The Dallas Equal Suffrage Association, Political Style, and Popular Culture: Grassroots Strategies of the Woman Suffrage Movement, 1913-1919

Article excerpt

LONG FAMILIAR AS A MEANS FOR EXPRESSING SOCIAL VALUES AND FOR resisting them, popular culture has served political purposes as well. From the symbolic log cabins of the 1840 presidential race to present-day televised advertisements, parties and candidates have employed cultural metaphors in United States politics. The drive to win the vote for women may be the best example of how political campaigns have been affected by mores and social conventions, and how those campaigns in turn have used the prevailing values and tastes to persuade the voters.

The suffragists benefited from the experience of other organizations, particularly during the later years of their movement, 1913-1919. They drew upon the educational and advertising techniques of the contemporary national parties, the interest group tactics of the women's club movement, and the popular politics of both the English suffragettes and antebellum parties in the United States. (1) But because they faced gender assumptions and social restrictions that rarely troubled other political movements, American suffragists needed more than examples of successful campaigning. The resources for meeting their challenges were, as it turned out, readily available. Scholarship in popular culture can help to clarify how the suffragists used cherished symbolism and honored ideals to adapt community festivals and social occasions to proven political strategies. The result was a sophisticated style unique in American political history for the degree to which it integrated a controversial issue into public life, both in specific communities and nationwide. (2)

The suffragist accomplishment is most clearly visible at the local level. Indeed, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) derived much of its vitality from a network of grassroots societies. Despite the NAWSA's policy of centralizing the campaign, regional diversity required state and community suffrage organizations to develop a good measure of originality. Strategies that worked in California, for example, could fail in New York. Suffragists in a number of states--among them Iowa, Wisconsin, and Washington--only cautiously adopted tactics recommended from the NAWSA headquarters in New York City, while in Texas, local associations often rejected them altogether. (3) In a nation spread over a vast geographical area and composed of a population with varied cultural origins and economic interests, suffragists needed to tailor their campaigns to their specific communities. Everywhere, local sensibilities required some degree of adaptation and, at times, concessions to traditional expectations.

In Dallas, Texas, the suffragists developed a campaign based on their understanding of the current social values and community standards. The public image of the city's Equal Suffrage Association (DESA) was initially so decorous as to appear apolitical. The Dallas Morning News described those involved with the first formal DESA meeting, held in a private home on March 15, 1913, as "chiefly college young women and young matrons," who had been "more prominent in social affairs, heretofore, than ... in women's club work or other civic matters." The reporter also recognized veteran club leaders "aiding by their experience in the work of the organization" but failed to mention the identities of a number of the younger suffragists. In addition to the mature clubwomen who had led efforts for local and state reforms during the past twenty years, the forty-one charter members included the niece of an officer of the first Texas suffrage association of 1893-96 and the daughters of several women still active in the city's club movement. With family traditions of female civic activism, younger women who wanted the vote as a matter of justice joined a number of experienced club leaders who were disgruntled with their own lack of any way to hold lawmakers and public officials accountable. (4) The challenges before the new organization's members were typical of those faced by suffragists everywhere. …


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.