By Bill Jeffway
Numbers from the early votes related to women’s suffrage in our county reveal some of its hallmarks.
Let’s look at three important times that Votes for Women! could be measured at the polls. In 1880 women were granted the right to vote and be candidates in school elections. In 1915 and 1917 statewide referenda on women’s suffrage were put to the male voters. It failed at a state level in 1915, but won at a state level in 1917. New York women gained the right to vote two years before a US Constitutional Amendment made it a national right in August of 1920.
The 1880 school vote was not a vote on the subject of women’s suffrage, but rather an outright granting of the right to certain women, in school elections only. Part of the argument was that women owned property and paid school taxes, and therefore deserved representation. There was also a general comfort with the idea that women knew what was best for children. But there was a great deal of confusion, also. Women were surprised to learn that by marrying a foreign national, they had lost their American citizenship. Despite being born in the US they could not vote. Certain cities (like Poughkeepsie) argued that the right did not extend to cities, only rural areas. Women armed with legal arguments disagreed but were barred from voting in Poughkeepsie.
No solid records exist for the 1880 election, so we rely largely on newspaper accounts. We learn there was a small amount of activity. In Coffin Summit (later Oak Grove, Millbrook), “six women voted…” In Stanford, “…a number of women voted…” In East Poughkeepsie, “six women voted…” Interestingly all three locales have a history of supporting, even strongly advocating, women’s equal education. Those are small numbers. But I think that only makes the point that the fact that it did happen was extraordinary. In Poughkeepsie women attempted to vote but were refused.
Coffin Summit is interesting because of the fame of a certain family member. Lucretia Coffin was born in Nantucket in 1793. She became a student at the highly regarded Nine Partners Boarding School in the Town of Washington, at today’s Millbrook, where she had extended Coffin family. She finished her studies and became a teacher. Perhaps most profoundly for her, she met her husband, who was also involved with the school. She became Mrs. Lucretia Coffin Mott. Lucretia Mott was one of the five founders of the landmark 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. Four out of the five organizers grew up Quakers, whose principles involved equal education of women.
The Nine Partners Boarding School closed by the time of the Civil War. But after the war, another Quaker school emerged, for some time, just north, in the town of Stanford. Both the Town of Washington and Town of Stanford had the largest memberships in the county, helping to make Dutchess County the biggest Quaker population outside of Philadelphia. In addition, these locations had a track record in women’s equal education.
Now to the third location where women voted in 1880. Referred to as “East Poughkeepsie,” this was the location of Vassar College. Delayed several years due to the Civil War, Vassar Female College, as it was originally called, opened in 1865. While it was in no way a Quaker school like the others, influential Quakers were among its founders. Among them was the Nantucket-born astronomer Maria Mitchell, who Matthew Vassar lured to the College by building the extraordinary observatory that stand to this day.
The attemps of a handful of women to vote in Poughkeepse were led by Helen Loder, who made Hurculean efforts, legal, public relations, and grass roots efforts. Loder was a daughter of Irish immigrants, married to a railroad worker, whose home was adjacent to the railroad tracks. She tried, but failed, to get a unique and dedicated local suffrage organizaiton in the City. Perhaps a woman well ahead of her time, the hallmarks of her Irish and working class heritage would prove to be hallmarks of many early 20th century women.
On April 26, 1868, the Quaker Anna E. Dickinson spoke at the invitation of Maria Mitchell on women’s suffrage in her observatory. The fact that Matthew Vassar left the company of Miss Mitchell just before the talk began is telling. The college’s early preference for keeping women's suffrage as a topic out of college discourse grew into a strong policy until well after 1910. But in 1868 Dickinson spoke the subject of “Idiots and Women,” a talk she gave frequently. The title is informed by the fact that among the reasons someone may be prohibited from voting in New York is idiocy. And being a woman.
In the towns adjacent south of the Town of Washington we find perhaps the more extraordinary story than the women who were the first voters. A woman candidate for Clerk of School District No. 10 in Union Vale won, becoming the first woman in the county to be elected to local office. Mary Boyd Duncan was a school teacher in Dover, but lived in Union Vale. The fact that she was a daughter of Irish immigrants and a school teacher are a kind of foreshadowing of identical characteristics in many women becoming candidates the first year they could in all local elections, 1919.
1915 and 1917
Sometimes the difference between the failed 1915 referendum and the successful 1917 referendum is described as New York City emerging with many more votes for, thus tipping the balance. While it is true that urban and working class votes grew a great deal in New York City, it was true upstate in Dutchess County as well. The growth in the support for suffrage came from election districts in cities, factory or railroad towns, with the highest support in Poughkeepsie’s immigrant and working class Ward 1.
Between the two years, the percent yes at a NY State level went from 40% to 54%. Dutchess County went from 40% to 48%. Within Dutchess County among election districts the highest support was Poughkeepsie’s Ward 1 at 73%. And its weakest support was in the Hyde Park hamlet of Staatsburg at 32%.
The 1917 referendum saw all of the 1915 supporting districts remain for, with one exception that was ironically in the stronghold of Stanford. Fourteen of the nineteen newly-supportive election districts were in cities or factory towns, specifically, six election districts in Poughkeepsie, five in East Fishkill, two in Beacon, one in Wappinger. This is consistent with a general trend of the working class, railroad class, and urban coming out to vote in support in 1917 where they had not in 1915.
Five out of the twelve 1919 women candidates we were able to identify were daughters of Irish immigrants. Anna Hewitt Rozell, our county’s first woman to win a contested local election was a school teacher.