Today in Feminist History: Loss in Jersey is “Not a Defeat” as Suffragists Look Ahead and Spirits Remain High! (October 19, 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 19, 1915: One hundred and eight years after women in New Jersey lost the vote, and forty-eight years after the New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association resolved to win it back, there are assurances late tonight that the struggle will go on despite today’s defeat of the suffrage referendum.

Political bosses, fearful that women voters might try to clean up politics, and liquor lobbyists worried about woman suffrage bringing about prohibition, congratulate themselves on having run a successful behind the scenes “machine” campaign in New Jersey while anti-suffrage groups carried on the public propaganda campaign by claiming that woman suffrage would be harmful to home, marriage and family. The caption is: “Well, boys, we saved the home.”

Local suffragists are already planning to get a bill introduced into the State Legislature to give New Jersey women Presidential suffrage, so that like the women in Illinois, they can at least vote for President a little over a year from now.

On a national level, our forces will also be working hard for the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, which if passed by two-thirds of Congress and three-fourths of the states, would ban sex discrimination at the polls nationwide. National suffrage groups are spending very little time looking back on today’s results, because they’re too busy shifting efforts to New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, where suffrage referenda will be voted on two weeks from now.

Reverend Anna Howard Shaw, who has been president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association since 1904, took a long-term view once the grim outcome of the special election became clear:

“We have not lost New Jersey because it has never been ours; we cannot lose; we can only win. The failure to carry the election in New Jersey is not a defeat. It is simply a postponement, and instead of despairing of final success will only inspire the true lovers of freedom to more perfect cooperation and greater zeal. This delay is still a victory for suffrage, for this splendid campaign has proved woman’s loyalty to a great purpose and her indomitable courage in the face of great odds and unscrupulous foes and methods. The sun will rise tomorrow on a reorganized army undaunted and hopeful, whose flag will never be furled until women are politically free. It is now for the men in New York to show themselves more worthy of their freedom and to show their gratitude to the women who have helped to make this great State by their vote on November second, and let it be victory.”

Gertrude Foster Brown, president of the New York State Woman Suffrage Association, went into more detail about what defeated the suffrage referendum:

“It is impossible to fight successfully against a political machine as powerful and as ruthless as that in New Jersey, with its open corruption, its methods of registration and its unnumbered ballots.”

But like Dr. Shaw, Brown didn’t think the defeat here will be repeated:

“I don’t think that the result in New Jersey will affect New York at all. We never expected New Jersey to win, because the State was bound up with machine politics. The chances in New York are splendid. I really think we are going to win. This New Jersey defeat will not do any harm. It may make women in New York State work a little harder.”

Mary Garrett Hay, head of the Woman Suffrage Party of New York, said: “It merely shows that the New Jersey men have not been educated enough to be sensible and give their women the vote.” She also put part of the blame on political corruption and said:

“If the women had had a fair vote it would have been wonderful. This was their first big fight in the East, and, of course, they will go at it again.”

In New Jersey itself, ambition and optimism have not deserted suffrage leaders, even if about six out of ten voting men in the State have done so. According to Lillian Feickert, president of the New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association:

“We shall start in tomorrow on a new suffrage campaign. It is not our intention to work for the next five years to take our cause to the voters, but to get Presidential suffrage at the next session of the legislature …. With the strong organizations which we have and the many thousands of voters who have taken their stand on our side, there is no question that such a bill will pass at the next session. Our next demand will be for full suffrage by Federal Constitutional amendment.”

Our opponents are understandably jubilant, even to the point of overconfidence. According to Mrs. Edward Yarde Breese of the New Jersey Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage:

“The election in every way justifies our position. We hope that the result will put an end to the activities of the suffragists.” She sees woman suffrage as a phenomenon of the West that will never make headway in the East: “In the Eastern States the conditions are so different from what they are in the West that I doubt if there ever will come a time when the women will have a vote or that the majority will want it.”

She then went on to thank the New York Times specifically for “what it has done on our behalf” through its coverage, presumably including its numerous editorials strongly opposing woman suffrage.

Though the opposition’s forecast of a big victory proved accurate in regard to today’s suffrage referendum, any predictions that suffragists will give up, or that equal suffrage will forever be kept West of the Mississippi River should quickly and clearly be proven false. Three more populous Eastern States will vote just two weeks from today, and suffrage groups, from the National American Woman Suffrage Association to Alice Paul’s militant Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, are growing in numbers and political sophistication, as are women voters.

Seven of the eleven States in which women have full suffrage were won in just the past five years, with Illinois women winning the right to vote for President, and municipal (but not Statewide) offices as well. Last year, though well short of the two-thirds required, the Anthony Amendment got a 35-34 (50.7 percent) majority of Senate votes cast, with 27 absent or not voting. On January 12th of this year, the Anthony Amendment received 174 of 378 votes (46 percent) cast in the House, 57 members not voting. Next year an attempt will be made to get the Republicans and Democrats to follow the lead of the Progressive (“Bull Moose”) Party and formally endorse woman suffrage at their national conventions.

So, though the New Jersey vote is extremely disappointing, it’s not debilitating, and we can now fully focus on winning the upcoming referenda in New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts!


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.