December 15, 2016

Falling Forward

Carol Kammen, Tompkins County Historian

“We fall forward,” said women in New York in November 1915 when the suffrage bill failed by 80,000 votes. After that initial stumble, two years later New York voters passed the 1917 Suffrage Amendment. President Wilson then changed his position on the issue of women voting and in August 1919 Tennessee became the third-sixth and final state to approve the amendment with a one-vote margin.

We will celebrate the victory of the suffrage amendment to the United States Constitution in 1917 and again in 1919 but it is important to remember the steps that preceded it, the debates, parades, the speakers, and its defeat in 1915. There is the statewide story to be told, but there is also the local.

One way to explore this campaign is through local newspapers. The value of doing this is to tap into the local response, to see how the debate over voting played out in our hometowns, and to discover unrecalled local advocates and heroes and even to learn about the voices of dissent.

Also to be discovered are how the national and state campaigns translated to the local community. Matching the dates with local documents—letters, images, voting records. We can match those hometown documents with holdings in the State Archives to understand the issues and the times. Were many of us to do this, pooling our efforts we could create a mosaic of state voices and experiences concerning suffrage, and how great would that be!

In Ithaca and Tompkins County there is a phasing of attention paid to the question of suffrage that can be tracked through the Ithaca Journal. It begins in the winter of 1915 and then again that fall, leading up to the November election.[1]

In January there was a Suffrage Tea where the thirty women present decided to canvas one street to ask residents their stand on the issue of suffrage. Two days later Anti-Suffragists met and Clara E. Markeson, an anti-suffrage organizer insisted that, “a great majority of Ithaca women are opposed to suffrage.” They were, she added, “not the kind of woman to come out in public as they don’t make as much noise as suffragists.” She too, was making a study of local conditions. She inserted a cautionary note, sizing up the people she had talked to by economic and social strata, saying that the “highest class of women would not vote as generally [would] a lower class of women.”[2]

The next week in Washington, the U. S. House of Representatives defeated the Suffrage Bill by thirty votes with the weak justification that it “violated state sovereignty.”[3]

On February 7 the New York Times ran an editorial titled “The Woman Suffrage Crisis,” in which it insisted that it was the “duty of men” to see that women are protected. “If bad laws hamper and afflict” women, the editorial ran, “men should bestir themselves…for it is the privilege of men to care for the women.” The paper advised that the amendment be voted down ‘lest women suffer from “needless political turmoil.” Men, insisted the paper, “need to postpone the evil day” when women might vote.[4] Postpone, of course, is an interesting comment implying that woman suffrage was inevitable but men, should hold back the incoming tide.

Carrie Chapman Catt returned from England to New York in 1915 to lead the fight for suffrage, which included a giant Suffrage Parade in New York City. In Ithaca, Miss H. A. Sill[5] spoke about the parade and Mrs. G. S. Porter talked of the approval of suffrage in Idaho, something that men had passed as a “simple matter of justice to wives, sisters, and mothers.” Juanita Breckenridge Bates, leader of the Ithaca Suffrage Party described local activities, the club voting $100 for the county effort and of a “Hallelujah Day” celebration to mark the New York State Senate’s resolution to put the issue on the ballot. At that point, the Ithaca Journal editorial commented that, women “have their chance, at last.”[6]

Mrs. P. R. Pope at a joint meeting of the Political Study Club and the Cornell Equal Suffrage Club gave a talk titled “The New Viewpoint.” She noted that the current European war was taking a great toll on women and children and that while “masculine civilization had provided machinery for destruction” it was “women [who] build up civilizations.” As women were the “natural trustee for lives of humanity,” she insisted, then they deserved a larger participation in municipal, national and international politics.[7]

In March, Helen Brewster Owen emerged as an important suffrage speaker traveling around the state to promote the cause. Born in Kansas in 1881, Helen Brewster was the daughter of a suffrage worker and as a child she had helped her mother pass out posters promoting the vote. She graduated from the University of Kansas and when a graduate student at the Chicago University she met and married Frederick W. Owens. In 1907 her husband became a professor of mathematics at Cornell. Helen Owens began suffrage work in Ithaca in 1909, received her PhD in mathematics from Cornell in 1911, and worked as a suffrage organizer for the N.Y. State Woman Suffrage Association.[8]

The Antis, as they were dubbed in the newspaper, countered with a meeting at Barnes Hall on the Cornell campus, to which “all are invited.” Ronald Hugins an instructor in the Political Science Department at Cornell presided; the speaker was Miss Lucy Price, a Vassar graduate, who insisted that Suffrage was a “backward step” for women, demanded by a minority of women while the majority was against voting. She argued that women would simply double the vote and that in doing so would break down the barriers between “two bodies of people, equal in intellect and ability whose interests are the same but services are different.” Women, she insisted were not oppressed and going to the polls would create a “disadvantage for women.”[9]

There were other voices reported in the local press. Rabbi Stephen Wise of the Free Synagogue of New York wrote an editorial, reprinted in the Journal, noting that women had not been consulted about the war then raging in Europe, yet the children of women were being killed and maimed and women bear life long sorrow. He wrote, “In the “enfranchisement of women everywhere lies the ultimate peace of the world.” President Howard Taft, speaking in Ithaca insisted that he was neutral on the suffrage question and that “when I talk with an anti suffragist, I am in favor…and when I talk to a suffragist, I am against.”[10]

To understand the voices against granting women the vote, listen to Roman Catholic Cardinal Gibbons of New Jersey who in July 1915 publicized his opposition to suffrage, stating that the “ballot would drag women from her domestic duties into the arena of politics, and rob her of much of her charm, goodness and true influence.” He believed in gender roles and that in voting women would lose all that “is amiable and gentle, tender and attractive.” She would lose that “inner grace of character…and give [her] nothing in return but masculine boldness and effrontery.”[11]

The suffrage question, never dormant, picks up again in September with amplified rhetoric. The newspaper offered a long poem that began with the line proving to be anti-immigrant as well as anti-suffrage: “If you think she knows as much as the steerage Turk and such, Let her vote.” Subsequent verses substituted “foreign bedlamite,” “burglar brotherhood,” “holdup man,” or “thug,” then insisted that if you could abide those people voting, you should “Let her vote.” In effect: let all the riff-raff into the voting booth women among them. Not a very appealing concert to some.[12]

At an Ithaca Woman’s Club meeting, Mrs. M. L. Barstow (most likely Marjorie, a widow) led off with three reasons why women should vote. She observed that women train the next generation; that they would vote for men of high moral character, and they would keep track of new laws. The Political Study Club erected a large banner at the County Fair showing the states that allowed woman to vote. New York was not yet among them.[13]

The pro suffrage faction held meetings, lectures, and awarded a chicken to the man who made the best argument in favor of suffrage.[14]

The day before voting the suffragists sent out lecturers to speak around the state, stating that one million women in the state want the vote, while the Anti’s insisted that the amendment would fail as men in New York City, Buffalo, Rochester, Utica, Albany and Watertown would vote it down.[15]

Women did go to the polls on Election Day in 1915. In Tompkins County, more than 200 women served as poll watchers. They were cautioned by the Woman’s Political Union and the Woman Suffrage party, according to an article picked up by the Ithaca Journal, not to “bubble with exuberance” at polling places, not to wear fluffy ruffles and to “make yourself small” because polling places were apt to have limited space. They were not to ask for favors, to talk, or to “jog the chair of the inspector.” They must have conducted themselves well for there is no follow up complaint in the paper![16]

Voters turned out on Election Day. In Tompkins County 6,427 men cast their ballot. There was a difference of one vote in the Town of Ulysses (280 against to 281 in favor) while in the county the amendment passed by 150 votes but it failed across the state as the anti’s had predicted.[17]

An interesting question is just which men voted for the Suffrage Amendment. The Anti’s expected immigrant men, Roman Catholics, and Democratic machine politicians who had no interest in opening up the franchise or to “clean up politics,” to defeat the Amendment. Perhaps they did. Some men—and men were the only voters at the time—surely thought it only fair that their wives and especially their daughters have a say in the democratic process.

Two years later the result was different. Women did fall forward and brought others with them. In 1917 New York voters returned to the polls and voted quite differently. 1917 is the story to be celebrated--but 1915 is not to be forgotten for it is very much part of the struggle to expand the democratic process to everyone.[18]





[1] Many local newspapers are currently available Online, but often paper and microfilm copies can be found in local archives and libraries. The following quotes come from microfilm of the Ithaca Daily Journal held at the Tompkins County Public Library.

[2] Ithaca Daily Journal, January 2, 5 and 7, 1915.

[3] Ibid., January 15 and 21, 1915. Although it should be noted, that at the same time the House of Representatives passed the prohibition amendment, which might also have been viewed through the lens of state sovereignty.

[4] The New York Times, February 7, 1915. The editorial also insisted that women “lack the genius for politics,” just as men have an “unhandiness in housewifery.”

[5] No first name is given, but Miss Sill was probably the daughter of Professor H. A. Sill, member of the Cornell faculty, Ithaca Directory, 1916.

[6] Ithaca Daily Journal,  February 2, 4, and 6, 1915.

[7] Ibid.,  January 19, 1915. The Ithaca Directory identifies P. R. Pope as a professor at Cornell University; the 1915 New York state census identifies his wife as Elfrieda Pope, age 37 and the mother of two.

[8] The Helen Brewster Owens Papers can be found at the Schlesinger Library, Harvard University. A chronology of her life and contents of her papers can be

 consulted Online at There is a Wikipedia biography, also Online and notes that Helen Brewster Owen was the first woman to hold a faculty position at the university. For some of her local activities, see Ithaca Daily Journal, March 26, 1915. See also Carol Kammen, “Women battled a long time for right to vote,” Ithaca Journal, July 4, 2015.

[9] Ithaca Daily Journal, February 9 and 13, 1915.

[10] Ibid., March 4 and 15, 1915.

[11] Ibid., July 1, 1915.

[12] Ibid., September 1, 1915.

[13] Ibid., September 11, 20 and 22, 1915. The credit for the poem was ‘Exchange.” There were two M.L. Barstow’s in the Directory and the state census.

[14] Ibid., September 8 and 13, 1915.

[15] Ibid., November 1, 1915.

[16] Ibid., November 2, 1915. The article carries a New York  [meaning City] dateline.

[17] Ibid., November 4, 1915. In the City of Ithaca the Amendment passed by 196 votes while the towns of Dryden and Caroline voted against suffrage.

[18] The New York State Council for the Humanities and its allies have campaigned for recognition of the expansion of the suffrage laws to include women. Their activities can be followed on Facebook  Facebook "NY Women's Suffrage Centennial and at where their programs, grants and ideas are posted.