When Susan B. Anthony—social activist and icon of America’s women’s suffrage movement—turned eighty in 1900, her fellow suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton dedicated a three-part poem to her “honored friend.” In the first numbered section, Stanton recalls “that day in June, when first we met,” and in the second she pays tribute to the years they spent together “climbing the rugged Suffrage hill.” In the final section she looks ahead to the future of the movement in which they labored together, writing, “Side by side, we’ll take a seat, / To younger hands resign the reins.”
Stanton died two years later, in 1902, and Anthony died in 1906. But thanks to them and their contemporaries, and to the younger generation of suffrage activists who championed the cause, the 19th Amendment was officially adopted on August 26, 1920, securing voting rights for women.
This year marks the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment, offering our country an opportunity to celebrate this democratic milestone, revisit the complexities of the women’s suffrage movement, and draw attention to the equal-rights issues of today. The occasion is also important in the history of American poetry, as the campaign for women’s voting rights was heralded and promoted by the poems written and published by suffrage activists themselves.
The role poetry played in the Nineteenth Amendment’s passing is due in large part to the women’s suffrage publications that sprang up in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; Anthony, Stanton, and George Francis Train’s newspaper, the Revolution, which ran from 1868 to 1872, is often cited as the first. In its wake dozens of similar newspapers came into print around the country, most notably Woman’s Journal (1870 to 1912) and the Suffragist (1913 to 1920). These venues provided forums for women to champion their cause, regularly printing poems that served as manifestos, satires of anti-suffragists, or rallying cries for the movement.
Take these lines from a poem “Song for Equal Suffrage,” written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and first published in Woman’s Journal in 1909: “Woman’s right is woman’s duty! For our share in life we call! / Our will it is not weakened and our power it is not small.” Two years later, in 1911, the poem appeared in Gilman’s poetry collection Suffrage Songs and Verses (The Charlton Company), which was one of several poetry books of the era focusing specifically on equal voting rights for women. The following year, the New York State Woman Suffrage Party published the booklet Mother Goose as a Suffragette, which featured modified nursery rhymes about women’s rights:
Humpty Dumpty sits on a wall;
Humpty Dumpty’s doomed to a fall;
For suffragist logic and women’s intrusion
Are demolishing much of his former seclusion.
In the wake of Mother Goose, a political poet named Alice Duer Miller published Are Women People?: A Book of Rhymes for Suffrage Times in 1915, which she followed with a sequel, Women Are People!, in 1917. Just as Gilman’s poems appeared in Woman’s Journal and elsewhere before their publication in Suffrage Songs and Verses, many of Miller’s poems in Are Women People? were originally published in the New York Tribune. Miller’s poems—with titles like “What Governments Say to Women” and “Male Philosophy”—mock anti-suffrage sentiment and often riff satirically off of epigraphs taken from anti-suffrage articles and speeches.
Other figures in suffragist poetry include Katharine Fisher, a women’s suffrage activist who was arrested picketing in 1917 and who published numerous poems and articles in the Suffragist; Margaret Widdemer, whose 1915 book, The Factories, features poems such as “The Women’s Litany,” with its repeated entreaty “Let us in through the guarded gate”; and Julia Ward Howe, an abolitionist who became involved in women’s voting rights after the Civil War. Howe is best known for her 1862 marching song, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which she modeled after an earlier Union marching song, “John Brown’s Body,” which in turn was based on folk hymns of the era. As it happens, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” went on to serve as a model for Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “Song for Equal Suffrage”; Gilman’s poem continues, “We are half of every nation! We are mothers of them all! / In Wisdom marching on!”
The lineage in these marching songs helps illustrate how the suffragists adapted poetry’s existing role in social activism, particularly in abolitionism, for the women’s rights movement. However, the relationship between the abolitionist and suffragist movements was not without conflict; though Gilman was an important figure in women’s suffragist verse, she also contemporaneously wrote and spoke about white superiority. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, another integral figure in the activism and verse of both movements, famously spoke to the racial issues in the women’s suffrage movement at the 1866 National Women’s Rights Convention: “We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul…. You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs.” Harper, who cofounded the National Association of Colored Women, worked to promote not only gender but also racial equality and distanced herself from many of her fellow suffragists—including Anthony and Stanton—who prioritized their campaign for women’s suffrage over that of the voting rights for African American men.
One hundred years after the Nineteenth Amendment was passed, we as a country are in a position to look back on both the triumphs of the women’s suffrage movement and its flaws. One vital way of doing this is through the arts, and the Academy of American Poets is working to make many early suffragist poems easily accessible online for the first time. In addition, the Academy is partnering with the New York Philharmonic on a multiyear initiative called Project 19, through which the New York Philharmonic is commissioning and premiering new works by nineteen women composers, and the Academy is commissioning new poems by nineteen contemporary women poets, including Washington State poet laureate Claudia Castro Luna; former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove; Global Filipino Award winner Aimee Nezhukumatathil; and Walt Whitman Award winner Mai Der Vang. These poets will have a unique platform on which to celebrate and question what it means to be an American woman writing today, with the century-old legacy of the suffrage movement behind them.
This essay originally appeared in the Spring-Summer 2020 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. To receive American Poets, become a member.