Today in Feminist History: Striking “Male” from the New York Constitution (March 9, 1910)

March 9, 1910: Clear proof of a reinvigorated suffrage movement was evident in Albany today at the New York State Senate and Assembly Committees’ joint hearings on changing the State Constitution in order to enfranchise women.

PHOTO: Mary Garrett Hay, leader of the pro-suffrage forces in Albany today.

Today’s unprecedented turnout encouraged all who support woman suffrage to believe that the goal of striking the word “male” from the Empire State’s constitution, which grants voting rights to “every male citizen of the age of 21 years” is within reach.

The feeling of optimism was encouraged by Assembly Member Toombs, who said that there is much more support for suffrage in the State Legislature this year than ever before, and a glance around the room offered ample proof that interest among the public was at a peak as well. The hearing room was so packed today that many speakers were unable to move, and had to deliver their arguments from wherever they happened to wind up standing or sitting.

Committee members had reserved seats, of course, but were surrounded by those on both sides of the issue who had come here from all around the State. Many suffrage advocates arrived here on a special train this morning, but others have been lobbying for several days.

Mary Garrett Hay was the leader of the 130 suffragists present, and Mrs. George Phillips the 115 anti-suffragists. Those in support of suffrage could easily be distinguished by big yellow “Votes for Women” buttons.

The “antis” stated their case first, and in their usual manner presented themselves as protectors of women, home, and society. According to Mrs. Francis M. Scott:

“Were we so presumptuous as to think we could take up men’s work, we should have to take it up in addition to our own, and while the legislature might make us voters, it could not make you men mothers.”

Her observation brought forth the desired laugh from all present. But then she solemnly warned:

“Women, if they become voters, will succumb to the nerve-racking brain strain and it will have decidedly bad effects. The birth rate has been lowered in those countries where the restlessness of women has taken the most acute form. We whose unique responsibility is to furnish the State with citizens have a right to demand protection from those dangers which threaten to atrophy the mother instinct.”

After numerous other speeches along the same lines, it was finally our side’s turn. Attorney Samuel Untermeyer noted that:

“Women are eligible with men for the electric chair, the prison and the tax roll. It seems intolerable that they should be ineligible for the ballot, the jury box, and to have their part in framing the laws under which they are required to live.” 

Untermeyer then went on to refute the myth that women have equal rights now, using the plight of wives as one example. In divorces, he said: “The almost barbarous inadequacy of the allowances made by the court in such cases are a recognized evil in our profession.”

Even widows are afflicted by the present statutes, as ” … the law seems to proceed on the utterly intolerable and indefensible theory that the wife has no interest in the property accumulated during the marriage,” and that “the law does not give to the wife as any right any part of her husband’s estate in case of his death unless he happens to own land. He can leave her penniless if he sees fit.”

Anna Etz spoke for many when she said women are tired of having to use indirect influence on the political system, and Carrie Chapman Catt appealed to the legislators not to let New York State be left behind in the rush to democracy around the world. One-fifteenth of the world’s land area now has woman suffrage and the gains over the past decade have been more substantial than those in the previous five, she noted.

Whether this is the year New York will join the States of Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho and Utah, and the nations of New Zealand, Australia and Finland in assuring that women can vote on the same basis as men is uncertain. That our speakers stated the case for suffrage well today, and are determined to continue doing so for as long as may be necessary to achieve the goal of equal suffrage is in absolutely no doubt tonight.


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.