Today in Feminist History: Youth Pick Up Battle for Ballot (May 15, 1894)

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 15, 1894: The woman suffrage movement’s youngest supporters may be among its most thoughtful and articulate if those who spoke earlier this afternoon at the Brooklyn Woman Suffrage Association’s headquarters are any example.

School-age suffragists came up with some devastatingly logical responses to many of the most common arguments the “anti’s” have used in their literature, letters to the editor, speeches and debates. 

Edith Merzbach first took aim at the myth that women would somehow lose their femininity at the polls:

“Why is it when boys and girls go to the same schools, men and women go to the same churches, and sit in the same pew, go to concerts and lectures together, that once a year, if they should meet at the voting place, the women would suddenly be unsexed?”

Merzbach turned another “anti” argument about women voters neglecting their families against those who created it:

“While the anti-suffragists are gathering in convention to oppose this advance step, what is becoming of their husbands’ suppers? While they are carrying the protest from house to house, who is rocking their cradles at home? They devote more time to shopping in one season than would be required for voting in two years. Are not their homes being neglected then?”

Mildred Leyd was eager to personally refute the assertion that only a few older women wanted the ballot, or to sign a petition asking for a suffrage referendum in New York State.

She said:

“Those who made that statement hadn’t yet heard from us. We so long to sign the petition that we would fain reverse the sentiment of the poem and exclaim ‘Forward turn forward, O time in thy flight, and make me twenty-one just for tonight.'”

She then went on to lampoon the “logic” of some basic anti-suffrage arguments.

Especially effective was juxtaposing two of the most common ones:

  • “If suffrage were granted, women would not take sufficient interest to vote, for she does not want it,” and
  • “If granted she’d take so much interest she’d neglect the home.”

Leyd gave an example of a brother and sister who went to the same school, where the sister took all the prizes.

And yet, years later, the boy “is perfectly willing to legislate for all his sisters and his mother besides.”

Even the veteran suffragists in the audience were quite impressed by the students’ rhetorical skills, and all here today were cheered by the thought that the battle for the ballot—begun when some of the students’ grandmothers would have been about the same age as today’s orators—will be carried on by this new generation with great vigor and eloquence.


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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.