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How Restaurants Helped American Women Get the Vote

The history of suffragist dining spaces in the U.S.

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In 1912, New York City press fawned over the opening of a new restaurant at numbers 13 and 15 East 41st Street in Manhattan. On the inaugural day, 48 men and 652 women patronized the restaurant between the opening hours of noon and 2:30 p.m. Prices were shockingly low. For only 25 cents, customers could get a plate of roast lamb or beef accompanied by spinach and mashed potatoes; for 15 cents, lamb stew or codfish balls. “You can’t possibly spend more than 50 cents,” wrote The New York Tribune. “Unless, indeed, you want two pieces of pie.”

But this wasn’t your average budget restaurant. The men, sitting down for their meals in a private dining area upstairs, ate on china plates and with silverware stamped with a mission: “Votes for women.” Customers couldn’t turn their heads without encountering a new form of suffrage propaganda. Posters plastered the walls and even the bills were presented on trays with the mission inscribed into them. It was, the press exclaimed, “the very latest thing in the way of ‘votes for women.’”

The restaurant, called the Suffrage Cafeteria, was opened by socialite Alva Vanderbilt Belmont as part of her efforts to publicize and obtain more supporters for the suffrage movement. Though suffragists had hosted regular luncheons and teas as a form of fundraising and outreach, the cafeteria appears to be the first establishment in the United States dedicated to the cause. (In the United Kingdom, many restaurants, like the vegetarian-serving Gardenia, were frequented by suffragettes — a term embraced by the English, though it was used as a slur against American women fighting for suffrage.)

The Suffrage Cafeteria was one of as many as 11 street-front establishments Belmont opened in Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Long Island in the early 20th century. Other venues hosted meetings and entertainment, but the cafeteria was known for its delicious food and affordability — Belmont also sold provisions through the café, usually at a few cents below market prices. This, as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “brought in men and women who might not otherwise be interested [in suffrage].” The tables reserved for men, as another newspaper noted, “were never empty.”

In the United States, Belmont was the perfect public face for the suffragist restaurant movement. Belmont was wealthy enough for her exploits to be followed by the press, but different enough from the rest of her class to have felt the sting of unequal treatment for men and women. Belmont had shocked polite society by divorcing her first husband, William Vanderbilt, in 1895. Though Vanderbilt had been such a flagrant cheater that even the courts were willing to grant her a divorce, Belmont was disappointed at the reactions of other women in her social groups. Those unfair double standards led Belmont to become a patron of the women’s suffrage movement after the death of her second husband in 1908.

At first, Belmont was disheartened by the vigor — or lack thereof — in the movement. “She attended a suffrage meeting in a rented hotel room in New York City to find only 15 women seated in the audience,” Sylvia Hoffert wrote in a biography of Belmont. The socialite concluded that “the public knew little or nothing about suffrage and that the strategies employed up to that point to publicize the movement had been totally inadequate.” Belmont, with her tremendous financial resources, set out to become suffrage’s unofficial publicist.

Belmont didn’t just write the checks — she was an active figure in the dining spaces. During busy periods at the restaurants, she could be seen ferrying soup to customers; in quieter moments, she stood outside the door like a beacon for hungry men and women walking by. When suffragist Alice Park visited a cafeteria Belmont opened inside the National American Woman Suffrage Association building in 1915, Selling Suffrage author Margaret Finnegan writes, “she found Belmont standing at its door ‘like a head waiter.’” Two years after opening the first Cafeteria — and with World War I looming — Belmont turned it into a soup kitchen for poor, unemployed women. As Belmont told The New York Times of the kitchen’s women-only policy, “Where men go, women are crowded out.”

Belmont’s work in New York City appeared in the press as far away as San Francisco. The social celebrity was a fairly new invention, yet Belmont quickly realized the potential power in wielding not just her wealth but fame. As Hoffert writes, “The newspapers could not get enough of her.”

Belmont’s image also helped sell the suffragist movement as a more traditionally “feminine” undertaking, a savvy shift in strategy. In the years after the Seneca Falls convention, which began the fight for “votes for women,” suffragists tried to argue that women should get the vote because they were equal to men. As a result, anti-suffrage propaganda stereotyped suffragists as enemies of traditional family and gender roles: Voting women, in other words, would destroy the family structure. (In one anti-suffrage image, a dour man is seen scrubbing the wash while wearing an apron. “Everybody works but mother; she’s a suffragette,” the text read.)

“Ultimately men had to be convinced because they were the only ones who could vote,” says women’s studies expert Sally Roesch Wagner. While the equality argument resonated with some men, Wagner says, it didn’t work on everyone. Suffragists throughout the country began to use fundraising techniques that were acceptable among polite society women, like hosting teas or creating community cookbooks, to bring support to this supposedly unfeminine cause in a “womanly” way. As the new argument went: Who better to shape the nation than the women who shaped the next generation inside the home?

Pro-suffrage china and memorabilia.
Ken Florey/Woman Suffrage Memorabilia

Sociologist Stacy Williams says that in Washington state, pro-suffrage canvassers went door-to-door selling cookbooks. It was a savvy tactic that suggested to naysayers that just because women wanted the vote didn’t mean they were trying to abandon their families; in fact, they even liked to cook. (What was inside the suffrage cookbooks wasn’t always as innocent as it seemed. A Philadelphia suffrage cookbook included satirical recipes like “Pie for a doubting husband” which instructed the chef to “Mix the crust with tact and velvet gloves, using no sarcasm, especially with the upper crust. Upper crusts must be handled with extreme care, for they quickly sour if manipulated roughly.”)

Headlines in local newspapers would focus on the fact that suffragists still did their own housework and cooking and even peeled potatoes when they weren’t campaigning, Williams says. “That made them more relatable to the male voters who would be deciding the fate of women’s suffrage.”

Food manufacturers, cognizant of who purchased their products, capitalized by printing free recipe booklets with suffrage tie-ins. In 1913, one year after the first suffrage restaurant opened, Karo Syrup printed a “votes for women” recipe book that included foods like an “Aunt Susan [B Anthony] Marble Cake.” That same year, Johnson Educator Food Company of Boston debuted a shelf-ready Suffragette Biscuit, though what it had to do with the movement beyond the name’s nod of support to suffragists is unclear.

And despite the outwardly feminine appearance of these recipe books, some articles on cooking took a more radical approach. Suffragists placed articles in publications like Women’s Journal advocating for men to take on more of the culinary labor at home, Williams says. They even wrote that men were perfectly capable of washing dishes and should do so in order to create a more equitable home environment. (Over a century later, this particular battle is still being fought.)

The restaurants were a carefully calculated next step, and many followed Belmont’s lead, opening versions of their own. Few major cities in the United States didn’t have at least a part-time tea room, luncheon, or suffrage restaurant.

But unfortunately, while some women fought for the right to vote in these public spaces, that privilege was often reserved only for white women. The decade of the suffragist movement’s rise was also rife with terrifying racial violence against black Americans: From 1910 to 1919, an average of 62 people were lynched every year. Suffragist marches and spaces were often segregated and outright racist toward black suffragists. Despite this, black women were integral to the movement: They “organized suffrage clubs, participated in rallies and demonstrations, spoke on behalf of the amendment, and wrote essays in support of the cause,” Rosalyn Terborg-Penn writes in her essay “Discontented Black Feminists.”

Terborg-Penn adds, “It is a wonder that Afro-American women dared to dream a white man’s dream — the right to enfranchisement — especially at a time when white women attempted to exclude them from that dream.”

Unsurprisingly, that exclusion happened in the restaurant spaces, as well. As Johanna Neuman writers in her book Gilded Suffragists, Belmont fought to include black women in the movement, but she “soon ran afoul of the ardent racism in suffrage circles.” Belmont withdrew an early ball invitation to black suffragists after white supporters voiced their opposition, and, later that year, turned away eight black activists who attempted to dine in her downtown suffrage lunchroom. They were “offered box lunches and asked to eat elsewhere,” Neuman writes. By the time the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920, granting women the right to vote, “many black suffragists had been thoroughly disillusioned by the machinations of the white feminists they had encountered,” Terborg-Penn writes. Spaces that advocated for access and equality, including restaurants and cafeterias, failed to entirely live up to their promise.

Across the country, most suffrage restaurants were small and had far less funding than Belmont was able to commit to her establishments. But they all worked toward the same goal: not only convincing women that they deserved the vote but also talking men into voting for suffrage. “We lured men in, for a good, cheap business lunch. Then you could hand them literature and talk,” one East Coast suffragist said of her time working in a votes for women lunchroom. At Belmont’s cafeteria, “so popular did the venue become among male patrons,” wrote Neuman, “that tables were reserved for men only, whether to protect women from unwanted male attention or men from too much suffrage lobbying is unclear.”

And, ironically, it may have been an anti-suffrage man who inspired the lunchroom movement in the first place. So the story goes, it was all because of one loud gentleman who lamented that once women got the vote, there would be no one left at home to make his lunch.

Tove Danovich is a journalist living in Portland, Oregon. Marta Quijano is an illustrator and collage artist living and working in the center of Madrid, Spain.
Editors: Monica Burton and Erin DeJesus