Post, Suffragents

Maine and the Fight for Women’s Suffrage: About that 1917 Referendum Defeat

February 15, 2019


February 15, 2019


This article by Carla Charter touts Maine’s position as the 19th state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment on November 6, 1919, making it the 19th state in the union to do so. The state plans to celebrate both of these events with historical markers.




The story caused me to navigate to Maine suffrage centennial site, where this capsule version of the state suffrage battle history is posted:

The suffrage movement in Maine largely mirrored the national campaign. It was overwhelmingly white and upper class, and splintered into different camps. There was a strong “anti” coalition in Maine as well, equally energized and vocal, predicting dire consequences for family life and the social fabric if women were to enter the political realm. Men lined up on both sides.

For years, Maine suffragists faced defeat after defeat, as the all-male legislature repeatedly voted down measures to enfranchise women in the state. In 1917, suffragists finally succeeded in putting the question to the people as a referendum, but it was a disaster. The referendum was defeated by 36,713 to 19,428 (all male) votes. Only Auburn and Rockland voted in favor of suffrage.

When, in the spring of 1919, Congress sent the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution to the states for ratification, Maine “antis” immediately called for another referendum. Suffragists began a frantic effort to line up state representatives and push for a special session before the referendum could be held. On November 4, 1919, Governor Milliken called a special session of the Maine state legislature. By a vote of 72 – 68, Maine became the 19th state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment.



All of this reminded me that The Suffragents, which is mostly about the New York participation of men in the suffrage fight, has a  section about that 1917 referendum defeat in Maine. It was relevant because the date of that ballot, November 6, 1917, coincided with the 1917 New York referendum victory, my book’s climax chapter. That New York victory was rousing for many reasons. It broke the East Coast suffrage hex and poignantly so, because of the measure’s decisive defeat two years earlier. The 1917 win for New York’s women citizens also brought the largest bloc of pro-suffrage support yet into Congress, helping to tip the balance away from the antis. The delegation’s presence  became a key turning point toward the federal suffrage victories of 1919 and 1920.

Maine, where a re-ballot under law would be decades away—exemplified the fear that victory would never come. Why had Maine’s campaign done so poorly?  The state’s suffrage campaign manager gave seven different reasons, highlighted in the text below, excerpted from The Suffragents:



For the New York suffrage movement, the next harbinger was not a good one. It came from Maine. Despite endorsements for a state suffrage amendment from President Wilson, former president Theodore Roosevelt, two former senators, and a former attorney general, Maine’s voter referendum failed resoundingly on September 10, by a vote of nearly two to one. The Maine state campaign manager, Deborah Knox Livingston, gave seven reasons for the defeat: not enough time to educate the public; the “natural prejudice” of the people of Maine against anything new; no declared support from either political party; a very light vote; the militants in Washington; the war; and the opposition’s control of the “purchasable vote,” that is, votes made possible by paying for them in money or in favors or offers of positions. She estimated that the antis had controlled between 15,000 and 20,000 of these votes, significantly tipping the balance.

In Washington, one of Maine’s Republican congressmen, Ira G. Hersey, held the picketers wholly responsible for the loss. Before the election, he said, everywhere he traveled across the state, he would ask men whom he knew to be suffrage supporters how they planned to vote. Of those, he estimated that tens of thousands of them would refuse to vote, despite their pro-suffrage views, and many others would vote against the measure as a rebuke to the picketers, especially for the “Kaiser Wilson” banners.

The antis, of course, relished their victory, predicting that as Maine went, so would go New York on November 6. Malone seized the moment to emphasize why the result in Maine made passage of the federal amendment so crucial. It had taken the forces for suffrage in Maine twenty years to get the measure on the ballot, he said, and the state’s antiquated legislative structure would mean another twenty years before there was even a shot at doing so again. The only way the women of Maine could be enfranchised, he said, would be for the US constitution to allow it.

On September 16, the New York Tribune reproduced a map created by the Woman Citizen, a publication NAWSA had established with the Leslie bequest. It showed the national suffrage picture in graphic form. In eleven states, women had full voting rights (Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas). In six, they could vote in presidential elections (Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, North Dakota, Nebraska). In one, they had primary election voting privileges (Arkansas). From Maine all the way down the eastern seaboard with a westward swish across the south, was a swath of black nothingness all the way to New Mexico. (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico.) Five states not highlighted on the map had given women municipal suffrage, the legend explained. Four had given bond suffrage, and seventeen, school suffrage.

The Boston Globe, in its analysis of the Maine defeat, pointed out that all the states where women had voting rights were well to the western side of the country, none closer to the East Coast than Ohio, with its presidential-election-only allowance. The eastern front remained “unpierced.” The newspaper reminded readers that New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts (and Pennsylvania, which it neglected to mention) had defeated previous referenda. The Missouri River, the effective suffrage frontier line, the Globe said, had become “an astonishingly wide stream.”

[Sources: “The Eastern Front Still Unpierced.” Boston Globe, 11 September 1917, 6; “Maine Suffrage Defeat Analyzed.” Christian Science Monitor, 18 September 1917, 9; “Lays Maine Defeat to ‘Picketing.’” NY Times, 16 September 1917, 6; “Suffragists Calm in the Face of Defeat.” NY Times, 12 September 1917,  9; “The Maine Election—and Suffrage.” NY Tribune, 16 September 1917, p. D3. 



Charter’s article showcases the suffrage work of Florence Brooks Whitehouse, whose great-granddaughter, Anne B. Gass, wrote a book about her, titled, Voting Down the Rose: Florence Brooks Whitehouse and Maine’s Fight for Women’s Suffrage.

Charter cites Gass for Whitehouse’s bio sketch:


She joined the Movement in 1913, was a member of the Maine Branch of the National Woman’s Party and from 1914 to 1916 chaired the Legislative Committee of the Maines Woman’s Suffrage Association. She threw her lot in with the more radical suffragists, which made her unpopular in the then conservative Maine. She picketed President Wilson in Chicago and Washington, D.C. In editorials, she defended the more radical tactics of the Woman’s Suffrage Association.



Florence Brooks Whitehouse (Library of Congress)



But here’s the part that made me perk up:


Her husband Robert was very supportive of his wife and the cause, forming and chairing a Men’s Suffrage League.


So Maine had an active Men’s League, too, like so many of the other Men’s League’s chapters across the country (35 states worth and New York especially), and no doubt populated in large part by “suffrage husbands.” Prominent, influential, powerful ones. Whitehouse, for example, was a former state US Attorney. (Still trying to locate a photograph of him.)

On Digital Maine, I did find a clipping of his essay, “The History of Man Suffrage,” which you can read here:



The History of Man Suffrage



Maine had at least one suffrage son, too, one of the two in this family. From the Maine ACLU site, which devotes a page to Florence Whitehouse and her suffrage leadership in the state, comes this anecdote about her husband one of her sons, Robert Whitehouse, Jr., whose photo I did find:



Robert Whitehouse, Jr.



Together with her husband, Robert Treat Whitehouse, who was himself president of the Men’s Equal Suffrage League, she raised her three sons to support women’s voting rights, too.

In a letter from her son, Robert Whitehouse Jr., to Mr. Frederick Hale, who represented the U.S. Senate from 1917 to 1941, Whitehouse Jr. urges Senator Hale to vote in favor of adopting the 19th Amendment:

Just a line to express my sincere wish that you will vote for the Federal Amendment of Women Suffrage in our old Uncle’s domains. It seems to me rather inconsistent to say the least that we should claim to be the greatest example of democracy and close our eyes to the far superior advance of Russia, Canada, and England along these lines … Please know that I have written this note without instigation from my mother, but it is my sincerest personal wish that you will do your best in helping our old Uncle to get into line.

March 26 [1919]

Images of letter: Florence Brooks Whitehouse collection, Maine Historical Society

Hale was amongst one of the 56 Senators to vote for the Amendment’s adoption on June 5, 1919.

Thank you, Google Alert.