In the early years of the campaign for women’s right in New York State there was just a handful of women and some men in Albany aligned with the cause, but over three decades progress was been made.
Finally, after the Civil War more women in Albany became active in the movement. By then state laws had been enacted that gave women additional rights to own property, engage in business, manage their wages and other income, sue and be sued, and be joint guardian of their children.
In 1880 the NYS Legislature enacted a law that permitted women to participate in school votes that involved taxation and representation. (This had followed a series of dramatic and well-staged Women’s Tea Parties across the country.) The women of Albany were ready. Mary Seymour Howell, wife of a NYS librarian and Kate Stoneman, a faculty member at the State Normal School (now the University at Albany), sprang into action and organized women to get out the vote.
When the day of the vote came about 25 women summoned their courage and went to the polls. Howell and Stoneman had worked with the election inspectors and things went fairly smoothly (although women were denied the right to vote in several districts). Stoneman (who would later become the first female lawyer admitted to the NYS bar) was the first to vote at about 8 am.
The names of the women who voted were identified in the newspapers. The women represented an astonishing and remarkable cross –section of women of all types and ages. They included widows who were running boarding houses, women who were housekeepers in some else’s home; single school teachers; wives of teamsters; wives of men building the new Capitol, an Afro-American woman whose husband was a barber, the only female doctor in the Albany, and, Stoneman and Howell. Of note were Jane Hoxsie and her daughter-in-law Elizabeth – Jane was the last link to the earlier days; she had been a spectator, along with Lydia Mott and Phoebe Jones, in City Hall during the indictment of Susan B. Anthony in 1873 for voting in a federal election.
Shortly thereafter the women founded the Albany Woman’s Suffrage Society. While Howell and Stoneman were elected officers, other women were tapped to play key roles. One woman was Experience Miller, with a completely different background from Howell and Stoneman. Miller was a Civil War widow in her 60’s, reduced to keeping house for a physician who was willing to allow her daughter-in law and 2 grandchildren live in the household. It was clear that all sorts of women were joining the cause.
Over the next several years Howell emerged as a leading light on the national women’s rights scene, allying herself closely with Anthony and Stanton.
Howell was an eloquent and forceful speaker who traveled across the country, attending state and national conventions. In 1885 she made a powerful speech to Congress that specifically addressed need for the women of Albany to have the vote.
Other women became involved. There were women physicians and wives of physicians and the wives of bakers, and lots of single school teachers and librarians. But supporting women’s suffrage was still a dangerous business. Martha Winne, a graduate of the NYS Normal School, was the principal of school 17 (the building can still be seen on lower Second Ave). She was fired by anti-suffragists on the Albany School Board when she was elected president of the Suffrage Society.
Nevertheless, they persisted. In 1885 Stoneman, Howell and several others tried to cast their ballots in a general election; they were turned away. Howell, undaunted, went to a judge in Troy to get a court order permitting them to vote. The judge refused on the grounds he had insufficient constitutional knowledge.
Despite these setbacks by the 1890s women (and men) across the country (and in Albany) had flocked to the cause. Social reformers in the State were making in-roads on labor laws, public health and the temperance faction had gained significant traction. Most unions supported the cause and even the Grange Associations across NYS were supportive (as men left the farms for other employment, the agricultural work fell to women). It looked like a critical mass was being achieved that might tip the balance.
Then the NYS Constitutional Convention of 1894 happened. The Albany branch of the NYS Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage was established to counteract the possibility of a woman’s right amendment to the NYS Constitution.
The women in this group came mostly from the wealthier classes; their headquarters was at 13 Elk St. in the area known as “Quality Row” (a/k/a “Millionaire’s Row”). These women great social standing, money and political clout.
And the Lord was with them in the form of William Croswell Doane, Bishop of the Albany Episcopal Diocese, a vehement and somewhat rabid anti-suffragist.
Despite submission of over 600,000 petition signatures gathered from all over the NYS in favor of a woman’s right to vote (vs. 15,000 from the “Anti’s’) and impassioned speeches by Anthony and Albany’s Mary Seymour Howell, the Convention refused to support putting a woman’s suffrage proposition to NYS voters.
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor