History

How New York Women, from Village Bohemians to Suffragettes, Won the Right to Vote

In 1917, female New Yorkers were finally invited to the polling booths. An exhibition at the New-York Historical Society argues this victory was largely due to the local activism of the bohemians of Greenwich Village.

Installation view of Hotbed (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

In the 1914 short film, A Busy Day, Charlie Chaplin, dressed in drag, plays a suffragette, wreaking havoc and getting into fistfights all over town for no real reason, sans dialogue and accompanied by a ragtime score. A year after Chaplin’s film, the women of New York City would take to the streets by the tens of thousands, marching down Fifth Avenue for the right to vote. (A suffrage parade in Washington, DC had already taken place in 1913.) Although a number of US states had granted women’s suffrage by this time, New York was lagging behind, and it wasn’t until 1917 that female New Yorkers were finally invited to the polling booths. As Hotbedan exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, argues, this victory was largely due to the local activism of the bohemians of Greenwich Village.

“I Want to Vote But My Wife Won’t Let Me” postcard, ca. 1910. Pro-suffrage postcards portrayed attractive, dignified women sharing in politics with men, while anti-suffrage cards trafficked in satire (courtesy the New-York Historical Society Library)

Hotbed begins with a map of the Village in the early 1900s, introducing the neighborhood as a breeding ground of revolutionary ideas. A Venn diagram of sorts presents the main characters in the feminist story of the neighborhood — people like nurse Margaret Sanger, anarchist Emma Goldman, and playwright Susan Glaspell, who co-founded the Provincetown Players, a theater company that sought to provide New Yorkers with a more serious alternative to the commercial ambitions of Broadway. (It was one of the first companies to put on a Eugene O’Neill play.) Along with members and friends of the Provincetown Players, the feminist group Heterodoxy and the socialist publication The Masses completed the trio of Greenwich Village’s most influential and revolutionary organizations at the time.

Unidentified photographer, “Women Want Liberty Airplane Group (Suffbird),” 1916. Modern suffragists worked hard to capture media attention for their cause. In a remarkable series of stunts, they took to the skies in biplanes to drop leaflets into crowds (courtesy the New-York Historical Society Library)

Divided into several rooms, Hotbed presents its historical documents and ephemera in loosely defined categories, beginning with an introduction to the major players, before weaving through questions of feminist fashion, birth control, women’s activism in the areas of labor and racial equality, timelines of marches and protests, and a whole section on pro- and anti-suffrage propaganda, from postcards and flyers (many of the biplanes that dropped pro-suffrage leaflets were themselves piloted by women) to posters and the new medium of movies, played at nickelodeons.

Jessie Tarbox Beals, “Charlotte Powell,” ca. 1917. Gelatin silver print. Jessie Tarbox Beals was highly conscious of being a woman in a male-dominated profession. In her portraits of women artists and business owners in the Village, she presented her subjects as independent, capable, and androgynous. Here Charlotte Powell, labeled “the Village painter” by Beals, poses confidently with the tools of her trade. (courtesy the New-York Historical Society Library)

“If we trust women with our children, can’t we trust them with the vote?” reads a line from a leaflet hanging in a tote bag, a copy of a historical document offered to visitors for the taking. There’s also a small theater that screens excerpts from some of the films coming out of both sides of the suffrage debate, like the one of Chaplin as suffragette.

The second half of the exhibition offers a suffrage movement separating into factions during the First World War, with women divided between idealist anti-war pacifism and a more practical pro-war loyalty, a means of proving a patriotism deserving of equal rights — a strategy often used by marginalized groups, like Japanese-Americans during WWII and African-Americans in almost every war, from the Civil War to Vietnam. The racial divide also comes out in this section, as does the wartime xenophobia that results in the deportation of Emma Goldman and hundreds of other perceived enemies of the state under the auspices of the Red Scare. “In the 1920s, bohemia decamped to Paris as Prohibition drove much of New York social life underground,” reads the wall text, but the fact that the temperance and suffrage movements were themselves intertwined is largely glossed over.

“Suffrage and The Man” poster, 1912. New York: The Metropolitan Printing Company. Advertised as “a comedy of votes and love,” this 1912 film (now lost) was produced by the Women’s Political Union, founded by Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s daughter, Harriot Stanton Blatch. The film’s heroine, serving on a jury, manages to save her ex-fiancé from a lawsuit and win him back. Similar scenarios, with less happy endings, were often used by anti-suffragists to claim that women could not separate romance from politics. (courtesy the New-York Historical Society Library)

The 19th amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote, was added to the US Constitution on August 18, 1920, but as we all know, it was far from the end of the women’s movement. A century later, we’re still arguing about birth control — not to mention labor inequalities, racial justice, and war and peace. Hotbed ends with a wall-size photo of the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, DC. “Decency Matters,” reads one of the signs in the photo. Or as Greenwich Village journalist and political activist Louise Bryant said almost a hundred years ago, “I do not want to be treated like a lady, but I want to be treated as a human being.” Don’t we all.

Hotbed continues at the New-York Historical Society (170 Central Park West, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through March 25.

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