Guest Post: Researching Women Suffragists

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This is a guest post by Gena Philibert-Ortega. Gena is the author of hundreds of articles published in genealogy newsletters and magazines including FGS Forum, APG Quarterly, Internet Genealogy, Family Chronicle, Family Tree Magazine, GenWeekly and the WorldVitalRecords newsletter. Her writings can also be found on her blog, Gena’s Genealogy as well as her books, The Family Kitchen and Cemeteries of the Eastern Sierra.

In August 1920, the 19th amendment was added to the United States Constitution. That year singled an achievement that American suffragists had long been fighting for, they could now vote. Women had been fighting for the right to vote since 1840 and finally, that fight was over. There was still more work to be done but the ability to be counted as a citizen was a reality. For some women, this would mark the first time they could vote, for others it increased the voting rights they already enjoyed.

Western states had been some of the first to grant women’s suffrage in voting for state and local candidates. California women had been voting since 1911 but they knew that real change wouldn’t come until all women could vote in all elections, especially in electing the president of the United States. California women, while happy to have gained some rights were still invested in the long fight for women’s suffrage.

Was your ancestor a suffragist? Did she engage in suffrage activism on a state of even a federal level? Suffragists left behind a diverse group of records for family historians to discover. While there may be few that exist that identify a woman as a “suffragist” there can be records that hint towards activism such as jail or court records for an arrest relating to protesting. Membership in one of the many suffrage or women’s organizations of the time, mostly found in archival collections, can also be helpful. Newspaper articles document women’s meetings, protests, and letters to the editor. Records for suffragists in the United States exist but take some research both online and in brick and mortar repositories. One of the things to keep in mind is that suffragists would have been working for women’s rights and that would extend beyond suffrage and might include topics such as dress reform or married women’s property rights, just to name a few.

Let’s look at one example of researching a suffragist. Selena Solomons was a California suffragist and reformer who left behind a record trail but not all of it points to her activism. As with any research, it’s important to identify what records exist for that time period and seek those out as you piece together the person’s life. Make sure to exhaust records available to you online, such as through MyHeritage’s SuperSearch™.

Selena S. Solomons (1862-1942)

Many of the records that document Selena’s life do not hint at her work on behalf of women’s rights but they do provide us with a timeline. The 1920 US Federal Census for San Rafael Township in Marin County, California lists her as a 57-year-old living by herself in a home that she owns. Like the 1910 census previously, she is listed as working as a writer. While none of the census records list her suffrage activities we can at least get a timeline established for where she was living throughout her life.

Newspapers are an important source for getting a sense of the activities of local suffragists and in some cases, finding a name mentioned. Selena appears in San Francisco’s The Morning Call newspaper in 1893 on behalf of the Women’s Club of San Francisco advocating for the rejection of a fashion revival of the hoopskirt on the basis of it being “…objectionable, on the score of health, comfort, and beauty…” Dress reform would have been important to suffragists and was one of the many causes you might find associated with an ancestor. Membership records to organizations might be available at an archive.

The wonderful thing about Selena Solomons is that in 1912 she left a written record of the suffrage movement in California. Solomons’ book, How We Won the Vote in California: A True Story of the Campaign of 1911 details the fight for women’s suffrage in the Golden State. Obviously, not every suffragist left such a record but what’s especially great is that she also documents other California women, who were working towards the cause. This is an example of a person’s FAN Club (Friends, Associates, and Neighbors). When researching suffragists, researching the other women that were members of any of the groups she joined can help you learn more about her life and might provide you with additional mentions of her name.

Solomons not only names women who worked to ensure the success of the passage of women’s suffrage but she also names a few of the beneficiaries including a 90-year-old Los Angeles woman who cast her first vote while confined to a wheelchair. “Mrs. Sabella C. Pease was wheeled to the polls in an invalid’s chair and cast her first ballot at the age of ninety, which was indeed to enjoy an “honored old age!”” This book is available for free from Internet Archive and you can browse or search it for a specific name.

Selena S. Simmons died on February 9, 1942. Her life was one of activism and seeing the very thing she fought for, women’s suffrage becomes a reality. The lives of suffragist ancestors are important to document and with some online research, you can start to reconstruct their lives.

Do you have any exceptional women you are researching in your family tree? Tell us more in the comments below.

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