Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

The Story of a Pioneer
Convention Incidents

From 1887 to 1914 we had a suffrage convention every year, and I attended each of them.  In preceding chapters I have mentioned various convention episodes of more or less importance.  Now, looking back over them all as I near the end of these reminiscences, I recall a few additional incidents which had a bearing on later events. There was, for example, the much-discussed attack on suffrage during the Atlanta convention of 1895, by a prominent clergyman of that city whose name I mercifully withhold.  On the Sunday preceding our arrival this gentleman preached a sermon warning every one to keep away from our meetings, as our effort was not to secure the franchise for women, but to encourage the intermarriage of the black and white races.  Incidentally he declared that the suffragists were trying to break up the homes of America and degrade the morals of women, and that we were all infidels and blasphemers.  He ended with a personal attack on me, saying that on the previous Sunday I had preached in the Epworth Memorial Methodist Church of Cleveland, Ohio, a sermon which was of so blasphemous a nature that nothing could purify the church after it except to burn it down.

As usual at our conventions, I had been announced to preach the sermon at our Sunday conference, and I need hardly point out that the reverend gentleman's charge created a deep public interest in this effort.  I had already selected a text, but I immediately changed my plans and announced that I would repeat the sermon I had delivered in Cleveland and which the Atlanta minister considered so blasphemous.  The announcement brought out an audience which filled the Opera House and called for a squad of police officers to keep in order the street crowd that could not secure entrance.  The assemblage had naturally expected that I would make some reply to the clergyman's attack, but I made no reference whatever to him.  I merely repeated, with emphasis, the sermon I had delivered in Cleveland. At the conclusion of the service one of the trustees of my reverend critic's church came and apologized for his pastor.  He had a high regard for him, the trustee said, but in this instance there could be no doubt in the mind of any one who had heard both sermons that of the two mine was the tolerant, the reverent, and the Christian one.  The attack made many friends for us, first because of its injustice, and next because of the good-humored tolerance with which the suffragists accepted it.

The Atlanta convention, by the way, was arranged and largely financed by the Misses Howard-- three sisters living in Columbus, Georgia, and each an officer of the Georgia Woman Suffrage Association. It is a remarkable fact that in many of our Southern states the suffrage movement has been led by three sisters.  In Kentucky the three Clay sisters were for many years leaders in the work.  In Texas the three Finnegan sisters did splendid work; in Louisiana the Gordon sisters were our stanchest allies, while in Virginia we had the invaluable aid of Mary Johnston, the novelist, and her two sisters.  We used to say, laughingly, if there was a failure to organize any state in the South, that it must be due to the fact that no family there had three sisters to start the movement.

From the Atlanta convention we went directly to Washington to attend the convention of the National Council of Women, and on the first day of this council Frederick Douglass came to the meeting.  Mr. Douglass had a special place in the hearts of suffragists, for the reason that at the first convention ever held for woman suffrage in the United States (at Seneca Falls, New York) he was the only person present who stood by Elizabeth Cady Stanton when she presented her resolution in favor of votes for women.  Even Lucretia Mott was startled by this radical step, and privately breathed into the ear of her friend, "Elizabeth, thee is making us ridiculous!''  Frederick Douglass, however, took the floor in defense of Mrs. Stanton's motion, a service we suffragists never forgot. Therefore, when the presiding officer of the council, Mrs. May Wright Sewall, saw Mr. Douglass enter the convention hall in Washington on this particular morning, she appointed Susan B. Anthony and me a committee to escort him to a seat on the platform, which we gladly did.  Mr. Douglass made a short speech and then left the building, going directly to his home. There, on entering his hall, he had an attack of heart failure and dropped dead as he was removing his overcoat.  His death cast a gloom over the convention, and his funeral, which took place three days later, was attended by many prominent men and women who were among the delegates.  Miss Anthony and I were invited to take part in the funeral services, and she made a short address, while I offered a prayer. The event had an aftermath in Atlanta, for it led our clerical enemy to repeat his charges against us, and to offer the funeral of Frederick Douglass as proof that we were hand in glove with the negro race.

Under the gracious direction of Miss Kate Gordon and the Louisiana Woman Suffrage Association, we held an especially inspiring convention in New Orleans in 1903.  In no previous convention were arrangements more perfect, and certainly nowhere else did the men of a community co-operate more generously with the women in entertaining us.  A club of men paid the rent of our hall, chartered a steamboat and gave us a ride on the Mississippi, and in many other ways helped to make the occasion a success.  Miss Gordon, who was chairman of the programme committee, introduced the innovation of putting me before the audience for twenty minutes every evening, at the close of the regular session, as a target for questions.  Those present were privileged to ask any questions they pleased, and I answered them--if I could. We were all conscious of the dangers attending a discussion of the negro question, and it was understood among the Northern women that we must take every precaution to avoid being led into such discussion.  It had not been easy to persuade Miss Anthony of the wisdom of this course; her way was to face issues squarely and out in the open.  But she agreed that we must respect the convictions of the Southern men and women who were entertaining us so hospitably.

On the opening night, as I took my place to answer questions, almost the first slip passed up bore these words: What is your purpose in bringing your convention to the South?  Is it the desire of suffragists to force upon us the social equality of black and white women?  Political equality lays the foundation for social equality.  If you give the ballot to women, won't you make the black and white woman equal politically and therefore lay the foundation for a future claim of social equality? I laid the paper on one side and did not answer the question.  The second night it came to me again, put in the same words, and again I ignored it.  The third night it came with this addition: Evidently you do not dare to answer this question.  Therefore our conclusion is that this is your purpose. When I had read this I went to the front of the platform.

"Here,'' I said, "is a question which has been asked me on three successive nights.  I have not answered it because we Northern women had decided not to enter into any discussion of the race question.  But now I am told by the writer of this note that we dare not answer it.  I wish to say that we dare to answer it if you dare to have it answered --and I leave it to you to decide whether I shall answer it or not.''

I read the question aloud.  Then the audience called for the answer, and I gave it in these words, quoted as accurately as I can remember them: "If political equality is the basis of social equality, and if by granting political equality you lay the foundation for a claim of social equality, I can only answer that you have already laid that claim.  You did not wait for woman suffrage, but disfranchised both your black and your white women, thus making them politically equal.  But you have done more than that.  You have put the ballot into the hands of your black men, thus making them the political superiors of your white women.  Never before in the history of the world have men made former slaves the political masters of their former mistresses!'' The point went home and it went deep.  I drove it in a little further.

"The women of the South are not alone,'' I said, "in their humiliation.  All the women of America share it with them.  There is no other nation in the world in which women hold the position of political degradation our American women hold to-day. German women are governed by German men; French women are governed by French men.  But in these United States American women are governed by every race of men under the light of the sun.  There is not a color from white to black, from red to yellow, there is not a nation from pole to pole, that does not send its contingent to govern American women.  If American men are willing to leave their women in a position as degrading as this they need not be surprised when American women resolve to lift themselves out of it.''

For a full moment after I had finished there was absolute silence in the audience.  We did not know what would happen.  Then, suddenly, as the truth of the statement struck them, the men began to applaud--and the danger of that situation was over. Another episode had its part in driving the suffrage lesson home to Southern women.  The Legislature had passed a bill permitting tax-paying women to vote at any election where special taxes were to be imposed for improvements, and the first election following the passage of this bill was one in New Orleans, in which the question of better drainage for the city was before the public.  Miss Gordon and the suffrage association known as the Era Club entered enthusiastically into the fight for good drainage.  According to the law women could vote by proxy if they preferred, instead of in person, so Miss Gordon drove to the homes of the old conservative Creole families and other families whose women were unwilling to vote in public, and she collected their proxies while incidentally she showed them what position they held under the law.

With each proxy it was necessary to have the signature of a witness, but according to the Louisiana law no woman could witness a legal document.  Miss Gordon was driven from place to place by her colored coachman, and after she had secured the proxy of her temporary hostess it was usually discovered that there was no man around the place to act as a witness.  This was Miss Gordon's opportunity.  With a smile of great sweetness she would say, "I will have Sam come in and help us out''; and the colored coachman would get down from his box, and by scrawling his signature on the proxy of the aristocratic lady he would give it the legal value it lacked. In this way Miss Gordon secured three hundred proxies, and three hundred very conservative women had an opportunity to compare their legal standing with Sam's.  The drainage bill was carried and interest in woman suffrage developed steadily.

The special incident of the Buffalo convention of 1908 was the receipt of a note which was passed up to me as I sat on the platform.  When I opened it a check dropped out--a check so large that I was sure it had been sent by mistake.  However, after asking one or two friends on the platform if I had read it correctly, I announced to the audience that if a certain amount were subscribed immediately I would reveal a secret--a very interesting secret. Audiences are as curious as individuals.  The amount was at once subscribed.  Then I held up a check for $10,000, given for our campaign work by Mrs. George Howard Lewis, in memory of Susan B. Anthony, and I read to the audience the charming letter that accompanied it.  The money was used during the campaigns of the following year--part of it in Washington, where an amendment was already submitted.

In a previous chapter I have described the establishment of our New York headquarters as a result of the generous offer of Mrs. O. H. P. Belmont at the Seattle convention in 1909.  During our first year in these beautiful Fifth Avenue rooms Mrs. Pankhurst made her first visit to America, and we gave her a reception there.  This, however, was before the adoption of the destructive methods which have since marked the activities of the band of militant suffragists of which Mrs. Pankhurst is president.  There has never been any sympathy among American suffragists for the militant suffrage movement in England, and personally I am wholly opposed to it.  I do not believe in war in any form; and if violence on the part of men is undesirable in achieving their ends, it is much more so on the part of women; for women never appear to less advantage than in physical combats with men.  As for militancy in America, no generation that attempted it could win.  No victory could come to us in any state where militant methods were tried.  They are undignified, unworthy--in other words, un-American.

The Washington convention of 1910 was graced by the presence of President Taft, who, at the invitation of Mrs. Rachel Foster Avery, made an address.  It was understood, of course, that he was to come out strongly for woman suffrage; but, to our great disappointment, the President, a most charming and likable gentleman, seemed unable to grasp the significance of the occasion.  He began his address with fulsome praise of women, which was accepted in respectful silence.  Then he got round to woman suffrage, floundered helplessly, became confused, and ended with the most unfortunately chosen words he could have uttered:  "I am opposed,'' he said, "to the extension of suffrage to women not fitted to vote.  You would hardly expect to put the ballot into the hands of barbarians or savages in the jungle!'' The dropping of these remarkable words into a suffrage convention was naturally followed by an oppressive silence, which Mr. Taft, now wholly bereft of his self-possession, broke by saying that the best women would not vote and the worst women would.

In his audience were many women from suffrage states--high-minded women, wives and mothers, who had voted for Mr. Taft.  The remarks to which they had just listened must have seemed to them a poor return.  Some one hissed--some man, some woman--no one knows which except the culprit-- and a demonstration started which I immediately silenced.  Then the President finished his address. He was very gracious to us when he left, shaking hands with many of us, and being especially cordial to Senator Owens's aged mother, who had come to the convention to hear him make his maiden speech on woman suffrage.  I have often wondered what he thought of that speech as he drove back to the White House.  Probably he regretted as earnestly as we did that he had made it.

In 1912, at an official board meeting at Bryn Mawr, Mrs. Stanley McCormack was appointed to fill a vacancy on the National Board.  Subsequently she contributed $6,000 toward the payment of debts incident to our temporary connection with the Woman's Journal of Boston, and did much efficient work for us, To me, personally, the entrance of Mrs. Stanley McCormack into our work has been a source of the deepest gratification and comfort.  I can truly say of her what Susan B. Anthony said of me, "She is my right bower.''  At Nashville, in 1914, she was elected first vice-president, and to a remarkable degree she has since relieved me of the burden of the technical work of the presidency, including the oversight of the work at headquarters.  To this she gives all her time, aided by an executive secretary who takes charge of the routine work of the association.  She has thus made it possible for me to give the greater part of my time to the field in which such inspiring opportunities still confront us--campaign work in the various states.

To Mrs. Medill McCormack also we are indebted for most admirable work and enthusiastic support. At the Washington (D.C.) convention in 1913 she was made the chairman of the Congressional Committee, with Mrs. Antoinette Funk, Mrs. Helen Gardner of Washington, and Mrs. Booth of Chicago as her assistants.  The results they achieved were so brilliant that they were unanimously re-elected to the same positions this year, with the addition of Miss Jeannette Rankin, whose energy and service had helped to win for us the state of Montana. It was largely due to the work of this Congressional Committee, supported by the large number of states which had been won for suffrage, that we secured such an excellent vote in the Lower House of Congress on the bill to amend the national Constitution granting suffrage to the women of the United States.  This measure, known as the Susan B. Anthony bill, had been introduced into every Congress for forty-three years by the National Woman Suffrage Association.  In 1914, for the first time, it was brought out of committee, debated, and voted upon in the Lower House.  We received 174 votes in favor of it to 204 against it.  The previous spring, in the same Congress, the same bill passed the Senate by 35 votes for it to 33 votes against it.

The most interesting features of the Washington convention of 1913 were the labor mass-meetings led by Jane Addams and the hearing before the Rules Committee of the Lower House of Con- gress--the latter the first hearing ever held before this Committee for the purpose of securing a Committee on Suffrage in the Lower House to correspond with a similar committee in the Senate.  For many years we had had hearings before the Judiciary Committee of the Lower House, which was such a busy committee that it had neither time nor interest to give to our measure.  We therefore considered it necessary to have a special committee of our own.  The hearing began on the morning of Wednesday, the third of December, and lasted for two hours.  Then the anti-suffragists were given time, and their hearing began the following day, continued throughout that day and during the morning of the next day, when our National Association was given an opportunity for rebuttal argument in the afternoon.  It was the longest hearing in the history of the suffrage movement, and one of the most important.

During the session of Congress in 1914 another strenuous effort was made to secure the appointment of a special suffrage committee in the Lower House.  But when success began to loom large before us the Democrats were called in caucus by the minority leader, Mr. Underwood, of Alabama, and they downed our measure by a vote of 127 against it to 58 for it.  This was evidently done by the Democrats because of the fear that the united votes of Republican and Progressive members, with those of certain Democratic members, would carry the measure; whereas if this caucus were called, and an unfavorable vote taken, "the gentlemen's agreement'' which controls Democratic party action in Congress would force Democrats in favor of suffrage to vote against the appointment of the committee, which of course would insure its defeat. The caucus blocked the appointment of the committee, but it gave great encouragement to the suffragists of the country, for they knew it to be a tacit admission that the measure would receive a favorable vote if it came before Congress unhampered.

Another feature of the 1913 convention was the new method of electing officers, by which a primary vote was taken on nominations, and afterward a regular ballot was cast; one officer was added to the members of the official board, making nine instead of eight, the former number.  The new officers elected were Mrs. Breckenridge of Kentucky, the great-granddaughter of Henry Clay, and Mrs. Catherine Ruutz-Rees of Greenwich, Connecticut. The old officers were re-elected--Miss Jane Addams as first vice-president, Mrs. Breckenridge and Mrs. Ruutz-Rees as second and third vice-presidents, Mrs. Mary Ware Dennett as corresponding secretary, Mrs. Susan Fitzgerald as recording secretary, Mrs. Stanley McCormack as treasurer, Mrs. Joseph Bowen of Chicago and Mrs. James Lees Laidlaw of New York City as auditors.

It would be difficult to secure a group of women of more marked ability, or better-known workers in various lines of philanthropic and educational work, than the members composing this admirable board. At the convention of 1914, held in Nashville, several of them resigned, and at present (in 1914) the "National's'' affairs are in the hands of this inspiring group, again headed by the much-criticized and chastened writer of these reminiscences:

Mrs. Stanley McCormack, first vice-president.
Mrs. Desha Breckenridge, second vice-president.
Dr. Katharine B. Davis, third vice-president.
Mrs. Henry Wade Rogers, treasurer.
Mrs. John Clark, corresponding secretary.
Mrs. Susan Walker Fitzgerald, recording secretary.
Mrs. Medill McCormack, Auditors
Mrs. Walter McNabb Miller, of Missouri 

In a book of this size, and covering the details of my own life as well as the development of the great Cause, it is, of course, impossible to mention by name each woman who has worked for us-- though, indeed, I would like to make a roll of honor and give them all their due.  In looking back I am surprised to see how little I have said about many women with whom I have worked most closely--Rachel Foster Avery, for example, with whom I lived happily for several years; Ida Husted Harper, the historian of the suffrage movement and the biographer of Miss Anthony, with whom I made many delightful voyages to Europe; Alice Stone Blackwell, Rev. Mary Saffard, Jane Addams, Katharine Waugh McCullough, Ella Stewart, Mrs. Mary Wood Swift, Mrs. Mary S. Sperry, Mary Cogshall, Florence Kelly, Mrs. Ogden Mills Reid and Mrs. Norman Whitehouse (to mention only two of the younger "live wires'' in our New York work), Sophonisba Breck- enridge, Mrs. Clara B. Arthur, Rev. Caroline Bartlett Crane, Mrs. James Lees Laidlaw, Mrs. Raymond Brown, the splendidly executive president of our New York State Suffrage Association, and my benefactress, Mrs. George Howard Lewis of Buffalo. 

To all of them, and to thousands of others, I make my grateful acknowledgment of indebtedness for friendship and for help.

Return to Contents Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus