Queer women are leading the charge in the fight for gun control, reproductive rights and other critical causes. But a century ago, they were also at the forefront of one of the most important issues of the day: Women’s suffrage.
Through the tireless—and sometimes life-threatening—efforts of a group of courageous women, Congress passed the 19th Amendment in 1919, and American women finally got the vote in 1920. And some of the suffrage movement’s most prominent figures enjoyed romantic relationships with other women.
Of course, the myriad labels we now employ—queer, lesbian, bi—scarcely existed at the time, and historians have been reticent to “taint” the public image of these American heroines. At the time, they’d be called mannish or “unsexed,” and their unions described as Boston marriages. But researchers are finally lifting the veil on these important trailblazers and revealing the truth of their identities.
“It was generally considered an insult by the straight world, and probably in the lesbian world as well, to publicly identify someone as lesbian or homosexual, or whatever the term was at the moment,” explains Lillian Faderman, author of To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done For America—A History. “So these relationships have generally not been acknowledged. But the evidence is there. And it’s clear that we’ve finally arrived at a time when these romantic relationships can—and should—be acknowledged.”
Many suffragettes eschewed marriage to devote themselves wholeheartedly to the cause, while others just enjoyed deep friendships with other women. But Faderman says it’s not difficult to tell the differences between the platonic and romantic relationships. Many of these couples shared a bed at home and while traveling, signed their letters to other couples using language like, “with love from both of us,” and made frequent references to kisses and other intimate expressions of physical affection.
“In many of these cases, these women lived together for 20, 30, 40, or even 50 years,” she tells NewNowNext. “In some cases they even demanded to be buried together. And we have all of these impassioned letters they wrote to one another.” If we saw such devotion between opposite-sex “friends,” Faderman adds, “we’d say ’Yes, of course, that was an intimate love relationship.'”
One such pair was Carrie Chapman Catt and Mary “Molly” Garrett Hay. Catt (above, left) was president of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association and was instrumental in finally getting the 19th Amendment passed. She married twice, but that didn’t stop her from enjoying a 30-year relationship with Hay, president of the New York Equal Suffrage League. (Under Hay’s leadership, the NYESL won women in New York the vote two years before it happened at the federal level.)
After Catt’s second husband, George, died, she and Hay moved in together and remained domestic partners until the end of their lives. Hay died first, and Catt demanded to be buried beside her rather than with either of her two husbands. Their gravestones sit side by side in New York City’s Woodlawn Cemetery.
“There are these really lovely love letters that Catt wrote Hay where she called her pet names like, ’Molly Brown Eyes,'” Faderman shares, “and wrote things like, ’Who loves you best in all the world?'” Their letters also allude to more intimate contact: Writing to Hay on her birthday, Catt, who was traveling, wrote, “I’m sorry I couldn’t give you 69 kisses, one for each year.” (It’s worth mentioning it was just Hay’s 54th birthday.)
Another famous couple in the movement were Anna Howard Shaw and Lucy Anthony, good friends with Catt and Hay.
Shaw, a physician and one of the first ordained female Methodist ministers in America, served as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association for over a decade. She was so critical to the cause of suffrage and so widely beloved that, after her death, the New York Times compared her to Abraham Lincoln in a eulogy. Lucy Anthony, niece of Susan B. Anthony, supported Shaw in her work and helped organize international support.
In her autobiography, Shaw wrote that when she was a child, her sisters did the housework while she preferred to do the outdoor work with her brothers. Early in her activism she kept her hair in a short bob, scandalous at the time.
“Shaw had a very butch identity I think,” Faderman says. “But after she was called ’mannish’ and ’depressed’ by hostile reporters, she quickly learned that she had to perform femininity if she wanted to be effective as a public figure.”
She grew out her hair and donned a more feminine appearance in public, and it wasn’t long before she regained public respectaibility. But in her relationship with Lucy Anthony, “it was very clear who was the daddy in the household and who was the mama,” says Faderman.
Shaw was 14 years older, and in their correspondence, Anthony gushes about how eager she is for them move in together and create a warm, happy home so Shaw could focus on her activism. When Shaw died, Anthony wrote that taking care of her and their home had made her own life feel worth living.
Faderman also describes a favorite photo of the couple, which she says summed up their relationship perfectly: “They’re sitting in their living room, Lucy in the mama chair knitting, while Anna is in the papa chair reading the newspaper.”
There’s also some evidence that Shaw and Lucy Anthony’s relationship wasn’t entirely monogamous: Thanks to her role as the face of the suffrage movement, shaw had many young, effusive female admirers (her on-the-low butch vibes didn’t hurt, either). By all accounts, she enjoyed their attention. “At the very least, Shaw seemed to hit on many women in the course of her travels, which she shares in her correspondence with Carrie Chapman Catt,” says Faderman. “I’m sure Lucy didn’t know about it.”
Dalliances of this sort were fairly common among the suffragettes, many of whom enjoyed relative celebrity. One of the most famous figures of the movement, Lucy’s aunt Susan B. Anthony, reportedly enjoyed her own romantic relationship with at least one female admirer, wealthy Chicago socialite Emily Gross. Anthony was fully aware of her niece’s relationship with Shaw, and even wished for something similar in one of her letters: “I wanted what I feared I shouldn’t find, that is a young woman who would be to me—in every way— what she is to the Rev. Anna Shaw.”
But it wasn’t always so.
“In the beginning, Susan B. Anthony really worried for Lucy,” Faderman explains. “She even wrote to Anna to say things like, ’You should know better—you’re 14 years older and Lucy is too young and innocent.’ Later, she saw that this was a relationship that worked, and in a later letter, wrote about how she’d love to find in her own life what Anna Howard Shaw had with Lucy.”
Although she enjoyed romantic correspondences with a number of women throughout her life, Faderman believes that Susan B. Anthony ultimately found what she was looking for with Gross. “A number of sources really left no doubt in my mind what that relationship was about—in two letters to other people, Anthony actually refers to Gross as her ’lover.’ Now, Susan B. Anthony had a lot of admirers. She formed friendships with many of them, and even encouraged many to call her ’Aunt Susan.’ But she never called any her ’lover’—except for Emily Gross.”
Gross was married at the time and not particularly involved in the suffrage movement. But the two women frequently traveled together and managed to spend long periods of time in each other’s company. After Anthony died in 1906, a mutual friend wrote to Shaw to express concern about how heartbroken Gross was, writing, “Times are very hard with dear Mrs. Gross, I fear.”
Today, we’d classify other leading suffragettes as bisexual—including Isabel Howland, Harriet May Mills, Frances Willard, Alice Stone Blackwell, and civil rights pioneer Jane Addams. For Faderman, these ladies’ romantic love for other women fueled their fight for equality.
“The women who were committed to other women in a personal way very often felt that they were not just fighting for themselves, but also for their beloved.” she says, “It gave them an extra incentive.”
If you knew you weren’t going to marry a man who could use his privilege and agency to provide for you, it was was particularly important to make sure you had the vote—as well as access to financial independence, education and career opportunities.
“It’s not surprising that these women, many of whom would be called lesbians today, were at the forefront of these social movements,” she says. “They really had a big stake in the game.”