‘Failure Is Impossible’: The Story of the Suffragettes

“No self-respecting woman should wish or work for the success of a party that ignores her sex.”— Susan B. Anthony, 1872

By the late 1800s, women in America and England—tired of being treated as second-class citizens by their societies and governments—were fed up. They began to fight back, particularly in pursuit of women’s suffrage.

The organized women’s rights movement began in the United States in 1848, when the first Women’s Right’s Convention—led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others—was held in Seneca Falls, N.Y. Many women were excluded from other reform efforts of the day, such as the abolition and temperance movements, and they often were refused seating or ejected from anti-slavery conventions—purely because of gender.

Men and women began to work side by side for both abolition and women’s rights, and after the Civil War the Equal Rights Association was established. The pressure for reform led to passage of the 13th and 14th Amendments (in 1865 and 1868, respectively), ending slavery and granting citizenship to African Americans. The right to vote, however, was still an issue.

Many women assumed they would be granted voting rights alongside African Americans, but the 15th Amendment—ratified in 1870—prohibited governmental infringement of a citizen’s right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The question of gender was ignored.

The Equal Rights Association had split in 1869, and out of the wreckage came two rival groups. Stanton and Susan B. Anthony formed the radical National Woman Suffrage Association in 1870, and other women’s rights crusaders established the more moderate American Woman Suffrage Association.

Both groups worked throughout the country distributing pamphlets, giving speeches and presentations to women’s clubs, and campaigning for support from individual states. The National Woman Suffrage Association also lobbied Congress, but the question of suffrage was proposed only once in congressional hearings, and it failed.

By 1890, many more women had joined the cause, and the two organizations decided to put aside their differences and create a single group. The new organization, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), retained the leadership of Stanton and Anthony.

The new century saw the U.S. suffrage movement shift to a more dramatic and militant strategy. Under Anthony’s rallying cry of “Failure is impossible!” suffragettes employed publicity campaigns, civil disobedience, and nonviolent confrontations as tactics. This approach was influenced by and modeled on the activities of British suffragettes, who were crusading for women’s rights on the other side of the Atlantic.

In England, the charismatic Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia were leading the fight for suffrage. In 1903, they founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the first and largest militant suffrage organization in England. Their initial campaigns included demonstrations and peaceful confrontations, but when those efforts proved fruitless, they chose more radical methods. In 1908 they began breaking the windows of government buildings and even threw stones through the windows of the Prime Minister’s home.

At one demonstration in London, the WSPU incited the public to “rush” the House of Commons, resulting in a violent clash with police. This event and others culminated in the arrests of many women, quite a few of whom went on hunger strikes in prison and were force-fed by the authorities. Emmeline Pankhurst endured 10 hunger strikes over an 18-month period and nearly died in the process.

The WSPU’s militant tactics continued to escalate, and by 1914 more than 1,000 women had been imprisoned for arson or destruction of public property. They suffered harsh treatment at the hands of their jailers, and many were beaten.

With the onset of World War I, the WSPU suspended all political activity and began negotiations with the British government. The organization agreed to end its militant campaigns and help with the war effort, and in return, the government released all suffragettes from prison.

In the United States, the fight continued, and Carrie Chapman Catt and Alice Paul emerged as new leaders. Catt took over NAWSA after Anthony’s retirement in 1900, and though she left office after four years to care for her dying husband, she came back to the movement as leader of the New York State suffrage campaign. She returned to head NAWSA in 1915.

Alice Paul was introduced to the English suffragist movement as a student at the London School of Economics and was one of the militants arrested and force-fed in jail. Upon her return to the United States she coaxed NAWSA into letting her organize a lobbying arm in Washington, D.C.

Paul also planned one of the most influential events of the American suffrage movement, an elaborate political parade held the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration in March 1913. She organized 8,000 college, professional, working-class, and middle-class members of NAWSA into marching units—complete with suffrage floats—that paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue, starting at the Capitol and moving past the White House. A suffragette astride a white horse and dressed in white robes led the procession—a Joan of Arc figure symbolizing righteous women fighting for a moral cause.

The mostly male crowd of parade watchers taunted, spit on, and physically abused the marchers, disrupting the event. Police did little to protect the suffragettes, and the U.S. War Department called in the cavalry to prevent a riot.

Since many of the marchers and their supporters were members of the political and social upper classes, the incident embarrassed the new administration. Congress began hearings into the police department’s mishandling of the situation, but the damage was done. Headlines appeared across the country giving women’s suffrage enormous publicity and effectively granting the movement major political status.

Paul continued her public demonstrations, organizing pickets and publicly burning the speeches of President Wilson in front of the White House. Many American women were arrested during these demonstrations and endured the same abuse suffered by the English suffragettes.

But as time passed, public opinion in both countries began to favor the suffragettes. In America many Western states—with more progressive, frontier-influenced views about women—granted voting rights to women, and in 1917 New York State approved women’s suffrage. Three years later the 19th Amendment was passed, proclaiming that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

England granted the vote to women age 30 and older in 1918, but it was another 10 years before English women were granted full and equal voting rights.