Today in Feminist History: Suffragists Turn Their Focus to Other States

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 20, 1915: If any anti-suffragists in New York, Massachusetts or Pennsylvania went out for a walk this morning, hoping to stroll by a suffrage headquarters and peek in the window to see a small, dispirited group of workers grimly going about their tasks while preparing for more defeats like the one in New Jersey yesterday, they would have been greatly disappointed.

Far from being demoralized, or suffering any desertions in the ranks, our staff workers and volunteers are all present and accounted for, and eager to continue the fight. They recognize that not all states are the same, and that the fate of their own State’s referendum on November 2nd still depends on how hard they work, and not on an anti-suffrage political machine in New Jersey and the male voters it influenced. 

In New York, the nation’s most populous state, and therefore the biggest prize, the Women’s Political Union is still planning an election night celebration at the W.P.U.’s “Suffrage Shop” on New York’s Fifth Avenue as workers shrugged off yesterday’s setback and cheerfully looked 13 days ahead.

New York’s results will be different from those of New Jersey, in the opinion of Carrie Chapman Catt, among the most experienced of campaigners: “We did not expect to win in New Jersey, for all the forces of wickedness were against the women. The whole campaign of the men was one of intimidation. I believe that the men of the political parties of New York have told the truth when they say they would not interfere with the vote in this State and I think we shall win.” 

PHOTO: Campaign poster by Norman Jacobsen celebrating the courage and dedication of suffragists, and in support of a “Yes” vote in the three upcoming referenda.

As to yesterday’s vote, one poll-watcher, Helen Hill Weed, said it was overtly corrupt. At her post in Newark from 6 a.m. until the ballot box was finally transferred to the Court House long after the polls had closed, she saw numerous violations of basic election laws, and even observed money changing hands.

In regard to the influence of one political boss in particular, she said: “We have absolutely tied up the women ‘antis’ with Jim Nugent’s party, though they have all along routinely denied it. We know that Nugent had all through the campaign been distributing anti-suffrage literature, but yesterday his men acted as watchers for the women.” 

Some of Nugent’s highest-ranking cronies were seen wearing badges of the New Jersey Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage as they monitored the balloting. Harriot Stanton Blatch, of the Women’s Political Union, also saw money being passed, as well as “repeating” voters, and has reported these violations to the authorities. 

Unfortunately, New Jersey requires that five years must pass before a referendum may again be submitted to the voters. No one there wants to just sit around until 1920, so a campaign to get the State Legislature to immediately pass legislation similar to that of Illinois, where women can vote for President and in municipal elections, but not State offices, has now begun. Though full suffrage can only be achieved through a Statewide referendum, the State Legislature can enact “Presidential Suffrage” for women on its own at any time, so it’s still possible that New Jersey women will be able to vote for President in 1916.

Once the voting trend became clear last night, and the battle had been lost everywhere except Ocean County, our forces were understandably disappointed, but never dispirited. Looking forward, rather than back, it was simply time to plan for the next fight. So, a kick-off rally was scheduled for the next morning in the same Military Square location in Newark where the previous campaign had ended on Election Day following a 24-hour speech-making marathon.

Mina Van Vinkle, Helen Hoy Greeley, and Helena Hill Weed were among the speakers who drew a large and enthusiastic audience at the Newark rally today. According to Greeley: “This is only one battle, nothing more than the preliminary battle in the open between the suffragists and the interests that are against them … We are in the fight to stay. It is the opening of a campaign that will go on Winter, Summer, Spring and Autumn – go on until we win, by the grace of God.”

Suffrage workers in neighboring Pennsylvania are not dismayed by the New Jersey vote, so they’re still busily planning a street parade and demonstration for the night of Friday, the 22nd, when the “Women’s Liberty Bell” arrives in Philadelphia as part of its tour of the State. There were noon meetings at various locations around that city today, and ten meetings are being held simultaneously tonight along Broad Street by the Equal Franchise Society and the Woman Suffrage Party.

In the other two states with upcoming referenda, nine organizers and five salaried speakers who have helped to found 200 local suffrage clubs are active in Massachusetts, while New York suffragists are preparing for what is planned to be the largest suffrage parade in history on Saturday, the 23rd. So, 1915 may yet be a year of victory parties, only with three instead of four, and beginning on November 2nd instead of October 19th!


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.