1919 – Queer Women & the Suffrage Movement

TITLE: 1919 (pdf)

ALT TITLE: Queer Women

ALT TITLE: How Queer Women Powered the Suffrage Movement

WRITER: Alan Nafzger

PREMISE: For many suffragists the freedom to choose whom and how they loved was tied deeply to the idea of voting rights.

COPYRIGHT: 2019, Alan Nafzger



Queer Women and the Suffrage Movement
Queer Women and the Suffrage Movement

Even with all the political friction and the side effects for the women, it eventually made practical sense that queer women would be at the leadership of the voting rights movement. Married women of the day often had children, and mothers didn’t have time to organize a protests. But the women who didn’t have kids, they did have time to organize things.

The queer women knew they would have no man to represent them, echoing a common refrain among married women who were not suffragists: “My husband votes for me. He votes for the family.” But unmarried or gay women knew that would not be the case for them, and so, they needed to get the vote for themselves.

The queer leaders of the suffragists never received a lot of credit or recognition. This film could correct much of the neglect. This historical oversight was in part because same-sex relationships didn’t start to be pathologized (or demonized) until the early 20th century, and because women in general were kind of invisible and certainly not a part of history yet. But maybe most of all, it was because the suffrage movement itself downplayed the queerness, a defensive strategy that contributed to the deletion of queer suffragists.

Leaders of the movement (especially Anna Howard Shaw and Carrie Chapman Catt) opted instead to present a palatable version to the mainstream, by emphasizing normalcy. So suffragists who were seemingly happily married wives and mothers — or young, beautiful and affluent, a.k.a. marriage material — became the faces of the movement. Queer women wisely stayed in the background.


When the history of the 19th Amendment is taught in classrooms, suffragists are often depicted as boring, chaste and dowdy, and their campaign is rarely framed as a major social and political movement. But as greater attention is starting to be paid to suffrage history, and to the roles of Black and brown women, the narrative that is emerging is much more varied. This broader, more accurate picture is also increasing our understanding of queerness in the movement.

This film would work to “queer the suffrage movement” — which means “deconstructing the dominant narrative” that has focused on the stories of elite, white, upper-class heterosexual suffragists.

This film would use the word “queer” as an umbrella term to describe suffragists who challenged gender and sexual norms in their everyday lives. Many of the leaders chose not to marry, for example, or by living a life outside the rigid expectations placed on women in other ways.


Many of the women who fought for representation were rebels living nonnormative, queer lives. These kinds of non-heteronormative relationships were just part and parcel of the suffrage movement. They’re everywhere in this film, including among the highest echelons of the movement.


In 1920, the suffragist Molly Dewson wrote a letter of congratulations to Maud Wood Park, who had just been chosen as the first president of the League of Women Voters. The LWV was formed in anticipation of the passage of the 19th Amendment to help millions of women carry out their newfound right as voters.

“Partner and I have been bursting with pride and satisfaction,” she wrote. Dewson didn’t need to specify who “partner” was. Maud Park already knew that Dewson was in a committed relationship with Polly Porter, whom she had met ten years earlier. The couple then settled down at a farm in Massachusetts. On the farm, by the way, they named their dogs, bulls and roosters after men they disliked.

The most compelling part of this story is that Dewson made every political decision, career decision based on how it would affect her relationship with Polly Porter.

Dewson was far from the only suffragist who had romantic relationships with women.


In her diary, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, an African-American writer and a suffrage field organizer, described a thriving lesbian and bisexual subculture among Black suffragists and clubwomen. In those entries, Dunbar-Nelson wrote about the romantic and sexual experiences she had with men and women both while she was single and while she was married.


Carrie Chapman Catt, a president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), settled down with Mary Garrett Hay, a prominent suffragist in New York, after the death of Catt’s second husband. Catt asked that she be buried alongside Hay (instead of either of her husbands), which she was, at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.


Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, another NAWSA president, had a decades-long relationship with Lucy Anthony, the niece of Susan B. Anthony. Though the elder Anthony was concerned about her niece’s long-term well-being, given more than a decade difference in their ages, she understood the kind of relationship she was in.  Shaw assured Susan that she would take care of Lucy forever and she did indeed do that.


Susan B. Anthony herself had relationships with women. Anthony wrote romantic letters to the suffragist Anna Elizabeth Dickinson and had a long relationship with Emily Gross. Researchers have found letters — one to a relative, another to a close friend — in which Anthony refers to Gross as her lover. Lover was a term used for an admirer, but not in Anthony’s vocabulary.


Belle Squire, a suffragist from Illinois, not only wanted the vote, she wanted to smash what we now call “the patriarchy.”

In 1910, inspired by Squire and her No Vote, No Tax League, thousands of women refused to pay their taxes until women were granted the right to vote. Squire also publicly declared her refusal to marry, a bold statement against the oppression of women. And, demanding the same respect as married women, she insisted on being called Mrs. Squire, not Miss Squire.


The suffragist Gail Laughlin demanded that pockets be sewn into her dresses, a radical request at the time.



Of course, the reality of living as an outlier wasn’t exactly rosy, especially for women in the working class or women with a more masculine presentation. In one scene, a sex toy is found in the possession of women, a discovery that she said was certainly frowned upon. Those women, especially if they were of a lower social status, were sentenced to jail or sentenced to be publicly whipped.


The societal expectation that middle- and upper-class white women would marry men created a smoke screen of sorts. The world outside didn’t speculate about the possibilities of a sexual relationship between women, that parents were probably relieved to learn that their daughter had an intense relationship with a female friend, and not a man, before marriage.


In a way, this queer smoke screen extended to detractors of the movement, known as anti-suffragists. They had no idea they were fighting with lesbians. Had they known it might have been a different outcome. Anti-suffragists already viewed suffragists as “abnormal” for wanting equal rights, and they pointed to gender-nonconforming suffragists as evidence that the movement was deviant. They argued that these women would reject marriage, family and the home, and they feared women would adopt men’s clothes and assume male privileges. But somehow they didn’t latch onto the fact that many of these women were having sexual relationships with each other.


Copyright, 2019

Alan Nafzger (alan.nafzger@gmail.com)

PH: 214-875-1305



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