Friday, November 02, 2012

Women's Suffrage

It's been 92 years since women were finally given the right to vote in this country. This is one of those history trivia bits that has astounded me ever since I was a kid. There are women alive today who were born at a time when it was illegal for them to vote, simply because they weren't men.

Women and men started advocating for women's suffrage (the right to vote) before the Civil War. Many abolitionists were also suffragists, the sort of people who have more recently been derided as "bleeding-heart liberals," the sort of people who advocate strongly for human rights and civil rights. Abolishing slavery was, not surprisingly, seen as a higher priority than women's suffrage. After the Civil War, the suffrage movement, and the women's rights movement (dress reform, allowing women to wear trousers, was among the items women had to fight for), began to pick up steam.

History tends to gloss over certain types of details. For example, after the Civil War, giving black men the right to vote in every state was controversial. In October 1865, Connecticut men voted against removing the word "white" from the U.S. Constitution. The Columbian Register, a New Haven newspaper, declared it a "glorious triumph," establishing that ours is "a white man's government" that "should be administered by white men." The paper praised voters for crossing partisan lines "to do a patriotic act."

In 1869, a Chicago advocate for universal suffrage was quoted in the Columbian Register as saying that "Western women comprehend that humanity is one--that the colored man cannot be elevated without at the same time uplifting the colored woman--and they see very clearly that through the gap in the fence made by the colored man as he passes over into citizenship, all American women will pass to the same destination."

An early suffragist in Waterbury was a Mrs. Armes, who attended Women's Suffrage meetings during the 1870s. I have not yet found more information about her.

In Connecticut, women were given the right to vote in school-related elections in 1889 (their ballots were cast separately from those cast by men). In 1895, Waterbury's State Representative Warren L. Hall put forth a bill claiming that "the better class of women" wanted the right revoked because "the undesirable class of women" had voted during the last election. Hall argued that women should not be "forced" to vote. Others, including the editor of the Waterbury Republican newspaper, argued that the extremely low turnout of women voters at school elections was proof that there was no point in giving women the right to vote.

Surprisingly, not all women wanted the right to vote. There were many women who identified themselves as "against women suffrage" only a few years before they were given the right to vote. Among them was Waterbury's Mary Williams Phipps, a graduate of Mt. Holyoke College. Phipps was active in women's organizations, including the Waterbury Women's Club, and in the Congregational Church ministries.

In contrast, Helen L. Welton was a strong advocate of women's suffrage. Welton was a business woman at a time when such a thing was rare. Her husband had become an invalid, so she took over, joining her father-in-law's real estate business. She was instrumental in developing Waterville. Her support of women's suffrage was based, at least in part, in her belief in "no taxation without representation." Her short biography in Volume 2 of Pape's History of Waterbury described her as "retaining the truly womanly traits of character" while still being highly competent in the business world. Back in 1916, those two things were considered to be mutually exclusive.

The Connecticut Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, founded in 1911, considered the right to vote "a menace to womanhood." The Association claimed to have some 60,000 members in 1914, which included members from Waterbury. The Waterbury branch was formed in 1913 and met at Rose Hill on Prospect Street, home of Mrs. Irving Chase. The first officers of the branch were Margaret Granniss, Mrs. George Goss, and Mrs. Chauncy P. Goss.

Suffragists were willing to go to prison. Many women were arrested and jailed for as long as six months in different parts of the country.

Kate Heffelfinger, an art student and suffragist from Pennsylvania,
being released from Occoquan Prison in Virginia, circa 1917.
Heffelfinger was sentenced to six months in jail for picketing for the right to vote.
She was one of 33 suffragist women brutally beaten by prison guards at Occoquan.
Photo from the Records of the National Woman's Party, Library of Congress, American Memory website.

Connecticut women were as active in the struggle for the right to vote as anyone.

Picketers at the National Republican Convention in Chicago, June 1920.
L-R Abby Scott Baker, Florence Taylor Marsh, Sue White, Elsie Hill, and Betty Gram.
Photo from the Records of the National Woman's Party, Library of Congress, American Memory website.

On October 9, 1920, the first woman to become registered to vote in Waterbury was Mrs. Adelaide Boyd of Arch Street. Roughly 15,000 Waterbury women registered right away.

Getting the vote wasn't the end of the story. In 1927, Waterbury's Mrs. Harry S. Coe (who had served in the General Assembly in 1925) and the Connecticut League of Women Voters petitioned for women's right to serve on juries. The Connecticut Attorney General had previously ruled that women could not serve as jurors, even though they did have the right to vote.

In 1934, Connecticut's Governor Wilbur Cross unveiled a plaque honoring 31 Connecticut women pioneers in the struggle for women's suffrage. Among the women honored were Waterbury's Harriet Fowler Maltby and Elsie Rowland Chase, sister-in-law of anti-suffragist Mrs. Irving Chase.


Anonymous said...

Nice post!

One comment/correction--as far as I know, the only suffragists jailed were those who picketed the White House.


Nate Levin

Waterbury Girl said...

I have not done much research into the arrests and imprisonments, which is why I kept that sentence vague. "Different parts of the country" is meant to refer to anywhere other than Waterbury. It's been my experience that there's always more to the story, no matter what story it is.

There were frequent arrests in D.C., since that was where most of the picketing was done. There were other cities in which suffragists were arrested.

Twenty-three suffragists were arrested in Boston on February 24, 1919.

Six suffragists (half of whom gave their names as Jane Doe) were arrested outside the Metropolitan Opera House in NYC on March 4, 1919.

In October, 1920, after the amendment was passed, a young woman in Santa Fe was arrested for wearing men's clothing. While she was not picketing for the right to vote, the story was connected to the issue with the question "What can women wear under the suffrage amendment?"