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?