Voices of a Movement: The Oral History Center’s Suffragists Oral History Project

By Shannon White

The Suffragists Oral History Project is a glimpse into the history of the Oral History Center itself: a group of interviews recorded and published for the most part in the 1970s, chronicling the events of the suffrage movement from the perspectives of several exceptional women who devoted themselves to organizing and advocating for social issues. A rather small collection—the UC Berkeley Oral History Center sports just seven individual interviews and one joint interview from this project—the Suffragists Oral History Project nevertheless serves as a valuable source of information about the fight for women’s rights. 

The interviews of the project offer nuanced perspectives of the women’s rights movement and insight into the philosophy behind politics and political activism. These interviewees come from a wide array of backgrounds and represent a diverse range of careers, including poets, authors, educators, politicians, judges, and social workers. In fact, many devoted themselves to other causes beyond suffrage, advocating for peace, education reform, marital freedoms, labor policies, and social welfare.

A few notable oral histories from the Suffragists Oral History Project include:

Jeanette Rankin

Jeanette Rankin
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress. [ca. 1917] Title: Jeanette Rankin.
I said, “I don’t want you to do anything against your conscience. If you are against woman’s suffrage I’m not going to ask you to vote for it. But I am going to ask you not to make a speech against it. . . When the vote came, we won by one vote, and they had a recapitulation, and when anyone came up that he thought might change his vote and be against it, he said “If you change your vote, I’ll change mine.” (Jeanette Rankin discusses her dealings with Joe Walsh, a staunch voter against women’s suffrage, who nevertheless respected Rankin and her efforts enough to encourage swing voters to support her resolution.)

Jeanette Rankin served in the United States House of Representatives from 1917 to 1919 and again from 1941 to 1943 and was the first woman elected to Congress. A lifelong advocate for peace, Rankin voted against the entry of the United States into both World War I and World War II and spent much of her career supporting anti-war activism. Additionally, she worked on a women’s suffrage resolution that later formed the basis for the Nineteenth Amendment. In her interview, Jeanette Rankin: Activist for World Peace, Women’s Rights, and Democratic Government, Rankin discusses her congressional career and involvement with the suffrage movement, offering a broad overview of how she saw the connections between women’s issues and labor rights and the systemic issues inhibiting the progress of women.

And men haven’t the freedom because big business doesn’t give it to them. And so men’s jobs are dependent on having a nice mousy wife who doesn’t do anything. And one of the greatest difficulties that the women’s lib has to contend with is the fact that the women can’t go any faster than the men. And this isn’t because men want to hold them down. (Jeanette Rankin gives her perspective on labor practices indirectly influencing the social position of women in her interview in 1972.)

Burnita Shelton Matthews

BBurnita Shelton Matthews
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress. [May 28, 1925] Title: Burnita Shelton Matthews. Collection: Records of the National Women’s Party.
When a woman tried to get admitted to the bar. . . she faced a remarkable decision. That decision was something to the effect that there are many callings for women which were suitable and proper, but that the law was not one of them; and that it was treason for women to undertake to invade the practice of law. (Burnita Shelton Matthews reflects on the difficulties women faced when attempting to practice law.)

Burnita Shelton Matthews became the first woman to serve as a United States federal judge when she was appointed to the US District Court for the District of Columbia in 1949. She worked closely with Alice Paul and the National Women’s Party and fought to advance the legal rights of women. In the oral history Burnita Shelton Matthews: Pathfinder in the Legal Aspects of Women, Matthews gives her perspective on the legal activities of the National Women’s Party and her work on the District Court, discussing the nuances of the relationship between women and the law.

Separate bills for separate ills. For instance: to give women the right to serve on juries; to do away with the discrimination against women with reference to the guardianship of their children; to straighten out the laws on descent and distribution so that women would have a status equivalent to that of men in the same relationship. (Burnita Shelton Matthews talks about the legislation she worked on with the National Women’s Party.)

Rebecca Hourwich Reyher

Rebecca Hourwich Reyher
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress. [ca. 1913–1917] Title: Miss Rebecca Hourwich of New York. Collection: Records of the National Women’s Party.
I mention this all deliberately because it isn’t ever easy for people who are pioneers—and that goes for feminists today—to follow their deepest inclinations and yet meet the rigorous obligations that they may have committed themselves to in their personal relationships. (In her 1973 interview, Rebecca Hourwich Reyher discusses the difficulty of reconciling personal conviction and activism with familial and personal obligations.)

Rebecca Hourwich Reyher was an author and lecturer who also came to head several offices of the National Women’s Party. Reyher was deeply interested in Africa and the lives of African women, and published the books Zulu Woman and The Fon and His Hundred Wives based on her travels to the continent. Reyher’s oral history, Rebecca Hourwich Reyher: Search and Struggle for Equality and Independence, reviews her work with the suffrage movement and her career as a whole, acknowledging the difficulties of balancing activism and personal obligations, as well as providing an interesting look into the limitations of first-wave feminism. 

Undoubtedly I was imbued with a middle-class philosophy. Only then could you afford the luxury of supporting a cause, full time, that you believed in. (Rebecca Hourwich Reyher discusses socioeconomic status and the ability to contribute full-time to a cause.)

Alice Paul

Alice Paul speaking into a phone, at desk with papers on it.
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress. [ca. June 1913] Title: Alice Paul. Collection: Records of the National Women’s Party. Harris & Ewing, Washington, D.C., Photographer.
And the person who got up to speak first was instantly arrested. And the next one that she would introduce was instantly arrested. So when it came my time to get up and make a speech, my heart was calm [laughing] because I knew I wouldn’t have to make the terrible speech [laughter] which was the thing that worried me more than anything else. So I was immediately arrested. And that’s the first time I was in prison. (Alice Paul recalls her first imprisonment in 1909 after being arrested at a counterprotest in Bermondsey, a district of London.)

Alice Paul was a prominent suffrage activist who founded the National Women’s Party and played a key role in the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. She was also involved with the British women’s suffrage movement and was arrested and jailed several times for her work. Paul later co-wrote the Equal Rights Amendment and worked toward its ratification. In her interview, Alice Paul: Conversations with Alice Paul: Woman Suffrage and the Equal Rights Amendment, Paul details her involvement with the various stages of the British and American suffrage movements and the split in the factions of the suffrage movement that led to the formation of the National Women’s Party. Paul also discusses the protests of the Silent Sentinels, peaceful demonstrations in front of the White House that resulted in mass arrests, poor imprisonment conditions, and the Night of Terror: the brutal abuse of some of the imprisoned protesters at the hands of the Occoquan Workhouse guards. 

He sent a formal [message]. I received it and I remember it very well. And then we didn’t know exactly what to do, and various women. . . said, “All right, then we will have to have people willing to be arrested, and I will come down and I will be one.” (Alice Paul reflects on the arrests during the Silent Sentinels protests outside the White House, a turning point in the militancy of the National Women’s Party.)

Sara Bard Field

Sara Bard Field
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress. [ca. 1915] Title: Mrs. Sara Bard Field, of San Francisco. Collection: Records of the National Woman’s Party. (Harris & Ewing, Washington, D.C., Photographer)
As I think I have told you before, one of the greatest lessons I learned and I wish I had learned it earlier in life was that in working for a great cause you must leave self behind, you must leave sometimes even personal preferences and wishes and give your all to what you are working for, impersonally, because it seems the only way to gain what your objective is. (Sara Bard Field discusses the compromise necessary to fully support suffrage work.)

Sara Bard Field was a poet who was involved with several national suffrage campaigns and later joined the National Women’s Party. She became acquainted with and later married Charles Erskin Scott Wood; the two lived on their estate “The Cats” in Los Gatos, California, and struck up friendships with several famous artists and writers. In Field’s oral history, Sara Bard Field (Wood): Poet and Suffragist, she discusses her involvement with politics and the suffrage movement, offering her opinion on prioritizing collective goals over a personal agenda to achieve progress.

Indeed, as I went on deeper and deeper into the work of the Woman’s Party I was forced to realize that in political life men are influenced only and solely by the hope of political backing, and that all the pleading and the urging and the brilliance of the delegations of Eastern women that had gone [before] had just evaporated because they were helpless; they couldn’t deliver the votes. (Sara Bard Field discusses the difficulties in dealing with party politics to secure the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.)

The interviews of the Suffragists Oral History Project are a wonderful resource for preserving memories from the women’s suffrage movement. The narrators of these oral histories are eloquent and comprehensive, and their accounts of events that have now taken their place in the annals of national history are not only invaluable, but also just incredibly interesting to read. 

Find these interviews and all our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. You can search by name, keyword, and several other criteria. You can also find projects, including the Suffragists oral histories, through the menu on our home page from Oral Histories > Projects.

Shannon White in front of trees
Shannon White

Shannon White is currently a fourth-year student at UC Berkeley studying Classical Languages. They are an Undergraduate Research Apprentice in the Nemea Center under Professor Kim Shelton and a member of the editing staff for the Berkeley Undergraduate Journal of Classics. Shannon works as a student editor for the Oral History Center.

Related Resources from the Oral History Center

For interested parties, these oral histories also tie in quite nicely with several other projects in the Oral History Center’s collection, including the Women Political Leaders oral histories and the Rosie the Riveter World War II American Home Front Oral History Project. Many of the interviews from these projects coincide in time, presenting detailed and intimate accounts of women’s careers and lives during the twentieth century. In addition, The Berkeley Remix podcast has a season dedicated to women in politics, and Episode 1, “Gaining the Vote,” makes use of several oral histories from the Suffragists project. 


Related resources from The Bancroft Library

The Bancroft Library has hundreds of records related to women’s suffrage, including speeches, letters, photos, convention proceedings, organizational by-laws, and much more. Here are a few. 

Biography on Jeanette Rankin. E748.R223 L67 2005.

Guy Wilfrid Hayler papers – Rankin listed as the writer of some letters. BANC FILM 2550. Rankin a correspondent in the Anne Henrietta Martin papers. BANC MSS P-G 282.

Short film based on a children’s book written by Rebecca Hourwich Reyher. 1604-01-9194.

Mabel Vernon papers – Alice Paul & Sara Bard Field are among the correspondents. BANC MSS P-G 283.

Photographs of Sara Bard Field (BANC PIC 1979.141–PIC), Sara Bard Field papers, 1927–1956 (BANC MSS 79/46 c), and The Speech of Sara Bard Field, presented to Congress on behalf of the women of the nation, 1921. p JK1896 .F5.

About the Oral History Center

The Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library has interviews on just about every topic imaginable. You can find the interviews mentioned here and all our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. Search by name, keyword, and several other criteria. We preserve voices of people from all walks of life, with varying political perspectives, national origins, and ethnic backgrounds. We are committed to open access and our oral histories and interpretive materials are available online at no cost to scholars and the public.

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