Where Suffrage Took Flight: Staten Island and the Woman Suffrage Movement
By Gabriella Leone
On May 20, 1913, nationally renowned suffragist, Rosalie Gardiner Jones, made a spectacular debut in Staten Island, where she became the first suffrage activist to fly for the cause. To achieve this feat, she met her pilot Harry Bingham Brown, one of Staten Island’s resident pilots, at the Grant City train station and boarded his plane. The New York Times reported, “Gen. Rosalie did not show a sign of fear as she took her seat in the biplane, seized a steel rod, the only thing to hold to, with her left hand, had her skirts tied down with a little piece of blue string, and, with a bunch of leaflets in her right hand, nodded a smiling good-bye to the crowd below.” Decorated with 'Votes for Women' banners, the plane arrived at its destination, roughly two miles away on the island’s eastern shore, in fifteen minutes. It landed at the Flying Carnival of the Staten Island Aeronautical Society in a flurry of yellow leaflets, which Jones had been scattering along the way.
General Rosalie Jones, so called because she had organized two marches for suffrage, was a trailblazer and no stranger to headlines. The most recent of her suffrage pilgrimages took place in winter 1913, when she led a band of suffragists in a horse-drawn carriage on a twenty-day journey from New York City to Washington D.C., which ended in a grand suffrage parade that coincided with President Wilson’s inauguration. Prior to that, she commanded her first march from New York City to Albany to deliver a petition for woman suffrage to the Governor. Jones was an expert at gaining the attention of the press and using it as a platform to argue for women’s right to vote. The Times went on to report some of Jones’s address to the crowd of spectators at the Carnival: “You may have thought that suffrage had gone up in the air, and that you would never hear of it again,” said the General, speaking from an automobile in front of the grandstand, “but if you thought that, you are mistaken. Wherever you go this year you will hear the 1913 suffragist.”
More than just a catchy sound-bite for the press to report, this statement was an indication of the grassroots strategy of the suffrage movement of the twentieth century. Modern suffragists would mobilize the masses, claim space in the public sphere, and embrace the press and cutting-edge technology to question gender norms, gain attention and create momentum for suffrage legislation. In fact, the efforts of local political equality clubs and suffrage party chapters made it difficult to live in 1913 without hearing from a suffragist, especially in New York State. Until this point, the Staten Island Woman Suffrage Party has been largely missing from this narrative, but as Rosalie Jones’s flight and other tactics employed by the borough’s suffragists illustrate, Richmond County’s activists deserve some attention.
While there were “many hundreds” of women involved in the fight for the vote on Staten Island, one can encounter the foremost suffrage organizer from the borough, simply by reading the rest of the Times’ s coverage about Rosalie Jones’s historic flight in the borough. The article mentions that General Jones waited to meet her pilot in “the auto of Mrs. William G. Willcox, Borough Chairman of Richmond for the Woman Suffrage Party” and that the car then followed beneath the plane back to the carnival grounds. A similar reference or mention of Mrs. Willcox appears in most of the contemporary press coverage of the movement on Staten Island. Indeed, when it came to the campaign for suffrage in New York State, Mrs. Willcox was everywhere.
Born Mary Otis Gay on the North Shore of Staten Island in 1862, Willcox was a lifelong Staten Islander, and an active and progressive contributor to her community. Her father was Sydney Howard Gay, a noted abolitionist and agent of the Underground Railroad, and her mother was Elizabeth Neall Gay, one of several female delegates along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, to the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840, and caused a commotion when they insisted upon being admitted to the male-only proceedings. It is no surprise, then, that Mary Otis Willcox was involved in the suffrage movement early on.
When fellow Staten Islander and daughter of George William Curtis, Elizabeth Burill Curtis founded the county’s Political Equality Club in 1895, Willcox was appointed Secretary. The Political Equality Club was conducted as a reading and discussion group for the first decade or so of its existence and eventually evolved with the movement, seeking to unite women from the various towns on Staten Island in an active campaign for the vote. The club held a public meeting at Willcox’s home in March 1910 featuring Carrie Chapman Catt as the keynote speaker. Coverage in the Staten Island World called the gathering “the most valuable suffrage meeting ever held in this county.” That same year, the club founded the Woman Suffrage Party of Staten Island and established a strong presence at the county fair, handing out literature and educating women about the cause for suffrage.
Mary Otis Willcox grew into the role of chief organizer of the local movement, consistently serving as an officer in the island’s Woman Suffrage Party. She continued to host high profile speakers like Marie Jenney Howe in 1915 and Margaret Chanler Aldrich, who provided the keynote address at the Staten Island Suffrage Convention in January 1917. She also spearheaded events like automobile parades, picnics, cabarets, and even a petting zoo in 1914 to raise awareness and fundraise for the cause.
When Staten Island’s suffragists were not attracting press attention, they were giving interviews and writing their own articles. Another Chairman of the Woman Suffrage Party, Edith Whitmore wrote prolifically in newspapers and suffrage periodicals, and engaged with reporters whenever she had the chance. In 1911, Whitmore was asked by the Evening World for her opinion on plans to found the “Society for the Honorable Recognition of Old Maids” in Cincinnati. Being an unmarried woman in her fifties, she took the opportunity to challenge a deeply ingrained stigma against unmarried women and expressed her unwavering support for the endeavor. “Every old maid is a living, walking, breathing snub to the average man,” she asserted. “I don’t mean that she dislikes him or occasionally tries to hold herself superior to him, but the very fact of her being an old maid… the obvious conclusion that she has preferred her state of single blessedness to a union with any man hits the average man straight between the eyes.” This irreverent style is typical of Whitmore’s writings and apparently resonated with readers as she was continuously published in multiple papers and in the Woman Voter, the newsletter of the New York State Suffrage Party.
While Staten Island’s Woman Suffrage Party conformed to regional trends in terms of their outreach and use of the press, the island’s suffragists were also innovators. Seizing upon their unique aviation history — Staten Island was home to the nation’s first airplane factory — and their experience with the press, they quite literally elevated suffrage activism to new heights. As mentioned earlier, they facilitated Rosalie Jones’ suffrage flight — the first in the nation in 1913. Three years later, they planned something even more radical.
In 1916 the Woman Suffrage Party of Staten Island organized what had the potential to be one of the most significant protests and publicity stunts of the whole movement. In December of 1916 when President Wilson brought his yacht The Mayflower to New York Harbor to witness the lighting of the Statue of Liberty, pioneering female pilot, Leda Richberg-Hornsby, the first female graduate of the Wright Flying School, would fly Ida Blair, publicity chairman of the New York State Women’s Suffrage Party, over the president’s yacht and essentially bomb it with suffrage leaflets. Organizers covered Richberg-Hornsby’s plane in suffrage colors and Mrs. Willcox nailed a banner that said, “Women Want Liberty Too” to the front so that it could be read by spectators. (Max Caplan and the Musicians of Ma'alwyck is staging a one-act opera in Glenville, NY, on June 8th.)
The stunt had powerful symbolism. A year before the Women’s Congressional Union would picket the White House, Staten Island’s suffragists planned to interrupt a ceremonial event and confront President Wilson on a public stage. While the President was visiting Liberty in New York Harbor, Suffragists would point out that the full rights and liberties of American citizens still alluded women. While the nation balanced precariously on the brink of war, suffragists, many of whom were pacifists, would “bomb” the president’s yacht with petitions from women all over the nation asking for the right to vote. Unfortunately, the plane never made it to the harbor. It crashed in the marshland on Staten Island’s coast; luckily, no one was seriously hurt.
By the time Richberg-Hornsby took off on her ill-fated flight, American women had been fighting for the right to vote for seventy years. This presented a challenge for suffragists who sought to keep the conversation around voting rights for women interesting and employ new arguments that not only convinced the public that women deserved a political voice but also challenged the traditional roles and expectations of women in society. Mary Otis Willcox and her fellow suffragists were effective organizers because they used large scale spectacles and cutting-edge technology, like the two suffrage flights, to draw attention to their movement and convince New York’s voters that the issue was still relevant, and that woman suffrage was the way of progress — the way of the future. Not only was Staten Island’s brand of suffrage activism innovative on a national level, but also it was uniquely suited to the community from which it came.
Gabriella Leone is History Archives Manager at the Staten Island Museum.
 "Gen. Rosalie Jones Flies for Suffrage," New York Times, May 31, 1913.
 Patri O'Gan, "Traveling for Suffrage Part 2: General Jones and Her Army of Suffrage Pilgrims," The National Museum of American History Blog. Accessed March 12, 2014.
 Zachary Michael Jack, March of the Suffragettes: Rosalie Gardiner Jones and the March for Voting Rights (San Francisco: Zest Books, 2016). Jack’s book covers Jones’s pilgrimage to Albany in the end of 1912.
 "Gen. Rosalie Jones Flies for Suffrage,” May 31, 1913.
 Mabel Keep, Directory of Women: Members of Clubs, Welfare Bodies, Political Organizations, and Associations in Staten Island, 1927-1928, (Staten Island: 1916), 25.
 "Gen. Rosalie Jones Flies for Suffrage,” May 31, 1913.
 Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, History of Woman Suffrage In Three Volumes, Volume I, (Rochester, NY: Charles Mann, 1887), 54.
 Mabel Keep, Directory of Women: Members of Clubs, Welfare Bodies, Political Organizations, and Associations in Staten Island, 1927-1928, (Staten Island: 1928), 25.
 Qui Vive, "Political Equality Club," The Staten Island World, March 5, 1910.
 "Suffrage Speaker Coming," Staten Islander, May 8, 1915; "Woman Suffrage Workers' Meetings," The Staten Island World, January 20, 1917.
 "Whirl for Suffrage at Garden Cabaret," New York Times, December 7, 1914.
 Marguerite Mooers Marshall, "Heaping Honors on the Old Maid," The Evening World (New York, NY), August 29, 1911.
 Ed Drury, Staten Island: The Other Cradle of Aviation (Columbia, IA: Icarus Aviation Press, 2011).
 Maureen Maryanski, "The ‘Suff Bird Women’ and Woodrow Wilson." New York Historical Society Museum and Library: From the Stacks. March 26, 2014.
 "Wind Brings Down Suff Bird Women," The Sun (New York, NY), December 3, 1916.
Ed Drury, Staten Island: The Other Cradle of Aviation (Columbia, IA: Icarus Aviation Press, 2011).
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, History of Woman Suffrage In Three Volumes, Volume I. Rochester, NY: Charles Mann, 1887.
Harriet Hyman Alonso, Peace as a Women's Issue: A History of the U.S. Movement for World Peace and Women's Rights (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1993).
Holly J. McCammon, "Out of the Parlors and into the Streets: The Changing Tactical Repertoire of the U.S. Women's Suffrage Movements," Social Forces (2003): 787.
Jill Lepore, The Secret History of Wonder Woman (New York: Vintage Books, 2014).
Mabel Keep, Directory of Women: Members of Clubs, Welfare Bodies, Political Organizations, and Associations in Staten Island, 1927-1928 (Staten Island, 1928).
Maureen Maryanski, "The 'Suff Bird Women' and Woodrow Wilson," New York Historical Society Museum and Library: From the Stacks. March 26, 2014. Accessed October 12, 2017.
Patri O'Gan, "Traveling for Suffrage Part 2: General Jones and her Army of Suffrage Pilgrims," The National Museum of American History Blog. March 12, 2014. Accessed October 12, 2017.
Patrick Ellis, "Mary Lawton Metcalfe," in Women Film Pioneers Project, by Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta Jane Gaines, <https://wfpp.cdrs.columbia.edu/pioneer/mary-lawton-metcalfe/>. New York: Columbia University Libraries Center for Digital Research and Scholarship, 2013.
Susan Goodier and Karen Pastorello, Women Will Vote (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017).
Willcox, Mary Otis (Gay). "Mrs. Leonowens," in Legends, Stories and Folklore of Old Staten Island: Part I - The North Shore, by Charles Gilbert Hine and William T. Davis (New York: Staten Island Historical Society, 1925), 91-94.
Zachary Michael Jack, March of the Suffragettes: Rosalie Gardiner Jones and the March for Voting Rights (San Francisco: Zest Books, 2016).