Opinion | Two Girls and 10,000 Miles on the Street to Suffrage

With the upcoming 2020 presidential election, Americans are still plunged into uncertainty. However, at least one thing has already been made clear: the choice of women will be crucial to the outcome.

Last August, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was celebrated, giving women the right to vote. As a researcher, however, I often find that historical events are largely overlooked on the way to great achievements.

One such case: from April 6 to September 30, 1916, Alice Snitzer Burke and Nell Richardson drove 10,000 miles to advocate women’s suffrage. The two women, sponsored by the National American Woman Suffrage Association, drove a donated yellow Saxon roadster from New York City along the east coast, through the south, up the west coast, and back east again. They met with Americans from all sides of the topic, gave speeches in town squares and discussed election skeptics on dusty streets.

I used local newspaper archives to map their route. What emerges from these clippings is a picture of trailblazing road drivers who have nothing to do with the sloppy suffragists depicted in most textbooks.

At a time when car journeys were rare – and women traveling alone even more rare – these two set off armed with a typewriter and a sewing machine. “When an anti-suffragist in Texas makes remarks about the suffrage that is destroying women’s female talents,” they told a reporter, “Miss Richardson’s cue will be to get off the sewing machine and pull off an apron while the crowd waits . ” On the other hand, if he says women have no brains, she will pull out the typewriter and write him a poem. “

Cars were seen as men’s machines that were tedious to operate. Relying on the AAA Blue Book for instructions, Burke and Richardson brave the elements in the roofless Saxon. In Mobile, Ala., They were given a black cat to accompany them on their journey. They called him Saxon and sneaked him into hotels every evening.

During the first two months of the trip, Burke wrote a regular column in The New York Tribune about her days and her journey. The excerpts contain stories of a close encounter with a mule; their adventures on impassable roads; Narrowly avoid mobilizing troops in the southern states and encountering soldiers who have signed the Golden Flyer.

Like the stories of many suffragists, Burke and Richardson are not simple narratives. The arguments they used – that women should be given the vote because of the importance of mothers to the nation, that women would not use the vote to seek political office, that obtaining the vote was a woman’s ability to perform traditional ladylike duties do not affect – were reductive in many ways.

They were also based on racism: like many of their white counterparts, Burke’s arguments about a woman’s right to vote were rooted in xenophobia and racism. Burke is quoted in the El Paso Herald as saying, “None of you men care about how you are going to vote. You don’t ask all of these questions to the immigrant before they are allowed to vote after being naturalized. You just give him the vote and let him go, but the immigrant often just comes here for a job and doesn’t have a particularly important interest in welfare or the country. Women have a vital interest in the welfare of this country because it is our country as well as that of your men. “

But they took a step to take us to a new world where women were in the driver’s seat.

Elizabeth D. Herman is a visual journalist and a PhD student in political science at the University of California at Berkeley.

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