“We send into the world today a new paper:” The business and management of The Suffragist
By: Sarah Boonie
Collections Education and Outreach Intern
On November 15, 1913, Alice Paul used those nine words to introduce the new paper of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (later the National Woman’s Party or NWP). Titled The Suffragist, this paper would serve until 1920 as the printed voice of the NWP’s suffrage movement. It would grow from a relatively small enterprise to an in-demand periodical becoming a unique and necessary part of the campaign that would win women the right to vote.
The purpose of The Suffragist was to spread the word on women’s suffrage and to keep readers up to date with the advancements and shortfalls of the movement from the unique tactical perspective of the NWP, which advocated a constitutional amendment for woman suffrage and held the party in power responsible for its passage. Many familiar with the NWP are well acquainted with the cartoons that often appeared on the covers and the witty, moving, and pointed articles that often appeared inside. However, the behind the scenes work of running the paper is just as interesting as this bold public face.
Over the years, many women took on responsibilities at the paper in addition to, or as their primary work within the organization. In a March 1917 issue of The Suffragist, these women were praised for their work and dedication. At that time, Vivian Pierce was a co-editor of the weekly with Pauline Clark; but the woman highlighted the most was Miss Elizabeth Smith. Miss Smith was described as a “Suffragist pioneer” and at the time of the article, (March 1917), had been with the paper for over two years. Notably, before the expansion of the paper due to its popularity, she alone comprised the business, circulation, and advertising departments. In this capacity Miss Smith, with the help of a few volunteers, would address each paper (by hand) and fold and paste them before they were distributed. Luckily, by 1917 this was no longer necessary.
Over the course of the seven years it was in publication, The Suffragist gained a popular following with circulation numbers reaching 5,253 in 1918. Over time, the management of the paper became a well-oiled machine thanks to the dedicated work of many editors, business managers, writers, office workers, and distributors who contributed to the production.
Many women who were members of the party were assigned to distribute the paper and sell memberships. In order to encourage the sellers and boost the reach of the paper, contests were often held with rewards available to the member who sold the most papers or who signed on the most new subscriptions. Along with these contests, incentives were offered—individuals would take home $0.25 for every subscription sold at a yearly subscription cost of $1.00.
Outside of direct involvement with either the paper or the party there were several ways that the general public could become involved in The Suffragist. Similar to the way in which publications are run today, advertising was crucial. For the party, this was a way to help them to alleviate the costs associated with printing and running the paper. For the advertisers, they were able to reach a new demographic of women who were publicly involved and highly informed. Looking at these advertisements now can give us a glimpse into the popular shops in the Washington D.C. area, the goods promoted, and the markets targeted by Suffragist advertisers. Along with these professional ads, space could be purchased ‘by a friend’ in support of the paper.
There were also those members of the public and the party that wanted to make a difference because they believed in what the paper and the party were doing. To accomplish this, they donated money directly to The Suffragist and not just to the general fund of the organization. Two of the most prolific donors were Dr. D.R. Hooker and Mary Winsor. Dr. Hooker donated an average of $500 dollars to the paper every month. Mary Winsor pledged to donate $4,500 and paid that balance in monthly installments.
The aim of The Suffragist was to make sure that the party and the public were well aware of the state of women’s suffrage both in the United States and abroad. The women, and men, who worked for and with the paper, had one specific goal and that was to promote the work of the party and to gather support for the cause. The newspaper not only provided a special brand of suffrage news not found in mainstream media during its time, it painstakingly documented an innovative women-led political campaign, leaving behind a valuable resource to further illuminate this history.