Sunday, November 22, 2015

A Cool Reception in Conservative New England

The envoys rolled into New England two weeks before they were due to finish their trip in DC. Being in the east was a mixed bag. On the one hand the roads were better and the distances they had to travel a little shorter. Though the days were shorter and colder they could be assured of comfortable accommodations at night.

Lillian Ascough, Chair of the Connecticut
branch of the Congressional Union
But it wasn’t just the weather that was turning frosty. The eastern states had been working on suffrage for decades, and many women were solidly in the camp of the more conservative National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA.) So while there was a lot of expertise and interest in suffrage, the CU and the envoys had to tiptoe through some political minefields. They’d had a positive reception from the western politicians but as they moved east they found that mayors, governors, and congressmen were opposed to the federal amendment, so they  switched tactics. Instead of asking them publicly to sign, and have to deal with their public refusal, they simply asked them to be present at the reception so they could hear the demand, which they seemed willing to do.

Hartford wasn’t too bad. There were at least a dozen brave souls willing to drive their cars in the usual parade, and Lillian Ascough, the chair of the CT branch of the CU, joined the envoys in their car. Mrs. George H. Day hosted the weary travels at her lovely house on 27 Marshall Street.  The Colt’s Armory Band, loaded in the back of a large truck, led the parade and helped draw a crowd by playing rousing music.

At city hall the envoys were greeted by the Hartford’s Mayor Lawler, Governor Holcomb, and Congressman Oakey. While they were polite enough none of them was willing to sign the petition, preferring that states should be able to decide who should vote. They seemed completely unfazed by the threat of the western women’s votes being marshaled against them. Sara invited Congressman Oakey to join them on the remainder of the trip to DC, but he declined.

Undaunted, Sara and the Swedes headed across the East Hartford bridge and off to Boston. There had been intense behind-the-scenes negotiations with the NAWSA affiliate there in recent weeks, and an uneasy truce had been reached. As long as the event was marketed simply as a welcome to the envoys from the women voters of the west and their support for the federal amendment, the Mass. Woman Suffrage Association would help organize and fund the reception. They were adamant, however, that the event couldn’t be used to promote the CU or to actively recruit new members for it. The CU went along with this, and as a result Boston had a great showing of 200 woman suffrage supporters at the state house and city hall. There they were greeted by Governor Walsh, the Mayor being absent. The exchange was pleasant enough, even after Sara told him women were done begging and were instead “standing on their rights as citizens.” But he didn’t sign the petition, either.

From the Christian Science Monitor, Boston, 11.24.15
Just a side note, here’s another photo of Sara and the petition. I guess this is the petition itself, not the 500,000 signatures that went along with it? Still wondering about those darn petitions…

While I was in Boston I took a tour of the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in Cambridge. Marilyn Dunn, the library’s Executive Director, graciously provided the tour. They have a great women's history collection and I'll definitely return there for more research when this trip is done. I also met with Barbara Berenson, an author who has written a couple of books on civil war era Boston, and is now researching Boston’s woman suffrage history.

Since my daughter Emma (aka the amazing artist Solei) lives in Somerville and went to Tufts, I asked her to pull together some of her friends so I could talk with them about their experience as young women thinking about careers, families, and so on. The five 20-somethings; Lisa, Ann, Krista, Paige, and Emma gathered in the library of the Democracy Center in Cambridge, which is described as a 21st century meeting house- very cool resource for a community! I foolishly neglected to take a photo of the group so you’ll have to make do with this one of Emma. They were all college graduates, smart and funny, and we had a very thoughtful discussion.
My daughter Emma in a mosque in Cyprus, earlier this year
I asked them broadly about their experience as young women, and they initially came back with stories of men they didn’t know somewhat inappropriately commenting on their appearance. Krista also mentioned an awkward exchange with a young man who told her in effect that she played guitar real good for a girl. But these were clearly not things they regarded as anything more than minor irritations. They didn’t perceive any particular barriers to their careers due to their sex, even if they didn’t know that some of those gains were won relatively recently and were the result of activism and hard work by the women who came before. We talked about access to birth control and abortion, which they regard as their rights, and while aware of conservative attacks on these they didn’t seem to feel a call to action to protect them. Not yet, anyhow.

I also asked about how they viewed Hillary Clinton. They aren’t fans. They weren’t willing to give her a pass because she’s a woman, and they didn’t like her hawkish-ness. They prefer Bernie. I did fill them in on a little of her background from my perspective, the work she did on a more universal health care system when Bill was first elected president, and how she and Bill have been the target of unrelenting attacks from Republicans ever since they first gained national prominence. They weren’t aware of her history and while I want them to make their own decisions I thought they ought to have a little more empathy and perspective on what Hilary has been through in her political life.

One of my favorite Solei pieces. 
Finally, we discussed whether they saw themselves having children some day, and if they were concerned about their ability to juggle work and careers. Emma observed that she couldn’t think of having kids until she could hold onto a cell phone for longer than 90 days, a useful metric and evidence of self-knowledge that made her mother happy. Paige and Lisa had role models in the women they worked for, who worked hard but had kids and seemed to be making it all work. It’s all a bit abstract for them at the moment but at least they weren’t seeing that having a career and a family would be impossible.  

I don’t get to be around this age group a lot so I really enjoyed our discussion. I hope they learned a bit about the history of woman suffrage and the connection to women’s rights today, and will continue to explore both.

Emma and I saw Suffragette while I was in Boston. I thought it was well done, although it’s important to note that British suffrage history unfolded a little differently from the way it did in the US. No one was breaking windows in this country, for example. However, (spoiler alert!) the scene in which the prisoner is force-fed tracks very closely to Alice Paul’s description of her own horrible experience when she was imprisoned for suffrage activities in England. That’s where she got her start in suffrage, actually, working with Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. In fact, the Philadelphia Record in 1917 referred to her as “the Pankhurst of the Potomac.” (I’m not sure that was meant as a compliment, but the article was  pretty sympathetic.) Suffragette is well worth seeing, I recommend it!


  1. Hartford History Center provided the photograph of Mrs. George Day.

  2. Yes, that's correct, thanks for pointing that out!

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