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.
October 16, 1915: The campaign to pass the New Jersey suffrage referendum three days from now is finishing up in grand style with William Jennings Bryan, Senator William Borah and Rabbi Stephen S.
Wise having given stirring speeches tonight in Paterson and Newark. According to three-time Democratic Presidential nominee Bryan:
“The burden of proof is on the opponents of woman suffrage. The most convincing argument in favor of it is that a mother has the right to a voice in determining the environment that should surround her children.”
He also noted that the character of the opposition should be sufficient to convince anyone to vote pro-suffrage.
Senator Borah, Republican of Idaho, where women have been eligible to vote since 1896, said that though he couldn’t claim that women having the vote would eliminate all political evils or injustices, he did think that women voters would find and correct many wrongs that men have not.
Rabbi Wise looked forward to a more peaceful world after equal suffrage, because:
“‘Military preparedness’ means war, and there will never be a beginning of an end of war until women vote.”
He then predicted that if suffrage was successful in New Jersey, it would also win in New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts on November 2.
If the referendum does win in New Jersey, it will be after an uphill fight, because woman suffrage has very powerful opponents. But Mina Van Winkle, head of the Women’s Political Union of New Jersey is confident:
“We have made a good fight and we think an effective one. If we have an honest election and an honest count of the vote, and if underground influences that we are not in a position to meet do not get in their work on Tuesday, we should win.”
Mrs. E.F. Feickert, President of the New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association, not only predicted that suffrage would win, but that it would do so by a many as 25,000 votes:
“This forecast is based on a house-to-house canvass, which has covered the entire State and which comprises both urban and rural localities. In the cities we have found an average of seven men who are for us to one against us and three who tell us they have not decided how to vote. In the country districts we find eight men with us to one against us and three who have not made up their minds on the subject.”
But Mrs. Edward Yarde Breese, President of the New Jersey Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, is confident of carrying 13 of the State’s 21 counties. Three of the bigger ones would actually be enough to doom the measure if carried by substantial majorities, and anti-suffragists are predicting a majority of 10,000 in both Essex and Hudson Counties, and 7,500 in Camden County.
Our opponents have taken surveys as well, and according to Breese, opposition to suffrage is especially strong in rural areas. In one community, the “antis” claim that 96 percent of those surveyed said they were against the suffrage referendum. Both sides agree that Essex County will reject the measure due to the influence of local political boss James R. Nugent. Hudson and Camden Counties are still hotly contested, however.
The head of the Hudson County Democratic Committee was unwilling to give a forecast, but according to Samuel T. French, leader of the Camden County Democratic Committee:
“Woman suffrage in Camden County is gaining rapidly; the President’s declaration favoring it has given the movement new life. The Democratic Executive Committee is on record favoring it, and the vote will be a surprising one for the opponents next Tuesday. The people here are just learning that the liquor interests are fighting it harder than any other power, and had we another month it would carry in Camden County. I hardly expect it to carry in this county but the majority will be small.”
It’s definitely a huge gamble to try to win so many States all at once, and to depart from our traditional strategy of undertaking a campaign in a State that borders on a State where women already vote. But though multiple defeats would be a major setback, the payoff could be unprecedented, and is therefore worth the risk.
A victory in any of the four targeted States would mean that fully equal suffrage for women would spread east of the Mississippi River for the first time since the battle for the ballot was launched. Even more importantly, having four suffrage States with large Congressional delegations—New York and Pennsylvania having the largest and second largest—would certainly increase support for the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, since members of Congress in equal suffrage States would have to face women voters in all future elections. If the Anthony Amendment is approved by two-thirds of the House and Senate, then ratified by 36 of the 48 States, sex discrimination at the polls would be banned nationwide. So no effort will be spared between now and the 19th to set that train of events in motion with a favorable vote in New Jersey three days from now.