The anniversary of the New York victory for woman suffrage (1917-2017) is prompting proud talk of our state as “the cradle of women’s rights,” which is true enough but only half the story. The phrase refers specifically to the revolutionary movement that began in the small northern town of Seneca Falls in 1848 and was propelled by visionaries like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and Frederick Douglass.
That early movement was “cradled,” as in “nourished in its infancy,” by geography. Cities and towns like Rochester and Seneca Falls were the “north star” of the Underground Railroad, places packed with Abolitionists and Quakers and radicals of all stripes. The population nurtured the young women’s movement and provided a base from which its standard-bearers could venture forth to persuade the rest of the nation.
The 19th century ended with some parts of the nation persuaded that some women deserved some rights in some ways. Only a few embraced “the big one,” namely: the right to vote. Suffrage, conveying full citizenship, still eluded the majority of American women, including the women of New York State. But not for long.
In the 20th century, the focus shifted south to New York City. New fortunes were being made by some and new radical rumblings were being heard by others. Stanton’s daughter, Harriott Stanton Blatch, “picked up the torch,” as they say, not only carrying on the fight, but attracting to it new converts, including both milliners and millionaires. The pantheon of women’s rights crusaders grew to include thousands of anonymous women and men, along with long-time activist Carrie Chapman Catt, labor organizer Leonora O’Reilly, heiress Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, art collector Louisine Havemeyer, African-American writer, activist W.E.B. DuBois, philosopher John Dewey and rabbi Steven Wise.
By 1910, Rheta Childe Dorr, who had come east from Nebraska to work as a muckracking journalist, could call New York City “the present center of the progressive suffrage movement, with Chicago not very far behind.”
So unprecedented was the mix of activists and the tactics they employed that historian Mary Ritter Beard, originally a mid-westerner, wrote to O’Reilly in 1911: “That such an army of tenement mothers and working women marched with Mrs. Belmont ought to stir the sluggish to action.”
And so it did. The “army” marched on Fifth Avenue, year after year, gathering thousands of participants and nearly half a million spectators at their peak. City landmarks became background for street theater of unprecedented daring, re-defining “woman’s place” in public space.
Fifth Avenue parades. Bryant Park as rehearsal grounds for learning near-military discipline before marching. Brooklyn parades. Harlem soapboxes. Union Square and Wall Street, where hostile onlookers of suffrage speakers often armed themselves with bags of water or shards of glass. Subways offering captive audiences to suffragists carrying “lapboards” promoting the cause and distributing small blue buttons to its avowed male supporters.
“To me it seemed the big fight for freedom in our time,” wrote Max Eastman, editor of The Masses and a founder, with John Dewey, of the Men’s League for Woman Suffrage.
Everywhere, the image of freedom was the torch, providing illumination, with an incendiary tinge. Torch-lit night parades were common. Louisine Havemeyer and her friends drove suffrage-beribboned automobiles outside the metropolis, holding paper “torches of freedom” as they spoke from their cars at rural crossroads in the dark.
And, of course, the Statue of Liberty, From the day of her arrival in New York harbor until the passage of the 19th constitutional amendment in 1920, the statue was the site of protest by defiant activist women insisting they “had no liberty.” There she stood, beckoning not only the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” as Emma Lazarus wrote, but people from all parts of America who were driven to join the action and who were, like the statue’s torch, on fire themselves.
When New York State women won full voting rights in 1917, the margin of victory came from the City of New York.
Prepare your torch!