Today in Feminist History: Suffragists Across the East Coast are Facing Down Political Challenges

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 26, 1915: Good news today, as the organized Democrats of New York County announced that “Tammany Hall” would remain neutral on the suffrage issue in next week’s election.

This means that there will be no repeat of what happened in New Jersey a week ago—when the most powerful political machine in the state campaigned vigorously against the suffrage amendment, and used every trick in the book on Election Day to insure its defeat.

According to William Harmon Black, who personally favors suffrage: “I can’t make it too emphatic as far as the County Committee, the Democratic organization in this county, is concerned. It is a case of ‘hands off.’ Every voter is to vote as he likes on the proposition, and there will be neither opposition to the movement nor organized effort. The County Committee, of which I am Chairman, has taken no stand and won’t take any stand. Suffrage must rise or fall on its merits alone, so far as the organization is concerned.”

Though an endorsement would obviously have been preferred, no one considered that a realistic possibility, and rumors that the County Committee would actively oppose the suffrage amendment were beginning to become widespread. This neutral stand is consistent with similar statements by the political organizations of Pennsylvania, so there might be a realistic expression of voter sentiment on November second in at least two of the three states with upcoming suffrage referenda. 

Of course, there is still organized opposition to woman suffrage in New York, because the “antis” are quite actively working to defeat Amendment #1. This evening at a debate in the Broadway Tabernacle, Everett P. Wheeler, head of a men’s anti-suffrage group, gave his usual impassioned presentation, but generated laughs from some in the audience when he claimed that the fall of Rome was due to women entering public life.

Wheeler then went on to say that women wanted the vote for unspecified “other things,” that allegedly “higher divorce rates in equal suffrage states” should give supporters cause for concern, and “division in the home” would follow if suffrage is granted to women.

In other opposition activity today, Alice Hill Chittenden, head of the New York State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, sent a letter to New York City Mayor Mitchel, challenging his statement of four days ago in which he told an audience at a Carnegie Hall suffrage rally that most women wanted the right to vote. Chittenden claims that the figure is really about only 10 per cent, supplied some questionable data to back up her statement, and asked Mayor Mitchel to prove his statement.

In Pennsylvania, our forces continue their hard work for passage of the suffrage referendum, and express confidence about the upcoming vote.

One suffrage worker didn’t see any reason why her State would follow New Jersey’s example, because there are no big-name politicians working against suffrage in the Keystone State: “We never expected that New Jersey would return a majority in favor of suffrage. In New Jersey there was a Jim Nugent on the firing line against us. There is no Jim Nugent here, nor is there any organized opposition of any kind that we know of. We sincerely believe that we will carry Pennsylvania.”

Officials of Pennsylvania’s political parties are skeptical about suffragists’ chances, and though they have no actual polling data to back up their doubts, it is said that leaders expect 16 counties—mostly rural, and comprising just 10 percent of the vote—to favor suffrage, 28 counties to vote against and consider 23 too close to call. Other estimates, based on recent votes for Progressive candidates and issues produce equally negative results. But it’s all still guesswork, and Pennsylvania suffrage organizations will be increasing their efforts during the final week of the campaign regardless of what the predictions are, or who is making them. 

“The Awakening” by Hy Meyer, shows “Liberty” bringing the torch of freedom from the Western States where women vote, to the Midwest, South and East where women must still fight for the same voting rights as men.

The campaign in Philadelphia took a nasty turn this evening when a group of men attacked an open-air suffrage meeting at Sixtieth and Spruce Streets. The leader of a group of Republicans marching to a meeting rode his horse into the crowd while shouting: “Down with woman suffrage!” The men and boys behind him fired off Roman Candles into the crowd, with some of the burning embers falling on clothing. Their ammunition exhausted, the attackers then threw buckets of water on the speakers—who turned out to be fellow Republicans. The police finally arrived, and the meeting resumed. 

In Massachusetts, the men were somewhat more supportive, as the Men’s Campaign for Equal Suffrage held two rallies in South Boston tonight. The Somerville Equal Suffrage League is conducting a house-to-house campaign, and as of today has gotten between 4,000 and 5,000 voters to sign a pro-suffrage statement.

According to Maude Carvill, head of the League: “The canvass will not be completed until next Monday evening and it is believed that in the interval the total will be greatly increased. Our canvassers have found only about one in each thirty voters who is an ‘anti.’ The great majority of those who would not sign have given us encouragement by stating that they have not yet made up their minds on the question and are open to conversion.”

In Brookline, the “antis” are claiming that a similar campaign has shown that only one in 25 voters favor suffrage. But there must be plenty of suffrage supporters in Brockton, because 1,200 turned out to see a parade followed by a rally this evening.

The parade featured a band, plus 20 automobiles to accompany the marchers. Mayor John Burbank presided over the rally. The keynote speaker was Reverend Anna Howard Shaw, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. She spoke for well over an hour, mostly about the progress that has occurred in suffrage states.

Meanwhile, back in Boston, there was a lively debate in Faneuil Hall, with the unusual feature of having not just two debaters, but two other distinguished individuals on the stage to verify or dispute any factual claims made by either side. As might be expected, they were kept quite busy checking facts—and fictions—all evening.

The Boston Globe received another telegram from a suffrage state governor today in response to its queries about how suffrage has worked in States where it has been tried.

Nevada’s Democratic Governor Emmett D. Boyle said:

Since November, 1914, when women were enfranchised in Nevada, numerous incorporated municipalities have held elections, but no Statewide elections have been held. A very large percentage of the women entitled to vote registered for the municipal elections, and the great majority of those who registered appeared at the polls and voted. The women of the State have taken an active and intelligent interest in public questions.

Men are more numerous than women here, and there is no place in the world where women are held in higher respect than in the West. We have given Western women suffrage as a matter of simple justice, and the women themselves have embraced the right to a voice in public affairs in such a manner as to effectively disprove the silly argument that they could not use this voice without a sacrifice of their womanly qualities. I have been an observer of equal suffrage in adjoining Western States, where, after a trial of the system covering years, no one seriously considers a return to the old order of things.

Rose Winslow addressed a large Bay State audience tonight in Fitchburg’s Depot Square, and made the case from the worker’s point of view:

The history of the world shows that when men have been disenfranchised, they have been helpless and that others take advantage of them a great deal more than when they have a part in the government. No class is big enough or sympathetic enough to legislate for another and that is why we have such big strikes all over the world as the one in Belgium just before the outbreak of the European war. In England also men have considered it of such importance to have a part in the government that they have shed their blood in order that they might obtain it.

Every working man of sense knows that if he had to depend upon the employers to protect him he would be in a bad way; not because they are bad men, but because they are very apt to look at things from only one standpoint, and that one their own.

Winslow quoted the Federal Commissioner of Labor who said: “Without the franchise the world would sink into slavery again in 15 years.” She then gave some specific examples of Massachusetts labor laws that could be improved if women had the vote.

Since none of the states voting on suffrage next week border on states where it has already been won, this is an uphill battle—and a major departure from standard tactics. But the success of the spectacular suffrage parade down New York’s Fifth Avenue three days ago, and the unprecedented levels of activity by our organizations and volunteers in all three states, could bring about equally spectacular and unprecedented results.


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.