The Q&A in text form:
First of all, who were these New York men, and why did they choose to get involved?
They came from every prestige profession. From 1909 to 1912, their ranks grew from 150 to 500 members and after that into the many thousands from all walks of life across 35 states and the developed world. They were Progressives, thinkers and doers of both major political parties, men, who, as the Atlanta Constitution described them in 1911, seemed impelled only by the duty of “a just cause.” The spearheads—Oswald Garrison Villard, George Foster Peabody, Rabbi Stephen Wise, and John Dewey—all were also active in the advancement of black Americans through the NAACP and other boards. Young Max Eastman was already a published writer when he became the League’s first secretary and instantly one of the suffrage movement’s most popular orators. W.E.B. DuBois was an important fellow traveler, given both the importance to the African-American community of combatting the disenfranchisement of anyone and because granting the vote to black women would greatly augment black voice in the democratic process. Most took their inspiration or encouragement from a mother, sister, wife, or lover who was either active in the cause or exemplified its highest ideals.
In pursing the right to vote, many women risked imprisonment and worse. What were these guys putting on the line?
Not jail or starvation but quite a lot. Philanthropists like the Peabody underwrote the League financially. Others enabled the outsized activism of their suffragist wives and gave freely of their political clout to plead the suffrage case before legislators, government leaders and the public. The orators spoke and the writers wrote—the publishers among them were key, too. They filled the media with articles, essays, and provocative letters. The attorney Dudley Field Malone raced back and forth from New York to Washington DC to orchestrate legal action for the jailed suffragists of Alice Paul’s National Woman’s Party. Even more dramatically, he summarily quit his coveted patronage job as Collector of the Port of New York to protest President Woodrow Wilson’s continued refusal to support a federal suffrage amendment. As an Alice Duer Miller poem ends: “Of men who care supremely/That justice should be shown/ Who do not balk at sacrifice/And make the cause their own, /I know, I think, of only one, That’s Dudley Field Malone.” Not insignificant when they first organized were the direct assaults on their masculinity during marches for supporting this “despised” women’s cause.
And what was their most valuable contribution to the cause?
I’d say their influence, their access, and their ability to bend the reason of other men were all invaluable to the movement in its last determinative decade. Women leaders acknowledged this again and again. But as interesting to me is the news we can use: the exemplary model they represent—under-sung until this first telling of their story—for people in a privileged position who choose to ally themselves with a social cause not seen as their own. League men remained in the background until called upon to come forward. They rolled up their sleeves and got into the muck whenever needed. They took no credit. They yielded to the movement’s women leadership even when their own tactical or strategic views may have differed. When else before or since has such a thing happened with that balance of power?
How were they at taking orders from women? Or should I ask, did they take orders from women?
Indeed, they did, as noted above. Two examples: For a 1910 Albany campaign event aimed at legislators and the governor, Eastman argued strenuously for more male speakers in his belief that the words of men were more likely to persuade the male lawmakers that the suffragists hoped to convince. The women’s view prevailed and he was the only man on that platform that day. By 1915, the League allowed itself to be subsumed under a new New York State umbrella with four other women-run political equality organizations. This was at the behest of NAWSA, the National American Woman Suffrage Association, which took full charge of the referendum campaign. Over the coming two years until the New York battle was won, the men became even more active and vital to the effort, yet none was placed in a top leadership position in this new umbrella group.
There’s a poignant moment when you note that decades after the fact, when these suffragents started dying off after rich and storied careers, their obituaries rarely mentioned their involvement in the suffrage cause. Why was that?
I wish I knew, but there is no real way to tell. And this is not only true of their obituaries, which they likely did not write, but also for those who wrote memoirs, reference to the League is scant or nonexistent, except in the cases of Eastman and the playwright George Middleton. In the book, I leave it as a question. Was memory of these actions lost in the fullness of the next 20 to 50 years of their large lives? Or did the men deliberately downplay their role in the movement all good allies should? The latter would be consistent with the League’s comportment throughout the decade of its existence, but we’re left to wonder.