New York Magazine’s Bedford + Bowery: On Women’s Suffrage Centenary, Some Feminists Push for a Constitutional Convention







November 7, 2017

By Diego Lynch

On Women’s Suffrage Centenary, Some Feminists Push For a Constitutional Convention

Yesterday marked 100 years since women won the right to vote in New York State. Activists used the occasion to urge New Yorkers going to the polls today to vote yes on Proposition 1, which would authorize, for the first time in 50 years, a convention to amend the state constitution.

Standing on the steps of City Hall yesterday, Cathy Stewart, a member of the League of Women Voters, noted that in 1917, women’s suffrage passed by way of a referendum, hammering home the importance of a convention that would allow citizens to pass constitutional amendments. Her words resonated, since the League of Women Voters is the successor to the National American Woman Suffrage Association, which fought for women’s suffrage up until the 19th amendment was successfully passed in 1920.

“The women’s movement took to the streets to demand full voting rights when the political establishment was unresponsive to 50 percent of the population,” said Stewart, arguing that the constitution needs to extend democracy. “Our elected officials are more likely to be indicted than to lose elections.”

However, the roughly three dozen people gathered at City Hall yesterday were a far cry from the hundreds of thousands that marched for suffrage in New York a century ago. Back then, the state was home to some of the country’s most influential feminists, and Seneca Falls hosted the nation’s first women’s rights convention, in 1848. Before then, the movement for women’s suffrage was mostly confined to western states; not until 1917 was there a successful referendum in New York. Its passage was contingent on male voters, after considerable activism from both women and male “suffragents.” 

Dr. Anna Shaw and Carrie Chapman Catt, founder of the League of Women Voters, lead an estimated 20,000 supporters in a women’s suffrage march on New York’s Fifth Ave. in 1915 . (AP Photo)

State law mandates that every 20 years, the option of a constitutional convention is offered on ballots. In 1977 and 1997, New Yorkers voted against the convention, but this year it’s polling yes. If that polling holds, New Yorkers will have the opportunity, next November, to elect some 200 delegates who, in April of 2019, would engage in months of debate before putting proposed amendments up for vote in a referendum.

Proposition 1 has a broader potential for reform than did the women’s suffrage movement. Supporters are hopeful it might reshape the power structure of Albany and the judiciary, and reform the campaign finance system. Meanwhile, a substantial number of labor organizations, as well as groups like New York’s Planned Parenthood, oppose a convention, fearing that it could get out of control. In a statement, NY Planned Parenthood described the process as “vulnerable to insiders and conservative outsiders with big wallets that can make us as a state go backward instead of forward.”

Representatives of the yes campaign on the steps of City Hall.

Supporters of Prop 1 note that the referendum would give voters the ultimate say about any proposed amendments, thereby acting as a safeguard and preventing wealthy donors from buying the convention. Big money is actually against the conventions, they argue. According to Politico, opponents such as Mayor Bill de Blasiothe New York chapter of the ACLU, and various labor organizations spent $24.2 million in 2016 on lobbying for various issues and contributing to state-level candidates, while supporters such as the New York City and State Bar Associations spent just $389,000.

Many opponents of Prop 1 fear losing ground that was gained in 1938, the last time the constitution was amended.  That year’s convention sent 57 amendments to voters, resulting in an increase in deficit spending to improve low-income housing and rapid transit, a boost to the government’s power to raise taxes, and laws allowing for health, pension, and unemployment insurance.

“Getting the vote was only the first step,” said Laura Ladd Bierman, executive director of the League of Women Voters of New York State. “We need to continue our fight to achieve equality, and the constitutional convention is our best opportunity.”

Watch our video, [in the link above], to hear more from yesterday’s rally.

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The Suffragents won the Gold Medal in US History in the 2018 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was a finalist for the 2018 Sally and Morris Lasky Prize, presented by the Center for Political History.  See Summer Camp Newsletters” and Facebook posts from book-related appearances. Reviews, notices, and articles about my books are under their titles here. My articles are here.

Upcoming Events: September 23: Bentson Dean’s Lecture, College of Arts and Science, New York University. October 17: Suffragents Panel, National Archives, Washington DC.  [2020] March 27 Ephemera Society of America, 40th annual conference, Old Greenwich CT. June 4-6Métiers et professions des médias (XVIIIe-XXIe siècles),”  Université de Lausanne (Switzerland).

Happened 2019: Exhibition Opening Remarks: “Women Get the Vote: A Historic Look at the Nineteenth Amendment,“New York Society Library. February 23: Public Values in Conflict with Animal Agribusiness Practices,” UCLA Law School, Los Angeles.  March 13: The Suffragents,” Scarsdale Woman’s Club, Scarsdale NY. March 24: League of Women Voters, Albany County at the Bethlehem (NY) Public LibraryMarch 25:Judges, Lawyers, and Women’s Suffrage: Recognizing the Men Who Stood with Women on the Front Lines,” Gender Fairness Committee of the Third Judicial District, CLE, NY State Courts at SUNY Albany Law School, Albany NY. May 15: “The Republican Suffragents,” National Women’s Republican Club, New York City. August 7:  Panel, “From Emma Goldman to the Marketplace of Ideas: Marking the 100th Anniversary of Free Speech at the Supreme Court.” (page 40) AEJMC, Toronto. August 14: Webinar, National Park Service.