ endorsement of national suffrage. We encountered women’s voices skeptical of the NWP’s campaign—a perspective absent in The Suffragist, which instead, frequently testified to the unqualified support and solidarity given by voting women during the campaign (learn more here). The comparisons revealed conflict not just along pro- or anti-suffrage lines, but frequently on the question of strategy. Sometimes, they revealed interesting strategic similarities between the NWP and the less radical national suffrage organization, NAWSA (learn more here).

As we close out the historic events of 1916, we end with one final “battle of narratives.” How did newspapers tell the story of the success or failure of the National Woman’s Party’s 1916 election campaign? Did President Wilson’s re-election in 1916 signify failure of the NWP’s campaign, or something else entirely? These four narratives offered very different perspectives:

1. The NWP’s election campaign had no impact on the election

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“On the whole it seems impossible not to agree with the New York State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage at least in the conclusion that future candidates for political office ‘need not be terrorized by the threat that the woman’s vote can be delivered against them unless they indorse woman suffrage.’”

2. The NWP’s election campaign had no impact, but the results support the case for suffrage

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“The contribution made by women in this campaign has been recognized in suffrage and non-suffrage states alike and has rendered the position of the disenfranchised women ridiculous and intolerable.”

3. The NWP’s election campaign achieved the opposite of its desired impact

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“The women of the West re-elected the President.”

4. The NWP’s election campaign failed, which is good for suffrage

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“The fake ‘Woman’s party’ has been not merely discredited but demolished and its passing gives the real suffrage cause a chance.”

What narrative did the NWP offer about the success of their election campaign? The NWP claimed a modest victory, asserting that women’s votes were not responsible for re-electing President Wilson and that the balance of power still lay with men. Though ten of the twelve suffrage states went to Wilson, they did not do so on account of the woman’s vote, the NWP argued. In fact, in Illinois (where women’s votes were counted separately), “over 70,000 more women voted against Mr. Wilson than for him,” according to The Suffragist (November 11, 1916). Additionally, the election was tighter than it would have been without the NWP’s campaign, The Suffragist argued in a November 25, 1916 article.

“The National Woman’s Party has attained its object in the campaign which has just closed. It made the national enfranchisement of women one of the most prominent issues on which the presidential campaign was fought in the suffrage states.” (The Suffragist, November 11, 1916)

Most contrastingly, the NWP’s post-election narrative was characterized by a staunch refusal to accept defeat in the ongoing fight for woman suffrage. While scrapbook articles focused on the success or failure of the NWP’s campaign, the NWP (and other suffrage organizations) turned their attention to their next steps, continuing to push forward and plan new campaigns, hopeful of their chances in the coming Congress—a Congress recently reminded of the growing power of the woman’s vote.

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“We regard our defeat merely as a Bunker Hill—and Bunker Hill had a Yorktown…. We hold no post-mortems. Our cry to the women of the nation is, ‘One campaign is over—and another has begun.’” (Gail Laughlin in The Suffragist, November 18, 1916)

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