“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex.”
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
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
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.
Influencing 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.
We can imagine scores of women trudging up the hill to the old Capitol building 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.
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.
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).
Lydia 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.
Equally 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.”
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor