By 1900 the suffragists of the previous century had grown old or were gone. After 50 years of campaigning the movement was stalled. Although there had been significant changes in the laws that previously limited women’s rights, the goal of getting the vote appeared no closer than it had in 1848 when the Seneca Falls Convention met.
In New York the mantle had been passed to Harriot Stanton Blatch, the daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She famously said, “The suffrage movement was in a rut.. it bored its adherents and repelled its opponents…”.
Blatch tried to re-invent the movement, focusing on women who were self-supporting. Hundreds of thousands of women now worked in factories and the number of business and professional women was growing exponentially. Blatch started working with the newly created Women’s Trade Union League and other unions, following the model of Emmeline Pankhurst in England. But that too proved slow going. Immediate concerns of low wages and poor working conditions distracted from voting rights.
And as ever the case, although delegations from all over the State came to lobby the Legislature year after year, the movement in Albany sluggishly chugged along with no great vitality. And the wealthy anti-suffragists reigned across the city, discrediting and sometimes ridiculing their opponents.
Enter a very different society woman who re-energized the movement by her status and pots of money. Alva Vanderbilt Belmont was a force of nature. She was first married to William Vanderbilt (whose claim to fame was the construction of Madison Square Garden). She shocked the work in the 1890s when she divorced Vanderbilt and married Oliver Belmont. Upon his death in 1908, Alva entered the world of women’s suffrage with guns blazing. Alva had notoriously bested “old money” society in NYC when she was married to Vanderbilt and re-invented herself after her divorce. She was determined to set the suffrage world on fire in the same fashion. Alva funded suffrage offices in NYC and Albany. She raised money from other socialites, embraced participation by immigrant and Afro-American women, staged huge demonstrations and rallies with factory workers and supported the massive NYC shirtwaist factory strike of 1909.
By 1910 Albany women were back in the game. The next seven years would be series of highs and lows. “Suffrage week” in Albany became a regular thing during the legislative session. News of women’s suffrage moved from the women’s sections of newspapers to front pages and Albany businesses advertised their support for suffrage through newspaper advertisements.
Rather than traveling the militant route (rock throwing and resultant forced feedings after arrest) that Emmeline Pankhurst and her followers adopted in England, suffragists in New York State went for the dramatic and newsworthy. With more money they were determined to win the propaganda war. In December 1912 there was a 10 day march in the freezing cold from NYC to Albany to present petitions to the incoming Governor, William Sulzer, a friend of suffrage. Newspaper reporters followed the march and there were newsreel films. Albany supporters met the marchers at South Pearl and Second Ave. as they entered the city and escorted them to the Capitol, accompanied by a band from St. Vincent’s Orphan Asylum. But Sulzer was elected with help of Tammany Hall and turned his back on them in favor of “good government”. He was impeached within 8 months, and the dreams of a statewide vote on women’s suffrage disappeared for 1913.
Undeterred, Albany suffragists, whose numbers now were in the hundreds, took to the streets. – They visited the West Albany Railroad shops, and factories across the city. They held open air meetings on street corners on Central Ave., State and Pearl, Delaware Ave, Arbor Hill and Pine Hills. Small groups of young women were dispatched to canvass neighborhoods. With enough money in their coffers they could print pamphlets and literature in multiple languages – French, Italian, German and Yiddish. The Yiddish language materials were incredibly important; the largely immigrant Jewish population in the South End was said to be universally supportive of a woman’s right to vote.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, other society women (not affiliated with the Old Guard Albany Anti’s) and their daughters discovered the suffrage movement was fashionable and there were suffrage balls, teas and receptions. The prospect of being invited to a weekend at Alva Belmont’s famous Marble House “cottage” in Newport had great allure.
In 1914 the suffragists of Albany decided to mass together for a large parade. On Saturday June 6 about 700 men and women from Albany, its environs and across the State, gathered in the late afternoon near the Capitol. They proceeded down Washington to State, down to North Pearl, over to Clinton and south on Broadway and back to State St. The suffragists wore white hats with yellow cockades and white dresses with yellow sashes. There were women on horseback and in automobiles as well as marchers on foot.
In a wonderful bit of irony, the Grand Marshal was Mrs. Joseph (Katherine) Gavit. (The other Mrs. Joseph Gavit, her mother-in-law, had been one of the founding members of the Albany branch of the National Association of Women’s Suffrage. ) Another leader of the group was Harriet Burton Laidlaw, graduate of Albany High; she attained several higher degrees and began speaking for women’s suffrage when she was barely out of school. She married James Laidlaw, head of the State Men’s League (for women’s suffrage) and a wealthy investment banker (the Laidlaw firm still exists), who accompanied her in the parade.
Other marchers included Elizabeth Smith who would become of the first head of the Albany Public Library System in the 1920, Elizabeth Lyons, one of the first women lawyers in Albany, and a teenage Frances Vosburgh, who would become one of Albany’s most prominent physician for 60 years and pioneer the birth control movement in the city in the 1930s.
So, by 1915, victory was just around the corner. There was confidence that the Legislature would agree to put the question of women’s suffrage to the voters. It did, and the referendum was defeated 57% to 43%. The city of Albany voted no.
Again in March 1917 the NYS Legislature again decided that the referendum to amend the NYS Constitution would go to voters. But that vote as not without high drama. At the last minute Assemblyman Clarence Walsh from Albany proposed new requirements for women voters that exceeded those of men (such an Albany thing). The Walsh amendment was resoundingly defeated.
By now a woman named Carrie Chapman Catt was chairwoman of the State Campaign Committee. A windfall dropped into her lap.
In 1914 Mrs. Frank Leslie, publisher of the wildly popular and profitable “Leslie’s Illustrated Magazine” died and left the bulk of her estate to Catt to promote women’s suffrage . After wrangling with other heirs and attorneys Catt finally received $900,000 in February 1917. Game on. Thousands of dollars went into the New York campaign and other funds were used establish the Leslie Woman Suffrage Commission to promote the cause of suffrage through greater visibility in the public eye and through education. It was called the largest propaganda bureau run by women.
Between the money left by Mrs. Leslie (and large donations by a number of men) and the public’s perception of the value of the work women were doing in the War (the U.S. entered World War I in April, 1917) New York State men voted yes to permit women to vote.
The men of Albany voted no, but this time it didn’t matter; there were enough downstate votes to carry the measure.
The dam was broken. Efforts across the country pushing for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution picked up steam. Suffragists ramped up their lobbying in Washington D.C. under the imitable Alice Paul (with help from Catt). In June, 1919 the U.S. Senate passed an amendment permitting women to vote. In August, 1920 the amendment was ratified by a sufficient number of states and a women’s right to vote became the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In November, 1920 8 million women in the U.S. voted for the first time.
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor