Editorial note: Marietheres Pirngruber is studying Global History (M.A.) at the University of Heidelberg. Her primary focus is on women’s and gender history, and she is especially interested in studying the transatlantic suffrage networks of the 19th and 20th centuries. She is currently completing her remote internship at the GHI. On the occasion of women’s history month, she shares some of her interesting research on US suffrage history on href.
Finding primary sources is essential for any historian, yet during the ongoing pandemic it is also the biggest struggle. Online collections have provided much needed access to primary sources. Therefore, I’d like to highlight a collection from the Library of Congress (LOC), the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) Records, which is partially accessible online. To situate the sources in context, I will briefly explain how NAWSA developed, when and how it was established, and what goals the organization pursued. I will then share examples of some the sources that are part of the online collection. Finally, I will discuss some problems related to the inclusion and exclusion of materials in the collection.
The National American Women Suffrage Association, which had about two million members, was the largest voluntary organization to advocate for women’s suffrage in the US. Established in 1890, it was formed through the merger of two existing organizations, the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). Both associations were established in 1869, and their rivalry was rooted in their disagreement after the Civil War about the 14th and 15th Amendments. While some leaders, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, opposed their ratification unless women would be included, others, like Lucy Stone, supported the Reconstruction amendments, believing they would pave the way toward women’s suffrage. Subsequently, Stanton and Stone formed the two different associations, along with their allies.
In the following decades, social restrictions for women were challenged and undermined, like the idea of a “women’s sphere” at home and women’s main duty of being a wife and mother. Women also increasingly gained access to higher education. Even though many women attended colleges and universities by 1890, women’s suffrage was a long way off. In 1890, the two associations merged, a development driven by a younger generation of suffragists, including the daughters of Stanton and Stone. Finally reunited, NAWSA pursued a variety of ways to achieve women’s suffrage. While in the 1890s some women achieved suffrage victories in Western states, most other campaigns were unsuccessful.
In the twentieth century, however, suffragists developed innovative campaign strategies like suffrage parades and open-air meetings to make NAWSAs suffrage work more visible, which had a huge impact. While the movement remained divided among a variety of factions and organizations, the suffragists achieved a major victory with the passage of the 19thAmendment to the US Constitution, ratified in August of 1920. Following this milestone, NAWSA evolved into the League of Women Voters, dedicated to supporting international women’s rights movements and advocating for voter rights and women’s participation in politics.
The National American Woman Suffrage Association Records available at the Library of Congress contains over 26,000 items mostly covering the period from 1890 to 1930. Almost 2,000 of these have been digitized. The NAWSA records are part of a LOC topical campaign called “Suffrage: Women Fight for the Vote” launched on the occasion of the 100thanniversary of the 19th Amendment. Transcribing and digitizing the sources makes the sources more accessible and brings together stories from women participating in the largest reform movement in American history. The collection also allows scholars and students to explore and understand the movement. The materials in this particular collection were donated from the personal libraries of numerous members of NAWSA, including Stanton and Stone, but also from later NAWSA presidents like Carrie Chapman Catt. The collection contains various textual sources like newspapers, books, pamphlets and scrapbooks but also photographs. The collection is organized according to NAWSA’s original structure into different topics like “Woman and Work” or “Parenthood and Related Subjects”. Besides biographies of members of NAWSA within the book section, there are also quite peculiar sources like the book “How it feels to be the husband of a suffragette” published in 1915 which was in possession of Carrie Chapman Catt and contains a humorous story of a suffrage supporter married to a suffragist. Other sources, like the scrapbook of suffragist Elizabeth Smith Miller and her daughter, Anne Fitzhugh Miller, are within itself like a collection about the women’s suffrage movement. While they collected newspaper articles, programs and pamphlets there are also personal items like letters included. Especially interesting is that they also incorporated sources about the suffrage movement in Great Britain which show the connection between the movements across national borders.
Sources generally reflect a specific perspective on historic circumstances. However, they can only offer a glimpse into the past through a very subjective lens and therefore always have to be viewed critically. The biggest problem with this collection is that its contents originate from NAWSA’s members which were mostly well-educated, middle- and upper-class white women from the northern States of the US. Therefore, the sources can only reflect their perception on different issues and automatically exclude perspectives from women from the working class, women of colour and women from the southern States. Keeping that in mind, the sources are still very interesting and reveal what materials those women collected, whom they collected it for, and how they hoped to use it. As always, the interpretation of the collections depends more on the formulation of one’s research question than on the diversity of the sources. Furthermore, the collection provides insights into the structure of the largest women’s suffrage association in the US and its members. Finally, while always keeping in mind that the sources ought to be interpreted critically, the Collection of the National American Woman Suffrage Association Records is a wide collection of sources, which can provide an interesting perspective on the American Woman Suffrage Movement.