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Mapping the Geographic & Racial Lines of U.S. Women's Suffrage

Every day I sit down at my computer and stare at this poster on the wall across from my desk:

The Awakening, by artist Henry Mayer, published in Puck magazine, New York, February 20, 1915, Library of Congress



First of all, it’s a gorgeous image. I love the contrast of the bright suffrage yellow, the suffragist’s flowing gown and ‘Votes for Women’ cape, her red flaming torch giving off rays of light, and the dramatic movement of her feet, caught mid-step in her march across the country to help the women of the East who are trapped, even drowning, in their lack of rights. Printed in 1915, this particular image is set firmly in the context of a late 19th- and early 20th-century reliance on maps and other infographics to present social science research data in the service of Progressive-era political goals.


One of the most recognizable set of turn-of-the-century U.S. maps are the Hull House Maps, mapping out the different nationalities and wages earned in the multi-ethnic immigrant neighborhoods surrounding Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago.



“Nationalities Map” and “Wage Map,” from “Hull-House maps and papers, a presentation of nationalities and wages in a congested district of Chicago, together with comments and essays on problems growing out of the social conditions” (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1895)


To zoom in on details of these and other Hull House maps, see images at Boston Public Library.



Another set of maps from this era are by reformer, intellectual, and founder of the NAACP, W.E.B. DuBois., who hand-drew an incredible series of maps and other infographics to represent the economic and geographical limits on African Americans at the turn of the century. DuBois prepared these maps combining artistry with detailed research on Black life in the Jim Crow era for the Paris Exhibition of 1900.




W. E. B. Du Bois' Hand-Drawn Infographics of African-American Life (1900), Public Domain Review


For additional images see African American Photographs Assembled for 1900 Paris Exposition,

Library of Congress




While my suffrage poster combines the power of visualizing the data (showing in which states women could vote) with an emotional appeal to their early 20th-century cause, it is also a reaching back and a direct reworking of one of the most well-known paintings of the mid-19th c. United States, a visual representation of manifest destiny.


John Gast, American Progress (1872), Library of Congress



In American Progress by John Gast, the cities and harbors of the East are visible under bright sunlight, while the miners, farmers, and pioneer families, along with the new technologies of the railroad and the telegraph line (which the figure holds in her arm and strings along the way), push the native peoples and the buffalo further into the dark and ominous West. In her hand is, surprisingly, not a Bible, but a “School Book.”


The suffrage image (aptly titled The Awakening) both employs the bringing-light-to-dark march of progress and civilization, and reverses the frontier map by moving, this time, West-to-East. Even if viewers of the suffrage image were not familiar with the much-earlier Gast image, they were familiar with the symbolism and iconography of the West and the frontier. In a reversal of frontier mythology, this time the West is the organized place of enlightened civilization and the East an unknown, still unmarked, and dark land. The only states named on the map are the western states which had granted women voting rights.



The woman in The Awakening is not just a suffragist - she’s a woman voter. By 1915 the national suffrage organizations were pursuing a dual strategy of state-by-state campaigns alongside (and as a path toward) an aggressive push for a federal amendment. As more states put suffrage referenda on the ballot each year, the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (or CU) also emphasized the new political power of the western woman voter to put pressure on state and national legislators.

State-by-state progress was frustratingly slow. In the quarter-century between 1890 and 1914, only 11 states out of the continental 48 had been won for women’s suffrage. Even within that time period there were large gaps, with NO state wins in the 14 years between Utah and Idaho in 1896 and Washington state in 1910.


The minor western state victories were spun into a larger success story through the use of maps. The Woman’s Journal published an early suffrage state map in January 1908 at a time when only FOUR states had granted women’s suffrage - Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Idaho, all granted in the 1890s - prompting readers to acknowledge that “It is instructive to see in how large a part of our country women now have some share of suffrage.” Those large land masses *visually* took up a large percentage of the U.S. continental map, but it was not a win in terms of population or political representation.


A 1917 North American version of the suffrage map stretched the boundaries of suffrage success even further by including states with "partial" suffrage (not full federal suffrage), including Alaska as a territorial win (Alaska was not a state until 1959), and even including Canadian provinces as well. The intention (as noted in the text accompanying the map) was to shame the so-called republic of the United States by comparing it to the “Monarchy of Canada.”


“Votes For Women A Success: North America Proves It,” August 1917,

Cornell University Library Digital Collections




Variations and updated suffrage maps were reprinted and circulated widely, not only in suffrage newspapers, but in flyers, mailings, or as posters used as events. This photo shows the suffrage map (before the Nevada state win in 1914) in the window of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) headquarters in Washington, D.C. for passersby to see and, hopefully, to step inside and inquire about!



“Votes For Women A Success,” 1913, Washington, D.C., Library of Congress



In each of these maps, political progress in the West is symbolized by whiteness. The suffrage states on the map were not colored in as they were won, but rather each new state added would go from black to white. Like the Gast American Progress image, the woman in The Awakening bringing civilization and progress is white and she presides over white states, reminding Congress that those states are filled with millions of new white women voters.


In case the intended audience did not pick up on the symbolism of the suffrage cause as a battle between white America and black America, the text accompanying some maps helped make the point even further with captions such as...



Women Vote in All the White States Why Not In This State?

National Woman Suffrage Publishing Co., New York, 1915. University of Delaware




The World Grows Whiter


Lexington (KY) Herald, March 12, 1917




And, even more explicitly…

Won’t You Help Us Make Texas White?

Austin Woman Suffrage Association, (1913-1914?),

Texas State Library and Archives Commission



In November 1916 a Charlotte, North Carolina paper reprinted news about Virginia suffragists’ use of the slogan, “Help Us to Whiten Virginia.” The newspaper emphasized that, “while referring particularly to the suffrage map, [the slogan] may well be given a broader application. Those five words embody a promise.”


Article reprinted in Charlotte (NC) Observer, November 6, 1916.



That “promise” was being made to white southern male voters who were against suffrage in the name of states’ rights and out of fear of expanding the Black vote by enfranchising millions of African American women. National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) President Carrie Chapman Catt called this the “Southern wall of opposition,” and recent histories of suffrage have documented how the national organizations excluded and opposed cooperation with Black suffragists, and how NAWSA employed a “Southern Strategy” in assuring white Southern legislators that the expansion of women’s suffrage would actually result in a white majority in the South.


For example, The Suffragist (the weekly newspaper of Alice Paul’s organization, Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage) ran a November 1914 article on “National Suffrage and the Race Problem,” which presented census data to show that there were more white women “in the fifteen states below the Mason and Dixon line” than the number of black men and women combined. The author reassured white southern readers that, if a federal suffrage amendment passed, “white supremacy could continue to be maintained by the same means as now prevails in these states. The race question would be in no way altered by equal suffrage.”


I became interested in the evolution and uses of suffrage maps in the early 1900s as part of a larger project on a West-to-East suffrage road trip undertaken by three suffragists in 1915. (I discussed my preliminary research on the road trip on a previous blog.)


The yellow-framed The Awakening suffrage image hanging in my office was published in February 1915, the same month that the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (or World’s Fair) opened in San Francisco. Just a few months later, in September 1915, suffragist Sara Bard Field, along with Maria Kindberg and Ingeborg Kindstedt (owners of the car and fellow suffragists from Rhode Island), set out from the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage booth at the San Francisco Expo on a cross-country automobile trip to deliver a petition demanding a federal suffrage amendment to President Woodrow Wilson in Washington, D.C.


As a resident of California, Sara Bard Field in some ways embodied the woman on the poster: The newly enfranchised white woman voter of the West bringing enlightenment and freedom to her sisters of the East.



Charlie the cockatiel contemplates the use of maps by Progressive-era social movements to present ostensibly objective data while invoking an emotional response through the imperialist and racialized imagery of manifest destiny and the virtue of white womanhood.



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Addenda: Maps today are a wonderful digital tool for exploring suffrage history. This interactive map from the New York Historical Society lets you explore women’s voting rights from 1820 to the present: https://womenmarch.nyhistory.org/interactive/maps/


This map for visitors to the Washington, DC area highlights places of historical importance to the U.S. suffrage movement:

https://www.womenshistory.org/exhibits/mapping-suffrage-push-19th-amendment-washington-dc



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Note on Sources: I found the following scholarly sources especially helpful in researching the themes and images in this blog post.


Christina E. Dando, Women and Cartography in the Progressive Era (Routledge, 2018).


Tiffany Lewis, “Mapping Social Movements and Leveraging the U.S. West: The Rhetoric

of the Woman Suffrage Map.” Women’s Studies in Communication. Vol. 42, no. 9

(2019), pp. 490-510.


Rebecca J. Mead, How the Vote was Won: Woman Suffrage in the Western United

States, 1868-1914 (NYU, 2004).



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