Post-Fair Suffrage Campaigns

From Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz -- Online Notes For The Book

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This Note reflects my research into the suffrage campaigns in New York and California, with particular emphasis on the New York Constitutional Convention of 1894.


New York

For more on New York political history in this period see On-line Note: New York Politics and the Public Defender Bill.

General Description

Descriptions of the suffrage campaign in New York in 1894 and of the new society women who joined it are found in 3 HWS, at 847-50. The main source for the story in Chapter Six of the text is 2 IDA HUSTED HARPER, LIFE AND WORK OF SUSAN B. ANTHONY 759-79 (1898) [hereafter HARPER ON ANTHONY]. Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote about the campaign in her Diary, excerpted in 2 ELIZABETH CADY STANTON: AS REVEALED IN HER LETTERS, DIARY AND REMINISCENCES 303-09 (Theodore Stanton & Harriot Stanton Blatch eds., 1922); see also, KATHERINE DEVEREUX BLAKE & MARGARET LOUISE WALLACE, CHAMPION OF WOMEN (1943) (biography of Lillie Devereux Blake by her daughters); Ellen Carol DuBois, Working Women, Class Relations, and Suffrage Militance: Harriot Stanton Blatch and the New York Woman Suffrage Movement, 1894-1909, 74 J. AM. HIST. 34 (1987), reprinted in ELLEN CAROL DUBOIS, WOMAN SUFFRAGE & WOMEN’S RIGHTS 171 (1998).

The New York campaign focused on a constitutional convention scheduled for the year 1894. Months before the convention Anthony and other leaders were speaking six nights a week, in the metropolis and in every city, town, and hamlet. The women gathered 600,000 signatures on their petitions, including many names from the upper reaches of society. To the press and the old-guard suffragists, the advent of socialites was a little startling. As Harper observed, this class of woman “surrounded by every luxury and carefully protected from contact with the hard side of life” had never shown any interest until “all of a sudden they seemed to awake.” “Woman suffrage is the one interesting subject of discussion in the whole fashionable quarter,” she wrote, quoting a newspaper columnist. HARPER ON ANTHONY, at 764-65.

The rich leisured women had “awakened to the fact of the other half, and of how that other half lives. They have expressed their indignation over the small salaries paid women for doing men’s work; over the dishonest men in political places, put there because they could vote and control the votes of a number of saloon loungers; over the wretched lot of the woman school teacher, ill-paid and neglected because useless on election day,” Harper wrote. The quote about “how the other half lives” is a reference to the Jacob Riis muckraking study of that name, which made a huge impression in 1886. WARD MCCALLISTER, SOCIETY AS I HAVE FOUND IT, published in the same year, and about the opulent life-styles of society people in the city, was widely reviewed at the same time. EDWIN G. BURROWS & MIKE WALLACE, GOTHAM: A HISTORY OF NEW YORK CITY TO 1898 (1999).

New York Constitutional Convention

When the New York convention assembled in May and elected Joseph Choate, the celebrated lawyer, as its President, the suffragists were hopeful. Mrs. Joseph Choate had held pro-suffrage parlor meetings and signed the card inviting people “to call at Sherry’s.” Equal Suffrage Their Aim, N.Y. Times, Apr. 12, 1894. Choate himself had spoken in favor of suffrage only a few months earlier. His opening address to the convention was thus a major disappointment.

Noting that woman suffrage was a “delicate question,” he expressed the “hope that no great amount of our valuable time will be wasted” on “utterly impracticable” projects. To make sure, Choate appointed known opponents to the suffrage committee. Though already at a disadvantage, the movement women worked hard throughout the summer of the convention and so did the opposition. Editorial, N.Y. TIMES, May 9, 1894 (quoting Choate disapprovingly and deploring the short shrift given “the really burning question of woman suffrage”).

For the first time in New York, women organized against suffrage. Despite gathering only 15,000 signatures on their petitions, these “remonstrants” or “antis” were treated as an important voice by the opponents of suffrage. Their style of lobbying featuring “champagne suppers, flowers, music and low-necked dresses,” contrasted with the earnest advocacy of the movement women. Nor could the suffragists match the kegs of beer and jugs of whiskey provided to wavering members by the liquor interests. HARPER ON ANTHONY, at 767-73.

In mid-August, the vote on woman suffrage came to the convention floor. Elihu Root, a distinguished lawyer and Choate’s right hand man, spoke against it to thunderous applause. He reminded the convention that public life was a terrible battle—and that “woman in strife becomes hard, harsh, unlovable, repulsive, far removed from that gentle creature to whom we all owe allegiance.” Choate was silent but everyone knew Root spoke for him. Philip C. Jessup, in ELIHU ROOT 178-79 (1938) comments that “his words in 1894 sound amusing today but they expressed the views which he continued to hold until the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution.”

At one point, when Choate left the chair to lobby on the floor against the women, a young delegate read his earlier pro-suffrage speech word for word, HARPER ON ANTHONY, at 771, adding that Choate’s behavior was a complete answer to “the threadbare assertion that the husband represents the wife!”

The final vote was 98 to 58—against submitting the suffrage question to the people. For Susan Anthony, it was the bitterest defeat of her life. Elizabeth Stanton wrote in her diary that history would condemn Choate and Root “when the common sense of the future throws its strong cold light into the past.” She concluded, “I have no hope if men like Choate can go against his conviction and declarations.” 2 ELIZABETH CADY STANTON AS REVEALED IN HER LETTERS, DIARY AND REMINISCENCES 303-09 (Theodore Stanton & Harriot Stanton Blatch eds., 1922).

Explaining Choate's Change in Position

Stanton and others believed Choate wanted to be Governor and needed the liquor interests, which rightly assumed that women were disproportionately in favor of temperance and even of prohibition. As to Root, he was an ideological opponent who worked against woman suffrage consistently for almost four decades. Aside from personal beliefs, many at the convention feared that the suffrage side issue would undermine or distract from more important efforts.

Specifically, they were concerned about the effect on ratification of the convention’s work and on the cause of municipal reform in New York City. The prospect of women voting could unite and spur an opposition fueled by liquor interests. Ever the careful lawyers, Choate and Root tried to eliminate uncertain outcomes. On the role of lawyers at the convention, see GEORGE MARTIN, CAUSES AND CONFLICTS: THE CENTENNIAL HISTORY OF THE ASSOCIATION OF THE BAR 159-60 (1997). EDWARD SANDFORD MARTIN, THE LIFE OF JOSEPH HODGES CHOATE 448-58 (1927) quotes many of Choate's letters while at the convention, with no mention of woman suffrage. In the end, the new constitution, which contained nothing very great or visionary, was easily ratified at the same election that produced an overwhelming victory for city reform. See On-Line Note: New York Politics and the Public Defender Bill for the background of the municipal reform movement.

Interview with Stanleyetta Titus on Winning the Vote at the Convention

Before the convention, the newly activated women had not realized how hard it would be to win the vote. Stanleyetta Titus, the first woman lawyer in the city, was typical. Interviewed on the eve of her Bar examination and before the convention, she was insouciant about suffrage, almost impatient at the questions of an interviewer. To Practice Law Her Desire, N.Y. Times, Apr. 10, 1894.

ST: Why certainly I am in favor of woman suffrage, I think women should do anything that a man can do. I belong to the Society of Friends and I have been brought up on equal rights for men and women.

NYT: Even if she is married and has home duties?

ST: Yes, why not, if she wants to? Men have home duties too.

NYT: But the women who are making a protest against the woman suffrage movement say they have too many burdens at home even to have time to exercise the privilege of voting.

ST: (“opening her eyes very wide at this statement” and speaking “deliberately”): Well, they must be cranks.

The convention experience taught Titus and the others about the nature and the depth of the opposition, and particularly that it extended far beyond a few female cranks. They also saw first-hand the difficulties of packaging the suffrage issue for political consumption. If women argued that they would reform the political system by their votes, those in power naturally objected. If they urged simple justice without specific goals, men feared the uncertainty created by doubling the electorate overnight.


General Description

For descriptions of the upswing of women’s activities around suffrage in the post–Fair period, a most thorough and well-researched account is GULLETT, BECOMING CITIZENS, at 65-106. A second, important source is Susan Schreiber Edelman, “A Red Hot Suffrage Campaign”: The Woman Suffrage Cause in California, 1896, 2 CAL. SUP. CT. HIST. SOC’Y. YEARBOOK (1995).

The post-Fair surge of interest in San Francisco started soon after the Fair ended. Civic minded men wanted to build on the spectacular success of the California Building at the World’s Fair by sponsoring a Mid-winter International Exhibition in San Francisco. In a replay of the national scene, the women were largely excluded from the planning and the main platforms of this Exposition. Instead, they set up their own Woman’s Congress, modeled directly on the one at the Chicago World’s Fair. The organization they formed developed a life of its own and “became an intellectual force for gifted women,” according to the official suffrage history. Meetings in March ‘94 were followed by “a brilliant convocation in May, a mass meeting in June, and many other “enthusiastic gatherings” throughout the next several years. 4 HWS, at 479-80; GULLETT, BECOMING CITIZENS, at 74-84 (for all of the meetings).

Foltz and Other Women Suffragists

Other useful works on women’s post fair activities are PHILIP J. ETHINGTON, THE PUBLIC CITY: THE POLITICAL CONSTRUCTION OF URBAN LIFE IN SAN FRANCISCO, 1850-1900 (1994); THOMAS BEER, THE MAUVE DECADE 42 (1926) (for the impact of the Fair on the suffrage movement); REDA DAVIS, CALIFORNIA WOMEN: A GUIDE TO THEIR POLITICS, at 78 (listing many new suffrage clubs that sprang up around 1893, and includes the Portia Law Club as one of these). On the unseemly fight between the Gordon and Blinn forces and how Anthony mediated the rift, see GULLETT, BECOMING CITIZENS, at 88-89, 94 and sources cited. See also Nellie Blessing Eyster, “California Women and Power,” 25 WOMAN’S J. (June 16, 1894). ELAINE CONNOLLY & DIAN SELF, CAPITAL WOMEN; AN INTERPRETIVE HISTORY OF WOMEN IN SACRAMENTO, 1850-1920 (1995).

Foltz had conceived the idea that women could vote by statute soon after ratification of the Constitution in 1879. She had urged it on the 1880 legislature when she was Clerk of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, briefed it in writing for the legislature in 1883, and raised it repeatedly since. See e.g., THE BAY OF SAN FRANCISCO (1892) (Foltz entry, noting that she started arguing in 1880 that “where not prohibited by the Constitution the legislature may grant suffrage to woman”).

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