Today in Feminist History: New York State’s Suffrage Stakes (May 31, 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 31, 1894: A wonderfully large and enthusiastic turnout tonight at the State Assembly Chamber in Albany to urge that a woman suffrage referendum be part of a package of State Constitutional reforms the New York State Legislature will be submitting to the voters on November 6th.

PHOTO: Dr. Mary Putnam Jacoby

Dr. Mary Putnam Jacoby tackled several issues, among them suffrage and military service, reminding the Constitutional Convention Suffrage Committee members:

“Capacity to bear arms and fulfillment of military duty are not in the State of New York reckoned among the necessary qualifications of voters. Nor, indeed, is such capacity ever enough to confer a share in the sovereignty. We do not admit that exemption from military duty is a concession of courtesy for which women should be so grateful as to refrain from asking for anything else. The military functions performed by men, and so often perverted to the most atrocious uses, have never been more than the equivalent for the function of child-bearing imposed by nature upon women. It is not fanciful or sentimental, it is an exact and just equivalent.”

Dr. Jacoby then noted that women are already fulfilling one major obligation of citizenship by paying taxes, and therefore ought to have the right to select those who impose this burden. Women in New York State own $500 million in property in their own names, and even in Rochester the figure is $29 million, while in Brooklyn it is $103 million.

Lillie Devereux Blake informed the Committee that the suffrage movement has grown to something that cannot be ignored:

“No longer is it possible to say that women as a sex do not wish the vote. The falsehood of that statement is forever disproved by the wonderful uprising of women throughout the State. They are coming here by the hundreds from the mountains, the valleys, the great cities, to ask their freedom, and those unable to come have sent their names by the thousands.

“Now, is this great uprising a mere fad or fancy, a light breath that will die away like the fitful gust of a summer breeze ? No; it is a grand movement, a rushing, mighty wind, the wind of destiny, of fate, the voice of the Lord God Almighty. It can no more be stopped or turned backward than the stars in their courses, for its resistless progress is impelled by a force beyond any human control, the force that lies in the certain ultimate triumph of justice and liberty.”

Harriette Keyser, the final speaker, denounced the attempts of our opponents to enlist women who work outside the home in the anti-suffrage cause, calling it “a stain upon the pages of history.” She then noted that suffragists had the endorsements of labor organizations representing 100,000 men who work side by side with women, and that 111,396 of the 399,343 signatures on the suffrage petitions brought here were from those affiliated with labor organizations.

After such a logical and powerful presentation, it’s hard to see how a suffrage amendment could not be included among the constitutional reforms to voted upon in November. 

Presently women vote on the same basis as men in only Wyoming and Colorado, though women voted in Utah Territory from 1870 until 1887, when Congress took that right away from them as part of the Edmunds-Tucker (anti-polygamy) Act. 

If the Constitutional Convention chooses to include a suffrage measure on the ballot, New York’s male voters could give the suffrage movement its biggest victory ever by enfranchising women in the nation’s most populous State. Such a win would certainly boost the chances of Congress passing the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, first introduced in 1878, which if then ratified by 33 of the 44 States, would ban sex discrimination at the polls nationwide. 

But even just a win in New York State would give Susan B. Anthony—in the audience tonight—a chance to finally cast a ballot without being arrested, as she was in Rochester in 1872. So let’s all work to give her a chance to return to her local polling place in triumph, and cast a fully legal ballot in the 1896 Presidential election!


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.