Today in Feminist History: The Fight Over a “Vote for Women” Booth (March 15, 1912)

March 15, 1912: Suffragists in both New York City and Philadelphia let it be known today that they are not to be trifled with.

PHOTO: Reverend Anna Howard Shaw, President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association since 1904.

The first example of this policy occurred at the Woman’s Industrial Exhibition in the new Grand Central Palace in Manhattan, where the New York State Woman Suffrage Association battled for booth space.

Yesterday afternoon about 3:00, Emma Ivins noticed that nowhere among all the exhibitions at the Palace was there a booth devoted to woman suffrage—so she decided to remedy that obvious oversight.

She quickly signed a contract, went to pick up a plentiful supply of literature, banners and signs and by 6:00 the “Votes for Women” booth was doing a brisk business.

But not for long.

This morning, Frances Lang was just setting up when workers came in, returned Ivins’ check, began taking down the booth’s signs and told Lang that she could no longer distribute literature. This incensed her, as well as many of the women in nearby booths.

Mary Dreier, president of the Women’s Trade Union League, who was in the Woman’s Insurance Company booth, then asked for some suffrage banners, while a number of other women put on yellow “Votes for Women” sashes and marched around the auditorium. This irritated exhibition officials, who had the guards tell the women to either remove their sashes or return to the suffrage booth. They did neither, and simply turned their sashes into ties.

Josephine Dodge—noted anti-suffrage leader and a vice president of the exhibition—confronted the now-unauthorized suffrage booth staffers, accusing them of getting in under false names, which was not the case.

This only escalated the conflict, as women in other booths now defiantly pledged that if the suffragists were ejected, they would leave, too. The entire stock of yellow sashes quickly disappeared from the suffrage booth and was soon prominently displayed on women all over the hall.

But just as tensions were peaking, there was a stunning turnaround by exhibition authorities: The New York State Woman Suffrage Association had gotten a judge to issue an injunction prohibiting the exhibition from ousting the group.

Not long after, just as reporters were beginning to sense that the battle was becoming a newsworthy event, the management quickly reassured everyone that this had all been a “misunderstanding” due to an initial ruling by the board that the show would be “nonpolitical.” Workers then returned to the suffrage booth, this time carefully putting up the banners and signs they had taken down just hours before.

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia today, Reverend Anna Howard Shaw—president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association—repeated a call she made last night to an audience at the New Century Club, that the time has come for greater militance. She said that her remarks were not made in the heat of the moment, and she is willing to stand by her speech on “Militant Suffrage In America.”

Reverend Shaw is displeased with the way she and other suffrage advocates have been treated in Washington, D.C., with the day before yesterday’s hearings on the Susan B. Anthony woman suffrage amendment only the most recent example of the attitudes she finds insulting. She justified more assertive tactics by saying: 

“If we are played with, made fun of, just tolerated, greeted with supercilious smiles by members of Congressional committees, there is nothing for us to do but resort to militant methods. We hope we will not be driven to measures as severe as those used in England, but if it does come, the daughters of the old English sires will be ready to suffer here as women are suffering in England.”

Speaking of English militants, hunger strikers Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst were released from Holloway Jail in London yesterday due to their deteriorating physical condition. Other militants used hammers to smash windows in the Home Secretary’s residence, breaking every pane of glass on the ground floor. All were arrested, quickly convicted and sentenced to two months’ imprisonment at hard labor. 

Calculating the exact degree of militance that will produce maximum results in America is no easy task, but a variety of strategies, both conventional and more aggressive, will probably be needed to achieve our goal of banning sex discrimination at polling places nationwide. Reverend Shaw’s endorsement of more assertive tactics is therefore likely to be a helpful development, and Americans such as Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, who already have some personal experience with the suffrage struggle in England, could be quite useful in implementing a potential change in tactics.


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.