Some Suggestions for Researching the NAWSA Woman Suffragists Database

(Some of the comments below come from Jill Zahniser and some from Tom Dublin, both of whom have done lots of biographical searching for women reformers over the years.  The “I” shifts from one paragraph to the next.)

I write these notes for faculty and students signing on to write brief biographical sketches of women activists listed in the HISTORY OF WOMAN SUFFRAGE, VOL. 6 (1922).  We are looking for bio sketches of about 500 words and I ask you to add at the bottom of the SKETCH a listing of sources that proved helpful in the research. The bibliography need not be exhaustive but listing online, published, or archival sources would be helpful for readers.

I would begin by doing a quick search in Women and Social Movements in the United States for your person.  There are quite a few suffrage-related document projects and archives on the database and you might find useful information in a given document written by or about your person.  Check the person out in Browse People on WASM and see if there are biographical details there as well.

If you have access to ancestry.com or HeritageQuest you will be able to search for your suffragist in the 1900, 1910 and 1920 censuses for her state.  Keep in mind multiple ways to spell her names as you do this s3earching.  This search is particularly value if you only know your suffragist as Mrs. John Jenkins, a pretty common form of naming NAWSA suffragists in the state reports.  Try to find your suffragist and her husband and with good luck you’ll get her given name and that will be important going forward.  Ancestry.com also indexes lots of birth, marriage, and death records, as well as genealogical sources.  Figuring out your suffragist’s birth and death dates and places of birth and death can be very helpful in your research.

Looking for your person in online collections of local newspapers is another important route for your research.  You might find her obituary or you might find accounts of suffrage events in which she took part. You may also find out about your person’s activism in other social movements—temperance and/or peace movements, for instance.

A general Google search (or searches) can yield a good deal of information.  In general you will want to uswe more terms than just your person’s name (in quotes).  Otherwise your results will be dominated by current people’s FACEBOOK pages.  Also, if you have access to WorldCat, the online catalog of OCLC (a major library consortium), you could check for your person as an author and also as a keyword and see what comes up in that source.  Next I would go to Google books advanced search and look for your person as full-text  in the books that have been digitized there and also as an author of works in that collection.  With this latter search you will often find footnotes in scholarly books that refer to the person and direct you to published or archival sources about the person.  Google Books will tell you books in which your person is named and you might try to check those books out of your college or university library or have your library’s interlibrary loan department request the book from another library. If your college or university subscribes to JSTOR, you should definitely search there as well for your person in a full-text search.  That gives you access to references to your person in scholarly journal articles, which are often easy to follow up on.  Try to get printed or pdf copies of the articles in question and read around your topic as well as read the specific places where your person is mentioned.

Your general Google search might alert you to archives that have material about your person.  If you find such references to archives, follow up by going to the web pages for the archive and on the search engine for that site look again for your person.  You might find gold in that there is a collection of papers for that person and the archive may have written a short bio sketch on the person as part of its finding aid for the collection.  If you find letters or a memoir or other documents of interest at a given archive, consider sending email to the archive or making a phone call and seeing whether you can purchase photocopies of the pages of interest.  Often archives will respond to such inquiries and send material at a very reasonable charge to interested users.  You do not necessarily have to go the archive.  Of course, if there is a collection in an archive near you, consider the possibility of making an appointment and visiting the archive and actually working with the collection.  That would be a great experience and is likely to turn up material that you wouldn’t find simply with an internet search.

There are also microfilms of some important archival collections you might draw upon. The National Woman’s Party Papers (NWP) are available on microfilm (including The Suffragist) and the correspondence section has been indexed in the Guide to the microfilm(usually in hard copy in libraries), so it is easily possible to determine whether a particular suffrage activist is represented as a correspondent and where.  Note that there are two microfilm collections for the NWP; the one labelled The Suffrage Years has the most extensive correspondence, but the 1913-1974 collection also contains letters (those judged less important but which may be from lesser known correspondents). It would be possible to look at specific issues of The Suffragist for more info.  You could read the relevant portions of Eleanor Flexner, Century of Struggle, (originally published, 1959 and reprinted in 1973 and 1996); Finally, the NY Times is extremely well indexed and you might look for your person in the NY Times index for dates when you know she was active.  Your person might be mentioned in some of these newspaper stories. And if you have access to local newspapers in your state, those could be valuable if they are accessible online.  “Chronicling America” is a Library of Congress site with many newspapers and the commercial database, newspapers.com, can be valuable if your college or university library subscribes.  The Library of Congress site is freely accessible on the internet.

If your library has the Online Gerritsen Collection it would be worthwhile looking for your person in a full-text search of that online collection of women’s history documents. That collection has a good many early 20th-century women’s journals and hence excellent coverage of the suffrage movement in the U.S.

Keep in mind that many of the women made their marks beyond suffrage, especially in the labor movement, and there are a surprising number of hometown articles and a variety of other info on the Internet.  The NY Times historical archive is also a great resource, probably available in your college library, and also the historical newspapers collections of the Library of Congress and newspapers.com. Finally “American Memory,” on the Library of Congress website is a rich resource (https://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html) .  From the LC home page you will see a link to Women’s History. On that next page you will find two links to “Woman Suffrage” and LC collections related to the woman suffrage movement.  These collections have Browse and Search features that you should try out. Definitely look for your biographee in these resources.

Best of luck with this work.  It should be fun to do and know that if you are able to write a biographical sketch of your activist, it will be published on Women and Social Movements in the United States and you will be making a contribution to ongoing historical knowledge about the woman suffrage movement in the U.S.