Today in Feminist History: Is Pro-Suffrage Sentiment Growing in New York?

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 31, 1915: Despite being a Sunday, this was no day of rest for any New York suffragist.

With Election Day coming up on Tuesday, the offices of the Woman Suffrage Party, Empire State Campaign Committee and Women’s Political Union were open early and crowded at all times. Even the WPU’s tiny but mobile “Suffrage Shop” somehow managed to host a total of about 1,000 people at various times during the day, while the final poll-watching class was going on back at its headquarters. Our opponents will not have poll-watchers, because they do not believe women are “fitted or qualified” for such work. 

At the office of the Woman Suffrage Party there was clearly a good deal of activity going on, but exactly what’s being planned is a secret, with no one willing to discuss this latest project. “Be silent—the enemy listens” was the word there today, and many regular volunteers were nowhere to be seen, but are said to be busily working at some undisclosed location.

The battle of statistics continues—with Carrie Chapman Catt, head of the Empire State Campaign Committee, defending her claim that 1,000,000 of New York State’s women want suffrage, while Alice Hill Chittenden and Josephine Dodge of the New York State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage say that only 10 percent of the State’s women want the vote.

According to Catt: “We have made no ‘wild guess,’ we have ‘framed up’ no false statement. We canvassed. We found our million women.” Catt’s organization has gone to a great deal of trouble to gather these statistics. Many communities have been canvassed house to house, and the Committee has maintained booths at 98 county fairs, the State Fair and numerous expositions. 

Catt also noted that the “antis” have not changed their 10 percent estimate in 10 years despite the phenomenal growth of suffrage sentiment in that time, as shown by the addition of seven states to the full-suffrage column in just the past five years.

Suffrage parades didn’t even exist a decade ago, but the one on October 23rd was considered by even the New York Times, the most vehemently anti-suffrage newspaper in the city, to have been a stunning and massive spectacle. Even that turnout was not a complete reflection of suffrage sentiment, because according to Catt: “Thousands of women did not possess the physical strength to stand waiting for hours and then walk two and a half miles. Many were obliged to work Saturday afternoon, and thousands more to remain home with their children.”

Carnegie Hall continues to be a focal point of the New York campaign, as the anti-suffrage rhetoric of last night was replaced by equally strong oratory in favor of suffrage this evening. “The cause of equal suffrage is one additional symbol of the history of a great movement of the awakening, the revolt, the uprising of women against centuries of wrong and injustice,” Rabbi Stephen S. Wise said, “for repression and suppression are wrong and injustice.”

Rabbi Wise also spoke to the issue of the current European war: “I do not say that wars will end when women have the vote, but I will essay the role of the prophet in this one instance and say that there is not going to be an end to war before the women have the vote.”

He then went on to take his most radical stand yet, supporting a kind of “pregnancy boycott” by women if men continue to deny them the ballot. “I can conceive that the time will come when women will say, ‘Either give us a share in the government or else we will no longer be mothers. We will not give life to a child and a child to life; we will not bear sons unless we can assure ourselves that they will be permitted to live.'”

He then addressed another anti-suffrage argument: “In the face of this great calamity of war, how can men say that government could be made worse by the participation of women?”

Enthusiasm for our cause has become so great that the police had to order a suffrage rally to quiet down because the singing of “America” was disturbing a church service being held by anti-suffragist Dr. Charles Parkhurst in the Madison Square Presbyterian Church. Once the service was over, the singing resumed. 

Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, Margaret Foley addressed an audience of 2,000 in Worcester’s Mechanics Hall this evening. She admitted that this was an uphill struggle. She said that political bosses in her own city of Boston were “busy getting men out of jail so they will have their vote,” and U.S. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and other powerful “Old Guard” politicians are openly working with the “antis.” She closed by saying: “We are not asking for any privileges. We are simply asking for justice. No more, no less.” 

One side of a pro-suffrage card being used to sway Massachusetts voters.

Foley said that though all wrongs would not be righted if women won the vote, “the men must trust us; with their assistance we will win by the largest majority given woman suffrage by any State in the Union.” In Springfield, Beatrice Forbes-Robertson Hale addressed an audience of 1,000 on the subject of “Women and Democracy.”

Registration figures in all three states with suffrage referenda on the ballot are unusually high, so interest in the election is great. That’s as it should be for such a momentous event, because nearly six million new voters could be added to the rolls if all the referenda pass. The number of women over the age of 21 in New York State is estimated at 2,757,521; in Pennsylvania there are 2,114,008 and in Massachusetts it’s 1,074,485, for a total of 5,946,014.

Though suffrage organizations are expressing optimism, political leaders in each State are predicting defeat, so there are contingency plans. In Massachusetts, the 1915 campaign will immediately shift to a 1916 campaign if necessary. It may take longer to get back on the ballot in New York because of the cumbersome procedure involved, so suffrage in 1917 would be the new goal. In Pennsylvania, the State Constitution requires that a failed amendment must wait 5 years before being re-submitted to the voters, so our forces there might try to get the State Legislature to enact “Presidential Suffrage,” so that Pennsylvania women could at least vote for President, even if for no other offices.

But at the moment, all efforts are concentrated on this year and the hope that no further campaigning will be needed in any of these three States. 

About

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.