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The Influential Magazines That Drove Women’s Suffrage

In 1915, a federal amendment that would have granted women the right to vote in national elections was defeated. It would not pass for another five years. But 1915 was also the year that a state referendum was pending to give women voting rights in New York. At that fraught moment, two very different but influential magazines devoted special issues to suffrage. 

Professor Linda M. Grasso (The Graduate Center, York College) tells the story in “Differently Radical: Suffrage Issues and Feminist Ideas in The Crisis and The Masses.” The essay has just been published as a chapter in a new book called Front Pages, Front Lines, but a longer version of it previously appeared in a special issue of American Journalism: A Journal of Media History.  

The Crisis, published by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was considered a “militant civil rights journal.” Its readers were mostly black, and it “insisted that both black and white women were equally entitled to voting rights,” Grasso writes. That stance in itself was radical: Some white Southern suffragists wanted white women to get the vote as a way to “perpetuate white supremacy,” while some Northern whites were willing to ignore racism to secure Southern white support for white women’s voting rights.

The Masses, headquartered in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, described itself as a “revolutionary and not a Reform Magazine.” Its readers were mostly white, and it saw suffrage as a tool for deconstructing class and gender boundaries. In contrast, The Crisis envisioned black women “utilizing the ballot to secure the privileges of middle-class status.”

The journals’ covers underlined the contrast. The Crisis pictured Abraham Lincoln and Sojourner Truth side by side, linking the history of slavery and inequality with the present. The Masses cover shows a modern-for-the-era woman in a fedora hat holding a torch aloft like the Statue of Liberty, equating “suffrage activism with modern progress and changing gender roles.” 

“In the same way the women’s movement was segregated because of racism,” says Grasso, “so too were the most progressive and influential periodicals of the era.”