The following is a Woman of Courage profile produced by the St. Lawrence County, NY Branch of the American Association of University Women.
While not a “hot bed” of suffrage activity in New York State, northern NY nonetheless did long maintain an interest in obtaining the right to vote for women. As early as 1846, two years before the famous Women’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls, NY, six Jefferson County women signed a petition to the state legislature asking for the “rights which have ungenerously been withheld from them, rights which they as citizens of the state of New York may reasonably and rightfully claim.” The signers included Eleanor Vincent, Lydia A. Williams, Lydia Osborn, Susan Ormsby, and Anna Bishop.
A best-selling author active in the suffrage movement, Marietta Holley, was born on July 16, 1836 on her father's farm near Pierrepont Manor in Jefferson County, NY. Holley, who lived to be 90, wrote 21 humorous books. Her style of writing was often compared both in content and popularity with that of Mark Twain. She used wit and gentle satire to prose questions concerning women's lack of rights in the male-dominated world.
Her fictional spokeswoman, Samantha, wife of Josiah Allen, speaks in a rustic dialect, poking fun at all sorts of claims and pretensions. Samantha cannot understand why men are trying so hard to protect women from the effort it takes to walk to the polling booth and slip a piece of paper in a box. She has noticed that these same protective instincts do not apply to churning butter, baking bread, and washing clothes, which she observes take considerably more effort.
Samantha Allen challenged the status quo of social and political reality of the times and planted herself squarely on the side of sensible women's rights. She raised questions concerning history's treatment of women and their powerlessness before the law. She insisted that a woman, upon marriage, gave up control of her body, her property, her wages, even her personal possessions. She was not allowed to testify in court, sue, contract, hold title to property, sign papers as a witness, or establish businesses. A wife's will had to be signed by her husband in order to be legal. Husbands, even proven drunkards, had control of children after a divorce and were generally able to secure a divorce on broader grounds than were women.
No less a women’s rights leader than Susan B. Anthony once urged Marietta Holley to use her fame as an author to speak to Congress on behalf of suffrage. In a letter dated January 1886, Anthony writes, “I believe you could speak if you would try, and move the hearts of these lawmakers just as you do in your books.”
As the 19th century wore on, women began to challenge more and more of the restrictions and conventions of society. They went to school; they became ministers, lawyers and doctors; they gathered together, spoke and wrote about suffrage and the need for taking their equal place in society.
The suffrage battle was waged on a number of fronts. The National Women’s Suffrage Association was formed in 1869 by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The NWSA’s goal was to gain universal women’s suffrage through a federal amendment to the US Constitution. In 1878 the Susan B. Anthony Amendment was introduced in Congress to grant women the vote. The Senate only voted on the proposition once in the 19th century, defeating it 34 to 16 in 1887, with 25 Senators not voting.
Lucy Stone formed the American Women Suffrage Association in 1869, dedicated to the securing suffrage through the states. Under the Constitution, each state had the right to determine who could vote. Women’s suffrage movements were started in most states to convince the legislatures to permit suffrage. National women’s rights advocates, like Carrie Chapman Catt, traveled extensively, training local women in lobbying techniques and building the support necessary to achieve suffrage in the states. The first woman suffrage law in the country was passed in the territory of Wyoming in 1869.
Near the end of the century, the NWSA and AMSA merge to form the National Women’s Suffrage Association, in 1890. This organization became the main suffrage organization which worked to gain women the vote. Just three years later, Colorado became the first state to adopt a state constitution granting women the vote.
Activity intensified across the country during the first years of the new century. In New York City, the first large suffrage parade was staged in 1910 by the Women’s Political Union, an organization with over 40,000 working women members. Efforts in each state continued, with California voters choosing suffrage by just 3,587 votes (about one vote per precinct!) in 1911. In 1912, 20,000 marchers in the suffrage parade in New York City were watched by half a million onlookers. The 1912 parade had 20,000 women and 500 men marching down New York’s streets.
Suffrage activity occurred in the rural counties of New York, as well. Carrie Chapman Catt came to Canton, NY in May, 1914, to conduct a school for suffrage workers at the first woman's suffrage convention ever held in St. Lawrence County. Between 500 and 600 people come to the Opera House to hear her speak.
The first suffrage parade held in Watertown, NY on June 13, 1919 started with six out-of-town organizers dressed in yellow. Organized by “General” Rosalie Jones, the women marched through the streets, accompanied by a woman drummer, attracted other marchers who joined along the parade route. The event ended with a number of speeches and gained favorable coverage in the local newspaper, the Watertown Daily Times, who wrote an editorial approving voting privileges for women, especially at the local level.
Jeanette T. Moffett, a 44 year old native of Watertown, agreed to take charge of organizing the first suffrage group in the city. Two months later, she was granted permission to have a suffrage booth at the Jefferson County Fair. She assured fair organizers that her booth was for educational rather than political purposes; no candidates would be making speeches.
Miss Moffett lead the Watertown organization for two years, organizing and serving as part of the Jefferson County delegation to the 1914 NYS Women’s Suffrage Association convention in Rochester. Her immediate successor was Elizabeth Babcock.
Another Jefferson County woman prominent in the suffrage movement was Eleanor Terwilliger Lamon. A graduate of Syracuse University, she taught school in Gouverneur before moving to Watertown in 1905. She was active in the Watertown Suffrage League and an accomplished public speaker. She continued to work for suffrage, speaking before local groups, and lobbying the state legislature. In later years she was a founder and president of the Northern New York Federation of Women’s Clubs, dying in 1947 at age 72.
Two years before the passage of the 20th amendment, New York State permitted women to vote in 1918. In Watertown alone, 1,450 women registered to vote, with 6,328 registering in the rest of Jefferson County. The first chance to vote occurred in the village elections on March 19. In Carthage, more women than men voted; in Massena and Canton, about one-third of the votes cast were by women.
A woman was on the ballot in Sacketts Harbor. Republican Anna McQuaid Mason was elected the mayor by a fifteen vote margin. Of the 179 ballots cast, 69 belonged to women. A 57 year old native of Picton, Ontario, she had come to Watertown to work as a nurse in the 1890’s. She remained in office for just one term.
In 1919, the national women’s suffrage amendment passes the House of Representatives by a vote 304 to 89; the Senate passed it 56 to 25. The amendment was ratified on August 26, 1920, guaranteeing American women citizens the right to vote. Suffrage activists organized the League of Women Voters in 1920. Carrie Chapman Catt served as the first president of the League, which worked to educate American women in the intelligent use of their newly-won franchise.
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