Thursday, August 15, 2019

Our Towne Bethlehem August 2019: Suffrage

Woman suffrage.  Woman's right to vote.  It seems such settled law, nothing to talk about here.  Yet, it fascinates me to think that my own grandmother, someone I knew personally, was not able to vote until she was 31 years old, simply because she was a woman. 

My grandmother, Ruth Harriet Todd,
 about the time she married in 1922.
  What an interesting word. Merriam-Webster simply says “the right of voting.”  The dictionary adds that the word is descended from the Latin word suffragium which can be translated as vote, support or prayer.  Early supporters of the “woman vote” liked the word too. Just by itself, the word suffrage points to suffering and speaks of rage.

     New York has close ties to the woman suffrage movement going back to the first women’s rights convention held at Seneca Falls on July 19 and 20, 1848.  The convention and its Declaration of Sentiments was the beginning of the formal movement with well known leaders such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony.  A road trip to the excellent Woman’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls and the Susan B. Anthony Museum and House in Rochester is well worth the effort.
     New York passed its legislation affirming women’s right to vote in 1917.  The 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex passed the House on May 21, 1919 and then the Senate on June 4. The amendment went to the states for ratification. Tennessee became the 36th state needed for ratification on August 18, 1920 making woman suffrage the law of all of the United States.  Mississippi, the 50th state to ratify, did not do so until 1984.
     But what is the local Bethlehem connection to the Woman Suffrage Movement? That is proving frustrating to figure out.  Hints are scarce in the local papers. There are plenty of references to the suffrage movement in general, and the anti-suffragists too, just not truly local specifics.
      For example, the May 29, 1914 issue of the Altamont Enterprise reported that “Mrs. Rosalie Jones of Albany was scheduled to speak at the Methodist Church in Clarksville on the interests of the suffrage movement.”   The News-Herald reported June 5 that at Clarksville “there was a crowded house to greet Miss Rosalie Jones.” Your historian likes to assume that this is in fact General Rosalie Jones.  General Jones was widely known for her suffragist efforts especially her suffrage hikes.  On December 16, 1912, the General and 200 of her followers left Manhattan and walked to Albany. That’s about 170 miles through a cold New York winter.  They marched on the east side of the river, so did not pass through Bethlehem, arriving in Albany on December 28 where they worked to present their petitions and arguments to the Governor. The following February, Jones organized a hike from New York City to Washington D.C. to meet up with the many Suffragist marchers converging on the Capitol.
     It is probable that Jones was here in Clarksville, but who are the local men and women who packed the church in May of 1914?   Similarly, Albany County Equal Suffrage clubs held a convention in June 1915 where it was reported that organizations were thriving in Delmar and that mass meetings had been held in Bethlehem. But who exactly attended? That remains a mystery.   
     And what about the anti-suffragists?  Some of the names in a July 10, 1914 clipping are familiar and local in the sense that Albany is local for us.  A report under the Voorheesville section of the Altamont Enterprise reads “A meeting in the interests of all opposed to the granting of suffrage to women will be held here in the early autumn, should a group of men and women express their willingness to urge attendance.  The Albany Anti-Suffrage society, in which such well known women as Mrs. George Douglas Miller, Mrs. Moneure C. Carpender, Mrs. Robert C. Pruyn, the Misses Fenimore-Cooper, Mrs. John Boyd Thacher and Mrs. George Curtis Treadwell are interested, will send representatives.”
     1914 was a busy summer.  The paper notes that at the Albany County Fair both the Equal Suffrage and Anti-Suffrage clubs “vied good naturedly with each other and were well attended by their adherents and friends.”
     While not all that local, my very favorite clipping is from the June 11, 1915 issue of the Altamont Enterprise.   The left-hand column of page 6 begins with Suffrage Day on the Diamond which was held May 11 during a baseball game between the Giants and the Cubs. “The fusion of suffrage and baseball interests certainly resulted in a great turn-out for the game.” The suffragists were certainly creative in publicizing their cause.
Immediately following that item is an anti-suffrage report where the anti’s make the argument that allowing women to vote will somehow cancel men’s votes. “Women will either divide on issues in proportion that men do. In which case they but double the vote without affecting the result, or they will vote in opposition to men, which case they nullify men’s votes.” (Which to my 21st century feminist ears does not quite make sense.)
     And then the best is the final item in the column.  “Woman Garbage Collector. Garbage in Hastings-on-Hudson is to be removed by a woman, her bid for the contract being lower than that made by any of her male competitors.  She has announced that she expects to superintend personally her men and teams.”  Another paper identifies this woman as Mrs. Mary Eliot.  Here is a successful business woman competing for a contract in a field dominated by men.  In 1915.  I want to know her story.
     And finally, what object inspired this article?  In the collection of the Bethlehem Historical Association is a Votes for Women banner that was donated anonymously in the 1980s.  It was last displayed in the summer of 2017 during their centennial exhibit on World War I and the passage of New York’s suffrage law.  Those familiar with BHA’s collection report no other references or objects related to woman suffrage. Readers, do any of you have family stories about the battle for the vote for women?  Letters, diaries, journals? Anything?  I would love to hear from you!

From left to right, Mrs. J. Hardy Stubbs, Miss Ida Craft and Miss Rosalie Jones in Albany, perhaps on the roof of the capitol.  In the background can be seen the spire of St. Peters Church which is on State Street. (Library of Congress)

No comments:

Post a Comment