Today in Feminist History: “Votes for Women” Referenda Aims for Ambitious Success (October 18, 1915)

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 18, 1915: The most ambitious campaign ever attempted by the woman suffrage movement is coming to a close in the first of the four States that will approve or reject “Votes for Women” referenda over the next 15 days.

Some of our volunteers putting up signs in Asbury Park earlier this year advertising Reverend Anna Howard Shaw’s speech to a meeting of the New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association at the Long Branch Casino on August 26th.

Tomorrow the male voters of New Jersey will decide whether months of intense work was persuasive enough, and if their State will become the first one East of the Mississippi in which women will have equal suffrage, or whether they will deal a major setback to our movement just when it needs a boost to help with three other referenda coming up on November second.

Today’s activities started off early, with Mildred Taylor and her “Victory Van” parked at Military Square in Newark at 6 a.m. The speeches then began, accompanied by large amounts of literature being distributed on New Jersey’s busiest corner, and this will continue right up until the opening of the polls tomorrow. “Dawn and daybreak will find us on the firing line. After the polls open, our case will be in the hands of the men of New Jersey, and I think they will give us a square deal,” said Taylor.

In addition to the usual arguments about the basic justice of equal suffrage, she added one more, which seemed to sway the men in the crowd better than most:

“I’ll tell you another reason why you men in the East ought to vote for woman suffrage. With representation in the Republican National Convention based on the vote for Congressmen, the great Eastern States of New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania would have twice the say they now have in the nomination of a President if they give women the ballot.”

Taylor was definitely not alone in her efforts, as nearly 400 speakers addressed crowds around the State today. The final day’s effort saw about 100,000 leaflets distributed in and around factories to counteract an anti-suffrage flyer implying that woman suffrage in Colorado was a failure from labor’s point of view.

Though there was campaigning throughout the State today, six counties will pretty much determine the result, so most of the effort is being concentrated there. Essex County is conceded to the “antis” due to the vigorous opposition of the local political boss, James R. Nugent, though every vote will still be fought for.

But there’s optimism in Passaic County: “There will be a big vote tomorrow, and both Paterson and Passaic County will give a large majority for the suffrage amendment,” according to Dr. Mary Cummins, president of the Paterson branch of the Women’s Political Union. Hudson County is too close to predict. In Union County, there’s hope for a slight majority if there’s a large turnout, but if there isn’t, the referendum could fail by a 3 to 2 margin. In Bergen and Camden Counties, both sides are confident of victory, though political leaders say it’s going to be close.

Suffrage and anti-suffrage groups are both expecting a big win, according to the latest statements by each side. Many on our side are of the opinion that President Wilson’s recent announcement that he will vote for the suffrage referendum here in his home State has begun a shift that will result in victory. Mrs. E.F. Feickert, president of the New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association, said:

“We will carry New Jersey by a 25,000 majority. Of this majority 15,000 will come from the populous Northern counties and 10,000 from the rural counties in Southern New Jersey. These figures are based on our canvass of voters throughout the State, on the friendly spirit shown by the street crowds everywhere, and on the fact that there is practically no opposition to woman suffrage, except from James R. Nugent of Essex County and his followers and a few organized business men, the nature of whose business makes them afraid of women’s votes.”

Anti-suffragists are equally confident: “Woman suffrage will be defeated in New Jersey by a large majority. We base our confidence in the outcome of substantial data,” said Mrs. Edward Yard Breese of the New Jersey Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage.

The group’s campaign manager, Clara Vezin, said: “I predict victory for the anti-suffragists when the question is put to the voters tomorrow.”

Suffrage supporters are taking no chances on a loss due to voter fraud, and will have five thousand poll-watchers ready for duty tomorrow morning. The ballots in this special election will not be numbered, so extra care will be taken to be sure that only valid votes are cast. In addition to the many women who will volunteer for duty tomorrow, and the nearly 400 regular campaign workers who will switch from literature distribution and speaking to poll-watching at that time, there will also be poll-watchers supplied by the Men’s Woman Suffrage Committee of One Hundred, headed by Everett Colby. A reward of $100 was offered by the committee tonight to anyone who can prove voter fraud, should it occur.

It’s probably a good thing that there is so much work to do today. It doesn’t leave anyone with much free time to worry about tomorrow’s outcome. This is not just about one State, important as New Jersey is. It’s also about who will have momentum going into the November second referenda in New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

This has been an all-out, well-run campaign, so regardless of the outcome, no one will be expressing regrets that they should have done more. Now it’s time to finish up last-minute efforts, then see how the first part of this four-act drama turns out when the polls close at 7 p.m. tomorrow, all the speculation ends, and the (male) voters of New Jersey actually speak for themselves.


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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.