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Collection Women's Suffrage in Sheet Music

Music in the Women's Suffrage Movement

For as long as socially and politically aware citizens have gathered to protest laws and voice dissent, music has served a paramount role; the women's suffrage movement proves no exception. From local community suffrage meetings, to large-scale city-wide marches, to prison cells -- suffragists consistently unified, rallied, and asserted their unbreakable spirit in song.

Woman band - Suffrage parade. 1913.

Many suffrage songs featured original texts written by suffragists but sung to popular tunes of the day, often patriotic ones such as "Yankee Doodle," "America," and others. On June 15, 1911, The New York Times published a story about suffragists in Los Angeles who were holding a public rally. Police informed the women that "votes for women" speeches were prohibited at the rally; to circumvent the ordinance, the suffragists set those suffrage speeches to music and sang their message instead. And in 1917 when six suffragists were incarcerated after protesting in front of the White House, they organized a song service and suffrage meeting for tens of other women inmates in the prison. Suffrage organizations across the country sponsored song competitions encouraging suffragists of both sexes to pen more music for the movement.

Social Events and Musical Response

The suffrage movement started in earnest early in the nineteenth century with the activities of leading suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Alice Paul, among many others. Abolitionists and reformers Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott organized the now-famous 1848 convention in Seneca Falls, New York  (July 19-20) that many historians regard as the official start of the movement. The convention was followed in quick succession by two significant organized meetings: first, a celebration of Emancipation Day on August 1, 1848 in Rochester, New York to honor the abolition of slavery in British and French West Indies, and, second, the Rochester Women's Rights Convention on August 2, 1848. Though the suffrage movement often has been described in isolation , these suffragist-organized meetings exemplify the numerous concurrent social and political movements that intersected with the suffrage movement, such as abolition, racial justice, and the temperance movement.

Advertising mass meeting and band concert for August 21 - suffrage campaign days in New Jersey, Hackensack, New Jersey. [Between 1914 and 1920?]

By 1890, after realizing that their efforts would be more effective if combined, the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association merged to become the National American Woman Suffrage Association. By 1900 the new leaders, Anna Howard Shaw and Carrie Chapman Catt, were employing less revolutionary, more practical methods to achieve their goals; however, some of the more militant suffragists were less patient. Alice Paul led the National Woman's Party and continued to strive for a constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote, as did Harriet Stanton Blatch (daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton) . By 1907 suffragists were organizing marches, leading parades, and staging pageants, scenes, and elaborate tableaux that depicted both the societal advantages of giving women the right to vote as well as the disadvantages of denying it. Eventually, the arguments took on the softer approach that women need to vote in order to nurture and benefit society, which encouraged many more women to participate.

Women's Suffrage in Sheet Music provides researchers with a study of the suffrage movement, its counter movement, and its impact on society and popular culture through the lens of music. The digital collection includes mostly published sheet music and texts, and also showcases self-published works and a handful of manuscripts. Musical substance ranges from Dame Ethel Smyth's famous anthem of the movement, "The March of the Women" to amateur songs likely never performed in large public forums. Music included in the digital collection served vastly different purposes: there are suffrage hymns and martial pieces that were intended for performance at suffrage meetings and public demonstrations; parlor songs published to support specific suffrage or anti-suffrage leagues and organizations; sheet music published by song sharks; and commercial sheet music drawing upon the topical theme for marketing purposes. Some composers and lyricists are so obscure that we know nothing more about them than their names. In fact, there is a certain irony in the names that some suffragists provided when registering music for copyright; women who wrote impassioned song texts about suffrage and equality sometimes identified themselves in print only with modest initials or with their husband's name, e.g., Mrs. D.P. Owens (actually F.K. Owens), Mrs. Alfred E. Clark, and Mrs. E.P. Kellogg, among others. In some cases, with enough research, it is possible to uncover the individual's actual name; in many instances, however, their identities remain hidden. On the other hand, much of the music features composers and/or lyricists who were well-known within the suffrage movement, and some were well-known in any context.

Rose Sanderson i.e., Sanderman. 1913.

When searching the music selections included in the digital collection, it is important to examine the lyrics of every piece of sheet music; while some titles and cover art initially suggest support of women's suffrage, many lyrics reveal an anti-suffrage message that ultimately mocks suffragists. Anti-suffrage sentiment seeps into much of the popular music of the time, with a striking amount of song lyrics that expose male anxiety about a woman's ability to vote, predicting the societal demise of the family and the consequent subjugation of men.

The decades-long suffrage campaign, which included conferences and other organizational meetings on the local and national level, made use of banners, signs, and slogans, and even specific colors associated with the movement. At these meetings, songs and music united and inspired women to persist until they were successful. Often, songs were dedicated to women prominent in the movement, on both the national and local level. Many well-known activists such as Emmeline Pankhurst and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn were mentioned in some of the lyrics, and many songs were written in honor of, inspired by, or dedicated to a woman prominent in the movement. One manuscript in the collection was written by Sofia M. Loebinger, feminist and editor of the legal periodical The American Suffragette. A few were even inscribed by suffragists or previously belonged to a suffragist's personal library. Two pieces in this collection bear the name of Sophonisba P. Breckinridge (1866-1948) as previous owner (although no conclusive proof of ownership could be found). Breckinridge was the first woman graduate of the University of Chicago law school and a social worker, educator, and associate of Hull House from 1907 to 1920. In the end, most songs are concerned with the average anonymous American woman who simply wanted to vote.