Today in Feminist History: A New and More Assertive Phase (December 31, 1907)

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.


December 31, 1907: The end of this old year saw the beginning of a new and more assertive phase for the suffrage movement.

Maud Malone speaking at today’s meeting.

Today, for the first time, American suffragists held an open-air meeting, and spoke to a street-corner crowd, composed mostly of men who just happened to be passing by, instead of speaking only to supporters in homes and private meeting halls. Despite warnings from more established and conservative advocates that such a breach of propriety by these “American Suffragettes” could harm our cause, the event was so well-attended, and got such a good response, that it will now be done on a weekly basis.

The meeting was held in front of the Metropolitan Life Building on Madison Square, in Manhattan. Six speakers braved the cold and wind, arriving about 3:00, only to find that the small platform upon which they were to stand was nowhere in sight. But over the many decades of this struggle, suffragists have learned to improvise, so they found something about the right size at a nearby construction site, and under a banner which proclaimed “Stop” and “Danger” instead of “Votes for Women,” the first speaker got up and began educating the general public about why women should have the right to vote.

The first to speak was Bettina Borrman Wells, who is visiting the U.S., trying to get American suffragists to adopt the more militant style of British “suffragettes.” She said to the somewhat bemused crowd: “If any of you wonder why we are here today, it is to agitate for the cause of woman suffrage. Your smiles show that you don’t know the importance of the question – you don’t know the importance of the ballot.” (“Yes we do!” shouted some of her listeners.)

“You have made woman believe that politics is something she cannot understand. We can understand it quite easily, and we are determined to have a hand in the legislation. The education of your children, the health in your homes – everything depends upon legislation. I was told when I came here that this was the freest country in the world, but it is not so, for the women here have not as much freedom as we have in England, and we come to you to appeal to you to stand by the women as the men of England have stood by their women. You did not get the vote because you were men, but because you were taxpayers. We women are tired of paying the Legislature in which we have no say. We are going to make a vigorous struggle, and this is our first effort.

“There are 5,000,000 women workers in America. If you want to place them all in good homes they will be glad to stay in them,” she said, noting how many women must support themselves and their families and anticipating one standard argument about woman’s place being in the home, not the polling place.

She then asked an obvious question: “Do you think it would be possible for women to make a worse mess of politics than men have ?” (“No! No!” said the men.) “When I see your tenement houses, your workers in Pittsburgh, your child laborers, I say, ‘For God’s sake, give us a chance in politics.’ The women would surely look after the children better.”

Christine Ross Barker, a single-tax advocate as well as a suffragist, said:

“We have been wanting a long time to talk to the men, and that is why we are here. I know that most decent men don’t oppose woman suffrage. The time has passed when a man could give away his children without his wife’s consent; he no longer has control over his wife’s property as in the days when the husband should have said ‘With all thy worldly goods I me endow’ ; no longer, as Anna Shaw says, does a woman wear not her own clothes, but her husband’s.

You have seen that we can accumulate property. We pay taxes; we want to have our say in regard to them, and we ask you to give us your name to send to the Legislature to ask that they remove this disability.”

When Maude Malone, who arranged the meeting, called for questions, she got the usual ones, and had ready answers. To one individual who said that women belong in the home cooking dinner, she said: “She can get his dinner better if she knows he has good wages to provide it,” and concluded by saying that: “Women know as much about politics as men. If you men knew politics, would you have the men in power that you have now in New York?”

All in all, it was a pleasant experience for both speakers and audience, and if the more conservative suffragists can be won over as easily as the passersby today, the new year of 1908 may see some real progress by a more militant, revitalized suffrage movement.


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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.