Today in Feminist History: Suffrage Activists in New York are Confident—and Busy

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 30, 1915: The final Saturday before Election Day is traditionally a time of frenzied activity in New York, and this one is no exception.

Both staff and volunteers in suffrage offices are expressing confidence about a victory on Tuesday night, while working around the clock to attain it. From elevated stages to down in the subways, our “Votes for Women” advocates seem to be everywhere, as does the color of “suffrage yellow.”

The 24 and 26-hour street corner speech marathons in Times Square and Columbus Circle have successfully concluded, and the enthusiasm and eloquence of the speakers were the same regardless of whether the audience was someone pausing briefly while on milk delivery rounds at dawn, or a large throng when the streets were crowded with those on their way to or from a restaurant or theater.

Suffrage orators at these marathons are usually found in threes, assigned two-hour shifts. One is an experienced veteran acting as a kind of chaperone as well as a senior speaker, accompanied by two younger speakers. It has been estimated that at the 24-hour rally almost 20,000 stayed long enough to listen to the principal arguments being made. Attendance and enthusiasm was also high at the “Yellow Rally,” a concert in Madison Square this evening with suffrage speeches made between the musical selections.

New volunteers are still coming in to the Woman Suffrage Party’s headquarters asking for work to do on Tuesday. Since there are already enough poll watchers to staff every polling place in the city, the new recruits will be assigned electioneering duties, and stand the legally required 100 feet from the polls to answer any questions and give out sample ballots to voters. The official poll-watchers inside will be well-qualified, because the party has been giving formal, mandatory training sessions for them since April. 

(Internet Archive Book Images / Creative Commons)

One thousand women were in the Hotel Astor today at the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Centennial Luncheon, where they pledged themselves to victory. Then, as the event ended, they quickly rushed back to the various campaign offices to fulfill their pledges. Stanton was born on November 12, 1815, and it is expected that women here in her home State of New York will have the ballot by the time it would have been her 100th birthday.

Harriot Stanton Blatch, head of the Women’s Political Union, and daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, said:

Our race is nearly run. Now, as we are approaching November 2nd and victory, we may well look back for 100 years are realize how, step by step, we have built up the organization of today. We have done this, too, of ourselves, for unlike every other disenfranchised class, we have not had one great group of men to fight our battles for us. With the exception of a few brilliant men, we have all these years been fighting our battle unaided.

There was a lively debate this morning at Carnegie Hall, with Katharine Houghton Hepburn, president of the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association and Alice Hill Chittenden, of the New York State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage doing most of the speaking. Among the best comebacks was one by Hepburn, who said that if the “antis” really believed that there was great dissatisfaction with woman suffrage in the West among both men and women, they should be busy out there trying to get the women of those States to vote to disenfranchise themselves. 

Carnegie Hall was filled again this evening, but by anti-suffragists, as they held their final big rally. James M. Beck, former Assistant Attorney General of the U.S., called woman suffrage “the most disastrous and absolutely irreparable experiment in the history of our Government” and said that if New York were to approve it on Tuesday, it would make state government such a farce that “abandon hope all ye who enter here” should be written on the portals of the State Capitol.

A number of our supporters were in the audience, not to disrupt, but to find out if there were any new arguments being made that needed to be refuted in the closing days of the campaign. But all the anti-suffrage speakers kept to the traditional arguments about how women don’t want the vote “forced on them” and that woman suffrage would destroy the family and society, though a pair of new and highly questionable statistics were added. 

Colonel John P. Irish claimed that even though “only 20 percent” of women in California had registered to vote since winning the ballot in 1911, there had been a “300 percent increase” in juvenile delinquency. He then told the audience that this was because mothers were neglecting their family duties to become involved in politics and therefore “the human chicks are left to the hawk while the hen is up on the fence trying to crow like a rooster.”

Irish failed to give any source for either of the percentages he used in his argument, and both figures, as well as any relationship between woman suffrage and delinquency by the children of women voters, are being disputed.

Former President Roosevelt has reaffirmed his support in writing for the suffrage measure, and in doing so noted four Queens who were excellent rulers: Isabella of Spain, Elizabeth of England, Catherine of Russia and Maria Theresa of Austria. “If a woman is deemed fit to be the head of a mighty monarchy,” he observed, ‘surely no adequate reason can be advanced against allowing her to exercise the rights of sovereignty in a democracy.”

Making sure that everyone on the streets would get the “Votes for Women” message was not enough today. Over 100 “Lap Board” women, about half of them teachers, boarded the subway at the Seventy-second Street Station, and took the message underground. The placards, printed in black ink on a yellow background, and about half a square yard in size, were quite favorably received by the riders, and a good antidote to the anti-suffrage ads they saw. Pro-suffrage ads are barred by Ward & Gow, the company that posts subway advertisements. 

Though the vast majority of those speaking for the established political parties in New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts are of the opinion that the suffrage referenda in each of their states will be defeated, leaders of suffrage organizations are strongly disagreeing, and looking forward to Tuesday night’s results. Election predictions are always uncertain, but there is no doubt being expressed by anyone at any suffrage headquarters tonight that our side has run an all-out, honorable and highly effective campaign, and that many more people support equal suffrage today than did so just a few months ago.

Victory is approaching. The only question is whether it will occur this time around or the next. 


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.