Women’s Citizenship Education and Voting as Knowledge Practices

What does citizenship entail? For many it is not just a passive right but rather comprises a more fragile set of practices, duties, and beliefs that need to be reworked and reaffirmed along the way. It might be useful to think of “citizenship” as a container for a wide variety of ascribed meanings in time. A century ago, when World War I came to an end, many Western nations re-evaluated what it meant to be a citizen, who was entitled to become one, which rights it entailed, and what one needed to know in order to act properly. For the protagonists of suffrage movements, full citizenship could only be realized through the attainment of civil rights and participation in the formal political process, most notably voting. The ability and desire to do that required knowledge.

Germany declared universal suffrage shortly after the collapse of the old order in November 1918, and the election for the National Assembly in January 1919 saw women at the center of political attention. In the United Kingdom, voting rights had already been expanded at the beginning of 1918 to include bourgeois women over thirty. The United States, where women already could vote in some state elections, followed suit by passing the Nineteenth Amendment for equal suffrage in 1919, ratifying it just in time for the presidential election in 1920.

Women’s suffrage campaigns did not come to an end once the vote had been won, however. The transition from so-called passive to active citizenship that suffrage entailed led suffragists to focus on maximizing women’s turnout by politicizing women and educating them in civics.1 Research on women’s suffrage has only rarely captured this part of the story.2 Thus, this post explores the practices associated with learning to vote and teaching the practice to others. Situating this history at the intersections of citizenship, gender, class, and race, I am particularly interested in the practices of knowing and knowledge production that these processes entailed.

Teaching Citizenship: American Civics Handbooks for Women

Cover page of Emma Guy Cromwell, Citizenship: A Manual for Voters, (Frankfort, KY, 1920), via HathiTrust.

In the United States, one way of addressing the need for women’s political education was to update nineteenth-century educational tools well known to the mostly middle-class women leading the movement: the civics handbooks, voter guides, and citizenship manuals used to educate immigrants and others perceived to be lacking such knowledge. These texts were refitted or re-gendered to serve men and women alike or to instruct women specifically.3 In the preface of her 1918 handbook, The Woman Citizen, Mary Brown Boyd criticized how previous works had devoted “practically no space” to women as citizens.4 Similar books were published by women’s organizations with both emancipatory and Christian-conservative motifs. Meant for “the women voters of our nation to prepare themselves for public life,” these books included information about the functions of government in the federal system and outlined ways to participate in politics. Authors often focused on municipal government, which they perceived as a “natural” field for female participation. As the Kentucky suffragist Emma Guy Cromwell explained to her readers, “while it is a great privilege to take part in public affairs, and study the questions of the day, so that we can vote intelligently and criticize justly,” one should never forget that for every woman “the chief end of all good is to improve and protect the home, the church and the community.”5

In her introduction to the 1918 Woman Voter’s Manual, Carrie Chapman Catt made clear that “knowledge of the kinds of legislation attempted or achieved by voting women likewise rests upon facts.”6 The “citizenship study groups” emerging before the election in 1920 were thus not only for learning about the political system but also for exploring how women had already provided meaningful contributions to politics on the national and international levels.7 Of course, activists had already gained practical political knowledge through their decades-long struggle for suffrage, which they were now beginning to disseminate to a broader audience.

At the same time, how women could and should participate in politics remained an open, sometimes contested, question. Fields of policy were seen as deeply gendered, so women could make a case for their involvement in certain social and cultural realms by underscoring “motherhood” and women’s “natural” aptitude in certain areas. Such notions were not universally accepted, however. The National Women’s Party in Washington, DC, and its organ The Suffragist demanded broader education in order to foster “understanding of the ways of business, the claims of labor, the nature of practical justice, and the essentials of international relations.” Only then could women really be “worthy of citizenship.”8

Knowledge plays a central part in this Suffragist cartoon, titled “Women’s Party: Busy!”. The protagonist, perhaps a National Women’s Party member or a suffragist newspaper editor, is portrayed as a “cable girl” or telephone operator processing incoming information on issues. Depicted as a modern figure, she handles both technology and knowledge of topics ranging from “equal pay,” “individual citizenship,” and “divorce reform” to the “Negro question,” “child labor,” and the “League of Nations.” A page on the floor reads “how to vote,” showing that it too had become a knowledge practice. Cartoon by Nina Allender in The Suffragist, vol. 8, no. 10, 1920, on microfilm at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

Mobilizing: Womens’ Activism in Germany after World War One

The end of World War I in Germany propelled the question of women’s suffrage to the center of attention, as it did in other countries. The heavy death toll and the already existing “surplus women” in the Kaiserreich meant that two million more women than men were eligible to vote for the national assembly. The future of the country would be decided by voting women for the first time.

Christian women’s organizations largely led the election campaign for the Catholic Center Party, activating Church infrastructure to mobilize voters. In Cologne, a city dominated by the Center Party and Social Democrats, “civics instruction” (staatsbürgerliche Schulung) played a big role in election preparations as activists of all genders and political parties perceived women as lacking sufficient requisite knowledge to fulfill their civic duties. Church organizations that had earlier denied civic education to women on account of their “nature” now portrayed women’s suffrage as a necessity and “duty.” They called Catholic women to the polls to prevent the emergence of the socialist republic they saw looming on the horizon, mobilizing women teachers and conservative feminists. At the same time, Social Democrats, who cast themselves as the true standard bearers of women’s suffrage, feared the female vote might swing the election to the conservatives given the Christian-conservative leanings of the majority of German women. Thus, Social Democrats sought desperately to politicize housewives.

In practice, widely divergent political visions reaffirmed the binary, even reactionary gender order in a new democratic context.9 Nevertheless, both the Center Party and the Social Democrats emphasized that civic knowledge was non-partisan and aimed to strictly separate civic instruction and partisan meetings. These parties opened women’s bureaus from which interested women could obtain campaign materials and practical information. They informed new women voters how to use a ballot, how to get to their polling place (which were separated by gender in Cologne), and even how to behave inside.10

Getting out the Vote: Civic Knowledge Practices in the United Kingdom

In Great Britain, The Vote, based in London, supported any woman running for office who stood for equal rights. Its editorial board kept readers informed about all female candidates across the United Kingdom with a weekly updated list. As the 1918 election drew closer, voters were informed about polling places and procedures. There were also advertisements for a civics handbook promising to “give women just the information they are seeking.”11 Women’s groups organized meetings and evening lectures, where activists and editors from The Vote spoke. The paper’s editorial offices were used as voter information bureaus, distributing mock ballots that showed one exactly how to vote.

One way to get out the vote was with instructional campaign postcards. A prominent example in Staffordshire promoted the suffragette icon Christabel Pankhurst‘s campaign for parliament. Easy to read, the postcard ballot showed how to “mark the ballot paper” and cautioned voters not to add their signature or a name. Complete with a space to add the recipient’s polling station, the practical card contained all the information needed to vote for Pankhurst. Her unusual challenge even made national headlines, but she ultimately lost to the male Labour candidate.

Campaign advertisement designed as a postcard with instructions on how to vote for Christabel Pankhurst. Courtesy of the Museum of London, People’s City Gallery, Suffragettes, 50.82/1503d.


These brief sketches show a deep connection between knowledge and the practice of voting. Knowledge was understood as critical to political participation. Adapting and translating familiar textbook knowledge for new political claims, teaching new forms of activism, and disseminating practical civic knowledge among new voters proved successful. Still, ambivalences, widely different political outlooks and reactionary obstacles remained. In many cases, women were confronted with voter suppression measures, particularly common in the American South. There, women and men alike required knowledge and resources to identify voter suppression tactics such as poll taxes, stalling registration officers, unfair registration deadlines, and literacy tests. African American women faced an additional intersectional oppression in this arena, insofar as their voices were seldom heard in the suffrage movement. Meanwhile, working-class British women had no vote, not to mention all women under thirty, all women in France and Switzerland, indigenous people in Canada, and so on.

Some progressive activists were well aware that the fight for equal rights was not yet won.12 What was becoming clear, though, was that knowledge—whether civic or political—was key to advancing emancipatory ideas and claiming citizenship in an age of expanding democratic participation.

Lukas Doil is a research assistant (wissenschaftliche Hilfskraft) at the Historical Institute, University of Cologne, and a former intern at the German Historical Institute Washington.

Introduction to Emma Guy Cromwell, Citizenship: A Manual for Voters, (Frankfort, KY, 1920), via HathiTrust, with margins trimmed.

  1. On the distinction between active and passive citizenship, see, for example, Mary Brown Sumner Boyd, The Woman Citizen: A General Handbook of Civics, with Special Consideration of Women’s Citizenship (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1918), 21–22; and Emma G. Cromwell, Citizenship: A Manual for Voters (Frankfort, KY, 1920), 7–8. ↩︎
  2. Julia Sneeringer’s work on women’s propaganda in Weimar Berlin being a notable exception: Julia Sneeringer, Winning Women's Votes: Politics and Propaganda in Weimar Germany, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002). ↩︎
  3. Among others: Cromwell, Citizenship; Problems of Citizenship: A Manual for Minnesota Voters (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1920); May Wood Simmons, Wisconsin Citizen’s Handbook (Milwaukee: Wisconsin League of Women Voters, 1920); S. E. Forman, Marjorie Shuler, and Carrie Chapman Catt. The Woman Voter’s Manual (New York: The Century Co., 1918). Popular citizenship manuals that had been widely circulated for men included Waldo H. Sherman, Citizenship in the United States (New York: American League for Citizenship Training, 1900); and Charles Fletcher Dole, The Citizen and the Neighbor (Boston, MA: Unitarian Sunday-School Society, 1884). ↩︎
  4. Boyd, Woman Citizen. The book was designed in response to an influx of information requests at the “Data Department” of the National American Woman Suffrage Association after the franchise in the state of New York had been won in 1917. ↩︎
  5. Cromwell, Citizenship, 5. ↩︎
  6. Forman, Shuler, and Chapman Catt, Woman Voter's Manual, xii. ↩︎
  7. These groups are mentioned in Simmons, Wisconsin Citizen’s Handbook, 76. ↩︎
  8. Ellen Hayes, “The Call to Citizenship,” The Suffragist, September 1920, 210–11. ↩︎
  9. See Lukas Doil, “‘Trägerinnen der lebendigen Zukunft’: Das Frauenwahlrecht 1918/19 in Köln und die Sprache der Geschlechterordnung,” in Alberts Töchter: Kölner Frauen zwischen Universität, Stadt und Republik, ed. Ute Planert (St. Ingbert: Röhrig, 2019), 135–87 ↩︎
  10. For example: “Gebote für die wählende Frau,” Rheinische Volkswacht, January 16, 1919, 3. ↩︎
  11. “The Machinery of the Election,” The Vote: The Organ of the Women’s Freedom League, December 6, 1918, 2; A.E. Metcalfe. “‘Woman as Citizen,” The Vote: The Organ of the Women’s Freedom League, November 22, 1918, 467; Agnes Edith Metcalfe, Woman: A Citizen (London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1918). ↩︎
  12. H. E. C. Bryant, “Southern Women Vote,” The Suffragist, November 1920, 286. ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Lukas Doil, “Women’s Citizenship Education and Voting as Knowledge Practices,” History of Knowledge, October 16, 2019, https://historyofknowledge.net/2019/10/16/womens-citizenship-education/.