Notes for the August 26th Anniversary of Woman Suffrage Victory
On August 26, 1920, after a struggle of more than seven decades, the right of women to vote became law. The roster of suffrage movement leaders from Connecticut is long and full of illustrious names. One of the most interesting periods of the movement in Connecticut, the years right before World War I, has yet to get the attention it deserves. In this period, the leadership of the Connecticut movement hosted the British suffragist Emmeline Pankurst several times, adopted her uncompromising point of view (Bridgeport Evening Farmer, Oct. 21, 1911), and attempted to develop a mass campaign for the vote that reached out to every factory in the state. Many of the key leaders, including Katherine Houghton Hepburn, joined Alice Paul’s National Woman’s Party (Lunardini, pp. 6-7). The leaders of the Connecticut Woman’s Suffrage Association and the NWP garnered financial support from Sam Lavit, the militant head of a Bridgeport machinists local that led many of the pre-war strikes in the big plants there (Nichols, pp. 26-280). In addition, the tragic March 25, 1911 Triangle Shirt Waist fire, and the movement it sparked, weighed on the mind of all social reformers.
In these years, the meeting notes of the Connecticut Women’s Suffrage Association Executive Committee show that the headstrong labor organizer Ella Reeve Bloor was their “Superintendant of Women in Industry.” The Executive Committee discussed reaching out to the 50,000 factory and shop girls of Connecticut and forming special clubs of working women (RG101, Box 2, Folder 1). The extent of mass suffrage campaigning aimed at workplaces for the years from 1910 to 1917, the latter date opening a period of wartime clampdown on the more radical wing of the labor movement, is well documented in the Connecticut newspapers being digitized for inclusion in the Library of Congress’s historical newspaper archive, Chronicling America.
On February 8, 1913, for example, the Willimantic correspondent for the Norwich Bulletin reported on the work of a novice campaigner at a local thread mill:
Miss Clara Hill, daughter of Congressman E. J. Hill of Norwalk, was holding her first suffrage factory meeting here Thursday noon. . . Miss Hill was decked out in a regalia of purple, green, and white webbing such as the suffragists always wear for outdoor work. A newsbag was slung over her shoulder and filled with free literature. Miss Hill had never worn a regalia and she had never peddled suffrage leaflets from a newsbag. But she took to the situation bravely and started off towards the Thread Mill company with Madame Jeanue Cheruy who speaks in French.
At the big gate of the mill they established themselves in time to catch the lines of workers as they swarmed off for dinner. This is the regular factory meeting habit of suffragists. They do not try to hold a meeting then with hungry people tearing by them but they hand out their leaflets and call out in a loud voice as they do so, “meeting here at twelve-thirty: come back early!” . . .
That this effort was, in fact, “the regular factory meeting habit” of the Connecticut suffragists, is documented in many other news accounts. A June 17, 1914 Norwich Bulletin story, entitled “Meetings at Factories,” for example, reported on “open air meetings at the factories of Putnam and surrounding villages.”
This noon Miss Rosamond Danielson will speak near the plant of the French River Textile company at Mechanicsville. At the same hour Mrs. W. J. Bartlett of this city and Miss Freda Kirchwey of New York are to address a meeting of the employees of the Putnam Manufacturing company near that factory. Miss Emily Pierson and Miss Ethel Lee Rankin will be at the mill of the Hampden Silk company and Miss Alyse Gregory at the John A. Dady silk mill.
The Miss Emily Pierson mentioned above held the title of State Organizer during this period. In one April 1912 report to the CWSA Executive Board, Pierson reported that in the previous nine weeks she had addressed 46 meetings with a combined attendance of 12,800 people.
Pierson was interviewed by Bridgeport Evening Farmer on April 11, 1911 for an article entitled “Workingmen Favor Votes for Women.” “Workingmen realize that they cannot afford to have six million workers politically helpless,” she said. She pointed out that some employers were beginning to put women into jobs previously held only by men, but instead of paying them the going rate of $15 a week, were cutting the wage to $4 a week. “It is just this sort of thing that has waked labor men to the need of immediate enfranchisement for women,” Pierson argued.
Freda Kirchwey came from New York City to campaign in Connecticut for woman suffrage. She, too, appealed to labor, and especially working women, but argued the case from the point of view of women’s historic responsibility for creating food and clothing in the private home. “Today, all this is done in the great mills and factories,” she said, according to the Norwich Bulletin of June 25, 1914. Arguing that very few of the people in her audience that night knew anything about the conditions in which this food and clothing was produced, she felt that “if women could vote, inspectors would be provided to carry out women’s wishes in regard to the conditions under which these essentials of their home life are prepared. . . “
The factory campaign was only one of many mass campaigns carried out in every nook and cranny of the state in this period. Many articles about suffrage campaigning can be found in scrapbooks in the Records of the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association that are held at the Connecticut State Library. These scrapbooks, however, are not remotely comprehensive in terms of news coverage of the many audacious mass campaigns of the suffragists in Connecticut. An article by Kelly Marino in Connecticut History in the fall of 2013 includes information culled from other sources, as well. The Connecticut Digital Newspaper Project, which is now scanning the Bridgeport Evening Farmer, the Bridgeport Times, and the Norwich Bulletin from 1910-1922, will undoubtedly contribute greatly to some scholar’s effort to tell the story in an even more comprehensive manner.
For more research
Search “Connecticut suffrage” in Chronicling America.
Robert P. J. Cooney, Jr. Winning the Vote: The Triumph of the American Woman Suffrage Movement. Santa Cruz, CA: American Graphic Press, 2005. In State Library Catalog.
Christine A. Lunardini. From Women’s Suffrage To Equal Rights: Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party, 1910-1928. In State Library Catalog.
Kelly Marino, “Making a Scene for Suffrage in Connecticut: Emily Pierson and Educational Theatrics, 1910-1917,” Connecticut History, Fall 2013, pp. 226-242. In State Library Catalog.
Carole Nichols. Votes and More for Women: Suffrage and After in Connecticut. New York: Haworth Press, 1983. In State Library Catalog.
Records of the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association, 1869-1921. RG101, Connecticut State Library. Online Finding Aid.