In softly spoken tones, Katherine Dibble, former director of Public Service at the Boston Public Library, gave a presentation at the Mattapoisett Public Library on February 15 on the struggles of the suffragettes who fought the battle for women’s right to vote and won.
While the world may know Susan B. Anthony as the most famous suffragette, her work was not a solo effort. This year is the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, and to celebrate that monumental achievement the Boston Women’s Suffrage Trail is taking its show on the road to educate the public about the activism of local women. The lecture series highlights the work of many Massachusetts women in the pursuit to secure voting rights for women.
Few in attendance were familiar with many of the names Dibble shared, names that should not be lost to history. Thus, through the establishment of the BWST, suffragettes from the Commonwealth are finally getting recognition they deserve, she said.
Dibble began by sharing that as far back the 1700s Abigail Adams was lobbying her husband, “…do not forget the ladies” when drafting legislation. The notion of women being fully capable of participating in government and in electing officials was still in the distant future. While the letter exchanged between the Adams showed a rather modern concept of the relationship between men and women and their roles in life, Abigail simply wanted women to be thought of as more than property. It would more than 100 years more before the 19th Amendment solidified that women did, in fact, have the mental capacity and human qualities needed in order to vote.
It is a short amendment, a mere 39 words that reads, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex. Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” By August 19, 1920, the required 36 states had ratified the agreement. Massachusetts was the eighth state to accept ratification. The long years of campaigning, lecturing, publishing, traveling near and far, spreading the doctrine of equal voting right for women had at last succeeded.
But who were those women of Massachusetts who put their private lives on hold, who tested the male-dominated legal system, who were arrested, sent to prison, and in some cases persecuted for their belief that voting rights should be granted to women?
Lucy Stone (1818-1893), in Dibble’s estimation, is deserving of far more recognition than Anthony. But Anthony ”and Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote the early history of the movement,” she said, possibly solidifying their position as singular engines of change.
Stone had had a falling out with Anthony over the inclusion of voting rights for African Americans. Dibble described Stone as being very modest and preferring to work behind the scenes. More than a century later her work is being publicly hailed.
In the Boston State House, along with Josephine Ruffin (1842-1924), Mary O’Sullivan (1864-1943), Sarah Remond (1814-1894), and Florence Luscomb (1887-1985), is a bust of Stone, who is also celebrated with a bust in the Boston Public Library along with her daughter Alice Stone Blackwell (1857-1950), who was an activist for suffrage, human rights, and peace.
Stone’s image can also be found at Faneuil Hall and as one of the three women depicted in the Boston Women’s Memorial located on Commonwealth Avenue at Fairfield Street. This later monument also includes Abigail Adams (1744-1818) and Phillis Wheatly (1753-1784). Wheatly is remembered for being the first African American female poet published in book form. Today she is known as the mother of African American literature.
Remond was a free-born African American and a well-known speaker against slavery as well as an advocate for women’s right to vote. O’Sullivan moved to Boston from Missouri, becoming a labor organizer and suffragette. Ruffin published the first newspaper by and for African American women. Luscomb was the first woman to graduate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a leading suffragette who also fought for prison reform and factory safety, and many years later became an activist against the Vietnam War.
The Morey women, mother Agnes (1868-1924) and daughter Katharine were prominent leaders of the movement. They were arrested for picketing against President Wilson when he came to Boston. Agnes had also been arrested and imprisoned in Washington, D.C. for picketing the White House.
Sisters Sarah (1792-1873) and Angelina (1805-1879) Grimke made some of the first attempts at securing voting rights for women. They were also abolitionists.
Dibble’s presentation carefully mentioned more than 30 Massachusetts female movers and shakers for women’s right to vote. Of special note there was Clara Barton (1821-1912), also known as the “Angel of the Battlefield” for her nursing of the wounded during the Civil War, Mary Rice Livermore (1820-1905), also an abolitionist and advocate for the vote traveling hundreds of miles for years for those causes, Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926), the first African American woman to become a registered nurse and also the first woman in Boston to register to vote, and Jennie Loitman Barron (1891-1969), the first full-time female judge in Massachusetts was also an outspoken advocate for women’s right to vote as she stood on street corners declaring her position to passersby.
Dibble’s presentation was sponsored by the Friends of the Mattapoisett Library and the Southcoast League of Women Voters. To learn more about Road to the Vote: The Boston Women’s Suffrage Trail, visit www.bwht.org.
By Marilou Newell