In honor of the centennial celebration of the 19th Amendment, we take a look back at some of the suffragist sorority women who paved the way for the future generations of women*. These 10 sorority women took action to make change and create a platform for women to continue to advocate for women's rights. The women we talk about here are just a fraction of the sorority women who used their voices to effect change and demand women's right to vote. In addition to being advocates for women’s rights, many of them were leaders in the fields of education, government and more. They not only paved the way for women to exercise their right to vote but served as role models for future generations of women.
Ada Comstock Notestein
Ada Comstock Notestein, a member of Delta Gamma, was president of the American Association of University Women for two years. She also served as the first dean of women at the University of Minnesota and the first full-time president of Radcliffe College, a position which she held for 20 years. In addition, she convinced Harvard to accept classroom coeducation in 1943. As an advocate for education, Comstock helped hundreds of women earn a bachelor’s degree at Smith College. Part of Ada’s legacy is that she strove to help women in higher education achieve their goals. She now has a scholarship named after her for young college-aged women to achieve those same dreams.
Alice Duer Miller
Alice Duer Miller was a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma and her writing skills took the suffrage movement by storm. She wrote poetry that had a huge impact on the movement and even wrote a column called, Are Women People? This column became a catchphrase for the suffrage movement. She followed that collection of columns with one called, Women Are People! Her illustrations and written works made her a known activist within the women’s suffrage movement and a pivotal voice in the U.S.
Reverend Doctor Anna Howard Shaw
Reverend Doctor Anna Howard Shaw was a member of Kappa Alpha Theta. Shaw was one of the first female Methodist ministers in the United States. She met Susan B. Anthony in 1888, who encouraged her to join the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Her great work also led her to be the president of the NAWSA, where she and Anthony worked closely together to advocate for women’s rights throughout the movement. She also played a key role in the merging of two suffrage associations and this was the first time in decades that unity between organizations had happened within the suffrage movement.
Carrie Lane Chapman Catt
Carrie Lane Chapman Catt was a member of Pi Beta Phi and played a large role in the passage of the 19th Amendment and American women’s right to vote. It was Carrie who came up with what was known as the “Winning Plan” that coordinated state suffrage campaigns that lobbied for women’s rights, which helped ensure the development of the constitutional amendment. She helped found the League of Women Voters that gave women a platform and voice on political issues. Carrie was also the president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association from 1900 to 1904 and again from 1915 to 1920. She also wrote about the history of the suffrage movement that was published in 1923 called, Woman Suffrage and Politics: The Inner Story of the Suffrage Movement.
Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Ph.D.
Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Ph.D., was a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma. She was a strong activist and voiced her support for women’s rights, racial equality and lifelong education through her activism. She even enlisted help from her sisters to aid in war-relief in France after World War I. After the war, she was head of the U.S. committee that allowed people to have the option to refuse to perform military service due to the freedom of thought, conscience or religion. Dorothy also worked for years trying to improve education reform and worked closely with the women’s prisons to do so.
Edith and Grace Abbot
Edith and Grace Abbott, two sisters who were both members of Delta Gamma and each had a tremendous impact on the suffragist movement. Edith became the first woman to become dean of an American graduate school. She was committed to advocating for social reform and welfare and spent a lot of her time doing so. She and Grace both moved to what was known as the Hull House, which was a community for educated women with scholarly and revolutionary thinking. Grace wrote and published a number of scholarly articles and government reports that contributed to women’s rights.
Grace Abbott, like her sister Edith, strove to advocate for women’s rights and improving children’s welfare, especially those who were immigrants. She was also the highest-ranking woman in the U.S. government for over a decade as the head of the U.S. Children’s Bureau. Grace became the first woman to be nominated and to hold a presidential cabinet position for the Secretary of Labor. A lot of her research and works were used in helping to make policies involving child labor laws across the United States.
Eliza Jean Nelson Penfield
Eliza Jean Nelson Penfield was a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma, who also served as Kappa Kappa Gamma’s president. She worked alongside Carrie Lane Chapman Catt to found the League of Women Voters. But, her push for the 19th Amendment didn’t stop there, as she was one of the seven women who chartered the Woman’s Suffrage Party of Greater New York.
Frances Willard was another suffragist who was a member of Alpha Phi, and like Eliza Jean Nelson Penfield, held the president position. Frances was also the president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Before she was elected president of the WCTU, she became the first corresponding secretary for the organization. She spent endless amounts of her time traveling to speak and give lectures advocating for women’s suffrage and home protection. Frances also helped found the World WCTU in 1888 and became the president just five years later.
Mary Ritter Beard
Mary Ritter Beard, who was a member of Kappa Alpha Theta. She was a leader and activist in many areas such as education and women’s rights. Mary was a member of the Women’s Trade Union League, the Equality League of Self-Supporting Women, the New York Suffrage Party and the Wage-Earners’ Suffrage Party. On top of her long list of involvement, she was also on the advisory board of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, also known as the National Women’s Party.
All of these women and many others made endless contributions towards women’s rights and what led to the 19th Amendment. They created a platform and even used their resources as sorority women to voice their thoughts and make a change in the world. They are an inspiration to women today on how you can make the world a better place, or at least your part of it.
*The National Panhellenic Conference recognizes the 19th Amendment didn’t expand the right to vote to all women, but as women’s-only organizations we want to highlight the role our members played in the amendment’s passage and acknowledge it was a significant first step for all our members.