The little-known story of the men who fought for women’s votes
The “Suffragents” took the backseat, and showed what support looks like
By Brooke Kroeger
OnMay 6, 1911, under perfect blue skies, 10,000 spectators lined both sides of Fifth Avenue “from the curb to the building line” for the second annual New York Suffrage Day parade. Somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 marchers strode in a stream of purple, green, and white, from 57th 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.
To draw broad attention for this spectacle, the women had help from a single troupe of men in their midst — 89 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 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.
Many of their names resound through history as political kingmakers and promoters of such progressive causes as civil rights, child welfare, the educational advancement of black Americans, and, later, disarmament.
American men as individuals had publicly supported the rights of women as far back as 1775, when Thomas Paine published his essay “An Occasional Letter on the Female Sex.” After the Seneca Falls Convention to support women’s rights in 1848, other men wrote more specifically in support of women’s enfranchisement, notably William Lloyd Garrison, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Frederick Douglass. In England, John Stuart Mill’s “The Subjection of Women,” published in 1869, echoed many of the arguments that his wife, Harriet Taylor Mill, had presented in “The Enfranchisement of Women,” 18 years earlier. And briefly, between 1874 and 1875, a Young Men’s Woman Suffrage League met in New York City, fielding pro-suffrage speakers from its membership — physicians, attorneys, and professors among them — at some 80 meetings in the Plimpton Building, at 30 Stuyvesant Street in what is now the East Village.
Yet to take on the cause of women’s suffrage was almost always to do so at a price, especially for men. So it was on the parade line in 1911, where the men endured what, for the times, were unforgettably pernicious assaults on their masculinity. “Hold up your skirts, girls!” rowdy onlookers shouted. “You won’t get any dinner unless you march all the way, Vivian!” For all two miles of the walk, a newspaper clipping recounted, the men submitted to “jeers, whistles, ‘mea-a-ows,’ and such cries as ‘Take that handkerchief out of your cuff.’”
In time, male suffragists would become commonplace — and then all but forgotten as an orchestrated movement force. This is not so surprising. The story of the triumph of the suffrage cause has long belonged to the women, and rightly so. In the century since New York State granted women the vote, in November 1917, strikingly few details about the men’s efforts have thus emerged.
From a contemporary standpoint, it is remarkable to consider that 100 years ago, these prominent men not only gave their names to the cause of women’s rights or called in the odd favor, but 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?
This episode in the suffrage epic provides a means of observing the shift in the common perception of the suffrage movement as a whole. It also demonstrates the strategic brilliance of a decision by leaders in NAWSA, the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the main suffrage organization in the United States, to cultivate relationships with the well-heeled and the well-connected — women as well as men. In this period, Katherine Duer Mackay, wife of the communications mogul Clarence Mackay, and Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont, widow of the businessman and politician O.H.P. Belmont, formed and presided over influential pro-suffrage societies. Dashing pro-suffrage couples of the period were James Lees Laidlaw, the financier who was on the board of directors of what became Standard & Poor’s, and his wife, Harriet Burton Laidlaw; Frederick Nathan, the wealthy scion of an important Sephardi Jewish family, and his wife, the social activist Maud Nathan, his first cousin, also born a Nathan. Narcissa Cox Vanderlip and her husband, Frank A. Vanderlip, who was the president of the National City Bank of New York, were deeply involved, as were Vira Boarman Whitehouse and her husband, the stockbroker James Norman de Rapelye Whitehouse. In short order, the media attention they attracted brightly burnished the movement’s image in the mainstream press.
Over the course of these crucial years, the staunchly anti-suffrage editorial stance of such newspapers as the New York Times and the New York Herald bled a little less heavily onto their news pages. Editorialists, especially at the Times, took longer. As the Men’s League emerged in New York, and was rapidly cloned in city and county chapters across the state and well beyond, the mocking derision and dismissiveness that initially dominated coverage of the “Mere Men” in particular, and of the suffrage movement more broadly, gave way to acceptance of an idea whose time was about to come.
As the movement grew in strength and acceptance, its important new champions attracted beneficial press, whether they gave speeches, appeared at marches or at social gatherings, worked the halls of influence in Albany and Washington, or crafted or published buzz-worthy essays or attention-getting diatribes in the form of letters to the editor.
Beyond the arc of change in press coverage and public perception, it is worth noting other aspects of the male suffragists’ lives. For one, there are the personal relationships that motivated them to take up what in 1908 was still widely viewed as a laughably unimportant cause. Standing for the rights of workers was surely a factor for reformers like Max Eastman. His sister, Crystal Eastman; his girlfriend for part of this period, Inez Milholland, who remained a close friend; and his first wife, Ida Rauh, were all deeply involved with the labor reform movement, notably the shirtwaist workers strike of 1909–1910. Unsurprisingly, behind nearly every one of the men who put the most energy and time into the suffrage movement was an ardent movement activist (or two, or three, or four) who, as in Eastman’s case, also happened to be his wife, his mother, his sister, or his love interest. Daughters could also prove persuasive, as evidenced by the involvement of John Milholland, father of Inez, and ultimately by the evolving position of President Woodrow Wilson, two of whose daughters, Margaret and Jessie, were known to be pro-suffrage.
Worth appraisal, too, is the strategic decision of NAWSA president Anna Howard Shaw and her colleagues, after a long period of reluctance, to solicit or embrace the offers of support from these particular new allies. NAWSA did this assuming that participation was likely to be nominal. Shaw asked little. Yet the new male activists, like their society lady counterparts, gave of themselves far beyond what NAWSA’s leaders had expected. In fact, before too long, these dignified gents showed a surprising willingness to don costumes, act, dance, and work the streets. They attended city, county, state, national, and international meetings. They joined delegations and hosted lavish banquets. They lobbied at the state and national levels and issued loud, formal, headline-producing protests when the police in New York and Washington mistreated marchers or left them unprotected against the onslaught of catcalling, brickbatting mobs. The lawyers among them stepped up to represent the women suffragists who wound up in court.
Robert Cameron Beadle, secretary of the Men’s League of New York after Eastman, rode horseback from New York to Washington, D.C., with a women’s equestrian delegation. The Nathans and Laidlaws made statewide automobile recruitment trips. On separate occasions, the two couples went national, traveling out West to work on separate state suffrage campaigns.
As Shaw had presumed would happen, the planning minutiae and execution of the men’s involvement in major events often fell to the women.
Ofcourse, in this period there were also vocal male detractors from the same professional and editorial classes. Pearson’s and Ladies’ Home Journal commissioned major anti-suffrage investigations by the journalist Richard Barry that in turn brought a barrage of published rebuttal. Men’s anti-suffrage groups formed in reaction, but with not nearly the staying power, constancy, support, or impact of the male forces that supported the cause. And yet more than once, an invited male speaker — including a sitting president — stunned his hosts and audiences by speaking publicly against women’s suffrage at movement-sponsored events.
With few exceptions, it is also evident from the relative paucity of references to suffrage in the biographies, autobiographies, and personal correspondence of the Men’s League’s influential founders — Peabody, Wise, and Villard in particular — that local, state, and national elections, affairs of state, and civil rights took clear precedence over suffrage on their agendas. This was true even at moments when suffrage was as big a front-page story.
The men’s important contributions were especially apparent during the New York legislative and voter victories of 1917. Who else but the prominent men among the movement’s declared backers had such ready personal access to the — also male — state and federal legislators and government leaders, to publishers, or to the editorial elite? It worked to the movement’s extreme advantage that so many League members and leaders were themselves publishers and the editorial elite. Twice, Eastman sparred publicly with Theodore Roosevelt. At various points, Peabody, Villard, Wise, Creel, Harvey, Hapgood, Malone, and Eastman all had Woodrow Wilson’s ear. Most of them were among Wilson’s earliest political backers; Eastman had his respect. Creel, in the critical period when Wilson at long last came out in favor of the federal suffrage amendment, was on “terms of intimacy” with the president, meeting with him almost daily in his capacity as chair of the Committee on Public Information after the United States entered World War I in 1917.
No doubt an accumulation of other factors, far greater than the Men’s Leagues, led to the ultimate success of the women’s suffrage campaign: seven long decades of effort by passionate women, the changing times and political winds, the burgeoning public support, the growing number of states where women with the vote could influence outcomes, the movingly sacrificial role women played after the United States entered World War I. Still, once the details are known, it is hard to ignore the boost that the men provided. Their involvement amounted to more than an “influential factor” or “invaluable help.” Their commitment showcases the value elite individuals who act with care can bring to marginalized movements, particularly those with social justice aims. The impact of Men’s League actions a century ago speaks loudly to the strategic importance of cultivating people with influence and magnetic media appeal, those who can attract positive public attention, open access to those in positions of power, and alter public perception.
It was a major departure for men of such stature to decide that it mattered for women to vote, to recognize that as a chartered pro-suffrage organization, men could wield influence in ways that women could not, and to understand that to make a difference, they would be required to offer more than an early-20th-century equivalent of a celebrity endorsement or a goodwill ambassadorship — the kinds of gestures we see most often today. The founders of the Men’s League knew that to help sway the course of history, they needed a full-fledged national, then multinational, organization, with all the effort and expense that implied. They needed an entity in which men of great standing would subordinate themselves to women in a women-driven enterprise devoted to a “women’s cause,” and would claim center stage only when called upon or needed to do so.
This article appears, in slightly different form, in The Suffragents: How Women Used Men to Get the Vote (State University of New York Press, Albany, 2017), by Brooke Kroeger.