Today in 1915: Suffragists Across the East Coast Are Ready to Fight for the Vote

Founding Feminists is FMF’s daily herstory column.


October 24, 1915: With just nine days left until three big Eastern States vote on woman suffrage referenda, the battle for women’s equality at the polls goes on in large cities as well as small towns, and is being waged by both women and men.

From Boston, Massachusetts, to Biglerville, Pennsylvania, there has been a great deal of activity, as suffragists in all States enjoy increased respect and feel more confident after the success of yesterday’s stunning pageant on Fifth Avenue in New York.

In Boston this evening, there was a suffrage rally in Tremont Temple in which California’s most notorious anti-suffragist, Col. Irish, was the target of much humor. According to Samuel J. Elder: “A California colonel who has been making anti-suffrage speeches hereabouts says, if quoted correctly, that politics degrades women and makes them vulgar; if he means that the women of California have been degraded and vulgarized, I pity him when he goes home.” (California women won the vote four years ago.)

Elder himself was an anti-suffragist just a year ago, but has since been converted to the cause, and thinks that thousands of other Massachusetts men have also changed their minds: “The idea that a man should not know more today than he did a year ago is intolerable. That is what makes the suffrage cause a hopeful one.”

Mr. Elder said that those who think a woman’s place is in the home should consider the fact that:

About nine-tenths of the legislation relates to the home. Why should not women, who ‘belong in the home’ and have to stay in the home have an equal share in deciding the nature of that legislation? Have women got to wait until all the old duffers are dead and a new generation of men has grown up to liberate their mothers, sisters and wives?

Rabbi Harry Levy of Temple Israel got a good response to a speech in which he said that much of the opposition to woman suffrage is based on ignorance. He said that he was a suffragist because Judaism was democratic and democracy must include woman suffrage: “This is a government of, by and for the people, and not a Government in which one-half the people are taken care of by the other half.” He then noted some of the benefits woman suffrage had brought to the Western States, such as mothers’ pensions, an eight-hour day with decent wages, and an increase in the age of consent.

Anne Martin, of Nevada, also addressed some of the objections to woman suffrage, then said that if the men of the East don’t approve the upcoming suffrage referenda, the 4.5 million voting women of the West would use their influence to get suffrage for Eastern women through a Constitutional amendment. Meanwhile, in Springfield, Senator William E. Borah, Republican of Idaho, praised the work the voting women of his State had done in the 19 years since they won the franchise as he addressed a meeting of the Springfield Equal Suffrage League attended by 1,200 people.

Various local polls in Massachusetts show women are far more supportive of suffrage than men. In Holyoke, a street car poll showed 7 men for and 6 against, while 5 women favored it and only 1 was opposed. In a lunchroom, 17 men were polled, with 10 against, 4 in favor and 3 undecided. In a barbershop it was 3 against, 1 for, and 1 undecided. In Fitchburg, a much larger poll was taken, which found that of 325 women, 222 favored suffrage and 103 opposed it. Of course, only the men will be voting on November 2nd, but the local Equal Suffrage League has a membership of almost 400, and is hoping their work will change a few minds by then.

Mount Holyoke students getting ready to march for the cause in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Mount Holyoke students getting ready to march for the cause in Springfield, Massachusetts.

The Boston Globe has been asking Governors of suffrage States about their views on the issue, and today received a telegram from the Governor of Oregon, where women won the vote on November 5, 1912, by a margin of 4,161 votes out of 118,369 cast:

Replying to your inquiry as to my personal opinion regarding the working of woman suffrage in Oregon, it gives me sincere pleasure to indorse its operation here emphatically. I hope the voters of Massachusetts will have the good sense to take the forward step.The women of Oregon have taken and continue to take an active interest in public affairs and use their ballots thoughtfully and well. Education, child protection, civic morality and other of the larger issues of community life inevitably are closer to women than to the men, and where women vote these big questions, upon which rest our best development, they receive an oversight and direction which do not permit of their neglect or abuse. I favored woman suffrage many years before Oregon obtained it, and after two years of votes for women here I indorse it more emphatically than ever. James Withycombe, Governor of Oregon.

In other Massachusetts actions, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, founder of New York City’s Free Synagogue, and who recently campaigned in New Jersey for that State’s October 19th suffrage referendum, took time out from suffrage work in New York to speak for equal suffrage tonight at a Zion Association of Greater Boston meeting at Convention Hall. The Boston Typographical Union #13 met at Faneuil Hall and gave its endorsement to suffrage. Upcoming events include a speech by Rev. Anna Howard Shaw at Associate Hall in Lowell, and a meeting at City Hall by the Lowell Suffrage League.

In Pennsylvania, there was an open-air meeting last evening in Biglerville, at which John D. Keith, Esq., and Rev. J. B. Barker spoke to a large and attentive audience. Keith recounted the history of the country’s expansion of liberty, and said it was past time for women to be included. Baker emphasized that voting was consistent with women’s duties and privileges in regard to home, school, civic and reform movements.

The “Women’s Liberty Bell,” which was featured at a big rally in Philadelphia on the 22nd, will arrive in Prospect Park tomorrow, where it will be the centerpiece for a meeting outside the Post Office. It will then go on to Chester, accompanied by Helen Todd.

Interestingly enough, Florence Piersol, head of the Philadelphia branch of the Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association, said yesterday that she found husbands more supportive than their wives: “Again and again, when we ask women how they stand on this vital question, we get a reply something like this: ‘I am on the fence, but my husband believes in it and is going to vote for it.’ ”

The importance of individual actions is critical to victory. Both Pennsylvania Republicans and Democrats have taken a “hands off” position in regard to the suffrage referendum, and while the decision of Republican U.S. Senator Boise Penrose not to actively oppose the measure was clearly useful in getting it on the ballot in the first place, the fact that neither party is actively working for it makes it hard to reach the State’s many voters.

Fortunately, President Wilson, the nation’s highest-ranking Democrat, has given his support to suffrage – at least on a State-by-State basis. But he won’t be campaigning for any of the suffrage referenda in any of the three States where the measure will be on the ballot next month. Pennsylvania’s Republican Governor, Martin Brumbaugh, has given some personal support in the past, but has remained silent on the issue lately. However, there was an exception made when he talked to the students at Swarthmore on Founders’ Day and said he saw no reason why “girls should not play a part in government as well as in the classroom.”

There’s still hope in Philadelphia, even though the city’s mayor, Democrat Rudolph Blankenburg, has thus far been keeping out of the campaign. He’s a avid reformer, known to be a supporter of woman suffrage, and married to an active suffragist, so he may yet take part in the campaign if it looks like the voters of his city might make the difference between victory and defeat. But with or without the help of big-name politicians or party machinery, suffragists are confident that the three remaining suffrage battles of this year can be won, and no one will be letting up until the last vote is cast on November 2nd.

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