By Alice Sparberg Alexiou
In the Trumpian dystopia we now inhabit, which greenlights openly expressed misogyny and aggressively seeks to turn back the clock on abortion rights, it especially behooves us to note that this November marks the centenary of women’s getting the vote in New York State.
Yes, the vote. The mother of all women’s rights.
So how did they do it? The New York women were the most politically sophisticated, well organized, and socially connected in the nation, reports Susan Goodier in her book No Votes For Women, a study of the anti-suffrage movement in New York. They understood the dynamics of publicity, and got their stories into the newspapers. They staged huge parades and gave 24-hour speeches from cars parked in crowded areas: the theater district, the shopping district known as Ladies’ Mile and outside factories; every fifteen minutes a new speaker relieved the previous one, picking up exactly where the other had left off. They rented out vacant stores and placed machines in the display windows that flipped signs over…. People would stand in front of the windows, waiting for the signs to change. For years, suffragists regularly descended upon the Albany legislature, packed the chambers, and argued their cause. (Franchise could be extended only by an amendment to the state constitution, which required a referendum — in which, please remember, only New York’s men could vote. That’s right, only the men. Whew.) And to counter the opposition’s oft-repeated claim that most women didn’t want the vote, in 1917 workers traveled all over the state, hitting every city, town, and village, every tenement house and farm, collecting, in all, more than one million individual women’s signatures on a petition. Afterwards they pasted all the pages on boards carried by 2500 women in yet another parade down Broadway, which took place the week before Election Day in 1917.
Suffragists were hooted and cursed at — not just by men, but women, too. New York had a well-organized “Anti” movement — led by, and consisting of, women. (Men were not part of it, nor were they welcome; indeed, the perception of the Antis was that men would only get in the way.) Wealthy and conservative-thinking, the Antis argued that giving women the vote threatened the very foundations of American society — the family. (How sickeningly familiar those arguments are, the same ones once used against interracial marriage and, more recently, against gay marriage.) Women’s imperative, the Antis preached, was to teach their children — especially sons —correct morals, and the only place to do this was in the home, i.e., women’s domain. The public sphere — think political clubhouses, saloons, and spittoons — was the male domain, and it was rife with corruption. For women to swim in that cesspool with men would only corrupt them, and, by extension, their children.
Her many cousins included Emma Lazarus and Benjamin Cardozo. At age sixteen, she married her first cousin, Frederick Nathan. One of the society events of yesterday,” the New York Times solemnly reported on April 8, 1880,”was the marriage at Shearith Israel, according to the strict Hebrew ritual, of Mr. Frederick Nathan and Maude Nathan… Wind instruments sounded the first notes of a sensuous Oriental composition… Nine white tapers, upheld by gigantic candlesicks of bronze, flooded the space below the huppah with a dazzling illumination.” The wedding reception was held at the decidedly not kosher Delmonico’s, the restaurant whose name epitomized Gilded Age New York: these grand Sephardim, while proudly Jewish, were relaxed about following the minutiae of Halacha.
Or did it?
I ask the question because, from its beginnings, the movement contained an uneasy subtext of anti-Semitism that occasionally burst out into the open. (Which is not surprising: anti-Semitism was then widespread and culturally acceptable.) For example, in 1869, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s newspaper, The Revolution, wrote that the Jews were not only useless to the country, but were also “a vast accession of voracious, knavish, cunning traders — mere bloodsuckers.”
Nathan, for her part, was proudly and assertively both Jewish and female: in her autobiography she spoke of her “recognized position as a Jewess.” Nathan started Shearith Israel’s sisterhood, and helped found the National Council of Jewish Women in 1896 — which, like other Jewish women’s organizations, remained silent on the suffrage issue before the Nineteenth Amendment was passed, according to the Jewish Women’s Archive online exhibition “Feminism in the United States.”
So Maud Nathan was taking a very strong stand as a Jewish woman when she became a suffragist. And, in fact, she became a major figure in the movement. She was high society, a dynamo at organizing — it was she who came up with the 24-hour speaking gig — and a handsome woman who deliberately dressed elegantly, to counter the oft-repeated accusation that women who craved the vote only did so because they were unattractive and couldn’t get a man. A gifted orator, she was invited to speak to audiences all over — even in churches. She was constantly present in print as well, writing frequent articles and letters in all the leading publications. Her husband enthusiastically supported her politics; in fact, Frederick Nathan even started a Men’s League for Woman Suffrage, and marched in all the suffrage parades that became an annual event in New York beginning in 1910.
Yes, you read that previous sentence right.
Since childhood, Annie, who, unlike her sister, never attended school, was a voracious reader and writer of stories, poems, and essays. Desperate to get an education, even though her father early on warned her that doing so would ruin her chances of ever finding a husband, she studied on her own and enrolled in what Columbia labeled its “women’s course.” But she soon realized it was a sham: Female students could occasionally meet with professors, but not attend any lectures, nor was there any place for them on campus where they could study. Furious, Annie dropped out, continued to write, and in 1887 married Dr. Alfred Meyer, a wealthy German-Jewish pulmonologist thirteen years her senior. She then set out to start a bona fide women’s college in New York. Like her sister Maud, she had a soul mate: Alfred Meyer fully supported his young wife’s ideas.
When four months later — the beginning of the fall semester — twelve students started a branch of the Women’s Suffrage League at Barnard, Annie was livid at the “intrusion of outsiders into college life.” “I greatly deplore the existence of such an organization among the undergraduates… It seems to me dastardly, in fact almost criminal, for these older women to foist their theories and methods of promulgating them upon these untried impressionable minds…. If the girls are induced to make themselves conspicuous on the streets or do any sort of thing that would make them appear ridiculous or undignified I think we will have no difficulty in limiting the activities of the new league.”
Oh Annie! Whatever were you thinking? Long after women got the vote, she never stopped justifying her reactionary position. In her 1951 autobiography, she declared that she remained an Anti, even though suffrage did not bring about “the dreadful results that the extremists prophesized.” Still, she insisted that giving women the vote “has done no good.” And finally, the parting shot: “There was no question in my mind that at the bottom of the intense desire for the ballot lay — sometimes hidden, sometimes quite openly — a great deal of sex jealousy amounting in many cases to sex hatred.”
Were the sisters estranged? Certainly at times. According to the late Stephen Birmingham, in his 1971 book The Grandees, about New York’s old-money Sephardim, Maud Nathan Meyers and Annie Nathan both attended a charity event in their eighties. They arrived separately and did not speak to one another. (Birmingham doesn’t say where this story came from, but he may have heard it from a family member whom he acknowledges in the prologue). Still, when the Annie and Frederick Meyers’ 50th anniversary was celebrated at the Columbia Women’s Faculty Club in 1937, Maud was there. According to the New York Times, “Maudie,” as Annie sometimes referred to her sister, “presided over the tea.”
Alice Sparberg Alexiou is the author of Jane Jacobs (2006) and The Flatiron (2010). Her new book, a history of the Bowery, will be published in the spring. This essay first appeared as "The Paradoxes of Power," Lilith (Fall 2017).