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Women's Suffrage in the Moving Image and Recorded Sound Collections

Presented in this guide are collection materials found in the Library's Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division that explore the Women's Suffrage movement and offer an exciting glimpse into the struggle for the vote.

Introduction

Bain News Service. Suffrage parade, Inez Milholland. 1913. George Grantham Bain Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

The Women's Suffrage movement made active use of the burgeoning film and recording technologies that were increasingly available and increasingly popular throughout the early 20th century. Radio and motion pictures reached wide audiences and were instrumental in getting the word out on both sides of the debate. The Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress has a number of fascinating resources related to women's suffrage, from actuality footage of parades and speeches and early films satirizing the movement to film and radio documentaries on the history of the movement and its leaders, as well as recordings of interviews with suffragists and popular songs associated with the movement.
 

Moving Image

The quickly growing film industry of the early 20th century was an important battlefield for the women's suffrage movement. Newsreels, dramas, and comedies found ready material in the campaign for the vote, both to disparage and promote the cause. Newsreels played up the sensational aspects of the campaign, emphasizing the violence and militancy of the movement. Early fictional film often portrayed suffragettes quite negatively: women were seen disrupting family life, reversing gender roles, abusing their husbands, and neglecting their children. Despite this treatment of suffragettes in newsreels and commercial film, the leaders of the movement quickly realized the possibilities of the medium for publicizing their campaign. The National American Woman Suffrage Association and the Women's Political Union produced several films in which suffragists gracefully balance civic engagement and family drama. The growing popularity of moving pictures placed the suffrage movement, as well as deeper questions about the role of women in society, directly in front of audiences of all kinds.
 

Recorded Sound

Sound recording technology and radio broadcasting matured during the 20th century, developing during the time in American history when women were experiencing major social, political, and cultural changes. Radio programs and sound recordings in the division offer numerous approaches for examining these changes. For example, the women's suffrage movement comes alive in the medium of recorded sound through interpretation, dramatization, documentation, and commentary. In the 1910s, woman's suffrage was a topic of ridicule in the humorous talks and songs popular on 78-rpm recordings. In "Since My Margaret Became a Suffragette," the singer Maurice Burkhardt complained that his Margaret “wears the pants that kill romance.” “Schultz on Women's Suffrage” featured Frank Kennedy's comical predictions of a future when women would be elected to office. He grumbled that a female street cleaning department would sprinkle the streets with cologne and decorate the ashcans with ribbons.

Bain News Service. Suffrage paraders: Mrs. McLennan, Mrs. Althea Taft, Mrs. Lew Bridges, Mrs. Burleson, Alberta Hill, Miss Ragsdale. 1913. George Grantham Bain Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

On the other hand, songs that express the exhilaration and determination of the movement are available today on modern compilation recordings such as Songs of the Suffragettes (Folkways, 1958), performed by Elizabeth Knight, and Hurrah for Woman Suffrage (1995), performed by the Homespun Singers. The suffragists' words are given voice by some of our most expressive actors on Caedmon's Great American Women's Speeches (1973).

Radio is also a rich source of information on women's suffrage. For example, Women in the Making of America (1939), a 1930s NBC radio series devoted to dramatizing the cultural and social contributions that women have made throughout the history of the United States, featured programs on many important suffragists, including Lucy Stone (1818-1893), Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910), Angelina Grimké (1805-1879), and Lucretia Mott (1793-1880). Ninety-one-year-old Mabel Vernon (1884?-1975), a suffragist who worked with the National Woman's Party, was interviewed on a 1974 Pacifica Radio broadcast. The venerable suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt (1859-1947) appeared several times on the radio to advocate peace and disarmament. In a 1944 broadcast of her eighty-fifth birthday celebration, she shared the microphone with Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) and Helen Hayes (1900-1993).

Library of Congress Research Centers

For more information on conducting research with moving image and recorded sound materials, go to the "Using the Collections" section of this guide, or get in touch with reference librarians in the two research centers of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress: