Women’s Suffrage on Wheels!

By Bill Jeffway
This article appears in the January 29, 2020 issue of the Northern/Southern Dutchess News.

“The 72-year struggle” is how one women’s suffrage leader referred to what is commonly understood to be duration of the organized effort of women to gain the right to vote in the US. The bookends are the upstate New York 1848 Seneca Falls Convention and the August 1920 adoption of a US Constitutional Amendment.

That very long period saw two distinct generations lead the effort. In the 1890s, as one generation faded and the other emerged, there was great discussion in newspapers and in society about the “new woman.” The “new woman” was independent. She not only formed opinions, but expressed them. She was someone who acted, and dressed, differently. And she embraced “the bicycle” as both a symbol and a practical tool of independence on the dusty roads of Dutchess County.

Both Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are credited with declaring that "woman is riding to suffrage on the bicycle." 1895 was the year that a Boston woman, going under the name of Annie Londonderry for sponsorship purposes, traveled around the world on a bicycle. She did get around the world, but the degree to which she was on the bicycle, or simply with the bicycle, is the source of speculation since she was prone to hyperbole! Also in 1895, Frances Willard, the popular head of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the large and effective organization arguing for women’s suffrage as a means to bring about a more sober world, wrote a book. She titled it, “How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle.” You could replace the words, “Ride the Bicycle” with “Become Independent” and understand the point of the book.

Women Bicycles 4wheels

In the 1890s women of Dutchess County found "the bicycle" both a symbol and practical tool of independence. From a DCHS Facebook request for photos left to right: Anna Gardener Tice, photo courtesy of her great-granddaughter Jeanne Garde; unknown woman, courtesy Locust Grove; unknown woman, courtesy of Historic Red Hook. Have a similar photo? Please send it to us!

As the United States declared war on Germany in April of 1917, women who were active in the suffrage movement were eager to show that they could combine both suffrage efforts and war efforts. One of the most visible, effective local suffrage leaders was Poughkeepsie’s Nina McCullough Mattern. She drove an automobile with “Suffrage War Service” on the car as she went out and trained housewives in food canning for winter storage. There was, after all, a food shortage as well as a shortage of farm labor as men went off to Europe. In 1918 she was featured in movie houses across the country in a 4-minute training film shown before the main movie.

These images are from a 1918 4-minute silent movie, "The Latest Kinks in Canning." Meant to train housewives on how to can food for winter storage during the World War, it featured Poughkeepsie's Nina McCullough Mattern traveling in her automobile locally. Courtesy and with permission, the Eastman Museum, Rochester, NY.

Women and motorcycles were also very much in the act and in conversations about preparedness for war. “Judging by their general appearance, [the Van Buren sisters] are not afraid to ride with their throttle open...” That’s how the Poughkeepsie Eagle-News described Augusta and Adeline Van Buren on July 25, 1917, after their arrival from their hometown of New York City.

Having left New York City earlier in the day, their destination was the Glenn Curtiss Aviation School in Buffalo. Glenn Curtis was an enthusiast for bicycles whose interests evolved into motorcycles, and ultimately airplanes. Curtis, and the better-know Wright Brothers, both received major funding from the US for the war effort. August and Adeline felt that they, and many other women, could serve as motorcycle dispatchers, and as pilots in the emerging field of aviation. You might not be surprised to find out that they were denied entry into the school. Women were not allowed. It was a French woman, Marie Marvingt, who became the first woman combat pilot. She ran missions over Germany and was a bomber pilot in 1915, receiving France’s most distinguished military awards.

Two years earlier when the Van Buren sisters arrived in Poughkeepsie, the Eagle-News headline read, “Girls Motorcycle in Men's Attire.” “Togged out from head to toe in masculine attire and riding man-sized motorcycles, Miss Adeline and Miss Augusta Van Buren pass through Poughkeepsie on their way to the Berkshires…” That trip was part of a number of trips that were trial runs that year for their biggest trip of all in 1916. The sisters left New York City on July 4, 1916 to arrive in Los Angeles on September 8, with a trip to the top of Pikes Peak on the way. Similarly, they were arguing for equal opportunities to serve in defense and security services as a formal part of the National Preparedness Movement.

Whenever the motorcycle-riding advocates for women's equality, the Van Buren sisters stopped in Poughkeepsie, they refueled at Von Der Linden's on Market Street near the Court House. Shown is a 1912 ad and a clip from a movie from about the time showing Mr. Von Der Linden greeting a male motorcycle rider, DCHS Archives.