Today in Feminist History: Inside the Suffragists’ Meeting with New York Governor-Elect Sulzer

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.

December 31, 1912: Their goal has now been fully accomplished!

Three days after finishing a 13-day hike from the Bronx to Albany in support of woman suffrage, one more crucial task still remained for General Jones and her suffrage army when today began. They needed to deliver a message from prominent New York suffragists to Governor-elect Sulzer, asking him to explicitly pledge his support for “The Cause” in general and a Statewide suffrage referendum in particular.

The General’s strategy for getting such a commitment worked perfectly. Phase One was to do something so spectacular that the Governor-elect would be interested in meeting with her and some other suffragists. A first-of-its-kind suffrage hike, often in atrocious weather, with the participants accompanied by a large contingent of “war correspondents” writing daily stories for their newspapers clearly fulfilled that part of the plan.

PHOTO: General Rosalie Jones

Once in Albany, it was on to Phase Two. From the moment Sulzer’s train arrived today, he was under constant surveillance by Jones’ troops, his whereabouts at all times quickly and accurately relayed to the Commander-in-Chief. An hour after stepping off the train, he was reported to be meeting with outgoing Governor Dix at the Executive Mansion. So General Jones, Colonel Craft, Surgeon-General Dock, Captain & Chief Orator Jessie Hardy Stubbs, General’s Aide Coursen, Corporal Stiles and Privates Clark, Wilbur and McCullough marched across the mansion’s lawn.

Gladys Coursen went forward to ring the doorbell, and the Governor-elect’s aide answered. He quickly went to get his boss, who was quite eager to meet with the little band of hikers he’d been reading so much about. He gave them a warm reception, then they delivered their message, which was finally removed from the black oilskin bag that had protected it from the snow, ice, mud and rain they had encountered on their journey.

It read:

The suffrage hosts of the Empire State send greetings and renewed congratulations to Governor William L. Sulzer, and express the earnest hope that his administration may be distinguished by the speedy passage of the woman’s suffrage amendment. (Signed) Harriet May Mills, Nora Blatch De Forest, Katherine Ely Tiffany, James L. Laidlaw, Mary Garrett Hay; Co-operative Committee, December 12, 1912.

The Governor-elect even gave the hikers the friendly courtesy of joking with them, at first indicating that the message had been delivered to the wrong person, because it was delivered to “William L.” Sulzer, and he was “Just Plain Bill” Sulzer.

But by whatever name, the man who tomorrow will become Governor of the nation’s most populous State told the troops just what they had marched 160 miles to hear:

All my life I have believed in the right of women to have a franchise as a matter of political justice. In the future as in the past I will do all that I can to advance the political rights of women. I have incorporated in my message to the Legislature the advice that the suffrage amendment be adopted. I also hope it will be adopted by the people.

Having pledged to do whatever he could to get the State Legislature to put a woman suffrage referendum on the ballot amending the State Constitution to eliminate the word “male” as a qualification for voting, and then to support the amendment’s passage by the Empire State’s (male) voters, nothing more could be asked of “Just Plain Bill,” so the troops bid him a fond farewell. Afterward, he said: “I enjoyed their visit very much. I received them with open arms, took them into my heart and sent them away a happy lot.”

A “happy lot” they are tonight, out of their marching clothes, and wearing something appropriate to their attendance at the Governor’s Inaugural Ball. But they’re certainly not ready to retire from the battle, which still rages because women in 39 of the 48 States lack the same voting rights as men. An active effort in support of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, which if passed by 2/3 of both House and Senate and ratified by 3/4 of the States would ban voting discrimination based on sex nationwide, is also underway. 

Already there is talk among the veterans that there should be a new hike, this one from New York City to Washington, D.C., to deliver a pro-suffrage message to President Wilson just prior to his inauguration on March 4th. If such a march is begun, there is no doubt that it will be completed, and generate even more support and publicity for “Votes for Women” than did this first hike!


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.