The Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, establishing women’s right to vote, was adopted on August 26, 1920. The centenary of this event is being broadly celebrated throughout 2020. As its contribution, the Freethought Trail—the Council for Secular Humanism’s online commemoration of radical social-reform activism in west-central New York State—will unveil about forty new site-specific pages tied to the suffrage campaign in the region from time to time during the year.
The Trail is for anyone who wants to learn more about often-obscure radical reform history. But it’s especially for history buffs who yearn to visit the physical sites and “stand where history happened.” It focuses on “What happened here?” and “What’s there now?”
Why should this regional history matter to Free Inquiry’s national readership? During the peak years of suffrage campaigning, New York was far and away the nation’s largest state. The national suffrage movement was largely led by New Yorkers; it originated in a radical church in Seneca Falls, a Finger Lakes–region mill town, in 1848. New York had the nation’s best-organized state-level suffrage campaign organization, which in turn possessed the best-organized network of regional, county, and city-level affiliate groups. As for the region, west-central New York, extending roughly from Rochester to Utica, was a hotbed of radical social reform throughout the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth. This region played the same role in the nineteenth century, as the nation’s cauldron of reform and social bellwether, that Southern California did in the twentieth century. So, the battle for suffrage in this region captures issues of clear importance.
Throughout 2020, Free Inquiry will offer readers previews of some of this new historical material, often before it “goes live” at freethought-trail.org.
Specifically, the new material chronicles annual conventions of the New York State Woman Suffrage Association (NYSWSA). Fifty-two such conventions took place between 1869 and 1920; seventeen of them were held between 1890 and 1914 in west-central New York. The fact that more than 30 percent of the conventions were held between Rochester and Utica—even in smaller cities such as Hornellsville (now Hornell), Oswego, Geneva, and Ithaca—speaks to the importance of the region, especially considering that the sites beckoning a convention beyond the region included New York City; Buffalo, in 1900 America’s eighth-largest city; and Albany, the state capital.
These state-level conventions were in every sense national affairs. Suffrage pioneer Susan B. Anthony, a Rochester resident, headlined almost every such event until her death in 1906. Other speakers who addressed multiple conventions included Anna Howard Shaw, a licensed physician and ordained minister; Lillie Devereux Blake (1833–1913), who held NYSWSA’s presidency for eleven years beginning in 1879; and Carrie Chapman Catt (1859–1947), longtime president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and, after the Nineteenth Amendment’s adoption, a founder of the League of Women Voters. Regionally prominent figures included Elizabeth Smith Miller (1857–1936) of Geneva and Harriet May Mills (1822–1911) of Syracuse, among many others.
This first installment will preview upcoming Freethought Trail coverage of NYSWSA’s conventions in Hornellsville (1903), Binghamton (1913), and Rochester (1914).
About That Singular …
Contemporary readers may find curious repeated references to “woman suffrage” and “woman’s rights.” Nineteenth-century convention was to refer to women as a class by the singular, woman or woman’s. The convention today is to use the plural, women or women’s; this usage emerged early in the twentieth century. A revealing example is the National American Woman Suffrage Association, which used the singular when founded in 1890 but adopted the plural in 1920 when it became the League of Women Voters. This article uses the singular as it would have been used in the period under discussion.
NYSWSA’s thirty-fifth annual convention was held in Hornellsville, then a bustling rail and manufacturing center, on Tuesday through Friday, October 20–23, 1903. Plenary sessions were held at Westminster Presbyterian Church (erected 1900). Speakers included Susan B. Anthony, Anna Howard Shaw, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Harriet May Mills. Other venues included the Page House, a hotel where business meetings were conducted, and the Joseph B. Woodbury residence, site of a gala reception.
NYSWSA’s forty-fifth annual convention was held at the Centenary Church (now Landmark Church) in downtown Binghamton on October 14–17, 1913. Reflecting the influence wielded by regional activists within the statewide organization, this convention was sited in Binghamton owing solely to the outsized activism from two Binghamton suffragists at the preceding year’s convention in Utica. It is the only NYSWSA convention site in west-central New York (so far) to have been recognized with a historical marker.
NYSWSA’s forty-sixth annual convention was held in Rochester on Monday through Friday, October 12–16, 1914. Carrie Chapman Catt presided over a convention that included a ninety-minute “motor car” tour of the city and a “pageant parade” of delegates. The Powers Hotel was the site of plenary sessions and was also the convention’s headquarters. Two mass meetings were held at Convention Hall, and a reception was held at the then-new Susan B. Anthony Memorial Hall on the University of Rochester’s original city campus.
My deepest thanks to local and regional historians who have been so helpful to my research, including William Keeler, Melissa Mead, and Alice Taychert. Center for Inquiry Libraries Director Tim Binga has been nothing less than heroic in chasing down the most obscure details.