Students, Suffrage, and Political Change: The College Equal Suffrage League and Campus Campaigns for Women’s Right to Vote, 1905–1920

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Peer-Reviewed Article

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From 1905–1920, American college and university students carried on active and understudied campaigns to gain legitimacy and support for women’s suffrage at institutions of higher education across the United States. The primary organization responsible for initiating and directing campus activism was the College Equal Suffrage League (CESL), formed in 1900 by Massachusetts teachers Maud Wood Park and Inez Haynes Gillmore to recruit more upper- and middle-class, well-educated, students and alumni to the women’s rights movement. Exploring the records of state and national suffragists, women’s organizations, and academic institutions associated with the CESL shows that the league’s campaigns helped to reinvigorate the suffrage cause at an important moment in the early twentieth century by using educational tactics as powerful tools to cultivate a scholarly voice for the campaign, appeal to the upper classes, and fit within the contexts of higher education and larger movement for progressive reform. In addition to influencing the suffrage cause, campus organizing for equal voting rights changed the culture of female political activism and higher education by ushering a younger generation of articulate and well-trained activists into the women’s rights campaign and starting in a trend of organized youth mobilization for women’s rights at colleges and universities.