Today in Feminist History: Suffragists Enter Hostile Territory (May 13, 1909)

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.

May 13, 1909: Clearly not reluctant to venture into hostile territory in search of converts, Edith Bailey, Harriot Stanton Blatch, and several other suffragists just held a rally near the church of militant anti-suffragist Reverend Charles Henry Parkhurst on Manhattan’s Madison Square. 

PHOTO: Edith Bailey

At 12:30, a big red automobile carrying the speakers drove up, was turned into a rostrum immediately after being parked, then after a large yellow “Votes for Women” banner was unfurled, the rally began. The speakers, all prominent members of the Equal Franchise League, were there strictly as individuals. But though this was not an officially sanctioned rally, the arguments in favor of our cause were as effective as those at any well-planned, fully-authorized meeting. 

Blatch first explained why the open-air forum was chosen: “You men are so shy that you will not come to a hall to hear us speak, and we must come to you.” She then expounded on one of every suffrage speaker’s pet peeves—the question of why they aren’t at home taking care of their children:

“You never think to ask the actress who amuses you why she doesn’t stay at home and mind the kids, or the factory girl who makes your hats, why she doesn’t. You do not ask either if the woman speaker may not be a grandmother, as I am, whose kids have all left her, or if she may be an unmarried woman.”

At the end of her remarks, Blatch introduced Edith Bailey, noting that she “has kids to mind, but who is a better mother for having something outside her four walls to think of.” Bailey, author of a suffrage tract entitled “Some Ideals of Suffrage,” which was being distributed to the crowd by poet Rosalie Jones, said that women who are suffragists were simply housekeepers who “do not want to confine our housekeeping to our own homes. We feel that there is housekeeping for us in the streets, in the prisons, and on our school boards. There are old and young bachelors on the school boards, and there ought to be a mother or two.” 

Bailey noted that “it used to be considered unwomanly for women to get equal pay with men,” indicating that some progress has been made in at least being able to ask for equality in salaries, as local teachers have done. However, she thinks there are still too many men like Secretary of State Elihu Root who believe “women should be protected by their husbands and brothers,” but who fail to provide them with either. “Women must have the right to take care of themselves, and then there will always be some one out to see that they are protected.” 

Josephine Casey, a factory worker, challenged the double standard which presumes that women, but not men, need to justify leaving the home and/or voting:

“I protest against giving reasons for wanting to vote. If you were going out of your house you would not have anyone stop you and say, ‘Are you going shopping, or are you going to a matinee ? Why are you going out ?’ I leave the house because I wish to, and that is the reason for my asking for the vote.”

There were definite indications that the arguments presented today were effective. Near the end of the rally, Harriot Stanton Blatch said: “A good way for you to show that you believe in ‘Votes for Women’ is to give something to the cause.” Immediately two men volunteered their hats to be passed around, and funds were successfully collected from the crowd. Blatch then asked: “Is there any reason why women should not vote ?” and the men surrounding the four-wheeled speakers’ platform enthusiastically shouted, “No ! No !”

The day’s final encouragement was given by a working man, just coming down the street as the meeting ended. After asking what the gathering was about, he was told that it was put on by women who wanted to vote. He then replied: “Well, I don’t know why they shouldn’t.” 

The speakers departed as quickly as they came, and are now on their way to lunch at the Colony Club, where they will celebrate today’s success, and plan similar actions for the future.


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.