Wednesday, October 22, 2014

How Communications Helped Secure Women's Right to Vote

kdmblogsuffrageWith all the fanfare surrounding the social and digital revolution, it’s easy to forget that communities, content creation and conversation are nothing new.  They’ve always been among the most powerful tools in the PR toolkit. 

A perfect example of this is represented by the photo at left, from the collection of the Library of Congress.  The picture features Lucy Branham, a leading American suffragist, who had been arrested in 1917 for demonstrating in support of women’s right to vote.  Here, she is, two years later, wearing prison garb and a suffragist sash as she addresses a large crowd during the "Prison Special" train tour.

According to a fascinating article by Erin Blakemore in mental_floss, “The Prison Special: One Last Push for Women's Suffrage” 

“By the end of World War I, the suffrage movement was battered and bruised. There were divisive splits between militant Nineteenth Amendment supporters and those who felt women could ‘earn’ suffrage through milder means. Suffragists were bitterly excoriated in the media and blacked out by a coalition of press and politicians tired of the suffragists' antics. They were beaten and mocked by crowds unsympathetic to the cause. Worse still, they were imprisoned in large numbers, for reasons imaginary and unimaginable.”

The suffragists’ ultimate strategy was PR 101:  make one last push for the right to vote by harnessing the power of personal narrative.  Nearly two dozen suffragists boarded their own train at Union Station in Washington, DC, for a five-week, coast-to-coast tour of the United States.  You can see their route herehere.  Their mission?  To shock their listeners by directly sharing their personal stories of the brutality they endured at the hands of prison guards (being kicked, beaten, force-fed and knocked unconscious) and thereby to recruit other women, especially those in the West, to the cause.

It worked…and changed the course of history.    On June 4, 1919, the Nineteenth Amendment passed—by a vote of 56 to 25.