Votes for Women

            On August 18, it will have been 100 years since the ratification of the 19th amendment, giving women the right to vote. However, women were not “given” the right to vote; they campaigned over 50 years for equality and the right to vote. The 19th Amendment declared, “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Suffrage, the right to vote, is the fundamental right of citizenship.  

            On June 24 and 25, 1915, the Sippican Woman’s Club hosted the State Federation of Women’s Clubs for their annual meeting and to vote on women’s suffrage. Over 400 women from around the state gathered in Marion for two days. It was their annual meeting and an opportunity to add their voice to the suffrage movement.

            The General Federation of Women’s Clubs was founded in 1890. It was an important vehicle for women to gather consensus among themselves, on political issues, such as suffrage. The Federation had a notable record of activity on issues of historical importance. In a time when women’s rights were limited, the State Federation chapters held grassroots efforts to make sure the woman’s voice was heard.

            By the turn of the century, women had abandoned the hope of a Federal decree, and they had begun a state-by-state ratification campaign. By 1910, 11 states, all in the West, had given women the right to vote. Still, since southern and eastern states resisted, the Suffragettes decided that a “blitz campaign” to mobilize state and local organizations was needed. As of 1914, only 17 of the state federations had voted to support suffrage, even though it had been affirmed that suffrage had become a mainstream cause for middle-class women from every part of the country.  

            The question has always been, “why would members of the Federation of Women’s Club vote NOT to give women the right to vote?” In 1915, the woman’s suffrage movement was not universally popular. There were almost as many women against the suffrage movement as there were suffragettes. They opined that a woman should be first and foremost the homemaker, caring for children, husband, and home. They also believed that women would be best in a bipartisan role, impartial, no opinion, protecting themselves from the sordid world of politics. These women were called “anti-suffragettes”, or “antis” for short. The New York Times editorialized that “giving the vote to women is repugnant”.  Mrs. Grover Cleveland, a famous Marion summer visitor, wrote: “men’s and women’s roles had been assigned long ago by a higher intelligence.”

            So, women from around the state took trains, (had to transfer from Tremont in Wareham to Marion Depot), stayed at the Sippican Hotel for $4 a night, and convened at the First Congregational Church in Marion to participate in a two-day conference. Both sides of the suffrage movement were ready to fight for their cause. Newspaper articles of the event state that the “antis” were upset when they saw a suffrage ribbon tied to a decorative palm in the church. With 400 or more women, it was “standing room only”. 

            The first day was amicable, being that they only dealt with usual annual club issues. That evening there was a reception at the Sippican Hotel and a production of “Midsummer Night’s Dream”.

            On the second day, it was written in a newspaper account an undercurrent of excitement over the pending question of woman suffrage prevailed. Anti-suffrage and suffrage leaders were marshaling their forces for the test of strength which is expected to come when the suffrage question is brought before the convention for the adoption of resolutions.

            In the face of such division, the President of the State Federation began the session by stating, “Let us maintain unity in diversity. Let us not be broken by factions. Let us keep the peace in the organization we have always enjoyed.”

            Vote was taken, 203 to 99 in favor of ratification of Massachusetts’ referendum to grant suffrage to women in the November ballot. It is recorded: “Whereas the question of political equality of men and women is a very vital problem under discussion throughout the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, therefore, be it resolved, that the Massachusetts state federation of Women’s Clubs give the cause of political equality the moral support by recording its beliefs in the principle of political equality regardless of sex.”

            In November, the referendum failed. The strong political machine did not want an electorate they didn’t know. New York had the same referendum, and that lost also.

            It took five more years of continued pressure, with rallies, political polling, jailing, and hunger strikes. However, it was World War 1, when women picked up the gauntlet to drive ambulances, die at the frontlines while nursing the wounded, worked assembly lines to keep production of the country’s needs, that women finally were finally given citizenship, namely the vote.  

Sippican Woman’s Club

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