Add Suffragists and Stir

Reflections on a Crowd-Sourced Biographical Research Project
By Laura R. Prieto, Professor, History/Women’s and Gender Studies, Simmons College

Despite generations of scholarship on the suffrage movement, no large-scale, longitudinal study of its “ordinary” adherents exists. In 2015, the digital archive Women and Social Movements in the United States (WASM) announced a new, crowd-sourced initiative: to trace the lives of the grassroots militant activists of the National Woman’s Party (NWP), whose spectacular tactics kept women’s suffrage in the headlines even during World War I. To tackle such a daunting task, the directors invited faculty members across the United States to mentor their students in researching and writing brief biographical sketches, which WASM would publish with author credit.

I decided to participate and found great interest among the undergraduate and graduate students at Simmons College. The volunteer Suffragist Research Brigade (as we decided to call ourselves) ranged from an undergraduate computer science major to candidates for master’s degrees in history. I later integrated the project into a women’s and gender studies class on the history of feminism. When WASM pushed to crowd source biographies of local National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) leaders, Simmons signed on again. Over the past three years, almost 30 of my students have engaged in the project. Whether as a course assignment or as an extracurricular endeavor, the work beautifully fulfilled my hopes of introducing students to the importance of archival research and the challenges it poses for women’s historians.

Naturally, we based our endeavors at the Schlesinger Library. Although we searched widely for sources, from local historical societies to Google Books, none proved as rich as the women’s rights publications and manuscripts at the Schlesinger. The Schlesinger even made available to us the unprocessed papers of the suffragist Betty Gram Swing; these offered an opportunity to illuminate what archivists do to render a collection accessible. To help peers farther away benefit from the Schlesinger’s collections, we volunteered to be liaisons for students at St. Anselm College and the University of South Dakota who are participating in the same overarching project.

We quickly realized the importance of both creativity and rigor in tracing rank-and-file suffragists. We persevered in the face of common names and married names, such as “Mrs. H. Turner.” Misspellings in the records plagued our progress. Corroboration of facts was essential, if elusive at times. For instance, many newspapers covered the suffrage protest on Boston Common in February 1919, but their accounts disagreed about exactly who was arrested there. We all gained valuable experience in research—especially in how to work with (and around) the silences that are particular to women’s lives. We stirred new suffragists into the pot and let it simmer.

Gradually and unexpectedly, the project became more than the sum of its ingredients. We thought the militants would be young, white, and privileged, like the NWP leaders Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, Doris Stevens, and Inez Haynes Irwin. None of the individuals on our lists were women of color; indeed, in recognition of the racial exclusions of the NWP and NAWSA, WASM has a separate crowd-sourced project to research African American suffragists.

Eleanor Calnan, researched by Anna Faherty, a graduate student in history and archives, turned out to be a 45-year-old dressmaker. Calnan had left NAWSA because she found its members “too conservative in their methods.” Camilla Whitcomb, researched by my undergraduate student Kassie King, was the daughter of a machinist. At age 57, Whitcomb spent months jailed in the Occoquan workhouse with other militant suffragists. In fact, she shared a cell with 24-year-old Betty Gram Swing and the two became fast friends.

Activists like these have often remained invisible because their biographies are difficult to reconstruct. They become visible only after intense, collaborative research on their lives. Our greatest disappointment was the inability to trace Betty Connolly, identified by newspapers as a domestic servant. Although newspapers named and photographed Connolly, we could not reconstruct the basic facts of her life. We nevertheless wrote a biographical entry for her. We wanted to acknowledge the gaps in the record while recognizing Connolly for being in the movement. And from our starting point, other researchers may be able to renew the search.

Projects like this one demonstrate the great value of collaborations, between faculty members and students, between researchers and archivists, and across institutions. The process taught as much as the product did, revealing the power and limits of written sources and the continuing importance of reconstructing women’s ordinary lives.

Search Year: 
2017