Monday, March 27, 2017

Sandra Weber: Lessons from Suffrage Movement

For decades, history books have fed us the simplistic notion that women struggled for the vote while men opposed them. Hogwash! Some women opposed suffrage and some men supported it. The issue was a battle about the sexes; the battle itself was fought by women and men against other women and men.

The North Country region resembled most of upstate New York in the 1800s, rural and a hotbed for reform movements: abolition, prohibition, forest preservation, women’s rights. Of course, there was also opposition to some of these changes. The major reason for resistance to women’s rights had to do with long-held conventional notions about the roles of men and women, the roles of blacks and whites, and the interpretation of the Bible. In general, these views supported a white patriarchy and contested any threat to the perpetuation of its authority.

There were other individual reasons for opposition to suffrage, just as there were various opinions supporting it. And, even among suffragists, there was no consensus about what other rights they wanted nor what strategies or tactics to use. Over the years, there were disagreements about many issues, such as the initial proposition of suffrage, advocating black suffrage without women’s suffrage, Biblical implications about women, federal suffrage versus state-by-state suffrage, and persuasion tactics versus protest. Although the National Women’s Suffrage Association and the American Women’s Suffrage Association, which merged in 1890 to become the National American Women’s Suffrage Association, were the largest women’s rights’ organizations, hundreds of other women’s political groups and clubs existed throughout the country. And plenty of anti-suffrage and anti-feminist groups formed, too.

During the later years of the suffrage campaign, city people came in the summers, infusing Adirondack towns with suffrage dialogue, pro and con. Anti-suffragist and socialist Prestonia Mann Martin welcomed the president of the NY Anti-Suffrage Society, Alice Hill Chittenden, who debated suffrage in Keene Valley. Not to be outdone, Mrs. Raymond Brown, president of the NYS Woman Suffrage Association, spoke in Westport and Elizabethtown, as did Inez Milholland and Mrs. George Notman, leader of the Essex County suffragists. The influx of prominent women speakers and leaders in July 1914 made the New York Tribune declare:

“Elizabethtown has become Suffrage Headquarters in the Adirondacks.”

Three years later, in 1917, a peculiar group appeared: the Committee of 100, comprised of a hundred prominent Adirondack men who supported suffrage. Its members included Byron Brewster, George Brown, Melvil Dewey, Senator J.A. Emerson, John Temple Graves, William Kellogg, John Milholland, Senator Spencer G. Prime, Judge William Wadhams, and Rabbi Stephen Wise.

As noted, this was not a battle of the sexes; some powerful men stood with the suffragists, while some prominent women argued against woman suffrage. And clearly, there were ideological conflicts among suffrage supporters such as John Milholland, first treasurer of the NAACP, and Melvil Dewey, founder of the exclusionary Lake Placid Club. The popular assertion that “Unity is important in any movement” is another generalization that needs deflating.

The suffrage movement, the women’s rights movement, and the anti-movements — none of these were unified. There was no “singleness of groups” or “complete whole” or “harmony of opinion.” So, how did woman suffrage succeed?

Slowly, bit by bit, over many, many decades. Gathering public support by directing attention to one issue. Bill after bill, in state after state, until New York became the first state east of the Mississippi to pass woman suffrage in 1917. According to the Adirondack Record, Newcomb was “the Banner Suffrage Town” in Essex County having voted in favor of the women, 73 – 6.

After the end of World War I, in August 1920, a federal amendment for woman suffrage was ratified. This achievement was not the result of unity within the movement; the thousands of groups did not form one group, nor did they coordinate their efforts. Leaders of the largest group, NAWSA, overtly despised and criticized the smaller, more militant National Woman’s Party. In the end, both claimed credit for the 19th Amendment, and both deserved it. Their separate campaigns and strategies, working in parallel with local efforts, put formidable public pressure on President Woodrow Wilson and Congress to pass federal legislation.

Fast forward to 2017 and the resistance movement. The raging buzz is unity. “United Women.” “We must Stand Together.” The mantra echoes in town halls, kitchens, and coffee shops. But what does it mean? Unity in opposing Trump, perhaps. But united in accomplishing what goal?

Thankfully, the suffragists demonstrated that movements do not need unity. While collaboration and coalition-building are important, resistance groups do not need to coalesce or reach consensus on strategy or tactics in order to triumph.

Photo: Inez Milholland leading the Suffrage Parade on March 3, 1913.

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Sandra Weber is a writer, storyteller and performer who portrays Kate Field’s “Among the Adirondacks” lecture. Weber has authored several Adirondack books about regional history and women including Breaking Trail (with Peggy Lynn), Mount Marcy, and Two in the Wilderness. She lives in a log cabin in Elizabethtown, NY.

3 Responses

  1. James Reinhard says:

    Thanks for the insight and encouragement. One of the appeals of the north county is the progressive cultural heritage along side the natural wonders. There are lessons here about dialogue, coalition and “strange bedfellows”.

  2. Cristine Meixner says:

    Are you sure the ‘NY Farmworkers Arrested’ blog is true? Five apple pickers arrested on their way to work? Since when are apples picked in March? Just asking.

    • John Warren says:

      Yes, it’s true and Crain’s is a respected source. Orchard work is year round. Pruning, for example, has been underway for quite some time.

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