Women selling American Suffragette

Bloomers and Ballots

Sarah L. Rasmusson

At the turn of the last century, many argued that votes for women would “unsex” them by making them less feminine and harming their reproductive capability. The same was said about women riding bicycles. As for politics, indirect influence as a wife and mother was supposed to be enough. But after reclaiming the Declaration of Independence at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 to propose that “all men and women are created equal,” American females had gone from pleading “remember the ladies” to being woman warriors. Ostracized and ridiculed by mainstream journalism, suffragists created their own press. Among its publications was Lily, published by Amelia Jenks Bloomer, where she first advertised her namesake trousers that women wore to ride bicycles freely.

These five women, standing shoulder to shoulder like a regiment at the front line, are armed with American Suffragette, the official organ of New York’s National Progressive Woman Suffrage Union. Sophisticated rhetorical and political strategies made the suffragist press a crucial weapon in the campaign for the vote. From Susan B. Anthony’s Revolution to Farmer’s Wife, published by prairie women, these papers sustained a sisterhood.

Like bloomers, this photograph conceals a meaning more significant than its surface appearance. Taken a decade before the 19th Amendment said that “the rights of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged … on account of sex,” this picture cleans up suffragists’ raucous story of long and hard work. The fight for suffrage was a fight on account of sex. Captured by the camera’s gaze, posed as if for a portrait, these suffragists are in fact engaged in radical sexual politics. Despite their conventionally feminine bonnets and decorous smiles, these women are leading a revolution to redefine womanhood. By selling their papers on the street corner, where the marketplace’s dirty clink of coins was feared to corrupt them, they thrust their words and their bodies into male spaces. In their hands are the pages where they reconciled claims for the rights of individual women with the broader conceptions of what it meant to be a woman. The suffragist press defied the prescription of women’s proper place by endorsing such unladylike tactics as boycotts, marches, demonstrations at the White House, arrests orchestrated for publicity and hunger strikes in prison. Through the suffragist press, women reinvented themselves as professional journalists, policy experts and savvy visionaries.

Seventy-two years after Seneca Falls, in the largest peaceful civil rights movement the world had yet seen, suffragists won the fight to bring women up from the pedestal and into the polls. Suffragist journals, their immediate goal accomplished, evolved into a range of women’s publications. There is no record of the names of these five merry militants—but they left a heritage of feisty optimism and stealthy radicalism that forced a nation to live up to its ideals of representative democracy.

Sarah L. Rasmusson is staff writer and content manager for Women’s ENews, a Web site of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund.

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