The Suffragents: How Women Used Men to Get the Vote

The story of how and why a group of prominent and influential men in New York City and beyond came together to help women gain the right to vote.


The Suffragents is the untold story of how some of New York’s most powerful men formed the Men’s League for Woman Suffrage, which grew between 1909 and 1917 from 150 founding members into a force of thousands across thirty-five states. Brooke Kroeger explores the formation of the League and the men who instigated it to involve themselves with the suffrage campaign, what they did at the behest of the movement’s female leadership, and why. She details the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s strategic decision to accept their organized help and then to deploy these influential new allies as suffrage foot soldiers, a role they accepted with uncommon grace. Led by such luminaries as Oswald Garrison Villard, John Dewey, Max Eastman, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and George Foster Peabody, members of the League worked the streets, the stage, the press, and the legislative and executive branches of government. In the process, they helped convince waffling politicians, a dismissive public, and a largely hostile press to support the women’s demand. Together, they swayed the course of history.

Coming September 1, 2017 from Excelsior Editions

trailer credit: Adam Vine

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Brooke Kroeger is a journalist, author and professor of journalism at New York University,where she directs GloJo, short for Global and Joint Program Studies. The Suffragents (2017) is her fifth book. Previous works are Undercover Reporting: The Truth About Deception (2012); Passing: When People Can’t Be Who They Are (2003); Fannie: The Talent for Success of Writer Fannie Hurst (1999); and Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist (1994).

From An Introduction:

On May 6, 1911, under perfect blue skies, ten thousand spectators lined both sides of Fifth Avenue “from the curb to the building line” for the annual New York Suffrage Day parade. Somewhere between three thousand and five thousand marchers strode in a stream of purple, green, and white, from Fifty-Seventh Street to a giant rally in Union Square. Bicolored banners demarcated the groups by their worldly work as architects, typists, aviators, explorers, nurses, physicians, actresses, shirtwaist makers, cooks, painters, writers, chauffeurs, sculptors, journalists, editors, milliners, hairdressers, office holders, librarians, decorators, teachers, farmers, artists’ models, “even pilots with steamboats painted on their banners.” Women’s work was the point. The New York Sun repeated the entire list at the top of its front-page story.

To draw broad attention for this spectacle, the women had help from a single troupe of men in their midst—eighty-nine in all, by most accounts—dressed not in the Scottish kilts of the bagpipers or the smartly pressed uniforms of the bands, but in suits, ties, fedoras, and the odd top hat. They marched four abreast in the footsteps of the women, under a banner of their own.

These men were not random supporters, but representatives of a momentous, yet subtly managed development in the suffrage movement’s seventh decade. Eighteen months earlier, 150 titans of publishing, industry, finance, science, medicine, and academia; of the clergy, the military, of letters and of the law; men of means or influence or both, had joined together under their own charter to become what their banner proclaimed them, the Men’s League for Woman Suffrage. Since the end of 1909, they had been speaking, writing, editing or publishing, planning, and lobbying New York’s governor and legislators on behalf of the suffrage cause. They did so until the vote was won.

. . . This book seeks to retrieve a long-forgotten sliver of history—to tell the story of how, in the course of women’s protracted and hard-fought battle to gain the vote in the United States, men played a consequential role that they did not aggrandize or promote, except when it served the suffrage cause for them to do so. Drawing on biographical sketches, correspondence, and a multitude of references in newspapers and magazines of the period, the book recounts efforts that years later would fail to receive even passing mention in the often prominent published obituaries of the League’s key male figures.

Specifically, this book is about how the Men’s League for Woman Suffrage of the State of New York came to be formed, in 1908, how hard its members worked under the direction of the extraordinary women who led the suffrage charge in that period; and why what transpired may hold some lessons worth reflecting upon, even today.  It shows how in that final decade leading up to the passage of the New York State suffrage amendment in 1917, these “Mere Men,” these “Suffragents,” the British moniker by which they were so often disdainfully called, helped inspire a gradual but dramatic tonal shift in response to the larger suffrage movement in the way mass-circulation newspapers and magazines covered it, and in the way politicians, government officials, and both the general and all-male voting public responded to it.

From a contemporary standpoint, it is remarkable to consider that one hundred years ago, these prominent men—highly respected and influential, their exploits chronicled regularly in the national media—not only gave their names to the cause of women’s rights or called in the odd favor, but rather invested in the fight. They created and ran an organization expressly committed to an effort that, up until the point at which they joined, had been seen as women’s work for a marginal nonstarter of a cause. From the beginning of their involvement, these men willingly acted on orders from and in tandem with the women who ran the greater state and national suffrage campaigns. How many times in American history has such collaboration happened, especially with this balance of power?




Advance Response to THE SUFFRAGENTS (forthcoming September 1, 2017):

From James McBride, author of The Color of Water and The Good Lord Bird, winner of the National Book Award for Fiction:

The Suffragents is proof that the clatter of dishes that America’s power brokers were hearing as they sat in their smoking parlors back in the early twentieth century meant more than clean china and emptied ashtrays. Someone was cooking up plans. The book reveals the careful, never-before-told story of how women carefully calculated and planned their own liberation, directing the prominent power brokers in America into action. With smooth efficiency and the touch of a novelist, Brooke Kroeger shows how the suffragist movement, engineered by women from top to bottom, cleverly stitched in the involvement of men from all walks of professional and political life, directed by women who used neither gun nor blade to direct the men, but the weapons of intelligence, cleverness, and when necessary, subterfuge. The collaboration in this balance of power between prominent men who invested in the movement, and the women who directed them, has everything to teach us today.”

From Linda J. Lumsden, author of INEZ: The Life and Times of Inez Milholland:

“Not all the suffragists who risked ridicule to march down Fifth Avenue in the big parades touting votes for women wore dresses. Brooke Kroeger meticulously documents the largely unsung role of men who publicly supported their wives, mothers, sisters, or lovers in the final dramatic decade of women’s seventy-year battle for the ballot.”

From Michael Kimmel, co-editor of Against the Tide: Pro-Feminist Men in the United States, 1775-1990: A Documentary History

“Women ‘need’ men to get the rights they deserve: after all, men had to vote to let women vote. Brooke Kroeger gives us the first history of the Men’s League for Woman Suffrage, the “Gentleman’s Auxiliary” of the women’s movement. Eschewing the spotlight, they supported gender equality, as we all should, because it’s quite simply the right thing to do. With this gift, Kroeger gives us back a bit of our history.”

From The Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism (where Brooke is a Senior Fellow): “As women fought for the right to vote in the 19th and 20th centuries, they had some unexpected allies: A group of powerful men who joined the women’s suffrage movement. Together, they helped change the course of history.”

THE SUFFRAGENTS: How Women Used Men to Get the Vote, launches Sept. 1. National History Day contestants, this page is for you.