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How Queer Women Powered the Suffrage Movement

  • August 14, 2020

Of course, the reality of living as an outlier wasn’t exactly rosy, especially for women in the working class or women with a more masculine presentation. In her research, Faderman found several instances in which a sex toy was found in the possession of women, a discovery that she said was “certainly frowned upon.” Those women, especially if they were of a lower social status, “were sentenced to jail” or “sentenced to be publicly whipped.”

The societal expectation that middle- and upper-class white women would marry men created a smoke screen of sorts. “I think that the world outside didn’t speculate about the possibilities of a sexual relationship between” women, Faderman said, adding that parents were probably relieved to learn that their daughter had an intense relationship with a female friend, and not a man, before marriage.

In a way, this smoke screen extended to detractors of the movement, known as anti-suffragists. Anti-suffragists already viewed suffragists as abnormal for wanting equal rights, and they pointed to gender-nonconforming suffragists as evidence that the movement was deviant. They argued that these women would reject marriage, family and the home, and they feared women would adopt men’s clothes and assume male privileges, Rouse said in an email. But somehow they didn’t latch onto the fact that many of these women were having romantic relationships with each other.

This oversight was in part because same-sex relationships didn’t start to be pathologized until the early 20th century, and because, as Ware put it, “Women are kind of invisible, period.” But maybe most of all, it was because the suffrage movement itself downplayed the queerness within it, Rouse said, a defensive strategy that contributed to the erasure of queer suffragists.

Leaders of the movement (including Shaw and Catt) opted instead to present a version “palatable to the mainstream,” Rouse said, by emphasizing normalcy. So suffragists who were seemingly happily married wives and mothers — or young, beautiful and affluent, a.k.a. marriage material — became the faces of the movement.

Despite this internal friction and these fraught side effects, it ultimately made practical sense that queer women would be at the forefront of the movement. Married women of the day often had children, and mothers didn’t have time to lead a movement, Faderman said. “But the women who didn’t have kids, they did have time to lead.”

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