Recasting the Vote: Introduction

Happy Women’s History Month! If you’re looking for Women’s History Titles to read this month, you can browse our previous Women’s History Blog Post’s, check out books in our Gender and American Culture series, and learn more about our new Black Women’s History series.

The following is an excerpt from the introduction of Recasting the Vote: How Women of Color Transformed the Suffrage Movement by Cathleen D. Cahill, available wherever books are sold.

We think we know the story of women’s suffrage in the United States: women met at Seneca Falls, marched in Washington, D.C., and demanded the vote until they won it with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. But the fight for women’s voting rights extended far beyond these familiar scenes. From social clubs in New York’s Chinatown to conferences for Native American rights, and in African American newspapers and pamphlets demanding equality for Spanish-speaking New Mexicans, a diverse cadre of extraordinary women struggled to build a movement that would truly include all women, regardless of race or national origin. In Recasting the Vote, Cathleen D. Cahill tells the powerful stories of a multiracial group of activists who propelled the national suffrage movement toward a more inclusive vision of equal rights. Cahill reveals a new cast of heroines largely ignored in earlier suffrage histories: Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin, Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (Zitkala-Ša), Laura Cornelius Kellogg, Carrie Williams Clifford, Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, and Adelina “Nina” Luna Otero-Warren. With these feminists of color in the foreground, Cahill recasts the suffrage movement as an unfinished struggle that extended beyond the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. 

As we celebrate the centennial of a great triumph for the women’s movement, Cahill’s powerful history reminds us of the work that remains.

On a bright March day in 1913, Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin stood on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol. She had come to participate in a historic event. Although the city thronged with people who planned to attend Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration as the twenty-eighth president of the United States, Bottineau Baldwin had other priorities: she and thousands of other women had marshaled themselves for the first national woman suffrage parade.

Above her, the white Capitol dome gleamed in the sunlight against a brilliantly blue sky. Along the dome’s railing, spectators with the best view in town appeared as small specks. At the very top stood the bronze Statue of Freedom, nineteen feet tall, her classical robes flowing and the eagle feathers on her cap splayed visibly against the sky. The statue was part of a long tradition of female allegorical figures representing America—the feathers symbolized the continent as a “wild” Indian woman, while the robes signaled the classical tradition of “civilization” with which European colonists clothed their New World.

This spirited history situates the campaign for female suffrage within the broader narrative of civil rights. . . . Cahill’s widened focus links the battle for enfranchisement to currents of exclusion and empowerment that continue to shape the vote today.

The New Yorker

Bottineau Baldwin was also wearing a robe, but hers was the black regalia of the Washington College of Law. She stood with her fellow lawyers and students wearing dark mortarboard hats from which hung short, thick tassels. She wore no feathered headdress nor braids, beadwork, or buckskin—nothing that would have marked her as an Indian to the non-Native Americans gathered along the Pennsylvania Avenue parade route. In marching as a lawyer, she asserted her place as a modern Native woman, rejecting the widely held notion that Indians were relics of the past. As a result, most people did not realize that an Anishinaabe woman was taking part in the march that day.

Mrs. Wu stood out as a more visible participant in the procession. She wore a striking “embroidered gown of pale blue” and rode on the float representing nations of the world working toward woman suffrage. One report stated that she and her husband were students at George Washington University and that she held “Baby Wu [in] a white robe embroidered with little golden dragons.” A photograph of the float depicts a Chinese woman in a richly patterned dress, but instead of a baby, she carries the flag of the new Chinese republic with its five horizontal stripes. Chinese names puzzled American reporters, who seldom bothered to confirm their accuracy or spelling. Exactly who Mrs. Wu was remains uncertain. It is possible that Wu was not even her real name.

She was there for a reason, however: to invoke the women of the Chinese Revolution of 1911 who had inspired American suffragists. The republican revolutionaries’ support of women’s rights fascinated the American public, as did reports that Chinese women had won the franchise. Wu’s float was in the first section of the parade, labeled “The World-Wide Movement for Woman Suffrage.” Most of the foreign nations in her section were represented by white American women in costumes, but as the press eagerly announced, “China was represented by a real Chinese woman.”

This important book reminds us that the familiar stories of women’s suffrage are woefully incomplete.

Library Journal

Carrie Williams Clifford marched in the “Homemakers” section. She was surrounded by women uniformly dressed in white shawls and caps. African American women like Clifford had insisted that they be included in the parade despite fierce resistance to their presence. They took their places throughout the procession as representatives of different professions, including artists, musicians, teachers, and doctors. Black women also marched with the individual state delegations of Illinois, Michigan, and New York, while a large body of students from Howard University marched in the college section. Clifford was proud of all of them. They “are to be congratulated that so many of them had the courage of their convictions,” she later wrote, “and that they made such an admirable showing in the first great national parade.”

It had indeed required conviction. White parade organizers feared that African Americans’ participation would alienate southern whites, whose support they deemed essential to the suffrage cause. The leaders of the march eventually relented, but only after proposing that the African American contingent appear at the back of the parade. But Clifford and her fellow black suffragists insisted on participating on an equal basis. Recognizing the historic nature of the moment, they understood that black women’s visible presence symbolized their claims to full belonging in the nation.

To highlight women’s achievements as well as the righteousness of their cause, parade organizers drew on a vast library of symbols familiar to most Americans. At the head of the procession, the famous white suffragist and lawyer Inez Milholland sat astride her white horse as a black groom held its reins. She wore a delicate white lace dress and sported long white gloves and white riding boots. A diadem topped with a large star wreathed her dark hair, while a white cape covered her shoulders and flowed down over the horse’s haunches. Milholland rode in front of a float emblazoned with the words “We demand an amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America Enfranchising the Women of this Country.” The whiteness of her outfit as well as her renowned beauty were intended to reinforce the high ideals of the movement. To underscore that message, marchers carried banners such as the one that read “Forward out of Darkness, Leave Behind the Night, Forward out of Error, Forward into Light.”

Cathleen D. Cahill is associate professor of history at Penn State University and the author of Federal Fathers and Mothers: A Social History of the United States Indian Service, 1869–1933, winner of the 2011 Labriola Center American Indian National Book Award and finalist for the 2012 David J. Weber-Clements Prize, Western History Association.