The Women's Suffrage Movement: Made in New York
Women of the Hudson Valley and nearby regions were monumental figures in the fight for the right to vote.
The inception of the United States of America engendered some lofty, egalitarian rhetoric from the Founding Fathers. That rhetoric, however, contained some notably glaring omissions. Huge swaths of the country were written off: indigenous peoples, people of color, the poor. And, of course, women. The unyielding patriarchy of the Founding Fathers was apparent early on. There was certainly no room for Founding Mothers. From the beginning, there were those who took exception to the supposed consensus that the new country was the exclusive domain of white men.
Women in New York won the right to vote in 1917. New York State was long at the epicenter of the suffrage movement, with the Hudson Valley part and parcel of the struggle. The very inception of the suffrage movement, as an organized political manifestation, happened in New York: In 1848, a pro-suffrage convention in Seneca Falls drew the attendance of 300 women and men; a subsequent convention, held in Rochester, drew an even larger turnout. This was the historic Seneca Falls Convention, which generated a Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions. That declaration intentionally mirrored the ambitious — and unfulfilled — sentiments of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men and women are created equal.”
New York’s centrality to the suffrage movement was the result of a fascinating confluence of many factors. A good deal was a matter of locale: Influential suffrage leaders like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage were residents of the state. New York also had its own egalitarian tradition: the first state to unshackle women from the constraints of British common law, granting them property rights. (It is Wyoming, though, not New York, that holds the distinction of being the first state to grant women the right to vote.)
And New York truly was the Empire State, a national behemoth. It was huge in size, huge in population, huge in natural resources. New York City was a cultural and intellectual magnet and — not inconsequentially — the locus of most of the nation’s publishing. New York also boasted a rural tradition of culture: the enormously popular Chautauqua lecture circuit, for example, disseminated learning far and wide. And the Erie Canal and the Hudson Valley’s D&H Canal opened the region up in every conceivable way. The canals not just helped the freer movement of commercial traffic, but they allowed for the speedier dissemination of new ideas and politics.
The Hudson Valley — along with the rest of the state — abounded with grassroots efforts. In Newburgh, Poughkeepsie, and throughout the region, women banded together in organized clubs to press for their right to vote. In 1853, suffrage women all over New York commandeered the July 4th tradition of public orations.
The Midwestern-born, Iowa-raised Carrie Chapman Catt, one of the pivotal figures of the national suffrage movement, was a major force in the fight in New York. Her experiences persuaded her to relocate, and in the 1920s she transplanted herself to a 16-acre estate in the west end of New Castle, eventually moving to New Rochelle in 1927.
Born in 1859, Catt lived a life of social and political innovation, rising to the position of school superintendent — a singular accomplishment in the Iowa of 1883. Her marriage to engineer George Catt in 1890 was equipped with a unique prenup that specified that she be provided four months out of the year to undertake suffrage activism — an unprecedented arrangement in the late 19th century. (And not so common today.)
The activist Catt became a leading figure in the fight for women’s equality, eventually succeeding, in 1900, the legendary Susan B. Anthony as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. In New York, Catt herself devoted an enormous amount of personal effort in the statewide fight for women’s suffrage.
Catt was central in the creation of the League of Women Voters. Her interests and activism were broad-ranging and included child labor and world peace. Unafraid to critique bellicose American foreign policy, Catt became a champion of the League of Nations and, in later years, was a proponent of the United Nations. Perhaps the best encapsulation of her influence was the fact that, from 1927 to 1929, the nascent FBI deemed her sufficiently subversive as to put her under surveillance.
Carrie Chapman Catt died in New Rochelle in 1947 at the age of 88, after a lifetime of activism that helped permanently banish so many pernicious societal strictures that kept so much of the populace subservient and oppressed.
Then there was Vassar student Inez Milholland Boissevain. Born in 1886, her activism anticipates the colorful militancy of the 1960s. Thwarted in her attempt to conduct an on-campus suffrage meeting by an unsympathetic Vassar administration, the undaunted Milholland moved the meeting off-campus: to the adjacent cemetery. At a massive pro-suffrage rally in Washington, D.C. in 1913, she entered the annals of folklore by riding a white horse, her garb augmented by a white cape and crown. Milholland — a personage who really should be rescued from historical obscurity — overcame institutional barriers to graduate from New York University School of Law.
In addition to her suffrage activism, she was also a passionate pacifist, eventually embarking on a grueling series of appearances around the country. The nationwide speaking tour destroyed her health, culminating with her early, tragic death in 1916. (In another notable confluence, Milholland captured the attention of a younger Vassar student: the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, who wrote a sonnet to Inez Milholland’s memory and — in an even odder twist of fate — married Inez’s widower, Eugen Jan Boissevain.)
The suffrage movement, not surprisingly, also intersected with other social-justice movements. The suffrage activists were keenly aware that their struggle was part of a broad-based oppression. New York again was front and center. The Quaker community in New York and other parts of the country were often at the vanguard in struggles for equality, justice, and a freer United States. For centuries, Quakers had been forthright in their belief for a more egalitarian schema of gender relations. It was far from arbitrary that much of the impetus for the Seneca Falls Convention came from Quaker women.
The suffrage movement had many links to the abolitionist movement, personified by the legendary activist Sojourner Truth. She had been born in Ulster County and enslaved, not in the South, but in Esopus. Her abolitionist activism fully intersected with the fight for women’s rights.
Women’s suffrage also had strong links to the temperance movement. From today’s vantage point, it is easy to consign those temperance adherents as a collection of bluenose virtue police. Temperance, though, had wide sway in progressive circles. Writer/socialist/activist Upton Sinclair was a firm believer in Prohibition. Temperance reflected legitimate, genuine concerns: Women then and now often bore the brunt of their husbands’ and fathers’ alcohol abuse, an abuse that was devastating physically, psychologically, and economically. In this context, the suffrage-temperance alliance makes a certain amount of sense. The Daughters of Temperance, meeting in Albany in the early 1850s, featured suffrage luminaries Amelia Bloomer and Susan B. Anthony, who subsequently embarked on a speaking tour that included Poughkeepsie and Hudson.
The suffrage movement had a second resurgence in the 1890s, and again fit into a larger political schema: the progressive movement, which had deep New York roots, as well as national importance. It was not a coincidence that the first major party to officially endorse suffrage was the Progressive Party in 1912, helmed by former president (and former New York governor) Theodore Roosevelt in his losing quest to re-enter the White House.
With the birth of the suffrage movement came, of course, the immediate counter-reaction. There was an organized, entrenched anti-suffrage movement that also held great sway. In Rochester in 1872, Susan B. Anthony was arrested for the grievous offense of attempting to vote. This was not an isolated incident: New York women risked a lot in their fight for the ballot box.
For many of the populace, the women’s right to vote represented an affront to the natural order of things or the will of God. A letter-writer to a New York newspaper in the 1850s, observing a suffrage gathering, offered the opinion that this was “an assemblage of rampant women” — whether he was genuinely affronted by rampant women or yearning for their companionship is an interesting question — who were neglecting “those duties which both human and divine law have assigned to them.” Nineteenth-century suffragettes were occasionally branded with the derogatory term Amazon, a slur with a long, ignoble history.
Non-theological opposition to women entering the public sphere was intense and often completely contradictory. On the one hand, public life was a rarefied, complex undertaking that was deemed simply too complicated for the female brain. On the other side was the view that politics was a rough-hewn, strictly masculine domain — with a good deal of profane talk and vulgarity — and thus thoroughly unsuitable for the delicate female temperament.
A 1915 Westchester Life magazine article took note of suffrage activism that encompassed “dozens of women who had never dealt with larger units than missionary societies, literary clubs or cake sales were given territory with 16,000 or 17,000 voters and ordered to reach every one of these men.”
And so, after a long and arduous struggle, New York granted women the right to vote in 1917 — a direct manifestation of decades of dedicated activism. The Nineteenth Amendment, granting women the right to vote, became the law of the land. The presidential election of 1920 was the first in which women were eligible to vote nationwide.
In some respects, the opposition the suffrage movement faced seems drearily familiar. But the mere existence of a Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and the Hudson Valley’s plethora of women politicos and activists is a testament to the suffrage movement’s enduring significance.
Route 90 Roadtrip
Although this year is the centennial of women obtaining the right to vote in New York, you can celebrate the occasion throughout the spring — and beyond — with visits to these locations.
New York State Museum
Albany’s New York State Museum presents “Votes for Women: Celebrating New York’s Suffrage Centennial” — running until May 2018 — designed to coincide with this centennial of women’s suffrage in New York.
The Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation
The largely forgotten Matilda Joslyn Gage was one of the giants of the suffrage movement. She was, along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, the force behind the massive book History of Woman Suffrage. Gage was a suffrage leader of the first rank whose legacy (like many fighters for women’s rights) should be restored. This foundation, located in Fayetteville and helmed by scholar Sally Roesch Wagner, is an ingenious combination of historical site and advocacy center. www.matildajoslyngage.org
Women’s Rights National Historical Park
Seneca Falls has the distinction of being the geographic focal point of the inception of the women’s suffrage movement. That is distinction enough, but it is also the site of this unique, invaluable resource.
Besides presenting exhibitions and events, the park encompasses the restored Elizabeth Cady Stanton House; the Wesleyan Chapel, the egalitarian-minded church where the actual historic women’s rights convention was held in 1848; and the M’Clintock House, the domicile of Quaker activists Mary Ann M’Clintock and her husband Thomas, seminal figures in the fight for women’s suffrage and abolition.
For the full scope of what the park offers, consult www.nps.gov/wori/index.htm