Erie women fight to vote: A look at suffrage movement
ERIE, Pa. (AP) — Who fought for women’s right to vote in Erie County? ‘Shop girls,’ bankers’ wives and teachers.
It was one of the largest grassroots movements in American political history.
One hundred years ago, in June 1919, women won the right to vote when Congress passed the 19th Amendment promising “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
By August 1920, the requisite 36 states, including Pennsylvania, had ratified the “Susan B. Anthony Amendment.” Millions of women went to the polls for the first time that fall.
The votes were a long time coming.
Women in Erie County and nationwide had marched, protested and picketed for the right to vote for 50 years. The Civil War slowed the movement, but activists including Susan B. Anthony pushed hard after the war for equal rights for all.
By the turn of the 20th century the suffrage movement led by the National Woman’s Party and the National American Woman Suffrage Association had gained momentum — and drama. Women went on hunger strikes and picketed the White House to attract attention to their cause.
Women saw obtaining the vote as crucial to obtaining the social reforms needed to protect themselves and their children.
“We have been trying to get a children’s labor law in Pennsylvania the past 14 years, and the only way we will get it is to get the vote,” Lucy Kennedy Miller, of Pittsburgh, told Erie suffrage leaders in 1913.
Augusta Fleming, president of the Northwestern Pennsylvania Equal Franchise Association, urged Erie women to fight for the vote and for legislative reforms by marching in a suffrage parade during the weeklong Perry Centennial celebration in the summer of 1913. It was the first women’s suffrage parade in Pennsylvania.
“Gain victory over fear and walk firm and erect on July 8,” Fleming said. “Remember that you are only one in a great army — that you are marching for a principle — and that being government of the people, for the people and by the whole people. Your motive is unselfish. You are trying to gain citizenship that you may do your part to bring about better legislation for the protection of home, children and the weak.
“All that you enjoy of rights to your earnings, to your property, to your children and to your very selves, the women of yesterday gained for you. All women should feel a duty to pass on to their daughters the rich heritage of political freedom,” Fleming said.
Hundreds of women answered the call and marched from suffrage headquarters at 202 W. Eighth St. up Sassafras Street, to 18th and State streets and north to Perry Square, according to the Erie Daily Times and Erie Dispatch. Marchers dressed in white and wearing blue Pennsylvania sashes and white hats participated. Dozens of suffragists from Cleveland and Buffalo joined them.
Fleming and Helen Semple, of Titusville, president of the Federation of Pennsylvania Women, led the local activists. The women carried banners reading, “Abraham Lincoln said women should vote. What do you say?” And “Taxation Without Representation is Tyranny.”
One hundred members of the local Equal Franchise Association drew a float featuring a plaster replica of the Liberty Bell. The float had been drawn by a suffrage contingent in Woodrow Wilson’s inaugural parade in March 1913 and was shipped to Erie for the July 8, 1913, suffrage parade.
An “Equal Franchise” banquet followed that evening in the gold-and-white ballroom of the new Lawrence Hotel at West 10th and Peach streets. The speakers included U.S. Rep. Charles Sutton of New York, the chairwoman of the Woman’s Suffrage Party and other nationally known suffrage leaders.
A number of men attended.
“So many queries have come from members of the sterner sex asking if they are included in the invitation to the big suffrage banquet,” Fleming said the week before the banquet. “We desire to announce that the suffrage movement has always opposed discrimination on account of sex and does not propose to countenance it now. Our brothers are cordially invited to feast with us.”
Two hundred people attended the event. Another 200 were on a waiting list for tickets.
Prominent local leaders of the suffrage movement, in addition to Fleming, included Lavinia “Lovey” Nelson Clarke, a young widow and railroad telegrapher; Mary Spencer, wife of First National Bank founder and President William Spencer; longtime Erie educator JoAnna Connell; and Jennie Cleveland, an educator, photographer and a member of the Erie Art Club who photographed some of the local suffrage leaders and events.
By 1915, the women had public opinion on their side. A majority of Erie and Crawford county residents supported the women’s suffrage movement, according to a map and data by the Pennsylvania Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage.
In Erie County, 7,123 people surveyed said they supported women’s suffrage; 4,895 were opposed. In Crawford County, 4,736 residents supported suffrage; 2,396 did not.
Momentum continued to build, and on June 4, 1919, Congress approved the 19th Amendment. As state legislators prepared to ratify the amendment on June 24, 1919, Erie County women were among those who went to Harrisburg to witness the historic vote.
“Hundreds of women were present, and the purple, white and gold of the National Woman’s Party and gold of the Pennsylvania Woman’s Suffrage Association waved in the galleries and on the floor, many members having flags of the national party at their seats,” according to the Erie Dispatch.
The historic votes were overshadowed by the international news of the day.
In Erie’s newspapers, small, down-page accounts of the suffrage votes were overpowered by larger stories about celebrations welcoming “the boys” home after World War I, continuing peace negotiations with Germany, and the organization of the League of Nations proposed to help prevent future wars. Debates about enforcing the coming prohibition against alcohol also dominated the news.
But the fight for political equality wasn’t over. Now that women had the vote, they quietly worked to make the most of their new rights.
Odessa Hunter Plate and Helen Stone Schluraff moved from the picket lines to elected office in Erie County within 15 years of the 19th Amendment’s ratification. Schluraff was the first Pennsylvania woman elected county commissioner. Plate twice was elected Erie County recorder of deeds.
Suffragists Mabel Woodward Wright and Jane Weir Pressly were instrumental in getting ballot boxes replaced with voting machines in Erie County in the late 1920s, according to the book, “Erie History — the Women’s Story” by Sabina Freeman and Margaret Tenpas.
Suffrage leaders additionally founded the Zonta Club of Erie in 1919 to support, empower and advocate for women. The local group was one of nine clubs to form the national Confederation of Zonta Clubs.
Former suffragists also organized the League of Women Voters of Erie County in early 1920 to educate women about voting.
“During those first few years it was necessary to do a great deal of educational work among the women, who up to this time had been classed with aliens and lunatics as far as voting was concerned,” wrote Ruth Bacher in “League of Women Voters of Erie County: Historical Highlights.”
Fleming, previously president of the Northwestern Pennsylvania Equal Franchise Association, was the group’s first president and hosted the first meeting of the local League of Women Voters in her home. The group’s first task was pressing Erie County officials to do the legwork required for women to vote for the first time in the fall of 1920.
Women had to be “assessed” to be added to the voter rolls, according to the League of Women Voters history. Election boards had to verify women’s ages, addresses and citizenship.
Local women persevered and cast their first ballots that fall.
“This was the first successful project of the Erie League,” Bacher wrote.
Erie’s suffrage leaders laid the foundation for future generations and for society, according to a 1930 opinion piece in the Erie Dispatch:
“Pennsylvania has good reason to be proud of the keen and intelligent interest their organized women have manifested in the cause of better government and improved social conditions. The direction of their exploration toward fundamentals and persistence of their search for and exploitation of knowledge essential to good citizenship set an example which puts to shame many seasoned male voters.”
Information from: Erie Times-News, http://www.goerie.com