In 1920, suffragist Molly Dewson sat down to write a letter of congratulations to Maud Wood Park, who had just been chosen as the first president of the League of Women Voters, 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. Park already knew that Dewson was in a committed relationship with Polly Porter, whom she had met a decade earlier. The couple then settled down at a farm in Massachusetts (where they named their bulls after men they disliked).
Dewson “made every political decision, career decision based on how it would affect her relationship with Polly Porter,” said Susan Ware, a historian and the author of “Partner and I” and “Why They Marched: Untold Stories of the Women Who Fought for the Right to Vote.”
Dewson was far from the only suffragist who had romantic relationships with women. 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,” Ware said. “It’s not like we are having to dig and turn up like two or three women. They’re everywhere.” Including among the highest echelons of the movement.
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,” Wendy Rouse, a historian and associate professor at San Jose State University, wrote in an article published on the website of the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission. 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.
And Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, another NAWSA president, had a decadeslong relationship with Lucy Anthony, the niece of Susan B. Anthony. Although 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, said Lillian Faderman, a scholar of LGBTQ history, who wrote the book “To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done for America — A History.” Shaw “assured Susan that she would take care of Lucy forever,” Faderman said in a phone interview, “and she did indeed do that.”
Susan B. Anthony herself had relationships with women, Faderman said. Anthony wrote romantic letters to suffragist Anna Elizabeth Dickinson and had a long relationship with Emily Gross. Faderman 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, Faderman said.
Today, we have many terms for romantic relationships between women: lesbian, bisexual, same-sex and queer, among others. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, they were sometimes called “romantic friendships” or Boston marriages, which Faderman described as “long-term domestic relationships between two women who were financially independent thinkers.”
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. Rouse, who is among scholars working to “queer the suffrage movement” — which she described as “deconstructing the dominant narrative that has focused on the stories of elite, white, upper-class suffragists” — uses “queer” as an umbrella term to describe suffragists who challenged gender and sexual norms in their everyday lives.
They did this by choosing not to marry, for example, or by living a life outside the rigid expectations placed on women in other ways. 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 her research, Faderman found several instances in which a sex toy was 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. “I think that the world outside didn’t speculate about the possibilities of a sexual relationship between” women, Faderman said, adding 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 smoke screen extended to detractors of the movement, known as anti-suffragists. 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, Rouse said in an email. But somehow they didn’t latch onto the fact that many of these women were having romantic relationships with each other.
This oversight was in part because same-sex relationships didn’t start to be pathologized until the early 20th century, and because, as Ware put it, “Women are kind of invisible, period.” But maybe most of all, it was because the suffrage movement itself downplayed the queerness within it, Rouse said, a defensive strategy that contributed to the erasure of queer suffragists.
Leaders of the movement (including Shaw and Catt) opted instead to present a version “palatable to the mainstream,” Rouse said, by emphasizing normalcy. So suffragists who were seemingly happily married wives and mothers — or young, beautiful and affluent, aka marriage material — became the faces of the movement.
Despite this internal friction and these fraught side effects, it ultimately made practical sense that queer women would be at the forefront of the movement. Married women of the day often had children, and mothers didn’t have time to lead a movement, Faderman said. “But the women who didn’t have kids, they did have time to lead.”
For these queer women, the freedom to choose whom and how they loved was tied deeply to the idea of voting rights.
“They knew they would have no man to represent them,” Faderman said, 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, she said, and so, “they needed to get the vote for themselves.”