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.

NHD contestants: Please read this.

Upcoming events: Nov. 20: Brookhaven League of Women Voters. March 4: Westchester County League of Women VotersMarch 10: Keynote, Joint Journalism & Communications Historians Conference, New York City. April 15: Nassau County and Farmingdale-Bethpage historical societies at the Farmingdale Public Library.

The Suffragents in the news: The New York Times, The New York Daiy News,  Smithsonian VIP, Kirkus FeaturesKirkus Reviews,  The American, Town & Country, the East Hampton Star, the Gotham Center for New York City History: articles 1, 2, and 3, the Schuster Institute for Investigative Reporting, Foreword ReviewsHudson River Valley Review NYU FeaturesWomen’s Media CenterSuffrage and the Media Futurity, Non-Fiction’s The ScoopOpzij magazine (NL), Good Men Project.

Podcasts: Unorthodox  . . .  AmericasDemocrats . . . Top of Mind with Julie Rose .  . . NYU Center for the Humanities 

Event Video: NY Society Library, Facebook Live of the Tom Twomey Lecture in Local History, and of the Porter Square Books event in Cambridge.

Parting shots (my “summer camp newsletter” event posts): Book launch events with tons of photos of Sept. 1 Sept. 11  and Sept. 14   . . .  comment about the Sept. 28 joint appearance with Angela P. Dodson at the NY Society Library  . . . and about the NY Genealogical & Biographical Society Fall Luncheon Oct. 10  . . . and the  Oct. 14 panel at the AJHA Convention, Little Rock, Ark with Jane Marcellus, Tracy Lucht, and . . . and  a panel I hosted for the annual East Hampton Library’s Tom Twomey Lecture in Local History Oct. 19 with moderator Judith Hope and presenters Antonia Petrash and Arlene Hinkemeyer.  . . . Here’s  my post about Oct. 22 at the Woodlawn Cemetery & Conservancy . . . and  I posted about an Oct. 26 “talk back” at special performance at the NYU Black Box Theater  for Nancy Smithner’s “Hear Them Roar: The Fight for Women’s Rights”  . . .  Here’s a post about the weekend of Nov. 4-5 signing books in the Hudson Valley and in Albany for the 2020: Commitment to the Vision Conference and opening of the New York State Museum Suffrage Exhibition . . . On Nov. 6, the actual anniversary of the vote for suffrage in New York State, I spoke at the Brentwood Public Library. I also posted about the Nov. 7  NYU Center for the Humanities panel with Gail Collins and Christoph Irmscher, “When Modern Men Became Feminists”  . . .  and about the Nov. 10 panel for the Gotham Center for New York City at the CUNY Grad Center, with Susan Goodier, Dawn Scibilia, and Lauren Santangelo, hosted by Peter-Christian Aigner . . . Here’s one about my Nov. 16 appearance in the Book & Bottle series of the Suffolk County Historical Society & Museum . . .  and another one about our Nov. 17 panel at the Researching New York conference in Albany with Bruce Dearstyne and Robert Sink, moderated by Rob Snyder.