The em-power of music in the Women's Suffrage Movement

Aug 26, 2020

Music isn't just easy on the ears, it has been used as a rallying cry by political and social movements for centuries. As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of a woman's right to vote being signed into law today, WBFO took a look at the em-powerful role music played in the Suffrage Movement.

It was the summer of 1848 in Seneca Falls, NY that reformers organized the now-famous convention that history widely regards as the beginning of the Suffrage Movement. But it wasn't until Aug. 26, 1920 that a woman's right to vote was certified into U.S. law as the 19th Amendment.

Credit Mary Brennan Taylor / Kenan Center

"The music was an absolutely vital part of the Suffrage Movement," said Carrie Tirado Bramen, director of the Gender Institute and a professor of English at the University at Buffalo. "It's all about the politics of voice and who can speak. And women for generations, for centuries, have been defined by their silence, right? I think what music did was normalize the idea of women voting, it made it less terrifying."

Bramen talked about Sojourner Truth, a former slave in New York. After the Civil War, when abolitionists and suffragists, Black and white, joined forces, Truth began selling her songs to make a living.

"She began to sing one of her songs about a mother on an auction block, separated from her child. It was really directed at a wide audience to cultivate compassion, sympathy and outrage at the injustice," Bramen said. "And that was such a powerful impact on this Boston audience that she immediately became an important figure at conventions and rallies with her music."

Julia Ward Howe (l) and Sojourner Truth wrote songs for the Suffrage Movement.
Credit / National Park Service

She also talked about Julia Ward Howe, who wrote "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Through World War I, the Suffrage Movement became focused on patriotic themes and Ward Howe was important for what is known as "contrafact," which is adding new lyrics to a familiar tune.

"In the long battle for civil rights - which is really what we're talking about here - you needed to have songs of solidarity, of keeping hope alive. And then really being tactical and using it as a form of persuasion of repetition, of selling an idea," Bramen said.

An early Suffrage song, "I'll Be No Submissive Wife" was written in 1835.
Credit Kennth Florey /

"There are some sheet musics that go all the way back to even the 1700s," said Mary Brennan Taylor, co-chair of the "Art of Suffrage" exhibit at the Kenan Center in Lockport. The exhibit includes eight pieces of sheet music from the movement that were owned by Taylor's grandmother.

"I think the earliest piece I have in the exhibit is from 1905 and that one is called 'The Woman's March.' 'The Woman's March' is a pro-suffrage piece. But then there were some shockingly anti-suffrage, really misogynistic pieces of music, including, 'Since My Margarette Become a-da-Suffragette.'"

The year was 1913. Thousands of suffragettes marched on Washington the day before President Woodrow Wilson was sworn into office. But others believed the American way of life was under attack.

The 1913 Woman's Suffrage March on Washington, DC.
Credit Library of Congress

"There was some, frankly, fear mongering that went on," said Taylor. "If women, heaven forbid, got the right to vote, the family as we know it, society as we know it, would be in shambles."
Needless to say, there was much more music against suffrage than for it. Remember, it was a time when singing around the family piano was a main source of entertainment, and many of those songs were political in nature, propaganda and a call to action.

The songs continued even after the 19th Amendment was signed into law. Songs like "Woman Suffrage" by Bob and Mac in 1928 laments how men have to take a back seat in a world run by women.

Later in the 1960s, as the battle for women's civil rights reorganized, even Walt Disney joined the suffrage bandwagon - in the movie "Mary Poppins," of all places - with "Sister Suffragette." By the time the Equal Rights Amendment was proposed in 1972, songs like Lesley Gore's "You Don't Own Me," Aretha Franklin's "Respect" and Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman" were becoming anthems.

"I Am Woman" became a #1 hit in December 1972. Shirley Chisholm was running for President and Roe v. Wade was decided a month later.

"Music has really been something that we have turned to at different times in our nation's history and it was no different in the Suffrage Movement," said Taylor.

"Women's voice took many forms and they were all forms of empowerment that need to be remembered today," said Bramen. "Voting rights and access to the vote is still a contentious issue. So it's a legacy that still, unfortunately, has lessons for us today."

NOTE: There are songs about the Equal Rights Amendment, too. The ERA was approved by the required number of states after the deadline set by Congress. Also used in the on-air version of this story as an example of contrafact was "Battle Hymn of the Women," from the Women's Liberation March that took over a Harvard University building in 1971.