By SAM ROBERTS
Nov. 1, 2017
On Nov. 6, 1917, a century ago Monday, signals beamed from The New York Times Tower proclaiming the results of a state constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote.
The Times had repeatedly editorialized that letting women vote would “derange” the social and political structure, that “the grant of suffrage to women is repugnant to instincts that strike their roots deep in the order of nature.”
Moreover, one editorial said, suffragists tend to be “pacifists and enemies of preparedness.”
“The men are doing the fighting,” the editorial said. “They should do the voting.”
Two new books focus on largely neglected aspects of the campaign that had begun 69 years earlier at the Women’s Rights Convention in upstate Seneca Falls.
In “The Suffragents: How Women Used Men to Get the Vote” (Excelsior Editions, State University of New York Press), Brooke Kroeger, a journalism professor at New York University, explores the decisive part played by men, who, after all, were the only ones allowed to vote when the New York State amendment passed overwhelmingly in 1917.
In “Women Will Vote: Winning Suffrage in New York State” (Three Hills, Cornell University Press), two historians, Susan Goodier and Karen Pastorello, argue that the Nov. 6, 1917 vote in New York was pivotal to the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution three years later (after the mother of Harry T. Burn, a 23-year-old Tennessee legislator, persuaded him to cast the deciding vote for suffrage).
Both books provide breezy accounts, particularly for academic presses, of the profound historical event that had consequences later in the 20th century for civil rights and feminism.
It’s debatable how many of the men who supported suffrage were actually “used” by women. What’s indisputable is the spectrum of men who joined with the coalition of rural, immigrant, black and radical women who were at the forefront of the movement.
Professor Kroeger’s prodigiously researched book traces the role of men (who provided credibility to a movement financed by wealthy women) at least as far back as 1875, when Thomas Paine’s essay, “An Occasional Letter on the Female Sex,” was published.
The “suffragents” included the writer Max Eastman, in whose Greenwich Village apartment members of the Men’s League for Woman Suffrage in New York met; George Creel, the Wilson administration’s chief government propagandist in World War I; the educator John Dewey; the sociologist and historian W.E.B. Du Bois; Representative Charles A. Lindbergh Sr. (father of the aviator); the journalist Oswald Garrison Villard; Rabbi Stephen S. Wise; and eventually the Tammany boss Charles F. Murphy.
In 1915, after the first effort to amend the state constitution was soundly defeated, the Columbia historian Charles A. Beard urged the women’s rights advocates to shift their tactics from moral persuasion to single-minded political organizing.
“I tell you 10,000 voters will have more effect upon a Congressman than all the angels,” Beard said.
By 1916, even President Woodrow Wilson had been persuaded by his daughters to support suffrage. “A cause which could enlist the enthusiastic, devoted, idealistic support of such ladies must be wholesome,” he said.
The day before the vote, The Times published a final appeal by a leading suffragist, Carrie Chapman Catt, exhorting New Yorkers to reflect upon the fact that “our country is fighting for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own government. Vote for woman suffrage, because it is part of the great struggle toward democracy.”
On Nov. 6, New York became the 14th state to grant women the right to vote, galvanizing the movement for a federal constitutional amendment.
“May the experiment, if it is to be made, disappoint the fears and predictions of its adversaries,” a Times editorial said begrudgingly. “May the women justify by their behavior their fitness for the ballot.”
As a re-created interpretation in video:
And in the print publication Metro section of Sunday, November 5, 2017, as it appears on Page 3 and on the page, re-headlined, “From Seneca Falls to the Ballot Box.”
The Suffragents won the Gold Medal in US History in the 2018 Independent Publisher Book Awards competition.
National History Day contestants: Please read this.
Upcoming in 2018: April 22: Nassau County Historical Society at the Jericho Public Library. April 29: St. George’s School Women’s Leadership Group May 12: East Hampton Library’s Tom Twomey Series (interviewing NY Times media columnist, Jim Rutenberg) May 20: Women’s Suffrage and NYC: A Centennial Celebration Symposium: Bronx Historical Society and Woodlawn Cemetery June 14: Roosevelt Island Historical Society. July 7 East Hampton Library’s Tom Twomey Series (hosting with Sara Davison the garden author and expert Charlotte M. Frieze) : August 4: Shelter Island Historical Society.