The Fight for Suffrage in New York State
Reviewed by Marcela Micucci
November 6th marked 100 years of women’s suffrage in New York. While celebrations of the landmark event have echoed across the state this past year, perhaps the greatest commemoration to the centennial year has been historians’ reignited interest in New York suffragists and their struggle to win the vote. Leading the charge in this cadre of works are Johanna Neuman’s Gilded Suffragists and Susan Goodier and Karen Pastorello’s Women Will Vote.
Neuman and Goodier and Pastorello both chronicle the suffrage movement in nineteenth- and twentieth-century New York, shedding a deft light on the various New York women seemingly overlooked in suffrage historiography. For Neuman, these women wielded distinguished names, like Astor, Rockefeller, Tiffany and Vanderbilt — the elite socialites and “gilded suffragists” that exploited their social status to bring suffrage into vogue. For Goodier and Pastorello, these women hailed from diverse regions, backgrounds and races — the rural, working-class, elite, and African-American women that organized for suffrage in their local towns and communities. And while both authors emphasize that few of these women formed a single suffrage coalition, their works exhume the stories of these less-studied women from the margins of history, illustrating their significant contributions to the fight for women’s suffrage in New York State.
Though Gilded Suffragists and Women Will Vote deviate in focus, both follow parallel frameworks, beginning with how and when their suffragists got involved and the obstacles they faced and then tracing how the suffrage movement developed and changed over time. Similarly, Neuman and Goodier and Pastorello then focus on the role of men and male suffragists within the movement and end with the impact of the First World War on New York suffragists. The final chapters in both works conclude with the winning of woman suffrage in New York State, each accrediting their suffragists for helping push the 1917 referendum to fruition. Pastorello and Goodier go even further, suggesting that the national amendment received the electoral support and recognition it needed only after the enfranchisement of New York women was realized.
Central to the suffrage movement, Neuman argues, were the New York socialites who “exploited their social celebrity for political power” and subsequently galvanized the urban public’s interest in woman suffrage. Without famed trendsetters like Laura Rockefeller opening her home to parlor meetings in 1894 and Florence Jaffray Harriman organizing the Colony Club in 1907, suffrage would not have received the celebrity endorsement it needed to enter the national stage. The spellbound masses gravitated to elite women’s gilded world of fashion and opulence, providing the socialites with a platform to capitalize their political influence. These women, Neuman suggests, confounded the idea that suffragists were uncouth and overly masculine. Rather, they refined the movement and made it fashionable and appealing to the general public.
Over time, however, the parlor meeting and the genteel, ladylike suffragist were eclipsed by the Gibson Girl of the 1890s and the more rebellious, audacious activists of the Progressive Era. For Neuman, this development, which she refers to as the shifting tide in modernity, is best personified in the rivalry between the polished Katherine Duer Mackay, a wealthy philanthropist and founder of the Equal Franchise Society, and Alva Belmont Vanderbilt, the rags-to-riches widow and founder of the Political Equality Association. For Neuman, Belmont’s hardball tactics won out in the end, marking the rise of the more defiant, educated, and career-oriented elite woman. Like Belmont, many of these wealthy suffragists adopted more radical methods like parades, which challenged the tenets of ladylike activism. These tactics not only assured the movement’s success, Neuman argues, but they privileged elite suffragists who garnered more coverage in the press for flouting their feminine expectations.
Neuman attributes the success of the 1917 suffrage referendum in New York not to the good graces of male politicians, but rather to the political acumen of elite women, particularly Vira Boarman Whitehouse, who orchestrated the state-wide campaign that led to state victory. The gilded suffragists, she concludes, gave the movement currency and made it less threatening to men and more appealing to women. She maintains that by getting men and the mainstream public to join in the suffrage fight, elite suffragists made the most significant contribution to the movement’s success. And yet while Neuman’s survey of elite women’s memoirs, letters, newspapers, magazines and women’s club meeting notes is extensive, her apparent penchant for her gilded suffragists seemingly negates her ability to analyze her subjects critically. One questions her tendency to overcompensate for elite suffragists, a shortcoming which could, in part, be attributed to the author’s narrow focus.
In many ways, the variegation one might crave from Gilded Suffragists is delivered in Women Will Vote. Goodier and Pastorello present a more comprehensive work, one that moves beyond the struggles, achievements, and efforts of one class of elite women. In fact, they claim the suffrage movement did not solely rely on the motivating forces of elite suffragists and New York City leadership. On the contrary, Goodier and Pastorello’s key intervention is their ability to connect suffrage activism in New York City to community efforts across the state, demonstrating that suffrage activism was not exclusive to the city. By placing New York State at the center of their work, Goodier and Pastorello are able to flesh out the movement’s nuance, widening their scope to encompass a breadth of suffrage activists and organizations, like the Jamestown Political Equality Club (1887), one of the many political coalitions for women in upstate New York. These early suffrage chapters and political equality clubs helped the New York suffrage organization become the largest suffrage association in the nation by the time state and national headquarters relocated to New York City in 1909.
Perhaps most convincing is Goodier and Pastorello’s chapter on immigrant garment workers in New York, which features the rise of suffragists’ labor activism in upstate industrial cities. This chapter introduces suffragists like Alice Clement, who borrowed the strategies of New York City labor activists to advocate for labor reform in Rochester. Clement helped organize meetings, strikes, suffrage motorcades, parades, and pageants, thus attracting upstate working-class women to the suffrage cause. African-American women across the state similarly forged their own suffrage movement despite facing exclusion from white, mainstream organizations like NAWSA. Following the example of works like Julie Gallagher’s and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn’s, Goodier and Pastorello plunge into a network of black clubwomen, reformers, doctors, teachers, and writers that organized for — and often dominated — suffrage activism across New York.
Less original is Goodier and Pastorello’s chapter on the New Woman and the modernization of the suffrage movement, which fails to present much in the way of cutting-edge scholarship when discussing the multitude of tactics and methods New York suffragists employed. The pitfalls of this chapter are swiftly forgotten, however, with the final chapter on the woman suffrage victory in New York State. Extracted mainly from the papers of Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon, a NAWSA suffrage organizer in Buffalo and Cayuga County, Goodier and Pastorello illuminate the central role upstate New York played in the 1915 and 1917 suffrage campaigns. Here readers are once again inundated with stories of mail-order suffrage correspondences, publications, suffrage schools and educational programs, conventions, and door-to-door lobbying that pushed the 1917 referendum forward. While Goodier and Pastorello certainly acknowledge that New York City carried the referendum by more than fifty-three percent, they also indicate that rural men and women were not as conservative in their support of suffrage as historians once believed. Importantly, their work ends with a tribute to the invaluable influence the 1917 New York State suffrage referendum had on the national suffrage movement. For Goodier and Pastorello, New York State’s suffrage victory was the impetus for the Nineteenth Amendment three years later.
Gilded Suffragists and Women Will Vote add to the way we understand various women’s contributions to the suffrage movement in New York and further complicate and diversify the narrative. Neuman’s work attempts to restore the accomplishments of elite suffragists, whom she claims were erased from suffrage history when middle and upper-class suffragists like Carrie Chapman Catt wrote them out, owing to harbored resentment and jealousy. Her work responds to historians’ appropriated critiques of elite suffragists, whom many cast off as women who merely “tried suffrage on” and failed to take it seriously. Goodier and Pastorello, on the other hand, propel the women’s suffrage timeline in New York State out of the origin years, to rescue the seventy-year long struggle for the vote from obscurity. In doing so, they challenge the pervasive misconception that rural women, black women, poor and working-class women, elite women, men, and radical women were on the periphery of the mainstream suffrage movement in New York. Their focus on rural suffragists like Louisa Riley, who organized a suffrage club in Ithaca, and Hester C. Jeffrey, founder of Rochester’s Susan B. Anthony Club for Colored Women, revolutionize the history of women’s suffrage in the state. Using New York as a primary lens for exploring the American women’s suffrage movement, Neuman, Goodier, and Pastorello effectively demonstrate that New York suffragists’ concurrent activism made a critical and lasting contribution to the passage of women’s suffrage and the advancement of women’s rights on a local, state, and national scale.
Marcela Micucci is the Andrew W. Mellon post-doctoral curatorial fellow at the Museum of the City of New York. She received her Ph.D. from Binghamton University, where she specialized in nineteenth-century women and gender history. Her dissertation explored the issue of unwanted pregnancy in antebellum New York.