Support for women’s suffrage emerged in a way that reflects our county’s unique make-up

This article is part of a year-long program recognizing the 100th anniversary of national women's suffrage, other articles here:

In the 19th century, Quaker influence  was foundational to the NY State movement for women's suffrage. In the early 20th century, the coming together of voices from Vassar College, the river "estate" elite, and the working class, made women's suffrage in NYS a reality two years ahead of a national right to suffrage.

By Bill Jeffway

Using the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention as the starting point, and the 1917 successful referendum in New York State as the endpoint, a pattern emerges in the local movement to gain women's suffrage that reveals a distinct combination of communities in our county.

In the 19th century, Dutchess County had the largest Quaker population outside of Philadelphia, largely in the middle or eastern part of the county, where they sought refuge from interference.

Four out of the five women organizers of the Seneca Falls Convention were raised Quakers. One of them, Lucretia Coffin Mott, had attended the Nine Partners Boarding School in what is today Millbrook. There she became a teacher and met the man she would marry, who was also a teacher at the school. She often referred to the  importance of the school in her education and thinking. Her sister, Martha Coffin Wright, was another of the five organizers.

Mott Nine Partners

Above: Lucretia Coffin Mott was both a student and then a teacher in the Quaker Nine Partners Boarding school in what is today Millbrook. Sketch of school, DCHS Collections.

In practical terms, as actions emerged and steps were taken that moved the cause for women's suffrage forward, three important votes can 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. It did not gain majority support in Dutchess County in either year. New York women gained the right to vote two years before a US Constitutional Amendment made it a national right in August of 1920.

1896 Women School Tax 4w

Above: Property tax lists, such as this 1896 Town of Clinton School District No. 3 with names like Marietta and Emma, reflect women's payment of taxes, supporting the argument against "no taxation without representation," at least in school elections. DHCS Collections.

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 voter records exist for the 1880 election, so we rely largely on newspaper accounts. We learn there was a small amount of activity, and the activity in rural areas was in Quaker strongholds.

Coffin Summit in Millbrook, named for the Quaker family of Lucretia Coffin Mott, now Oak Grove, saw a woman nominated to be school trustee. Six women voted, but the female candidate lost. Born in Nantucket in 1793, Lucretia Mott spent formative years there as a student and teacher.

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 "Friends" memberships in the county, helping to make Dutchess County the biggest Quaker population outside of Philadelphia. 

Stanford's election of a School Trustee involved candidate Henry Carpenter advocating for the hiring of a woman teacher. Despite reported good turnout among women supporting him, he was defeated.

In Union Vale we find perhaps the most extraordinary story. 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 characteristics of many women who became candidates the first year they could in all local elections in 1919.

In East Poughkeepsie, six women voted. Most seem to have been students at Vassar College, among them, "Miss Wheeler," who is said to have attended with her parents. 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 stands to this day.

On April 26, 1868, the Quaker Anna E. Dickinson spoke at the invitation of  Maria Mitchell on women’s suffrage in her observatory at Vassar College. 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 on 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 first year women were allowed to vote, restricted to school elections, the activity came in Quaker strongholds Stanford, Coffin Summit and Union Vale. Near Vassar College. With rebuffed attempts in Poughkeepsie.

Three Wards in Poughkeepsie reported activity. In Ward 5, "Mrs. Welton" was refused. In Ward 6, two unnamed women were refused registration. In Ward 3, Helen M. LoderMariam Culver Mosher and Mary Mott all tried to register but were rebuffed.

Helen Loder was a very active, very visible voice from the working class who took on extraordinary legal, logistical and public relations efforts. In 1884, when Belva Lockwood ran a symbolic effort to become US President, Helen Loder was on the "ticket" as a Congressional candidate.  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 organization launched and effectively operating in the city. She seems to have been 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 who emerged as candidates and activists. But in the 19th century, Loder, who died in 1903, was not able to engage her fellow working class voices to the degree they became engaged in the 20th century.

Vassar College Professor Maria Mitchell as prevented from speaking publicly in favor of women's suffrage, it was deemed "too political" by the board and president. DCHS Collections.

Mitchell invited fellow Quaker Anna Dickinson to speak at a gathering in her observatory in 1868. Matthew Vassar left just before she started to speak. Library of Congress.

Poughkeepsie's Helen Loder engaged lawyers, wrote profusely in national women's suffrage publications, and was on the ticket of the, Equal Rights Party 1884 as a congressional candidate.

1915 and 1917 NY State Referenda

By 1915 a broad coalition had formed. Working class women emerged, Vassar College students and faculty were no longer muzzled, and the "estates" elite took very visible leadership roles. Women's high profile work once the US declared war on Germany in April of 1917 helped push the suffrage case to a "yes" in November 1917.

At a state level, there were gains in both NYC and upstate NY.

At a county level, there was increased support, but not enough to reach a simple majority.

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.

DCHS Sadie Peterson 1915 Quill

Sadie Peterson read a poem in support of women's suffrage in 1914 at the AME Zion Church in Poughkeepsie, as part of the local women's suffrage group's outreach to African American male voters.

Elite voices & leadership

Aldrich Norrie Spingarn

Pageants & Parades became an important way to engage the working class

Jones Pilgrimage 1912

Above: Rosalie Jones leads a march from New York City to Albany the last weeks of December 1912, a precursor to the historic march on Washington DC the following spring. Right: The pilgrims in Poughkeepsie.

Far right, 1914 parade and pageant at Amenia Field Day courtesy Amenia Historical Society.

Poughkeepsie Pilgrims 1912
Amenia Suffrage 1914 parade
EPSON scanner image

Vassar College voices become important after 1910

Laura J. Wylie, above left, moved from suffrage leadership role, to civic political action between 1910 and 1917. The home she shared with her partner, Gertrude Buck, above right, who was also a Vassar College Professor, became a frequent meeting place of the suffrage and local political movements.

While the emergency of World War One was allowing women to be seen in very successful, but highly unusual roles, such as farming and manufacturing, and the emergence of working class voices, is added the voices of faculty and students at Vassar College.

One professor in particular, Laura J. Wylie, organized and led the local Equal Suffrage League, and after 1917 transitioned into the leadership role at the City & County Women's Club. Rather than focus on any remaining state that still prohibited women from voting, local women immediately turned their focus and energy to the many social matters they had said they wanted to address once they had the vote.

Women Who Stepped Up As Candidates

Board of Elections records before 1927 were destroyed by a fire. As a result, information here is no doubt incomplete as it pieced together through newspaper accounts and DCHS Collections materials which are incomplete.

Women Candidates 1880 to 1900

Women Candidates 1919

Women Candidates 1919 Continued

We hope you enjoyed this look at where support for women's suffrage emerged in our county. Our large Quaker community put a high priority on equal education and helped create a foundation. The voices of Vassar College, the "river elite" and the working class, converged on that foundation led initially, with Quaker leadership.

This article is part of a year-long program recognizing the 100th anniversary of national women's suffrage, other articles here: