Monthly Archives: October 2011

Suffrage protestor . . .

Suffrage leader Harriot Stanton Blatch cracks the whip

and tells activists “no more pink teas.”

A bad reputation for tea parties . . .

Tea receptions had a distinct function during the suffrage movement –of bringing women together, to raise funds and rally for the cause. In March of 1915, Harriot Stanton Blatch and her Women’s Political Union called upon activists to end their suffrage frills: “No more pink teas,” Mrs. Blatch said. “But direct work with the men.” Mrs. Blatch’s reaction suggests that women might have been loving their tea parties a little too much and put organizing for the suffrage general election on the back burner. Which is another reason to use the occasion of High Tea events to combine education, pleasure and discussion about the world and how we can make a special contribution in these times..

Citizen reporters and grassroots organizers have ancestors in the suffrage movement

The suffragists didn’t wait for the editors of big newspapers to recognize them. When it happened –great. But the suffs weren’t satisfied with sitting around and biting their nails. When the number of Long Island newspapers expanded at the turn of the 20th century, the women took advantage of it. Grandmother Edna Kearns was in the forefront of citizen reporters who generated a hefty amount of suffrage material to fill the news holes of local papers.

The suffs hit the ground running at a time in history when it took considerable effort for a woman to land a reporter’s job in a news room.  So they documented their own news and distributed it. The South Side Observer, for example, set aside 500 extra copies of the suffrage special issue, which the women clipped and saved. Grandmother Edna was instrumental in collecting quotes for this special issue from prominent community members who favored Votes for Women.

Suffrage advocates also published their own newspapers and newsletters; they arranged with photographic agencies to cover their events. They lobbied editors for special issues, wrote letters to newspaper editors for publication, prepared and distributed their own press releases, wrote leaflets in a variety of languages for distribution among immigrant communities. When this wasn’t enough, they carried soapboxes into the street, stood up on them, and commanded the attention of anyone who passed by.

All of this constitutes sophisticated grassroots organizing. So, for those who believe that Saul Alinsky invented community organizing, history should be rewritten to say that he stood on the shoulders of the suffragists and others. The suffs operated from outside the political system and they were brilliant in finding ways to impact it.

Women are key in peace process

Many suffragists not only worked for civil rights, but they also took stands for peace –not an insignificant position during World War I. Votes for Women wasn’t a single issue for many women in the suffrage movement. They may have worked for their own civil rights, but they viewed the struggle in a broader context. Here’s an excellent article about the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize that gives an overview of the award’s history and the significance of this year’s awards honoring three women. The piece points out the importance of women being involved in bringing about an end to armed conflict and how many peace efforts lack the participation of women altogether.

Skirts down and hair up . . . rules for marchers

Concerned in 1913 that they might be criticized for being unproper, the suffragists laid down  strict rules for marchers. See the article explaining how Mrs. James Lees Laidlaw didn’t like the looks of legs in a parade. “It looked very bad last year,” she explained, to see children’s long legs “bobbing” along. “This year we won’t allow any one in line whose skirt is more than four inches above the ground.”

Carrier pigeons sent messages to the U.S. President

Even children were on the speaking circuit to win votes for women –something important to remember. After spending “Suffrage Day” in 1914 organizing an automobile parade and open-air meetings, Brooklyn suffragists sent a Votes for Women appeal to President Woodrow Wilson by carrier pigeon. The NY Times covered the pigeon release. Grandmother Edna was busy speaking that day at Union Square Park in Manhattan. The article noted that when Edna spoke, she was accompanied by her ten-year-old daughter Serena Kearns. Edna wasn’t feeling well that day, but she dragged herself to the podium, as the article notes.

Other young girls, in addition to Serena, participated in the movement. On Suffrage Day in 1913, one such youngster (Dorothy Frooks) spoke from the podium to the hundreds of people gathered. According to the account, Dorothy had been on the suffrage speaking trail since the age of seven. The NY Times reported on another of Dorothy’s speaking engagements.

Torchlight meetings, auto parades = wagons got out the word!

Picture a torchlight meeting, an automobile parade, and open-air meeting. Huntington, New York piled on the welcome when my grandmother Edna Kearns and the “Spirit of 1776″ wagon hit town. Long Island activist Rosalie Jones drove her yellow suffrage campaign wagon in the parade as well.

Horse-drawn wagons may seem quaint to us today, but at the time it was quite a stunt for women to be out in the streets. They took advantage of the novelty by decorating their campaign wagons with Votes for Women banners. Come to think of it, a horse-drawn wagon put in the service of any cause today will attract some attention. Marketing plans were relatively new back then, and the suffrage movement activists took advantage of every opportunity to spread the word.

An article of July 27, 1913 notes that Edna Kearns’ suffrage wagon was also known as a “one hoss shay.” Geoffrey Stein, who’s now retired from the New York State Museum as its transportation curator, told me in the past that Edna’s horse-drawn campaign wagon (used on Long Island and in New York City) is representative of other such wagons used by the suffrage movement for parades, as speaking platforms, and more. Most of these wood vehicles, like the yellow wagon used by Rosalie Jones, weren’t preserved and they were put to other uses after 1920.

I’m curious. Google may be great about some things, but my search came up short when I typed in the word “votersvilles” which is mentioned in the last line of the linked article. Anyone know what this means?

Armful of weeds for the men supporting Votes for Women

It wasn’t easy being married to a suffragist. Take the article below, for example, where men were jeered from the parade sidelines and one joker handed the male marchers an armful of weeds. My grandfather Wilmer Kearns marched in that 1911 parade. And he probably had something to do with the 1915 book I found in my grandmother Edna’s archives, How it feels to be the husband of a suffragette. It’s free for a download and is available as a Google book or on archive.org

The book is funny. It’s true. It’s a great reminder about the process of social change and where change meets resistance. The article below also points out another perspective –the crowds of people watching the Votes for Women parade and how it was an enormous attraction to see women out in the streets, exposing themselves to make their point. There came a time, of course, when parades became old news. But they served a useful purpose. May 1911. from the collection of Pamela Hobbs-Glackmeyer.

A suffrage wagon named “Victory”: Look out Saudi Arabia!

The evidence of another suffrage campaign wagon known as “Victory” has surfaced in a 1915 news article about a torchlight suffrage parade in New York City. The wagon was accompanied by decorated automobiles, bands, and marchers representing different segments of society. Saudi women and others throughout the world today are curious about U.S. suffrage history and for good reason. See Bonnie Smith’s comments on the Suffrage Wagon News Channel about the curiosity of women from other parts of the world in our Votes for Women history.

The strength and power of organizing for rights can be seen in the evidence of Saudi Arabia relenting and throwing a few crumbs in the direction of its women residents. I use the word “residents” because they still have second-class status. Beginning in 2013, Saudi women can be appointed to the shura council (a policy advisory organization). In 2015 Saudi women will be able to vote and run for municipal elections. Women still aren’t full citizens, and they aren’t allowed to drive cars. If they decide to run for office on the local level, they’ll need permission from their husbands, fathers or male guardians. Reform? A baby step, perhaps.