The First Wave

“When men are denied justice, they go to war. This is our war, only we are fighting it with banners instead of guns.” –Alice Paul
Framing a Movement

Feminism’s roots in the United States largely had to do with the fight for the vote, but this was a fight fought primarily with words. As one study explains, “the method of gaining voting rights for women that permeated nearly every tactic employed by the suffragists was argumentation” (McCammon et al.).These women “gave public speeches, carried banners in parades, spoke informally on street corners, wrote newspaper columns, distributed handbills, and lobbied lawmakers,” all of which was done with careful and strategic language (McCammon et al.).   In choosing their words wisely, suffragists made use of strategic framing—a rhetorical tool that helps “focus audience attention on particular portions of a message” (Hallahan). In other words, strategic framing is used to guide the conversation in an intentional direction; skilled speakers and writers know that in every word has the power to create associations, and if they choose the right phrase, the conversation becomes smoother. As Faupel and Werum explain, “movements can capitalize on new or heightened cultural themes,” and if leaders can frame the conversation to “tap into broader cultural themes and narratives,” they’ll be mo.e likely to win over crowds. The leaders of the suffrage movement knew what was important to their various American audiences. Whether talking to legislators or dressmakers, supporters or dissenters, suffragists “were inventive in the face of cultural shifts, and they adapted their discourse to account for an exploit the contexts they faced.” Ultimately, suffragists had to be hyperaware of what was deemed culturally and politically significant so that they could always be strategic.

“the method of gaining voting rights for women that permeated nearly every tactic employed by the suffragists was argumentation.” These women “gave public speeches, carried banners in parades, spoke informally on street corners, wrote newspaper columns, distributed handbills, and lobbied lawmakers,” all of which was done with careful and strategic language.


Significant Social Trends and Conditions

The fight for women’s suffrage started before the Civil War, so covering the entire history of American social values and trends has already filled many books. The biggest events, though, give us clues to what was most important to Americans across the first wave. Throughout the latter half of the 1800s, the question of American Citizenship was discussed frequently. While the 13th Amendment outlawed slavery, it was the 14th that established the rights, privileges, and conditions of citizenship in the United States. The  15th Amendment, then, granted African American men the right to vote. Clearly, issues of who could be called a citizen and what citizenship meant were important; equality, democracy, and freedom were social values and buzzwords on the minds of many. It is no surprise, then, to see these buzzwords in use even at the start of the first wave, with the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments borrowing its language and structure from the most foundational document of the United States, the Declaration of Independence. But at the turn of the century, government and politics began to change as more people moved into urban area and took up jobs in factories and other industries. This shift simply meant that there was more for the government to do; whether it was regulating sanitation, maintaining social services, or providing education, “the far-reaching impact of urbanization and industrialization had resulted in a growing role for government” (McCammon et al.). Women saw a change in their roles as well; the turn of the century featured the “New Woman”: she was young, professional, educated, stylish, and most importantly, independent. By 1920, women were enrolling in college at nearly equal rates to men, and women’s employment in the twentieth century peaked during World War I (Faupel and Werum). Global conflict defined the early twentieth century as well; when it finally hit the United States in 1917, World War I left an indelible mark on the cultural conversation and the strategic frames that followed.

Roots at Seneca Fall

The Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 is usually regarded as the triggering event for the first wave, but as historian Martha Rampton observes, “there is little consensus as to how to characterize these three waves or what to do with women’s movements before the late nineteenth century.” She cites several early female thinkers and activists as potential “foremothers” of the movement, but decides that “it was not until the late nineteenth century that the efforts for women’s equal rights coalesced into a clearly identifiable and self-conscious movement, or rather a series of movements.” As with any young movement, most actions were supported by similarly young organizations that were without established traditions or footholds The first wave, therefore, relied on the resilience and initiative of its leaders rather than any established success. Seneca Falls was organized by two women who became major advocates for suffrage: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucrecia Mott. Abolitionist and women’s right’s advocate Fredrick Douglass was also in attendance—it was Douglass who seconded Stanton’s call to add women’s suffrage, or the right to vote, to the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, the primary document that came out of the convention.



The Declaration of Rights and Sentiments

This founding document was modeled after the Declaration of Independence and detailed many rights being claimed for women. After the convention closed and the ink dried, suffrage remained on the minds of many: Susan B. Anthony joined the cause soon after Seneca falls and became the second president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), after Stanton. Carrie Chapman Catt succeeded Anthony as president of the NAWSA. NASWA itself was a merger of two earlier organizations, the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association. NAWSA was the leading women’s suffrage organization at the turn of the century, but as the century progressed came to represent a more conservative wing of the women’s movement. In a NAWSA scrapbook at the Library of Congress is an original Declaration of Sentiments pamphlet—preserved in a special envelope on a page that discusses their own women’s rights convention, it is clear suffragists had this document and a Seneca Falls lineage on their minds.


NAwsA’s Conservative Revolution:

NAWSA took a generally conservative approach, hoping to gain state-by-state favor for the cause before focusing on national campaigns.Their intentions were to create favorable impressions of the suffragists and to explain their cause with reason and rationality. Still, this approach tended to be markedly polite:  at the turn of the century, NAWSA was prioritizing what it called it’s ‘“society plan’ to recruit college-educated, privileged, and politically influential members and to broaden its educational efforts.” Much of the suffrage ephemera from NAWSA retains this conservative, reflective approach. In NASWA scrapbooks, Susan B. Anthony is clearly well-remembered: her image and words are invoked in pamphlets, programs, and even on promotional spoons. Furthermore, American Suffragists brought British Suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst to the United States for a speaking tour, and the promotional materials for the event seems to anticipate American concerns with militancy—British suffragettes were known for disruptive acts and were jailed for their actions. One promotional photo of Pankhurst features a quote from the subject as it’s caption: “a woman should able to cook and sew, as well as vote.” The decision to include this quote indicates that American suffragists were hoping to craft an image of women voting that did not disrupt. While asking for revolutionary action, they wanted to do so quietly.




Primary Strategic Frames

While many have discussed and debated how to categorize the main frames Suffragists used, McCammon et al. provide a compelling pair that cover the bulk of Suffragist language: Justice and Reform. The pair initially seem to contradict each other—the Justice frame rests fundamentally on the notion of equality between genders while the Reform frame highlights the differences between men and women. But in reality, the two approaches were both used commonly and even by the same people and organizations, just not typically at the same time. The audience was the most important element, and to achieve their goal of winning the vote, “they framed their arguments not simply to reflect their own views but also in ways that would enhance the likelihood of winning(McCammon et al.).  They understood, therefore, that the identity of their audiences mattered to the way they framed their messages and to the targets they had in mind. Generally speaking, the Justice frame was more popular before the turn of the century. After the turn, Reform became the more popular argument, although in the final years before women’s suffrage was granted (1915-19), Justice dominates once more.


The Justice frame is the more intuitive of the two; based strongly in the tradition of the Seneca Falls Convention and the struggles for equality in the nineteenth century, the Justice argument, “held that women were men’s equals, women were citizens like men, and they should possess political rights equal to those of men” (McCammon et al.). This kind of approach holds the spirit of America’s revolutionary period, and it rested on the idea that democracy was not only good, but in danger. In a somewhat radical twist, they argued for the importance of affirming the citizenship of women; through much of early American history, women were subject to coverture, which meant that their rights and interests were “covered” by their husbands. But using the Justice frame, Suffragists proposed that the United States was failing as a democracy by leaving half its population disenfranchised; “as they called for an end to male dominance and female dependence in politics, they argued that democracy itself was inherently harmed by the exclusion of women” (McCammon et al.). This approach is clearly interested in progress and change, but while suggesting these shift, implies that these actions are corrective; by enfranchising women, we are making a change, yes, but we are ultimately upholding and reinforcing our foundational principles.

“Government should only derive power from the consent of the governed…the practice of our government is not based upon this theory, inasmuch as one-half of our people are denied the privilege of giving or withholding their consent to the powers assumed by government.” -from a resolution at a suffrage meeting in Washington, 1892.
One Suffragist proclaimed that “‘law of the mother,’ based on her ‘Godgiven woman-nature,’ was not enforced anywhere, and society suffered from numerous social ills.” She continued, “we demand, that the hand that rocks the cradle shall help to rule the world’”  


The Reform approach is a bit more conservative; instead of arguing that women are equal to men and should be treated the same, this frame upholds the differences between the genders. On the grounds that men and women were actually very different, the Reform approach maintains that it is precisely this difference that justifies giving women the vote. The argument was that “women had special skills and insights that were not shared by men…they argued that women took a more nurturing approach to those around them, especially children and those experiencing social problems firsthand” (McCammon et al.). When women were involved, then, there would be “reform to protect homes, children, families, the downtrodden, and flawed social institutions such as schools, workplaces, and even the government (McCammon et al.). This move, while affirming traditional gender roles of women as nurturers and fixers, had a lot to do with the fact that the government was expanding rapidly and suddenly there was more room for social justice and welfare programs. So though traditional, “it expanded women’s sphere to include politics, because government had changed” (McCammon et al.). In some sense, this is radical too, in that it acknowledges that times were changing and new leadership was necessary.

Shifts in the Movement



Intergenerational Feminisms and Factions:

After recruiting newer, often younger members to the cause, it became clear that NAWSA’s approach wouldn’t suit everyone. Alice Paul and Lucy Burns were two American suffragists who met in England while learning about the British fight for suffrage; because of their overseas educations, they took a more radical approach to the American fight for suffrage. After helping NASWA organize a massive parade for suffrage on the eve of President Wilson’s inauguration, Paul grew frustrated with NASWA’s timid policies, and later in 1913 she formed a new group, the Congressional Union (CU), to bring together other likeminded suffragists who wanted to make big moves and draw attention to the fight. The CU became the National Woman’s Party (NWP) in 1916; the NWP’s version of activism included picketing a wartime president’s white house, openly criticizing the president’s actions and words, and being jailed and arrested for “obstructing traffic, ” which was the inaccurate charge levied at the protesting women. The ephemera associated with NWP and the Silent Sentinels was all about attracting attention.


Multiracial Feminisms      and Factions:

Still, even in this radical wing of suffrage, women of color were often left out of the conversations and conventions; in organizing the inauguration march, Alice Paul wanted to exclude black women’s suffrage organizations due to concerns that if black women participated, the suffragists in the south might pull out. Still, Howard University’s Delta Sigma Theta sorority defied Paul’s wishes, making this march their first public act as an organization. Delta Sigma Theta’s members included Ida B. Wells, an African American anti-lynching advocate, journalist, and suffragist, as well as Mary Church Terrell (an honorary member) who was the first president of National Association of Colored Women (NACW), a group devoted to issues of reform, including suffrage.

Unexpected Subversions: The Justice Frame

While the Justice approach was supposed to be about equality and fairness, Suffragists were unfortunately not immune from racism, classism, and anti-immigration sentiments. The loudest and most powerful voices of the suffrage movement tended to be coming from middle to upper class white women, which meant that the world “equality” was particularly loaded; there were many Suffragists who were vocally upset that black men got the right to vote before white women. McCammom et al. noticed that “in urban settings with larger numbers of immigrants and industry workers, the suffragists were, in all likelihood, made more aware of their own typically native-white, middle- and upper-class status,” and in these situations, they avoided the Justice frame. “Heightened ethnic and class tensions made the suffragists more willing to compromise their allegiance to principles of democratic justice,” they posit, “in part to win the support of a broader native-white, middle- and upper-class public.” Whether these white Suffragists believed themselves superior or not, their rhetoric often turned away from the Justice frame when it seemed they might not find it advantageous to align themselves with all people as truly equal.

Unexpected Subversions: The Reform Frame

The Reform frame was typically considered the more conservative approach, but by using Reform arguments, the Suffragists were able to successful counter the anti-suffragists’ (“antis”) arguments that Suffragists wanted to destroy traditional values and the family. “The antis routinely argued that voting rights for women would harm home and family life,” McCammom et al. explains, and “it is not surprising, then, that the suffragists replied strategically when confronted with such anti claims by counter that the ballot for women would protect and strengthen the home and families.” In using the Reform frame, the Suffragists were able to immediately invalidate their opponents’ arguments. So many of the antis claimed that women’s suffrage would bring the destruction of tradition and families, and they argued that women were simply too different from men—to delicate, perhaps—to get involved in the grime of politics. A Justice argument would never win over someone like this, because all their premises rest on the differences between men and women rather than equality. So ultimately, because the Reform argument promised to clean things and help return a corrupted society to tradition, it was also the perfect antidote to those the most conservatively-minded critics.


Building Iconography

Inez Milholland Boissevain

A figurehead of the movement, her eloquence and beauty were blended into a larger-than-life persona that was perpetuated by dressing as Joan of Arc for suffrage pageants and parades. The Belmont Paul National Women’s Equality Monument holds a large marble statue of Joan of Arc, who is considered the patron saint of the movement. When Inez is dressed as a sentinel or warrior, she is being painting her as a living, breathing saint. By conjuring up a saintly image, they only added to Inez’s status as a beautiful, strong, athletic young woman committed to the charge of suffrage. The women of Seneca Falls, the first wave-makers, were older women committed to the fight for both abolition and suffrage. Milholland Boissevain symbolizes an important shift in the movement; she is the embodiment of a change of guard. Her intelligence, beauty, and athleticism were no secret, making her an ideal “new woman”—a trope associated with women seeking independence and freedoms around the turn of the century. While giving a suffrage speech on a nationwide tour, Inez collapsed from pernicious anemia—her final public words before she died were “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” making her an icon and a martyr. This painting (1924) casts her in white, not unlike the marble Joan of Arc statue gifted to Suffragist Alva Belmont to be a symbolic patron saint of the movement. This painted portrait of Milholland Boissevain is adorned in gold and features purple accents, playing  into the purple, gold and white scheme. In the painting, her banner reads “forward into light,” a reference to a suffrage song and banner later carried by many.


In Inez’s Words

We have no money, no elaborate organization, no one interested in our success, except anxious-hearted women all over the country who cannot come to the battle line themselves.
Here and there in farm house and factory, by the fire-side, in the hospital, and school-room, wherever women are sorrowing and working and hoping, they are praying for our success.
Only the hopes of women have we; and our own spirit and a mighty principle.
Women of these states, unite. We have only our chains to lose, and a whole nation to gain.



National Woman’s Party logo

This logo (pictured left, courtesy of the NWP) for the NWP features and idealized image of  Milholland Boissevain. Cast in purple and white, the logo invokes her saintly image while playing into the official colors of the party. Milholland Bosissevain’s image also evokes what appears to be a herald or messenger—a sign of newness and progress. The Women’s Political Union suffrage image featured above shows the similarities between Milholland Boissevain and the heard. On the NWP’s logo, the phrase “forward into light” is pulled directly from the banner Milholland carried, its words borrowed from a hymn. This kind of iconography is similar to the way NAWSA often used the image of Susan B. Anthony in their promotional materials; by both remembering the efforts of past suffragists as well as their sacrifices, this practice is at once celebratory and solemn, highlighting the seriousness of the fight.





Forward into Light


This progressive motto found its way onto many a suffrage banner. Banners are the most significant and expressive kinds of suffrage memorabilia and ephemera. Designed for visibility and concision, these banners feature the most public language and messaging of the movement and thereby some of the most vulnerable, too. “When crowds and police attacked,” the National Women’s Party explains, “these thin wooden poles were often the only defense. Banners were torn away, but the picketers proudly bore the banner poles as a symbol of their fight for equality.” This series of banners was inspired by the one held by Inez Milholland and reads, “Forward out of error, leave behind the night, forward through the darkness, forward into light.” Many of these banners were made in gold and purple in keeping with the colors of the movement. The variety of banners indicates that while women were creating their own banners by hand, they may have taken inspiration from each other in terms of what to put on the banners themselves.




The Influence of World War I

The apex of the suffrage movement corresponded with America’s entry into World War I, which both helped and hindered the suffrage movement. On one hand, war became the country’s primary concern and the fight for the vote was considered something that could be dealt with later. On the other hand, with the war came more roles and opportunities for women; women joined organizations like the Red Cross and even entered the military as nurses in the Army and Navy Nurse Corps, where they could be commissioned as officers. Women who knew both French and English were brought on as soldiers in the Signal Corps; these “switchboard soldiers,” or “Hello Girls,” operated the switchboards that connected telephones on the frontlines of France. On the home front, women and children showed support by sponsoring drives to collect peach pits to use in soldier’s gas masks and many women engaged in voluntary food conservation. There was no mandatory food rationing in WWI, so voluntarily giving up meat, wheat, sugar, and fat was a way for women at home to show patriotism and support. Over 20,000 young, urban, college-educated women joined the Woman’s Land Army, where they were taught farming technology and helped take the place of men abroad. The Woman’s Land Army was “established by a consortium of women’s organizations—including gardening clubs, suffrage societies, women’s colleges, civic groups, and the YWCA,” and their members kept rural America running during the war. By the end of the war, President Wilson agreed that they should be given the right to vote, citing their patriotism and bravery during the war: “We have made partners of the women in this war,” he said in a 1918 speech to the Senate, “Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil, and not to a partnership of privilege and right?”



Invoking Wilson, Invoking Justice

“During wartime, when a country seeks to be its strongest, there is perhaps no better time rhetorically to point out its weakness. To question the integrity of the United States during this time is to damage the image, as well as the ethos, its wartime rhetoric relied upon so heavily” (Ramsey).

Wilson was not always a convinced and vocal supporter of the suffragist cause, and many suffragists did not look the other way. The Silent Sentinels were a group of women organized by Alice Paul of the NWP who picketed in front of the White House. Named for the fact that they did not chant, shout, or give speeches, they instead used banners to broadcast their message, asking questions like Mr. President What Will you do for Woman Suffrage?” and “Mr. President How Long Must Women Wait for their Liberty?” The Silent Sentinels started their protests in January of 1917, which they were heavily criticized for, as protesting a wartime president was considered unpatriotic and disloyal. But though controversial, these tactics were effective. These criticisms portrayed “the United States as hypocritical and its laws as ironic,” which Ramsey points out is particularly effective during wartime. She clarifies, “during wartime, when a country seeks to be its strongest, there is perhaps no better time rhetorically to point out its weakness. To question the integrity of the United States during this time is to damage the image, as well as the ethos, its wartime rhetoric relied upon so heavily” (Ramsey).

Subverting the President’s Language

As time went on, the Silent Sentinels and other militant Suffragists began to highlight the hypocrisies of the country. As the months grew on, they grew more accusatory and inflammatory, often using Wilson’s own words against him. Because of the war, Wilson was frequently giving speeches on the importance of fighting for democracy; the suffragists would sometimes reprint his words directly in order to point out hypocrisy. One such banner read: “We shall fight for the things which have we have always carried nearest to our hearts—for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their government,” President Wilson’s war message. April 2nd, 1917.” While this is subtly subversive, some banners had more of a direct bite: perhaps the most controversial read, “Kaiser Wilson Have You Forgotten Your Sympathy With the Poor Germans Because They Were Not Self-Governed? 20,000,000 American Women Are Not Self-Governed. Take the Beam Out of Your Own Eye.” In July of 1917, many of these women were arrested for “obstructing traffic,” and taken to jail. They were political prisoners but were not treated as such; they protested in jail through hunger strikes and were forcibly fed. This was a massive controversy, and those Suffragists who had not been arrested continued to picket, while suffragist journalists and cartoonists penned their own criticism, too. Though this was surely horrific to endure, it ensured that the cause continued to make headlines in spite of the war.


“In 1919, the 19th Amendment, which stated that “the rights of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex,” passed both houses of Congress and was sent to the states for ratification. On August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment, giving it the two-thirds majority of state ratification necessary to make it the law of the land. Eight days later, the 19th Amendment took effect.”

The First Wave After Ratification

Most analysis of the first wave stops with the ratification of the 19th Amendment, as what was considered the primary goal had been achieved. However, as Faupel and Werum discovered, the post-suffrage period was not necessarily marked by a lack of mobilization from activists and leaders of the suffrage movement. The 1920s were politically challenging years for first wave feminists—many of the labor law, maternity, and marriage-related protections they’d advocated for were struck down during the decade. The Red Scare of the 1920s also took a toll as many mainstream feminist leaders were accused of having Russian ties. In 1923, the War Department released something called a “Spider Web chart,” which “graphically linked prominent leaders in the women’s movement, along with summaries of their radical views, to various groups though to be engaging in subversive activities, including the Girl’s Friendly Society (an Episcopalian Church group), the American Association, The American Home Economics Association, the Young Women’s Christian Association, the Parent-Teachers Association, the American Association of University Women, and the women’s Christian Temperance Union” (Faupel and Werum). Clearly their subversive statements had not gone unnoticed. In the face of this hostile political landscape, Faupel and Werum clarify that collectivist frames and actions became less popular, and instead, feminists began to think in more individualistic terms. Instead of promoting societal improvement, feminist magazines and newspapers began discussing self-improvement on an individual level. The younger generations of the 1920—the flappers in particular—were interested in empowerment but didn’t feel the need to do it by committee or organized campaign (Faupel and Werum). This move towards and individualized, personal outlook was an early nod to what would become the second wave, where the personal became the political.

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About the Project

This exhibit was funded by a generous grant from the University of St. Thomas and with the help of the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, and Fales Library at NYU. You can read more about our process and project here.

This exhibit was complied by Rachel Busse and Kerry Kraemer.

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