The Story of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in Albany – Part I; The Mothers of Invention

Before 2017 closes, the 100th anniversary of the women of NYS getting the vote, we thought we needed to tell you the story of how the women of Albany figured in that history. The NYS Museum focused on that statewide struggle and the Institute of History and Art focused on the the Albany women who opposed a woman’s right to vote. S0, we felt we needed to tell you what we could about the women who lived in Albany and how they figured in the NYS women’s rights movement. It’s a story that’s never been told in its entirety before, and we decided it was high time. We did a deep dive and found some very interesting stuff about the women and the critical roles they played.

Because the struggle spans 70 years and multiple generations we decided to post in a 3 part series.

Here’s the first part.

Part I – The Mothers of Invention 1848-1879

The women’s rights movement started with a hastily put together meeting in Seneca Falls, NY in summer 1848. It was the brainchild of two staunch abolitionist women – Lucretia Mott and Elisabeth Cady Stanton. What emerged from Seneca Falls was a “Declaration of Rights and Sentiments”. Frederick Douglass, the only Afro-American to attend the meeting, said the result was a “grand movement for attaining the civil, social, political, and religious rights of women”

While the focus was on changing national laws barring women from voting across the country, a key goal was to change New York laws. The Seneca Falls attendees were mostly New Yorkers and believed that if you could change our laws that would change the national landscape.

2Influencing NYS law meant coming to Albany to lobby the Legislature. That started in 1854 when the 2nd NYS Women’s Rights Convention met in Albany. The Convention was held in Association Hall in the upper rooms of the Young Men’s Association at 40 State St. (about where the Hampton Plaza is today). Hundreds of women from all over the state flocked to Albany; on the last day they made their way to the old Capitol to listen to Stanton petition a committee of the NYS Legislature.

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We can imagine scores of women trudging up the hill to the old Capitol 3.3building in pouring rain and icy mud (it was mid-February in Albany), some in heavy crinolines, shawls and bonnets, others in the new “Reform” dress or “Turkish Costume”, loose trousers under a skirt, pioneered by Amelia Bloomer (who had attended the Seneca Falls Convention). Newspapers described convention attendees as “grannies, old maids and young Bloomers.

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But few women from Albany were involved in the woman’s rights movement in its first decades. This general lack of interest would continue for another 25 years or so. Yet during that time Albany was a hub of suffragist activity. Albany hosted several more NYS and national women’s rights conventions. Stanton gave a remarkable address to the NYS legislature in 1860 that resulted in major changes to laws affecting women’s rights; Anthony and Stanton addressed the 1867 NYS Constitutional Convention; Anthony was indicted for violating federal election law in the old City Hall on Eagle St. in 1873 and the next day testified to the NYS Constitutional Convention.

A local newspaper described Albany women as “singularly apathetic” on the issue of woman’s rights during that period.

But there was a quartet of Albanians who were the backbone of the movement in its early days; 3 remarkable women and 1 man.

Phebe Jones (P.H. Jones) was an activist from the earliest days of the movement. She was a widow, originally from Troy, who moved her business to Albany in the mid-1850s. Jones owned a men’s haberdashery at 584 Broadway and lived on Columbia St. She was a Unitarian involved in all sorts of social reforms as well as women’s rights. Both Jones and her daughter Margaret were close allies of Susan B. Anthony, who had joined the movement in 1852 (sort of late in the game).

William Topp was a well-to-do Afro-American merchant tailor with shop on Broadway close to that of Jones, between Maiden Lane and Clinton Ave. Topp was an integral part of Albany’s Underground Railroad and an activist for Afro-American rights; he attended a number of NYS and National Colored People’s Conventions, and was a leader in the American Anti-Slavery Society and the NYS Council for Colored People But Topp was an advocate of rights for all, and was an incredibly important supporter of women’s rights, and key actor at national and state women’s rights conventions before his untimely death in the1857.

Margaret Thompson was a young English women who came to Albany in 1850. She was a practitioner of phrenology (a rarity for women in those days). Phrenology was the study of a person’s head shape to determine character and methods of improving character deficiencies. It was, throughout much of the 19th century, a legitimate science. Stanton and Anthony were fascinated by phrenology because its message confirmed their hope of advancement through personal striving and self-improvement. Thompson’s “phrenological museum” was first at 518 Broadway, near the shops of Topp and Jones, and then later on Chapel St. Mrs. Thompson was at one point president of the NYS Temperance Society, as well as being active in women’s rights and the abolition movement. She too was close friend of Anthony. It appears that Margaret passed away in the early 1860s.

1 (2)            Lydia Mott was a radical Quaker who also owned the Gentlemen’s Furnishing store, first at 60 Broadway and then at 540 Broadway. Lydia was a cousin of Lucretia Mott’s husband and part of a group of activist Quakers who were zealously anti-slavery. Lydia first met Anthony when they were students a Quaker girls school in Philadelphia in 1837; they remained the closest of lifelong friends.

Frederick Douglass’ daughter Rosetta lived with the Mott and her sister Abigail for a number of years in mid-1840s. (Rosetta may very well have been recommended to the care of the Motts on by Anthony.) Lydia was an integral part of the Albany abolitionist (including the Underground Railroad) and temperance movements. Mott was instrumental in forming Anthony’s views on these subjects, as well as women’s rights. Long before Anthony became involved in woman’s suffrage in 1852, Lydia was knee deep in lobbying the NYS Legislature, along with Stanton, on the rights of property for married women. One writer suggests that Lydia was a key member of a group of young Quaker women, including Stanton, which first identified the principles in the “Declaration of Sentiments” a number of months before the Seneca Falls Convention, during the annual meeting of NYS Quakers.

From 1852 until her death in 1875 Mott was the lynch pin of the women’s right movement in New York State. She was its great organizer. It was Lydia’s idea to have the 2nd NYS women’s rights convention in Albany; she and Topp were elected vice presidents. Mott appears to have been indefatigable, simultaneously fighting for women’s rights, temperance and abolition, while running her business (with aid of another sister, Jane).

8Lydia is credited with doing much of the coordinating work of the annual conventions state and national conventions and NYS legislative activity. She was the “glue” that held the movement together in its early days. In 1855 the “New York Evening News” lamented that the women’s rights movement needed some new recruits, beside the same old same old: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Lydia Mott.

8.1Equally as important, Phebe and Lydia provided a “home base”, first on Maiden Lane and then in their Columbia St. homes for 3 decades. Their cozy hearths and merry homes provided a welcome respite for the abolitionists and suffragists who had spent days making speeches, attending meetings and lobbying politicians in Albany.ly as important, Phebe and Lydia provided a “home base”, first on Maiden Lane and then in their Columbia St. homes for 3 decades. Their cozy hearths and merry homes provided a welcome respite for the abolitionists and suffragists who had spent days making speeches, attending meetings and lobbying politicians in Albany.

Her relationship with Anthony was especially close. Anthony spent most her time crisscrossing the country organizing the movement and giving speeches for women’s rights and other social reforms, but in 1875 when Lydia lay dying of consumption, she dropped everything and spent a month at her bedside. On the day Lydia died, Anthony noted in her diary “There passed out of my life today the one who, next to my own family, has been the nearest and dearest to me for thirty years.”

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