New York, then the nation’s most populous state, generated reform movements in the nineteenth century that swept across the country like whirlwinds, changing the face of America. Among them was the women’s rights movement.
We all know the names of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and Carrie Chapman Catt. The first three were born and raised in Upstate New York—Stanton in Johnston, Montgomery County; Anthony in Battenkill, Washington County; and Gage in Cicero, Onondaga County. Catt moved to Briarcliff Manor in Westchester County in 1919, in time to lead the national movement to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. Some of us might also know Belva Lockwood, born in Lockport, Niagara County; or Paulina Wright Davis, born in Bloomfield, Ontario County; or Dr. Mary Walker, born in Oswego, Oswego County; or Emily Howland, from Sherwood, Cayuga County. Some might be surprised to learn that Frederick Douglass, perhaps the most famous African American of the nineteenth century, was among these New York State women’s rights advocates. Born in Maryland, Douglass settled in Rochester, New York, where he published the national antislavery newspaper The North Star, whose motto was “Right is of no sex. Truth is of no color.” In 1888, Douglass referred to the women’s rights movement as “our cause” and noted his “satisfaction” at having supported Stanton’s resolution for woman’s suffrage at the Seneca Falls women’s rights convention in 1848. The work of these women and men led to the creation of a nationwide movement for woman’s suffrage.
Many of these national leaders have become iconic figures. But they could not have been successful without the millions of Americans who worked for equal rights and suffrage at the grassroots level in communities across the nation.
In New York State, their numbers were remarkable. In 1894, for example, suffragists organized a huge petition drive to support woman’s suffrage in the proposed New York State Constitution. They collected names from 600,000 people, about one-quarter of New York State’s adult population in 1890. A comparable figure today would be about 4.9 million people. They lost.
In 1915, suffragists printed 7,230,000 leaflets and a million suffrage buttons, urging New Yorkers to vote yes on a state referendum for woman’s suffrage in 1915. They lost.
In 1917, more than a million New Yorkers (again about 25 percent of the total adult population) signed a petition for woman’s suffrage. Suffragists held 20,000 meetings across the state. Finally, they were successful, and New York State adopted woman’s suffrage in time for women to vote in the November 1917 election. Women voters turned out in large numbers. “On Election Day, the day of days,” noted one source, “it seemed that every woman not suffering from Spanish influenza voted.”1
But who were these hundreds of thousands of people? Until recently, we have generally told the suffrage story from the perspective of sources collected by the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Organized in 1890 with a merger of the New England–based American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) and the New York–based National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), NAWSA included hundreds of thousands of workers all across the country, organized into a huge and well-coordinated national movement. Most of these were Protestant Christian women of European descent, and the voluminous records collected by NAWSA and its supporters, including the six-volume History of Woman Suffrage, document primarily the work of these women.
But as we begin to use more and different sources—including online newspapers, microfilmed records of the National Association of Colored Women, and historic sites—to document woman’s suffrage, we realize that suffrage was not monolithic. This movement, like most historical events, was complex. It was full of shifting personal alliances and debates over tactics, strategies, and arguments, involving many kinds of people with sometimes competing agendas. Suffrage supporters included women and men of all ages, wealthy and poor, gay and straight, of many different racial/ethnic groups. And it changed significantly over time and from one geographic area to another.
Woman’s Suffrage in New York State
Before the Civil War, New York State was at the cutting edge of changes so dramatic that people called them revolutions—in transportation, industrialization, and social organizations such as family, work, and religion. Rapid in-migration on new turnpikes, canals, and railroads brought people from various culture hearths on the East Coast of North America, Western Europe, and Western Africa into close proximity with each other—not only in New York City but also in central and Western New York.
Differing in cultures, these new immigrants used both politics and religion to shape their understandings of the world. They used political and religious values to make sense of the vast changes in lifestyle that they faced due to churning economic and social change. The Declaration of Independence, with its assertion that “all men are created equal,” became a rallying cry and a strong motive for reform. So did Christian beliefs, that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
A “ferment of reform” engulfed Upstate New York between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. So constant were the fires of religious revivals and reforms that this region became, as historian Whitney Cross noted, a “burned-over district.” To understand this ferment of reform, “to grasp the motives of the reformers, the nature of their work, their successes and failures, is to understand much about the American nation as a whole,” wrote C. S. Griffin.2
The movement for woman’s suffrage was forged in this crucible. It was part of a larger movement for women’s rights in every area of life. And women’s rights, in turn, were part of a wider emphasis on equal rights for all people—for Native Americans, poor and working-class people, and most especially for African Americans.
Most important for nurturing early women’s rights activity were movements for the abolition of slavery and for the legal rights of married women. Advocates for these two causes came together on July 19–20, 1848, in Seneca Falls, New York, to create the first women’s rights convention: the beginning of the organized women’s rights movement, including the movement for woman’s suffrage. Here, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, supported by Frederick Douglass, formally introduced resolutions demanding women’s right to vote.
The high point of this coalition for equal rights for all people came in 1866–69, when abolitionists and women’s rights leaders—essentially the same people—organized the American Equal Rights Association in New York City to “secure Equal Rights to all American citizens, especially the right of suffrage, irrespective of race, color, or sex.” (Important background: In 1863, Stanton and Anthony had organized the Women’s National Loyal League, which collected almost 400,000 names on petitions to abolish slavery. It was a major step toward passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. Their reward? When Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment, guaranteeing equal rights to all citizens, it also included the word male, the first time this had been done in any amendment to the Constitution. Passage of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1870 was the last blow. It read: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” There was no mention of women.) The noble coalition dedicated to universal rights and universal suffrage without regard to race, color, class, or sex exploded.
Many advocates of woman’s suffrage felt abandoned and betrayed. In May 1869, those opposed to the Fifteenth Amendment, led by Stanton and Anthony, organized the all-female National Woman Suffrage Association, headquartered in New York City, to work for a sixteenth amendment to the Constitution, ensuring that women of all ethnic backgrounds could vote as well as men. The New York State Woman Suffrage Association (NYSWSA) became an affiliate of the National Woman Suffrage Association. Those who supported the Fifteenth Amendment as a step toward full citizenship suffrage organized the American Woman Suffrage Association in Boston to work for state-by-state woman suffrage amendments. As noted above, these two organizations joined in 1890 to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), supporting suffrage at both state and national levels. NAWSA was almost entirely dominated by middle-class women of European descent. It did, however, include a few others—African American women such as Sojourner Truth, Hispanic women such as Nina Otero-Warren, Native women such as Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Bonnin), Asian women such as Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, and Eastern European working-class women such as Rose Schneiderman.
By the 1890s, African American women began to organize for woman’s suffrage as part of the women’s club movement. In New York State, they began to advocate strongly for woman’s suffrage. Susan Smith Garnet, Verina Morton-Jones, and others organized the Equal Suffrage League in Brooklyn in the 1880s, for example, to advocate for suffrage. Hester Jeffrey organized the Susan B. Anthony Club in Rochester. In 1896, local African American clubs joined to form the National Association of Colored Women. By 1904, the National Association of Colored Women took up the cause, and local clubs all over the country began to work for woman’s suffrage.
As New York City began its exponential growth in the late nineteenth century, woman’s suffrage leadership also began to gravitate from Upstate New York to downstate. With only two exceptions, NYSWSA continued to hold its annual meetings in Upstate New York, including the Hudson Valley. By 1909, however, national organizations were centered in New York City, drawing new suffrage allies, including wealthy women such as Alva Belmont; men such as Max Eastman and Rabbi Stephen Wise, who organized the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage; immigrant and working-class women such as Rose Schneiderman of the Women’s Trade Union League; and social reformers such as Lillian Wald. Other women broke away from NAWSA to join the more radical Woman’s Party, led by Alice Paul, to picket the White House during Wilson’s administration.
“New York was recognized as an immensely difficult State to win,” noted the History of Woman Suffrage, and the task called for “almost superhuman” efforts. Those efforts came from women and men—upstate and downstate, of various ethnic and racial backgrounds, Christian and Jewish, wealth and working-class, rural and urban, old and young. They led first to the unsuccessful statewide referendum for suffrage in 1915 and then to the successful 1917 adoption of a woman’s suffrage amendment to the New York State Constitution. Mobilized by an enormous and immensely effective campaign, immigrants, working-class men, soldiers, and sailors led suffrage to victory in 1917, helped by withdrawal of opposition from the Democratic political machine in New York City. New York State became the first state east of the Mississippi to approve votes for women.3
Historic Sites and Woman’s Suffrage
Historic sites are one of the sources that help us understand in more nuanced form the development of the women’s suffrage movement in New York State. Physicists talk about spacetime—a four-dimensional construct that merges the three dimensions of space with the one dimension of time. Spacetime helps physicists understand the universe. A similar concept helps historians understand the past. In effect, spaces that survive into the present act as bridges across time. They allow us to travel through time as well as through space, to inhabit past times while we remain in present spaces.
Two projects in particular use historic sites to help us understand the woman’s suffrage movement. The first is the National Votes for Women Trail (www.nvwt.org). This trail, a project of the National Collaborative of Women’s History Sites, is built around a crowd-sourced database. One goal is to identify 2,020 historic sites relating to woman’s suffrage across the nation by the end of 2020. Another goal is to highlight 250 of these sites with historic markers funded by the William G. Pomeroy Foundation. Anyone is invited to add suffrage sites to the National Votes for Women Trail database and to nominate sites, in conjunction with state coordinators, for a marker from the Pomeroy Foundation. These nominations are reviewed for historical accuracy by a scholarly advisory committee, with assistance from project historians funded by the federal Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission.
A second historic site project focuses specifically on woman’s suffrage in New York State. Funded by Preserve New York (a project of the New York State Council on the Arts and the Preservation League of New York State), this project was sponsored by the Ontario County Historical Society. As Principal Investigator, I worked with database manager Dana Teets and local historians throughout central New York to produce a survey of suffrage sites in that area. The database and historic context statement are online through the Ontario County Historical Society (https://www.ochs.org/womens-suffrage/).
What can historic sites tell us about both the importance of New York State in the suffrage movement and the diversity of suffrage activists in New York State? They help us understand four main attributes of the suffrage movement.
First, they illustrate in a powerful way the intersectionality of reform movements before the Civil War and the origins of suffrage in the crucible of reform in antebellum Upstate New York. Abolitionism was the most important parent of women’s rights. Because the abolition of slavery was a moral as well as a political movement, it attracted women in large numbers. Among them were Sarah and Angelina Grimké, who began as abolitionists and then had to defend their rights as women to speak. Arguments for equality of all people, without regard to color, applied as well to equality without distinction of sex. “Men and women were CREATED EQUAL; they are both moral and accountable beings, and whatever is right for man to do, is right for woman,” wrote Sarah Grimke in 1838.
Today, it is hard to find any historic site relating to women’s rights and woman’s suffrage in antebellum Upstate New York that does not also relate at least to abolitionism and the Underground Railroad and often to other reform movements as well. The Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, for example, was not only the site of the first women’s rights convention in 1848 but also the location of abolitionist and temperance meetings. The 1816 Farmington Quaker Meetinghouse (in Farmington, Ontario County) nurtured women’s rights advocates who helped organize the Seneca Falls meeting. It also welcomed speakers who promoted abolitionism and Seneca Indian land rights. The village of Sherwood in Cayuga County was a nest of abolitionists, women’s rights advocates, Native American supporters, and freethought advocates. Frances Seward used her home in Auburn as an Underground Railroad site, and she also supported property rights for married women. Gerrit and Ann Smith in Peterboro hosted reformers of all kinds. And there are many more examples.
Second, historic sites related to suffrage illustrate in three dimensions the changing geography of the woman’s suffrage movement. Such sites are scattered over the landscape from Buffalo to Long Island.
Hundreds of suffrage sites remain in upstate communities, reflecting their continuing grassroots commitment to women’s voting rights. From 1890–1917, the New York State Woman Suffrage Association held twenty-six of its twenty-eight annual meetings in upstate cities. Places such as the Geva Theater in Rochester, the site of the Shredded Wheat Company in Niagara Falls, the former Presbyterian Church in Oswego, the Ontario County Historical Society in Canandaigua (built as the public library), the First Baptist Church and Sage Chapel in Ithaca—and many others—still stand to commemorate this work. Immigrant and working women in Upstate New York also became active suffragists. Worksites such as the Valentine Sauter Shop at 464 Clifford Avenue in Rochester and the Women’s Educational and Industrial Unions in Buffalo, Rochester, and Auburn commemorate their commitment.
In New York City, the Woman’s Bureau building still stands at 49 East Twenty-third Street, where Stanton and Anthony organized the NWSA and published their newspaper The Revolution in 1869. From 1909 to 1917, both state and national suffrage organizations congregated in New York City. In 1909, Alva Belmont rented an entire floor at 505 Fifth Avenue, corner of Forty-Second Street, for headquarters of both NAWSA and NYSWSA, which moved its headquarters from the home of Harriet May Mills at 1074 West Genesee Street in Syracuse. In 1911, NYSWSA moved to 180 Madison Street. NAWSA later moved to 171 Madison Avenue. Suffragists held huge meetings in Cooper Union and Carnegie Hall. Beginning in 1910, they organized enormous parades down Fifth Avenue. They held impromptu meetings at subway stops and East River piers. W. E. B. DuBois, a suffrage supporter, opened offices in 1910 for The Crisis at 20 Vesey Street.
Third, historic sites highlight the importance of specific churches and colleges, both as suffrage meeting places and as promoters of the movement. Alfred University, for example, was a hotbed of support for abolitionism, women’s rights, and woman’s suffrage. Cornell University graduates such as Harriet May Mills and Isabel Howland became major suffrage supporters. Sage Chapel at Cornell hosted suffrage meetings. Suffragists held meetings, at least one of them biracial, at the Michigan Street Baptist Church in Buffalo. Annis Ford Eastman, a strong suffragist and the mother of the reformers Crystal and Max Eastman, was pastor at the Brookton Congregational Church in Tompkins County and Park Church in Elmira. Hester Jeffrey organized the Susan B. Anthony Club at Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Rochester, where Anthony gave her last public speech before her death in 1906.
Fourth, historic sites illustrate the diversity of suffragists throughout New York State. The largest number of suffragists were protestant Christians of European descent, often affiliated with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. But significant numbers of suffragists were African Americans, first-generation immigrants, working class, and/or Jewish. A few Catholics also joined the suffrage movement. New York State’s suffrage amendment in 1917 would not have passed without their active support.
Historic sites show this diversity clearly. Many sites suggest the continued activism of African American suffragists. Mary Talbert, president of the National Association of Colored Women from 1916–1920 and winner in 1921 of the NAACP’s coveted Springarn Medal, was a member of the Michigan Street Baptist Church in Buffalo. Hester Jeffrey was associated with Memorial AME Zion Church in Rochester. Lifelong suffragists of color formed the Equal Suffrage League, which met at a Brooklyn YMCA at 405 Carleton Avenue.
Mabel Ping-Hua Lee was a Chinese American suffragist who rode in the 1912 suffrage parade in New York City. She was associated with the Baptist Church in Chinatown as well as Erasmus Hall Academy in Brooklyn and Barnard College in Manhattan. St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Canandaigua, New York, was associated with Father James T. Dougherty, a charter member of Ontario County’s Men’s League for Woman Suffrage. The Cooper Union in New York City was the site of many suffrage meetings that crossed boundaries of class and culture. In 1912, for example, the Wage Earners Suffrage League of New York joined with college suffragists in a huge suffrage meeting, addressed by labor union suffragists such as Rose Schneiderman, Leonora O’Reilly, and Maggie Hinchey. Male suffragists walked in Fifth Avenue parades and spoke eloquently in the halls of the New York State legislature and the U.S. Congress. Luther Mott and Ruth Johnson Mott, who lived at 64 Fifth Street, Oswego, represent suffrage couples, as she organized local and regional suffrage activities and he spoke for suffrage in the House of Representatives.
This movement, with support from grassroots suffragists all over the nation, culminated in the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Signed on August 26, 1920, seventy-two years after the Seneca Falls convention, it read: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
Notably, this amendment said nothing about denial of voting rights for reasons other than sex. Poll taxes and grandfather clauses continued to be commonly used to restrict voting rights, especially for people of color. It was not until 1924 that Native Americans were considered citizens (if they chose to be). It was not until 1952 that Asian Americans were granted citizenship. The 1964 Voting Rights Act put federal power behind expansion of voting rights to all people. But the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder gutted these protections. Since 2013, twenty-three states and many localities have passed restrictive voting laws. Gerrymandering, poll closings, restrictions on absentee voting, and lack of transportation continue to challenge voting rights for American citizens.4
“One person, one vote” is the basis of our democracy. Historic sites can tell us much about the fight for universal suffrage in the past. May they also challenge us to continue working toward free and fair elections in the present.
1 Tessa Melvin, “1917: When Women Won the Right to Vote,” New York Times, November 1, 1987.
2 C. S. Griffin, The Ferment of Reform, 1830–1860 (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 1967).
3 History of Woman Suffrage, VI: 471, 475. For overviews of the suffrage movement in New York State, see Susan Goodier and Karen Pastorello, Women Will Vote (Ithaca: Three Hills Press, 2017); Julia Corrice, Susan Goodier, and Sally Roesch Wagner, Recognizing Women’s Right to Vote in New York State (New York Heritage Digital Collections, May 14, 2018), https://nyheritage.org/exhibits/recognizing-womens-right-vote-new-york-state.
4 “Voting Rights: A Short History,” Carnegie Corporation of New York, November 18, 2019, https://www.carnegie.org/topics/topic-articles/voting-rights/voting-rights-timeline/.