IN REAL LIFE and in the movies, “proof of life” is an oft-used trope in which kidnappers pose a hostage grimly holding up a newspaper’s front page. This week’s astonishing panorama of suffragists, unearthed by researcher Ron Edge, uses a publication to provide proof of a different sort: the life of a movement.

A CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION OF SUFFRAGE

Nearly 70 women and a handful of men lined up a century ago, with mostly stern faces that might reflect not merely the conventions of unsmiling portraiture, but also their years of struggle to secure a fundamental right of democracy. In a note on the back of the photo, they are identified only as “Women suffragists circa 1915.” Two clues, however, provide more precision.

At far right, a partially obscured sign for Wilson’s Modern Business College places us at Second Avenue and Stewart Street (the terra-cotta-clad two-story building from 1914 is being replaced this year by a high-rise). The other pointer is that women are holding up four copies of the March 18, 1916, edition of “The Suffragist,” the weekly newspaper of the Congressional Union for Women’s Suffrage, founded in 1913 by activist Alice Paul and published in Washington, D.C.

The paper’s cover depicts the suffrage opera “Melinda and her Sisters,” staged as a benefit for Paul’s Union at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel. None other than Broadway headliner and movie actress Marie Dressler — who, 17 years later, played the title role in “Tugboat Annie,” a film made in Seattle and loosely based on the life of Thea Foss, founder of Foss Maritime — played the operatic lead.

The long campaign for women’s suffrage, however, had not been merely an Eastern affair. By 1896, four Western states — Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and Idaho — had voted to authorize the franchise. Efforts in Washington languished until Nov. 8, 1910, when the state’s male voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to our state constitution, giving women the right to vote here, and reinvigorating the national debate.

California followed suit in 1911, with Arizona, Kansas, the Alaskan Territory, Nevada and Montana soon to follow. But hidebound Eastern and Southern states proved resistant, so Paul rallied her members to travel the pro-suffrage West for six weeks and whip up enthusiasm.

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Luminaries of the tour included Harriot Stanton Blatch (daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton), Florence Bayard Hilles and Elizabeth Selden Rogers, “speakers known throughout the country for their personality and power.”

In Seattle, the “Suffrage Special” tour took flight. “Visiting Suffragist Joyrides in Aeroplane … Scatters Tracts,” bubbled a front-page Seattle Times headline. The story explained: “The doctrine of ‘Votes for Women’ reached its apex 1,400 feet above Seattle when Miss Lucy Burns … flew over [the city] in [Terah] Maroney’s beautiful flying yacht … and scattered handbills.”

(A prescient side note: One year earlier, Maroney had taken William Boeing on his first flight, after which Boeing told his partner George Westervelt: “There isn’t much to that machine of Maroney’s. I think we could build a better one.”)

The women’s Seattle tour stop did not disappoint. A crowd of 1,500 packed the Moore Theatre on May 1 for rousing female oratory. Proclaimed Selden Rogers, “The force of women is needed in the land for peace, strength and righteousness.”

The next morning, the envoys gathered for a boisterous pep rally at the University of Washington, where they were welcomed to Meany Hall by Henry Suzzallo, UW president. (Today, the microform collection of the UW library named for him houses the entire seven-year run of “The Suffragist.”)

In the afternoon, a downtown luncheon took place at the New Washington Hotel, now the Josephinum Apartments. Our “Now” group photo was staged just around the corner.

By 1920, requisite states had ratified the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote (though many women of color remained disenfranchised, legally or because of discriminatory practices, even after the passage). In 1923, Alice Paul became the first drafter of the Equal Rights Amendment. The fate of the latter might well lie in the wisdom and spirit embodied in our “Now” photo.