Today in Feminist History: Counting Support for Suffrage

Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.

October 17, 1915: Just two more days remain until the men of New Jersey vote on woman suffrage—and if women could vote, the referendum would win in a landslide!

According to figures made public today, there are 75,000 members of the Women’s Political Union of New Jersey, and 25,000 in the New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association. The New Jersey Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage has a membership of only 25,000.

When asked if this four-to-one ratio was an indication that suffrage enjoyed great support from the women of New Jersey, an official of the anti-suffrage group said: “It might be an indication if the suffragists followed our rule and enrolled only women of voting age. But they will accept infants in cradles as members in order to swell their numbers.”

Since there are probably a little under 750,000 women of voting age in New Jersey, it means that if we presume that the vast majority of suffrage group members actually are adults, then at least one in eight is not only pro-suffrage, but concerned enough about it to become an active member of a suffrage organization, whereas only one in thirty is actively opposed.

Since today was Sunday, most suffrage speeches in all four states with upcoming suffrage referenda were spoken from the pulpit, rather than on street corners. Three-time Democratic Presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan spoke at Grace Methodist Church in New York City, but though campaigning for the New York State suffrage referendum on November 2nd, he mentioned the New Jersey vote coming up on Tuesday, and why it’s important that women should be able to vote on all major issues.

He told the church members: “You have had a recent convert to the cause of woman suffrage. I see that the President has recently announced that he will vote for woman suffrage at the New Jersey election. I have believed that women should have the vote, but if there was only one question on which they could vote I would say that should be the question of peace or war.”

Bryan condemned “propagandists,” “preparedness societies” and “jingoes” for trying to drag us into the war in Europe, and noted that: “If the jingoes in this country are able to scare us into preparing, although they cannot name a country which might attack us, would not the jingoes in some other country be able to scare that country by pointing us out and saying that we were preparing against it?”

Promoting equal suffrage in New Jersey on the Asbury Park Boardwalk.

Though today was much closer to a traditional “day of rest” than most in this campaign, tomorrow will be the busiest day so far. Three hundred and fifty-two suffrage speakers and campaign workers will be making their final pleas to voters. One meeting will be called to order at 6 a.m. by Mildred Taylor, and continue for 24 hours, until just before the polls open on Tuesday. It will be conducted at the roving suffrage van and shop now stationed at Military Park in Newark. That location gets more pedestrian traffic than any other place in the State.

Meanwhile, in another New York church this morning, anti-suffragist Reverend Cyrus Townsend Brady was preaching that equality for women would bring about the downfall of civilization:

What will be the ultimate result of this woman movement? We will have no more families, no more mothers, no more society, marriage will be a failure, for if it exists at all it will be a condition in which the husband will be one man and the wife another. The field for the practice of the highest virtues, the home, will be eliminated. The social purity of mankind will be undermined, prostitution will flourish, as it always does when marriage is neglected, and the result will be ruin.

Brady feels that “the perfection of the family is woman’s task,” and that “her struggle has been for monogamous marriage” and “her triumph, while not yet complete,” will succeed if she will “continue her struggle on the legitimate lines marked out for her by successes of the past.” He thinks that voting, like decision-making in a marriage, is a male, not a female function. “So I say deliberately that the so-called woman movement is an attempt to escape the function of woman, a revolt against the fact that woman is not a man, an attempt to enter the field of effort in which man’s powers are properly exercised. It is a rising against nature.”

But it’s Reverend Brady who is fighting against nature, because the desire to be free, and have equal dignity, respect and opportunity is inherent in all people. It is now being manifested in an unprecedented way as women enter many fields from which they were previously excluded—and one state at a time, even gain entrance to the voting booth.

Hopefully, there will be one more suffrage state on Tuesday, and three more after that on November 2nd. The elaborate, massive parades that have become annual events, and the fact that almost half the States in which women have full suffrage have been won in just the past three years shows a powerful trend in our favor.

This steady progress insures that regardless of the outcome of any specific election, woman suffrage is about “when” it’s to be achieved, and not “if.” The only question now is over which tactics will work best, and how much time and effort will be needed to win.


David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.