The Great Enfranchisement: Women’s Suffrage in the United States and the United Kingdom

The United States are on the eve of an election. In a democracy, this is when the people (so prominent a term in the founding documents of the United States) are called upon to have their say and decide the future of their country. Yet, for a long time in American history, only a very limited amount of Americans were called upon to cast their votes on a Tuesdays in November – because of their race, their class, and also because of their gender. 100 years ago, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States ended the latter practice and gave women equal suffrage rights with men. We’ll look upon the roots of that long struggle for equality and at the political machinations that led to the ratification of the 19th Amendment, drawing strongly on two soon-to-be published board games: The Vote (Tom Russell, Hollandspiele), to be released on November 3, and Votes for Women (Tory Brown, Fort Circle Games), to be released in April 2021. Of course, American women were not alone in their fight for voting rights, and the British suffragettes (more on that term later) were particularly influential with the style of their campaigns – and with the board games they published.

The Long Way to American Women’s Suffrage

The founding documents of the United States do not contain references to gender. Women voters were not unheard of – (propertied) women voted in New Jersey until the state legislature restricted suffrage to white males in 1807. Thereafter, women’s suffrage lay dormant for over forty years.

In 1848, female and male activists met in Seneca Falls, New York at what was one of the first women’s rights conventions. Among their demands for legal equality, they also included that for women’s suffrage. It had been put on the list by the organizer of the convention, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but proved controversial even among the women’s rights activists. In the end, Cady Stanton – with the support of the attending Frederick Douglass – carried the day. The demand for equal suffrage now was a cornerstone of women’s rights activism and thus marks the beginning of Votes for Women.

It was no coincidence that Frederick Douglass, the most prominent leader of Black America, attended the Seneca Falls Convention. Most of the early American women’s rights activists were also abolitionists, as they perceived both women and African Americans to be unjustly disadvantaged and excluded from the political sphere. That alliance endured through the Civil War – yet afterward, women’s suffrage advocates’ hopes for constitutional amendments enfranchising all Americans regardless of race or sex failed. The 15th Amendment to the Constitution only prohibited the enfranchisement on basis of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

The amendment was thus controversial within the women’s suffrage movement. Some of the more radical members – among them Cady Stanton and her friend Susan B. Anthony – had opposed it, as they felt betrayed by the abolitionists. The more moderate wing around Lucy Stone accepted that black male suffrage would come before women’s suffrage. Consequently, both wings formed into independent associations: Anthony’s and Stanton’s NWSA kept aiming at a federal legislative push, Stone’s AWSA pivoted to achieve change on the state and local level. Both strategies enjoyed their successes.

Instead of pushing for new laws, NWSA suffragists now maintained that women were already entitled to vote under the existing ones – the “New Departure” interpretation of the Constitution: After all, persons born or naturalized in the United States were citizens (as per the 14th Amendment). As women were persons, surely they also were citizens and thus had the right to vote. Consequently, various women confidently went to the polling stations – most famously Susan B. Anthony at the 1872 presidential election. After told by the clerk that she, a woman, could not vote, she laid out the “New Departure” to him – and made compelling enough a case that he let her cast her ballot. The following trial against Anthony found her guilty of violating state voting laws, but her fiery defense was the best publicity the cause of women’s suffrage could have wished for.

The cause of women’s suffrage grows in the American West. Image from The Vote, ©Hollandspiele.

And, while the federal push had failed, women’s suffrage made gains on a more local level as the AWSA had envisioned. Wyoming was the first territory to grant women voting rights in 1869, Utah followed the year after. From there, suffrage on a state level grew throughout the American West, and from there to the rest of the nation. This expansion was not without its setbacks. Referenda on women’s suffrage were lost more often than won. Yet by the early 20th century, women in most states except at the eastern seaboard would enjoy at least some kind of suffrage (possibly only primary or municipal voting rights).

Overall, AWSA’s local strategy seemed like the more successful one. On the other hand, the NWSA had always enjoyed a broader base of support. Old enmities had cooled over the years, and by 1890, the two organizations merged into one – the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).

This interplay between local and federal momentum is also a crucial part of The Vote. The game takes the position that AWSA’s local strategy was the more viable one – in the game, the player in favor of voting equality must build support from the local level up and can later turn it into federal success by passing the Amendments to the Constitution.

The 19th Amendment

The first generation of American suffragists was coming to an end – Lucy Stone died in 1893, Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1903, Susan B. Anthony in 1906. New women took over: The journalist Ida B. Wells revived the old alliance between equality for African Americans and equality for women.  Carrie Chapman Catt at the head of NAWSA turned her organization back to lobbying for federal voting rights enshrined in an Amendment to the Constitution. And Alice Paul, inspired by the British suffragettes (read more on them below), brought radicalism and the all the tools at the disposal of an activist movement back to the US.

Paul’s organizations – first the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, then the National Woman’s Party – staged some of the most iconic public manifestations of the suffrage movement – like the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession through D.C. to the picketing of the White House and the protest against “Kaiser Wilson” fighting a war for the self-government of the Germans while half of his own citizens were disenfranchised. On the other side, NAWSA under the organizational and diplomatic leadership of Carrie Chapman Catt proved a highly effective lobbying organization, always in touch with members of the federal and state legislatures, the administrations, and the party leaders.

Alice Paul’s National Woman Party had a keen eye for striking imagery, as exemplified by the procession depicted on the cover of The Vote. Note the color scheme: Gold was the traditional color of American suffragism, but Paul had adopted the purple from the British suffragettes. Image ©Hollandspiele.

International developments also turned in favor of women’s suffrage: Women had taken on many traditionally male roles during World War I, and thus had strengthened their claim to the vote. Russia and Germany established full suffrage in their respective revolutions of 1917 and 1918/19. The United Kingdom introduced limited female suffrage by parliamentary legislation in 1918.

Under these influences, president Woodrow Wilson, originally an opponent of equal suffrage, came around to (reluctantly) endorse it. A new federal campaign for an equal suffrage amendment began. The amendment – it would be the 19th – was introduced into Congress in May 1919 and passed with the votes of most Republicans and about half of the Democrats. Now, the Amendment only needed to be ratified by three quarters of the 48 states. This struggle for ratification forms the climax of Votes for Women – the last two turns in which suffragists and anti-suffragists fight over ratification in the individual states.

The 48 states on the mapboard of Votes for Women. The suffragist player (or players, if played cooperatively) will need 36 of them to ratify the 19th Amendment. Or, conversely: If the anti-suffragist player locks down a mere 13 states to decline ratification, they win. Image ©Fort Circle Games (not final art and subject to change until release).

Many states rushed to ratify. Others took it more leisurely or voted against ratification – especially in the south. Southern lawmakers were rather conservative with fixed ideas where a woman’s proper place was (not at the ballot box). The numerous white supremacists among them feared that female enfranchisement would undermine their domination, as black women were expected to vote in higher numbers than white women (who presumably were content with being represented by their male kin).

The anti-suffragist movement in the south leaned heavily on these fears. On the other side, southern suffragists aimed to assuage them – often by arguing that female suffrage strengthened the existing racial hierarchy, as there would be more white female voters than black voters of all genders combined.

By March 1920, 35 of the necessary 36 state legislatures had ratified the amendment. Then further advance stalled. By late May, seven states had rejected ratification, and, surprisingly, Delaware was added to that column in June. Of the remaining states, Connecticut and Vermont seemed in no great rush to ratify, Florida and North Carolina were staunchly against it. Thus, it all came down to Tennessee – a southern state, but politically diverse enough to consider ratification.

Suffragists and anti-suffragists from both in and out of state lobbied the Tennessee lawmakers. For a few weeks in August 1920, Nashville was the hottest place to be – not only because of the southern summer. Under immense pressure from both suffragists and anti-suffragists, Republican and Democratic party leadership, moneyed interests like the railroad and liquor industries, and their own constituents, many Tennessee lawmakers had the instinct to flee. House speaker Seth Walker motioned to table the ratification resolution and only bring it up again after the 1920 presidential election – and failed by one vote. And yet, no majority for either side was certain by the tallies the activists kept. When the Tennessee House finally voted on the ratification, Representative Harry Burn who’d been counted as unreliable at best and an opponent of ratification at worst voted in favor of it – after receiving a letter from his mother urging him to vote yes that very day. The Amendment was ratified with 50 out of 99 votes.

Thus the 36th state had ratified the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Legal challenges to the Amendment were rejected by the courts over the next years. By then, women in all states had already cast their ballots in the elections of 1920.

In 1920, “Votes for Women” had turned from a rallying cry into reality. Cover design for Votes for Women, ©Fort Circle Games.

The presumed unified bloc of women voters did not materialize. Women were Republicans, Democrats, and supporters of third parties or independents. Consequently, women’s issues were not a major priority of most lawmakers and administrators (who were still overwhelmingly more often male than female). The first wave of American feminism had won women the vote on equal terms with men (including their limitations – Native Americans regardless of gender were still not enfranchised in 1920, African American women were widely barred from exercising their voting rights in the South as were African American men). Yet it took the second wave in the 1960s and 1970s to put women’s issues beyond legal discriminations – equal pay, reproductive rights, or equal access to education – on the executive and legislative agenda.

Militancy and Board Games: The British Suffragettes

As in the United States, women voters were not unheard of in Britain until the early 19th century. Only the 1832 Reform Act specified – while expanding voting rights to a broader part of the male population – that only “male persons” could cast a ballot. Of course, that could not go unchallenged. One of the early convicts to the cause of women’s suffrage was the philosopher John Stuart Mill, who, during his brief tenure as a Member of Parliament introduced the matter to the House of Commons, only for it to be met with ridicule.

After Mill, the idea of women voting in general elections enjoyed barely any political support from either the Conservative or the Liberal parties. Things, however, looked different on the local level. The Local Government Act of 1894 expanded local democracy in the United Kingdom and also gave (some) women the right to vote in municipal elections. The Act emboldened the British suffragist movement. Many local suffragist societies formed, and in 1897, they united into a loose federation – the National Union of Women’s suffrage societies (NUWSS).

Some years later, another group was founded: The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), soon to be led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia, would become the most famous British suffrage organization. Its supporters were soon mocked not be suffragists, but only “suffragettes” – but they proudly adopted the derisive term as a moniker for themselves.

At the founding of the WSPU, Emmeline Pankhurst was a member of the Independent Labour Party (ILP). That fit with the WSPU’s stance of shunning association with both the Liberal and Conservative parties whose parliamentary dominance for decades had not resulted in votes for women. Consequently, the WSPU developed a new electoral strategy: Whereas the NUWSS had supported pro-suffrage candidates for parliament, the WSPU meant to put pressure on the cabinet by unseating candidates associated with the sitting government – which, from 1906 on, meant the candidates from the generally more suffrage-friendly Liberal Party. Another strategy decision differentiated the WSPU even more strongly from the NUWSS – from 1906 on, after the disappointing experience of a newly elected Liberal government turning women’s suffrage down, the WSPU adopted what they called “militancy”.

Militancy, the WSPU’s spectacular actions from property damage over altercations with police officers to attempts to storm the House of Commons, was excellent material for newspaper stories, and the ample press coverage helped the WSPU to gain supporters and rake in donations. In addition to the general press, the WSPU also had its own media: Magazines like The Suffragette circulated among supporters of women’s suffrage, and the WSPU even published its own board games.

The suffragettes (green pieces) are ready to defend Albert Hall and storm the House of Commons, the police (blue pieces) to oppose them. Prison (for defeated suffragette pieces) and hospital (for defeated police) are on the sides of the board. Image from the Vassal module of Suffragetto.

As the suffragettes celebrated militancy, so did their board games. Suffragetto pitched suffragettes and police against each other in a clash on the streets. The suffragette player was to storm the House of Commons, the police player to enter Royal Albert Hall (a popular location for suffragette events). If the suffragette defeated individual police pawns, they were “sent to hospital” – a proud statement in favor of the suffragette’s use of street violence. Defeated suffragette pawns, however, were “sent to prison”. If you want to read more on the implications of that – and how this mechanically rather abstract game is still bristling with theme, Dan Thurot over at Space-Biff! has you covered.

That also reflected a reality of the WSPU’s struggle. As confrontations with the police became more common and more intense, did the number of arrested suffragettes grew. In many instances suffragettes deliberately aimed at getting arrested for the resulting publicity. Once in prison, the suffragettes resorted to hunger strikes, putting the authorities at the dilemma of either letting them starve to death, feeding them by force, or releasing them. The first ran the risk of creating martyrs for the suffragist cause at the hands of a brutal government and was thus dismissed. The second was attempted, but the brutal practice of force feeding did not help the government’s public image either. The third would be a triumph for the suffragettes. Thus, the Liberal government passed a law under which the suffragettes on hunger strike would be released from prison for health reasons – only to be re-arrested once they had recovered their strength. The law was aptly nicknamed the Cat and Mouse Act. This treatment inspired another suffragette board game – Suffragettes In and Out of Prison (later re-issued in altered form as Pank-A-Squith named after Emmeline Pankhurst and her political opponent, Liberal prime minister H. H. Asquith).

The first campaign of militancy from 1906 on had gained the WSPU many new supporters and donors. On the other hand, WSPU campaign expenses had risen exorbitantly. The WSPU now employed dozens of professional organizers and issued a flood of printed products from magazines over leaflets to the mentioned board games. To field those expenses, the Pankhursts turned their organization’s focus away from the working class which made up most of the WSPU rank-and-file and toward the wealthy benefactors to which the notoriety of their militancy had gained them access. While some WSPU members left the Union and founded the Women’s Freedom League, more than 80% stayed with the Pankhursts.

For some years, the WSPU focused more on their electoral strategy. Liberal candidates, especially high-profile ones, could expect the WSPU to campaign for their defeat. Winston Churchill was but the most famous Liberal to lose his seat (in an 1908 by-election). However, when the Liberals introduced a universal manhood voting bill – but no women’s suffrage bill – to the House of Commons in 1911, the WSPU called for militancy again. The broken shop windows and the injured police officers that resulted from this campaign lead to arrests, prison protest, notoriety, and donations – but not to suffrage bill (and it can be argued that they hindered it, as Prime Minister Asquith, not a friend of women’s suffrage to begin with, could not afford to appear intimidated).

The campaign lasted in various shades of intensity until 1914. When World War I broke out, the WSPU ceased its activities in favor of patriotic support of the British war effort. The NUWSS had done the same a few days earlier already. Women’s suffrage took a backseat for the time being, but even more than in the United States, women gained new confidence during the war, working in the ammunitions factories or heading their households while their men were in the field or dead. As they had done something for their country, they felt their country should also do something for them. In 1916, the new government headed by David Lloyd George set up an Electoral Reform Committee which was also tasked with looking into women’s suffrage. As a result, the Representation of the People Act of 1918 gave women aged 30 and older the right to vote. Just as in the United States, no unified women voting bloc emerged. Women were supporters of the Conservatives, of the Liberals, and of Labour. Indeed, when Christabel Pankhurst’s ran for parliament as a member of the Women’s Party (and supported by both the Liberal and Conservative parties), she was defeated by the Labour candidate John Davison. With the continued dominance of the existing parties assured (Emmeline Pankhurst herself had joined the Conservative Party in 1926), the House of Commons expanded suffrage to all women with the Representation of the People Act of 1928, finally establishing equal voting rights regardless of gender. Emmeline Pankhurst had died less than three weeks before.

Games Referenced

The Vote (Tom Russell, Hollandspiele)

Votes for Women (Tory Brown, Fort Circle Games)

Suffragetto (Women’s Social and Political Union)

Suffragettes In and Out of Prison (Women’s Social and Political Union)

Pank-A-Squith (Women’s Social and Political Union)

Further Reading

For an overview of the US suffrage movement from the Seneca Falls Convention to the ratification of the 19th Amendment, see DuBois, Ellen Carol: Suffrage. Women’s Long Battle for the Vote, Simon & Schuster, New York City, NY 2020.

The dramatic story of the ratification struggle in Tennessee is excellently told in Weiss, Elaine: The Woman’s Hour. The Great Fight to Win the Vote, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 2019.

For the British suffrage movement, an indispensable handbook is Crawford, Elizabeth: The Women’s Suffrage Movement. A Reference Guide 1866—1928, UCL Press, London 1999.

4 thoughts on “The Great Enfranchisement: Women’s Suffrage in the United States and the United Kingdom

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