The Path to Women’s Right to Vote in 1920
By Bill Jeffway
A version of this article ran in the Northern and Southern Dutchess News / Beacon Free Press November 20, 2019.
On August 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution was fully adopted, and women in the United States gained a right to vote that was equal to men. As a way to acknowledge the milestone, DCHS is putting the spotlight on the broader issue of women’s history in Dutchess County through a year-long program called, “2020 Focus: Women’s Voices & Talents.” Launching in January, the plan is to develop talks, exhibitions, booklets, yearbook articles and educational materials for teachers and students to the degree interest and support is found.
The influence of two distinct characteristics of Dutchess County are clearly seen: Quaker thought, individuals and teachings, especially in the 19th century -- and Vassar College, especially in the early 20th century. The tipping point is accelerated by the "World War."
Described as the largest Quaker population outside of Philadelphia in the 1800s, Dutchess Quakers were not only large in number but operated a highly regarded Quaker School, the Nine Partners Boarding School, in Millbrook.
Quakers were plain in dress, but ahead of their time in thought. Quakers believed in equal education among boys and girls. They banned slave ownership by “Friends” or members in the 18th century, while New York State allowed slavery until 1827. Quakers allowed women to travel as ministers in the 18th century while the handful of women seeking to be preachers in Churches of Dutchess in the 19th century were, for the most part, rebuffed. In general, the Quakers’ focus on “truth” accorded women greater authority and respect.
Of the five organizers of the landmark meeting in Seneca Falls in 1848, four were Quakers, including Lucretia Coffin Mott. Given that motivations were based so much on broader principles, we find in the earlier years of the effort to establish equal rights for women, there was great overlap with the issues of the abolition of slavery, Native American rights, peace, temperance, and children’s health and education.
While the Quaker faith went into decline after a major internal split in 1828, called the Hicksite Separation, there is abundant evidence that local women of Quaker faith expressed their principles and energy through very effective secular organizations or other religious faiths such as the Universalist Church. Examples follow.
The Town of Milan’s Julia Wilbur was arguing for the equal pay of women teachers in 1857, specifically citing statistics that women were paid only “one half” or “one third” of what men were paid for the exact same work. The Town of Clinton’s Elizabeth Powell Bond became Dean of the Swarthmore College, a Quaker College, for 25 years. Also from Clinton, the licensed preacher, the Rev. Amanda Deyo of the Universalist Church, was among only a handful of women in the country so licensed.
A victory of sorts was achieved when women got the right to vote in New York State for school positions (only), effective 1880. There were perhaps six locations in the entire state where women dared to vote. One of them was in Millbrook. When Oak Summit was known as “Coffin’s Summit,” named for the Quaker family of Lucretia Coffin Mott, it appears it was her family ties and influence prompted six brave women to vote.
Lucretia Coffin Mott was greatly influenced by her education in Millbrook at the Quaker Nine Partners Boarding School where she was a student and then a teacher. She was involved in movements to abolish slavery but found a certain conference on the topic did not allow women. This is said to have accelerated her activities for women's equality, including the right to vote. Library of Congress.
Local Quaker women such as the Town of Clinton's Elizabeth Powell Bond (above left) and Amanda Deyo (right) poured their Quaker principles and energy into women's equality in different ways. Bond became Dean of the Quaker College, Swarthmore, for a quarter century. Amand Deyo became one of the very few women licensed preachers. She was with the Universalist Church.
Laura J. Wylie emerged in 1910 as a visible advocate for women's suffrage, while at Vassar as Professor of English. She headed the local Equal Suffrage League. When New York State suffrage was won, she channeled her energy into leading the local Dutchess County City and County Club. Photo Vassar College.
Dr. Grace Kimball served as Vassar College Assistant Physician from 1896 to 1900 but is best known for leading the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) for 41 years. She was one of two women on the County Defense Council in World War One and the only woman in the state to lead a county military census operation.
As almost an afterthought, the Governor of New York decided to suggest that women sit on each county Defense Council in 1917. He suggests drawing from the Suffrage Party. The county council in turn advised towns to have "at least one woman" on their town level councils.
Vassar College influence
In terms of the visible role of Vassar College in suffrage, there is greater visibility only after 1910. In the earliest years of Vassar College, the founder himself, Matthew Vassar, heard suffragist, abolitionist, thought leader and speaker Anne E. Dickinson give a talk at the college in April 1868 entitled, “Idiots and Women.” This was a reference to the law that denied the vote to “criminals, paupers, idiots and women.” Noting in his diary that he felt some sympathy with the words of Dickinson, Matthew Vassar died two months later.
Vassar College students and faculty were strongly encouraged to refrain from visible political activity, which included suffrage. In the period when women gained the right to vote in school elections (only in 1880, the women who were active locally were the more “ordinary” women of Dutchess County, not the elite women of the river estates. Not Quakers.
The women knocking on doors, insisting on their right to vote when denied at the ballot box, demanding to see judges, religious leaders and politicians by showing up at their offices, were women of modest means who were wives of carpenters and freight loaders whose homes were right alongside the railroad tracks in Poughkeepsie.
Helen M. Loder, for example, documents at length, for our benefit, the arguments being made for and against the granting of a license to preach to Katie Lent by the Poughkeepsie District of the Methodist Church in 1878. While the license is granted by the Poughkeepsie District, it is revoked two years later by the National Methodist Conference. Perhaps as a kind of revenge, Katie Lent emerges subsequently as Mrs. Katherine Lente Stevenson, in a major worldwide role with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, traveling to all parts of the world, having written a song that remains an anthem to this day. All the women mentioned will be among the women DCHS profiles next year.
An announcement in the Poughkeepsie Eagle News of 1909 shows the caution taken as the elite started to be more visible arguing for suffrage. Among the participants of a pro-suffrage meeting were several who would emerge as very visible leaders, including Dr. Grace Kimball, Vassar Professor Lucy Salmon, and Poughkeepsie Mayor John Sague. The newspaper felt it necessary to report, “It is said that not all of them are actually committed to woman suffrage, but all were willing to be patrons and patronesses.”
The more elite women of the county, and Vassar College, did become more visible after 1910, perhaps from the sheer scale of the pressure to allow suffrage that was growing everywhere. The transition from President Taylor to the more liberal President McCraken at Vassar in 1914 was a watershed moment. The emergency of World War in 1917 demanded that all women step up in literally life or death roles and pushed the suffrage effort into full view and over the top by 1920. The Governor specifically required at least two women to be on each county Defense Council.
"World War" is tipping point
Dr. Grace Kimball (for whom Kimball Road is named in Poughkeepsie) arrived in 1896 to serve at Vassar College as Asst. Physician. She left that position after four years. In addition to her private medical practice, Dr. Kimball was head of the Young Women’s Christian Association for 41 years. As part of the YWCA, she was involved in the creation of the local “League for Women’s Service” in 1917 to support the war effort. She was highly praised as the only woman in the state to lead the county’s military census in 1917 and was a member of the county Defense Council.
Vassar Professor Laura J. Wylie emerged as a leader in the suffrage movement in 1910. She was head of the local chapter of the National Equal Suffrage league from that time which did everything from have formal dance events in the Masonic Temple that taught “proper technique” of the waltz and tango, to have outdoor rallies outside the factories of Beacon. A New York State 1915 referendum on women’s suffrage failed, but a 1917 referendum passed, allowing women to vote in state elections in 1918. It was typical that after New York State suffrage was achieved, Wylie focused less on the next step of national suffrage for women, and more on the specific tasks at hand locally. She, and other women, worked specifically through the “Women’s City & County Club” of Dutchess County. The League of Women Voters emerged as another post-suffrage group that remains active to this day.
If you have stories, letters, or photographs that touch on these topics and individuals, please contact or Bill Jeffway at firstname.lastname@example.org so can include them in the stories we share in 2020.
Our program "2018: Year of the Veteran" in Dutchess County marked the 100th anniversary of the end of fighting in WWI. Through it, we laid the foundation for an ongoing commitment to create a platform for the voices of veterans. That platform today is comprised of a permanent online exhibition, our "I served..." oral history program, and through our Education & Learning Center's classroom study materials, "Over Here, service and sacrifice in WWI."
Likewise, as part of an ongoing commitment to create a platform for the voices and talents of the women of the county, on the 100th anniversary year of national suffrage for women, we shine a spotlight for 12 months under the program name, "2020 Focus: Women's Voices & Talents" in Dutchess County. With a view to having the research, programs, exhibitions and Yearbook articles published become an evolving, curated series on this enormous topic.