Image: National Park Service
August 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of women winning the legal right to vote in the United States with the passage of the 19th Amendment. It was finally passed by all the states on August 18, 1920 with Tennessee's vote and certified on August 26th . Which is why we celebrate Women’s Equality Day on this day. With a suffrage movement that spans over 70 years of activism in the U.S. from the Seneca Falls convention in 1848 to the Amendment’s passage in 1920 you’d think there’d be plenty of historical fiction set in and around the movement—you’d be wrong. However, if you include the British suffragist movement (1860s-1928) there’s a lot more to choose from.
I first learned about the women’s suffrage movement from a song in Mary Poppins:
“Our daughter’s daughter will adore us as they sing in grateful chorus!
Well done! Well done sister suffragettes!”
—Sister Suffragette, Mary Poppins (Disney, 1964)
As my mother had us marching around the house to the song, she explained what it had to do with the current rights of women and I was hooked. I wanted to be like the brave, iconoclast women in their long skirts and jaunty hats who stood up to the patriarchy and demanded equality!
My favorite way of learning about history has always been through fiction and then going back to see what really happened. Below is a list of adult, young adult and children's historical fiction, romances and mystery series set during the suffrage era and involving suffragists that I’ve found through my research and reading that are currently available from NYPL circulating collections. I did my best trying to find the most interesting materials that are in circulating collections—although some UK-set ones were left off because there were so many. But, if I've egregiously missed any fiction (especially if it's set in the US) please name them in a comment below.
Set in the United States
The Lions of Fifth Avenue by Fiona Davis
It's 1913 and Laura Lyons lives with her husband, superintendent of the New York Public Library building, and their two children in an apartment located in the grand building on 5th Avenue. But Laura wants more—she applies to the Columbia Journalism School and her world is cracked open. She discovers a radical, all-female group where women loudly share their opinions on suffrage, birth control, and women's rights. Soon, Laura finds herself questioning her traditional role as wife and mother. But when valuable books are stolen at the library, threatening the home and institution she loves, she's forced to confront her shifting priorities head on. (from book jacket)
Counterfeit Lady series by Victoria Thompson
In the first volume City of Lies, con woman Elizabeth Miles is desperately trying to escape men that are after her in 1917 Washington D.C. so she joins a suffragist parade in front of the White House only to get swept up, arrested and sent to the Occoquan, VA women’s prison with the other marchers.
The Gilded Yearsby Karin Tanabe
Based on the true story of Anita Hemmings, who in the 1890s was the first black student to attend that hotbed of women’s suffrage, Vassar College, and successfully pass as white until she befriends the wrong person and dares to enter the world of moneyed New York.
Kitty Weeks series by Radha Vatsal
In book one, A Front Page Affair, it’s 1915 in New York City and journalist Kitty Weeks wants to cover the big stories: the sinking of the Lusitania, the shooting of J. P. Morgan and women’s suffrage … but she’s stuck writing the society column for the Ladies Page—until a man is murdered on her beat.
The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee (YA)
By day, 17-year-old Jo Kuan Is a lady’s maid for one of Atlanta’s wealthiest families. By night, she moonlights as the pseudonymous author of a newspaper advice column called “Dear Miss Sweetie”. As her column becomes more popular, she uses it to address society’s ills and challenge traditional ideas of gender and race.
Molly Murphy seriesby Rhys Bowen
In turn of the century New York, Irish immigrant Molly Murphy arrives in America, where she finds she has a knack for crime solving and opens her own detective agency located in Greenwich Village (across the street from the current Jefferson Market Library). In book eight, In a Gilded Cage, Molly’s involvement in women’s suffrage lands her in jail. But her afternoon in the clink brings her new friends among the Vassar suffragists and a pair of new cases.
Saving Savannahby Tonya Bolden (YA)
In 1919 Washington D.C., Savannah is living a life of privilege as a daughter in a wealthy African American family. Feeling suffocated and isolated, she meets Nell, a working class girl, and Lloyd, a young West Indian man who introduce her to the suffragist and social equality movements of the day—inspiring her to make change in her own life and in society.
Louise Faulk series by Liz Freeland
In Murder in Greenwich Village, Louise Faulk arrives in 1912 New York with a secret-packed past looking for a fresh start. Moving in bohemian circles with her actress roommate and her author aunt, her own ambitions come into focus when she comes across a murder, discovers a talent for criminal investigation, and decides to challenge social norms when she becomes one of the NYPD’s first female police officers.
The Gilded Hour series by Sara Donati
In 1883 New York City, it’s a time of untold splendor among the 400 richest families, crushing poverty (especially for women and children) and a time of incredible social change. Cousins Anna and Sophie Savard, have graduated from the Women’s Medical School and are determined to put their careers first and help the city’s neediest people—even if doing so puts everything they’ve worked for in jeopardy.
Magnateby Johanna Shupe (The Knickerbocker Club #1)
In Gilded Age NYC, Elizabeth Sloane’s mind can compute numbers as well as any man’s and she wants to make her mark trading on the stock exchange and help other women to do it as well. Unfortunately, to accomplish this, she’ll need a man’s help. Enter charismatic Emmett Cavanaugh who’s risen from the city’s worst slum to a mansion on 5th Avenue and who reluctantly agrees to help Elizabeth if she’ll share her profits with him.
A Time for Courage: The Suffragette Diary of Kathleen Bowen by Kathryn Lasky (childrens)
In 1917, young Kat Bowen joins her mother, sister and other suffragists as they organize, picket, march and act to gain women the right to vote.
1915 Women's Suffrage parade up 5th Ave in NYC. US National Archives.
Set in England
Impossible Saintsby Clarissa Harwood
In 1907 England, school teacher Lilia Brooke finds her calling advocating for the vote, free unions, and contraception. She joins the militant Women’s Social and Political Union which puts her at odds with the man who loves her, ambitious Anglican clergyman Paul Harris. They can’t deny their attraction but they know they don’t belong in each other’s world. They must decide if their love is worth fighting for.
Falling Angelsby Tracy Chevalier
A multi-narrative story of two families of differing classes in Victorian England, who are reluctantly brought together by a friendship between their daughters, Maud and Lavinia. As the girls grow up, they become involved in the women’s suffrage movement and challenge their families’ (and society’s) beliefs of what it means to be a woman.
Bringing Down the Dukeby Eva Dunmore (A League of Extraordinary Women #1)
Set in England in 1879, a brilliant vicar’s daughter attends Oxford University on a scholarship funded by a women’s suffrage group. In return for the tuition, she assists the Cause and her first assignment is to recruit influential men in parliament to help them. Annabelle’s target is the cold and calculating (and handsome) Sebastian, Duke of Montgomery. The second book in the series A Rogue of One’s Own comes out September 1st (I think it's even better than Bringing Down the Duke!).
Old Baggageby Lissa Evans
It's 1928, bored and middle aged Maggie Simpkin is looking for something new to pour her energies into that will remind her of her thrilling past as a militant fighter for women’s suffrage. Jailed five times, Maggie marched, sang, gave speeches, smashed windows and heckled Winston Churchill, and nothing since then has given her the same depth or excitement. With idealistic fervor she takes on a new challenge but it's her militant past that could derail the whole thing.
A Mad Wicked Follyby Sharon Biggs Waller (YA)
In 1909 London, young Victoria Darling is no weak willed debutante. She’s been expelled from her French finishing school and steadfastly refuses to marry the older man that her parents have picked out for her. Instead, she secretly applies to the Royal College of Art to pursue her dream of being an artist, joins the women’s suffrage movement and begins falling for a working class boy who may be her muse and who also happens to be a policeman.
Park Laneby Frances Osborne
In London 1914, jilted and humiliated socialite Beatrice Masters becomes involved with the increasingly violent, militant suffragettes led by Emmeline Pankhurst. Her life soon becomes entwined with that of Grace, a young upstairs maid, as the coming war and the turmoil on the streets break down the class barriers that separate them.
Frances Ffolkes seriesby R. J. Koreto
In Edwardian era England, committed suffragette and rebel aristocrat Lady Frances Ffolkes fights for the poor and the voiceless and oh, yeah, is also an uncanny solver of crimes. With her trusty lady’s maid June, she tracks down criminals and clashes with Scotland Yard—all while attending rallies and writing pamphlets. In the first book, Death on the Sapphire, a hero of the Boer War has been murdered and his manuscript, detailing war crimes, has gone missing!
The Children's Bookby A.S. Byatt
A story spanning from the Victorian era to WW I, detailing the life of bohemian upper class Olive Wellwood and her family. Olive takes in Phillip, a working class boy and makes him a part of her large brood. At her country estate, she writes each of her children their own private picture book making their lives into magical tales. But, as Phillip gets older, he begins to see that the insular Wellwood’s storybook life is filled with just as many secrets, betrayal and lies as the world that is unraveling outside their home.
Nell Bray seriesby Gillian Linscott
In Edwardian London, upper class Nell Bray is high up in the leadership of the Women’s Social and Political Union and friend to Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. When the going gets tough, a sensitive assignment comes along, or a crime needs solving—Nell is your woman. She’s a suffragette fixer extraordinaire! From retrieving money for the Cause from a French courtesan to negotiating with Prime Minister Lloyd George. (majority of series titles available in SimplyE)
The Suffragette Scandalby Courtney Milan
Miss Frederica “Free” Marshall puts her heart and soul into her newspaper and is an outspoken supporter of women’s suffrage. When her enemies start gunning for her and her livelihood she finds help in scandalous rogue Edward Clark, whose family has left him for dead and who may be using Free as a pawn in his own game of revenge.
Love and Marriage at Harpers by Rosie Clark
A story of friendship among shop girls in 1913 London. The female workers of Harpers Emporium on Oxford Street are committed to their jobs and united in the cause of women’s suffrage. Now all living together, some will find love and marriage whilst others experience heartache and tears. Through it all their bond is unbreakable.
Scandalous Suffragette by Eliza Redgold
When heiress Violet Coombes is caught hanging her suffragette banner in a most shocking place, Adam Beaufort Esq. proposes a marriage of convenience. His good name will avert scandal for her family, and her money will save the estate Adam’s father gambled away. Violet accepts, but she’s determined nothing will distract her from the Cause— including her oh-so-tempting husband. (from publisher's summary)
Suffragette (2015 film)
Starting in 1912, this is the story of the suffragette movement as seen through the eyes of 24-year-old Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a laundry worker, wife and mother. Approached by the wife of an MP to tell her story to parliament, Maud is soon caught up in protests and is arrested, and jailed. As she faces stigma from neighbors and is kicked out by her husband, Maud’s commitment to the Cause and it’s leader Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) only increases.
Stories from Suffragette City ed. by M.J. Rose and Fiona Davis (out Oct 27, 2020)
A collection of diverse and inclusive short stories from thirteen bestselling authors that all take place on a single day: October 23, 1915. It’s the day when tens of thousands of women marched up Fifth Avenue demanding the right to vote in New York City.
Daughters of a Nation; A Black Suffragette Romance Anthology with stories by Alyssa Cole, Lena Hart, Kianna Alexander, and Piper Hughuley
A collection of four romantic novellas by best selling African American authors set during the 1880s and 1910s in America. Focusing on female characters working hard for women's suffrage and equal rights for all.
Let Us Dream by Alyssa Cole
In Harlem 1917, former stage performer and cabaret owner Bertha fights for womens suffrage and the passage of the 19th amendment and she uses her considerable skills to persuade the men of the city to support it as well. When immigrant chef Amir comes to work for her, they clash at first but their passions to be forces for change pull them towards each other.
Iron Jawed Angels (2004 film)
An HBO film detailing the lives of early 20th century militant American suffragists Alice Paul and Lucy Burns. It chronicles their fights for changes within the American suffrage movement, with President Woodrow Wilson and being sent to prison and their fight with society’s expectations for women of the era. Starring Hilary Swank, Frances O’Connor and Angelica Huston.
Things a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls (YA)
In early 20th century England, three friends Evelyn, May and Nell, eschew society’s expectations and join the fight for women’s suffrage vowing to do whatever it takes to win their right to an education, marry or not marry as they please and make a world where all women have a place in society. Winner of the UK’s Carnegie Medal 2019, National Book Award, Books Are My Bag Readers' Awards and the YA Book Prize.
Suffragette in the City by Kate MacAlister
Cassandra Whitney is a New Woman, from her forward-thinking attitudes toward women and society, right down to her determination to take a lover—just as soon as she can find one who doesn’t dribble soup, or yell at her for her involvement with the suffrage movement. Enter the annoying, but sinfully attractive, Griffin St. John. It’s just too bad he appears to be central in a plot to destroy everything she’s worked for.
Staff picks are chosen by NYPL staff members and are not intended to be comprehensive lists. We'd love to hear your ideas too, so leave a comment and tell us what you’d recommend. And check out our Staff Picks browse tool for more recommendations!