It’s Queerer Than You Thought
While suffrage leaders publicly pushed conventional images of womanhood they thought would appeal to the public, the suffrage movement included a range of genders and sexualities beyond cisgender heterosexual. “For many suffragists, scholars have found, the freedom to choose whom and how they loved was tied deeply to the idea of voting rights.”
- Maya Salam, New York Times
Dress Reform. In the mid-1800s, women were expected to wear long heavy skirts over layers of petticoats stiffened with straw or horsehair. And if that wasn’t torture enough, underneath was a rigid whalebone corset.
Around 1850, bloomers—long, baggy pants based on Turkish pantaloons—emerged as a healthful and comfortable alternative. Bloomers freed women not only from physical constrictions but also from gender constrictions, which (surprise!) was seen as scandalous and an affront to male authority. Suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and Susan B. Anthony were among those who adopted the new “freedom dress.” Some, like Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, pushed the norms further by developing a mannish appearance.
Anti-suffragists already viewed suffragists as abnormal for wanting equal rights, and they pointed to gender-nonconforming suffragists as evidence of deviance. They feared women would assume male privileges as well as their clothes, and reject the responsibilities of marriage, family, and the home.
Boston Marriages. Long-term romantic relationships between women became known as “Boston marriages,” and they abounded throughout the suffrage movement. Carrie Chapman Catt, a president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), moved in with Mary Garrett Hay, a prominent suffragist in New York, after the death of Catt’s second husband. Catt asked to be buried alongside Hay (instead of either of her husbands).
Women’s suffrage leader (and Rachel Maddow look-alike) Anna Howard Shaw wore her dark hair short and combed straight back when young but became more gender conforming in her later years for fear she would hurt the cause. Shaw had a 30-year committed relationship with Lucy Anthony, Susan B. Anthony’s niece.
Susan B. Anthony wrote romantic letters to the suffragist Anna Elizabeth Dickinson and had a long relationship with Emily Gross. In 1911, NAWSA members elected Jane Addams as first vice president and Sophonisba Breckinridge as second vice president to serve with Anna Howard Shaw, who was NAWSA’s president from 1904 to 1915. Although none of these women publicly claimed a lesbian identity, for the next year women who loved other women held the top three positions in the nation’s largest suffrage organization.
Black Suffragists. Suffrage organizations focused on white women and ignored the concerns of Black suffragists, Indigenous women, and women of color. Efforts to segregate the suffrage movement were intentional and stemmed from fear of angering southern suffragists and the desire to promote a white, feminine, gender-conforming image that would reduce public anxiety. Even women’s rights pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton emphasized racial, class, and ethnic differences.
Black suffragists formed their own organizations and mobilized through existing Black women’s clubs. The First National Conference of Colored Women in America met in July 1895 in response to a published letter that attacked the sexual morality of Black women. At the conference, their resolutions defended the femininity and heterosexual domesticity of Black womanhood. But despite feeling the need to project a “virtuous” cis-heterosexuality, according to African American writer and a suffrage field organizer Alice Dunbar-Nelson, there was “a thriving lesbian and bisexual subculture among Black suffragists and clubwomen.” Dunbar-Nelson presented herself as a heterosexual married woman, but privately had queer romantic relationships and domestic arrangements.
Beyond Suffrage. The involvement of women leading nontraditional lives led to a push for rights beyond suffrage. As a single, self-supporting woman, Sophonisba Breckinridge understood that many women could not rely on men for financial security. Thus, while she promoted equal voting rights, she also championed financial support for single mothers and maximum hour and minimum wage legislation for women workers.
The women’s suffrage movement involved more than the elite, white, upper-class suffragists we learned about in school. It was a complex political and social movement that included women in non-heteronormative relationships who challenged gender and sexual norms and worked to give women not only the right to vote but also the freedom to live outside society’s rigid expectations.
Nancy Sakaduski is an award-winning writer and editor who owns Cat & Mouse Press in Lewes, Delaware.
Photo: Anna Howard Shaw, 1875. Archives and Special Collections, Stockwell-Mudd Library, Albion College, Albion, Michigan.