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When lesbians led the women’s suffrage movement

Anya Jabour, University of Montana, The Conversation on

Published in Political News

In 1911, a team of three women with “lesbian-like” relationships – Jane Addams, Sophonisba Breckinridge and Anna Howard Shaw – took control of the suffrage movement, leading the nation’s largest feminist organization. They promoted a diverse and inclusive women’s rights movement.

My research suggests that the personal lives of these suffrage leaders shaped their political agendas. Rather than emphasizing differences of gender, race, ethnicity and class, they advanced equal rights for all Americans.

Suffrage scholarship has long acknowledged a shift “from justice to expediency” – from an emphasis on natural rights to an emphasis on gender distinctions – in the movement at the turn of the century.

The 1848 Declaration of Sentiments, a founding document of the suffrage struggle, proudly insisted that “all men and women are created equal.”

However, by the early 20th century, many of the movement’s new adherents emphasized women’s differences from men. To gain support, they argued that female voters would engage in “social housekeeping” and “clean up” corrupt politics.

Some suffragists, including women’s rights pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton, also increasingly emphasized racial, class and ethnic differences. After the Civil War, when the 15th Amendment enfranchised Black men but ignored all women, white suffrage leaders excluded African American women from the movement.

 

By the 1890s, some had begun to advocate “educated suffrage,” code for literacy requirements that would extend voting rights to educated, white, middle-class women, but prevent many African Americans, immigrants and working-class citizens from casting ballots.

At the 1911 meeting of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), the membership elected Jane Addams as first vice president and Sophonisba Breckinridge as second vice president.

The new officers joined a leadership team headed by Anna Howard Shaw, an ordained minister who served as NAWSA’s president from 1904 to 1915.

For the next year, women who loved other women held the top three positions in the nation’s largest feminist organization.

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