The Augusta Sun-Journal reports on plans in Maine to host an exhibition for the US suffrage centennial in 2020, a century since the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. It’s also no surprise the state museum has titled the exhibition “Women’s Long Road,” not only because it took a century of concerted activism for all US women to be granted the franchise, but because of how doubly difficult the journey was for the women of the state. Maine’s own suffrage referendum bid went down to defeat on September 10, 1917, pointing up why the passage and ratification of the federal amendment was so crucial.
The Suffragents includes passages that address the fight for a state suffrage referendum in Maine. It comes in Chapter 10, as part of a larger discussion of one of the most important “suffragents,” Dudley Field Malone, one of the country’s great orators, the young attorney President Woodrow Wilson appointed as Collector of the State of New York. That prestige post was offered in part to reward Malone for his key role in Wilson’s 1912 election victory. Malone had campaigned hard for Wilson among the recently enfranchised women of California, promising them that Wilson would come around to supporting the federal measure.
Malone was so incensed over the August 1917 arrest and jailing of Alice Paul’s National Woman’s Party White House picketers (likely in part because his clandestine lover, Doris Stevens, was among them) that he marched into the Oval Office to express his fury to Wilson, both over the arrests and the president’s inaction on suffrage. Malone abruptly resigned his prized patronage post.
In his remarks to reporters on the White House steps, Malone decried the jailing of the women on a technical charge of obstructing traffic, calling it a denial of their constitutional right to petition for passage of the federal amendment “It therefore becomes my profound obligation actively to keep my promise to the women of the West,” he said.
Why was the federal amendment so necessary? Malone explained that more than 20 states had already effectively disallowed their women citizens from voting, either by defeating the measure in referendums or never bringing the matter to a vote. In fact, by September of 1917, in 11 states women had full voting rights (Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, Kansas); In six, they could vote in presidential elections (Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, North Dakota, Nebraska) and in Arkansas, women could vote in primaries only. Five states gave women municipal suffrage, four for bonds and seventeen for schools. Only federal action could fully enfranchise them and all the others with no rights at all. Given that the United States had entered World War I the preceding April, Malone argued that turning the country’s women into voters was also an “urgent war measure.”
Malone went on:
But unless the government takes at least the first step towards their enfranchisement, how can the Government ask millions of American women educated in our schools and colleges, and millions of American women in our homes or toiling for economic independence in every line of industry, to give up by conscription their men and happiness to a war for Democracy in Europe, while these women citizens are denied the right to vote o the policies of the Government which demands of them such sacrifice?
He had a clarion call for men, too:
I think it is high time that men in this generation, at some cost to themselves, stood up for the the national enfranchisement of women.”
In the state-by-state campaign, the next suffrage harbinger was a pr0found disappointment from Maine on September 10, 1917. Despite Wilson’s endorsement of the measure (Wilson was always pro “states’ right” on the question of women’s suffrage), along with former president Theodore Roosevelt’s and those of two of the state’s senators and a former attorney general, the measure was soundly defeated on September 10, 1917. The vote was nearly two to one. Deborah Knox Livingston, the state campaign manager, gave seven reasons: too little time to educate the public, the “natural prejudice” of the state’s residents toward anything new, no declared support from either the Democrats or the Republicans, light turnout, the militant suffragists protesting in Washington, and the opposition’s control of the “purchasable vote,” that is votes bought by favors or the offers of positions. She estimated that the antis controlled somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 of these votes, which made a significant impact.
Maine’s Republican congressman, Ira G. Hersey, put all the blame on the White House picketers. He said as he traveled the state, every man he asked who was a suffrage supporter was putting aside his support because of his anger over the picketers. Malone explained why Maine pointed up why passage of the federal amendment was so crucial. It had taken the forces in Maine 20 years to get the measure on the ballot, he said, and the legislative structure of the state was so antiquated, it would take another 20 years to even have a shot of doing it again. The only way the women of Maine could be enfranchised, he said, was for the US Constitution to allow it.
The Boston Globe pointed out that all the states where women had the vote were in the West at that point. The Maine defeat left the East Coast “unpierced.” That is, until the victory in New York two months later, on November 6, undoing New York’s referendum defeat of two years earlier and providing the momentum (and 44 new pro-suffrage votes in Congress) to help make a congressional victory possible in 1919.
Video, event summaries from recent talks in Reports from the Road.
2021 Events: “The Branded Journalist: Nellie Bly Changes the Game.” [VIDEO of TALK] Ephemera Society of America, Jan. 14, 2020, 3pm. Nellie Bly: Pioneer of Investigative Journalism.” American Woman Writers National Museum, March 10, 2021, at noon. Empire State Center for the Book, March 18, 2021, 7pm.