Rare women’s suffrage handbill with an iconic persuasive map

VOTES FOR WOMEN A SUCCESS [:] The Map Proves It. New York City: National Woman Suffrage Publishing Company, Inc., February, 1914.
Small handbill, 10 3/8”h x 7 ½”w at sheet edge. Toned, with old folds and a vertical printer’s crease from lower edge.

A clever handbill arguing for the expansion of voting rights for women in the United States, using a persuasive map to highlight the expansion of suffrage across the states.

The handbill features a small map of the United States, with the states shown in simple outline and shaded according to the extent of voting rights enjoyed by women as of February 1914 (Note the use of black, with its connotations of both ignorance and evil, to indicate states where women had not yet gained any form of suffrage.) The general pattern is of full women’s suffrage in the western states, significant advances in the Midwest and New England, and none whatsoever in the Southeast. A note at the bottom raises the rhetorical question “Would any of these states have adopted EQUAL SUFFRAGE if it had been a failure just across the Border?” This is odd, as women in Canada did not achieve full suffrage until it was granted in 1916 by Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

The handbill bears the imprint of the National Woman Suffrage Publishing Company, an organ of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. It bears the ink stamp at lower left of the Detroit-based Equal Suffrage League of Wayne County, Michigan. That state’s legislature had approved a constitutional amendment granting women full suffrage in 1912 and again in 1913, but both times the measure failed when it was put to a popular vote. Michigan women finally gained political equality in 1918, and in June 1919 Michigan became only the third state to ratify the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Millions of handbills with variations on this design were printed and distributed over several years, in New York and elsewhere, but all are now rare because of their ephemeral nature and often poor paper quality.

By 1900 only four lower-population states in the West had enacted full woman suffrage, most recently Idaho and Utah in 1896, and the national campaign was flagging. But a new generation of leaders revivified the movement, introducing new tactics such as the widespread use of persuasive maps. The breakthrough came with a map by journalist Bertha Knobe, which first appeared in the December 1907 issue of Appleton’s and was soon syndicated elsewhereKnobe’s innovation was to abjure a simple black-and-white differentiation of states with and without full suffrage, and rather to use shading to indicate states with at least some degree of suffrage, such as in municipal or school board elections. Thus, instead of emphasizing just the four full-suffrage states, her map showed that more than half of the country (at least as measured by landmass!) had enacted some degree of suffrage.

“Knobe’s decision to highlight these partial voting rights reflected a new strategy of the larger movement: rather than insist on equality in all areas, as Stanton had, many suffragists at the turn of the century embraced more limited and achievable gains that respected regional customs and gender roles…. Knobe mapped this strategy by identifying any progress of woman’s suffrage, such as the right to vote in school elections or presidential primaries…. Seen in this light, her map is as much an act of aspiration as of reporting, an effort to boost the movement by marking minor victories that many suffragists considered inconsequential or even detrimental.” (Schulten, 37-38)

Knobe’s map caught on, and the woman suffrage movement ultimately saw to the printing of millions of maps “on billboards, posters, parade floats, pageants, silent films, window cards, newspaper ads and articles”. Indeed, the ever-shifting landscape of suffrage, with its seemingly endless process of votes at the state and local level, created a serious financial burden for the movement, which found itself having to revise and reprint its maps in huge numbers. (Persuasive Maps: PJ Mode Collection, #1193)

As of June 2022 OCLC 749133500 gives holdings of this version of the handbill only at the British Library and Virginia Historical Society. Background on Knobe’s map from a pre-publication draft of Susan Schulten, ““Make the map all white:” the meaning of maps in the prohibition and suffrage campaigns”, University of Colorado Law Review, volume 92 (2021).