When New York voters went to the ballot box on Nov. 6, 1917, they had at least one thing in common. They were all male.
By the end of the day, however, it was clear the world was changing. The men of New York, remembering their mothers, sisters and daughters — as the New York State Woman Suffrage Party had asked them to do in a number of full-page newspaper ads — had done the right thing. The next November, 1918, the women of the Empire State would themselves step into the voting booths and make political choices. New York would be the 13th state (Wyoming was first in 1889) — and just the second state east of the Mississippi — to enfranchise women.
1917 was an off-year election with very little to get excited about except the prospect for woman’s suffrage. Most newspapers of the day ran full-page displays showing readers what they could expect to see in the voting booth, and right at the top, on the left, was the suffrage question.
Amendment 1: “Shall the proposed amendment to Section 1 of Article 2 of the Constitution conferring equal suffrage upon women, be approved?”
In the New York City area, 59 percent of the men cast ballots for women’s suffrage; upstate, the tally was 51 percent. Overall 54 percent of New Yorkers voted yes. The state’s decision seemed to spark a nationwide movement, and in three years, the 20th Amendment was passed, giving women the right to vote throughout the country.
Gioia Ottaviano said her mother, Amelia Dente Ottaviano, turned 22 in 1918 and voted in that first election, and she’s pretty sure she cast her ballot for Republicans.
“I’m sure my mother, Amelia, and her sister, Felicia, both voted in that first election,” said Ottaviano, who turned 93 this year. “My mother was an activist and an independent thinker, and I’m sure she voted Republican. Somebody got to them early, and you usually voted the way your parents did. But she was very proud of voting in that first election. She used to always mention it.”
Amelia was made a Patroon of the city by Schenectady mayor Frank Duci in 1978 for a lifetime of activity aimed at helping individuals as well as places like the Schenectady County Historical Society, the Schenectady Board of Elections, Schenectady Girls Club, Schenectady Museum, Schenectady County Library and the YWCA. Gioia, meanwhile, whose life often mirrored her mother’s, was named a Patroon by mayor Gary McCarthy in 2013.
Suffragists came in all stripes. Schenectady’s Lucia Oliviere fought for women’s suffrage for more than five years leading up to the 1917 vote. She then spent the next year encouraging women to cast ballots for the local Socialist Party. She lost that fight.
Not all progressive women were necessarily suffragists. Mary Harris Jones, also known as Mother Jones, fought for workers’ rights and the welfare of children, but she never got too excited about suffrage.
“You don’t need the vote to raise hell,” Jones said.
Another turn-of-the-20th-Century figure who never warmed up to the Women’s Suffrage Movement was anarchist Emma Goldman.
“As if women have not sold their votes, as if women politicians cannot be bought!” she would bark at the suffragists.
There were also women who were firmly against winning the right to vote, including Albany’s Emily Rankin, recording secretary of the Albany branch of the New York State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage. Born in 1889, Rankin lived at Cherry Hill in Albany’s South End. A descendant of the Van Rensselaer’s, Rankin was the final family member to live in the home, and at her death in 1963, the property was bequeathed to the city of Albany.
“We owe a great debt to Emily and to her mother, Catherine Rankin, who both labored tenaciously, relentlessly and passionately to save their five-generation family home and its thousands of artifacts and papers,” said Deborah Emmons-Andarawis, curator at Historic Cherry Hill. “But can I call her an inspiration? Her legacy is a little more complicated. She embraced very conservative views, but here is the instruction I take from Emily. The past is not always a straight line to progress, and historical figures can be at one turn inspiring and at the next insufferable.
“For my part, I’m compelled by Emily’s reverence for the past and her leadership in acting decisively to preserve it.”
As Rankin’s example suggests, many women were happy with their role. Here are 10 women, chosen by 10 Capital Region women from today, who were not. The last two on this list, Margaret Sanger and Minie Catherine Allen, a Shaker, never involved themselves in the suffrage battle even though they believed in equal rights for women.
LUCY ALLEN (1851-1946)
Teri P. Gay is the author of “Strength Without Compromise: Womanly Influence and Political Identity in Turn-of-the-20th Century Rural Upstate New York.” She is a Glens Falls native, a St. Lawrence University grad, and was recently named Warren County historian.
In the words of Lucy Allen, founder and president of the Easton Political Equality Club (established 1891), and also president of the Washington County Branch of the New York State Women’s Suffrage Party, “We stand together in firm faith that knows no weakening, that the elevating of women means the elevating of humanity, and that no nobler cause can engage the time and thought of intelligent human beings.” The example set by Allen and her friend and co-leader Chloe Sisson, both Quakers and abolitionists, as well as pro-suffrage advocates, led to the proliferation of Political Equality Clubs (PECs) throughout Washington County and into neighboring counties at the turn of the 20th century.
Allen, Sisson and the ladies of the Easton suffrage club were ordinary, but remarkable, women. They were strong wives and mothers who helped their husbands and fathers run large family farms, along with the institutions in their small communities. They were multi-dimensional people with high intelligence, acute political sensibilities and a true understanding of the profound civil rights movement of which they were a part.Their achievements show the power of democracy in action and typify the magic of finding the “extraordinary” in “ordinary” people. These women used the strength of their womanliness – without compromise – to fight for “votes for women” and to champion political equality for women across New York state and the nation.
HARRIET LEONARD COLBURN (1856-1935)
Darlene Lee is a Schenectady native, former president of the Schenectady County Republican Woman’s Club and currently a member of the Saratoga County group and of the state and national Federation of Republican Women. She is also working on a book about Harriet Leonard Colburn.
Harriet Leonard Colburn is a second-generation suffragist. She was the daughter of Cynthia Leonard. “Hattie” lived in Schenectady from about 1900 until 1930. Growing up in Chicago, she had a front row seat to the Women’s Rights movement. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were frequent visitors to her home. Just imagine what it was like to be eight years old and come into the kitchen where Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were having breakfast with your mother or sitting on the steps being invisible while these strong minded women were hashing out a plan to get women the right to vote. Sadly, none of the original members of the women’s movement lived to see the legislation pass giving women the right to vote. The movement stalled and fractionalized. It was the second generation of women’s rights activists that unified women from all backgrounds to set aside their differences and come together for the cause.
Not all women marched in the streets and boarded the campaign train of Presidential hopeful Charles Evans Hughes, to make a statement. Some, like Hattie, used their skills, talents and vision to organize groups of women based on their interests and were ready when the time came to be a unified driving force. Here are just a few of the organizations that Hattie and other like-minded ladies founded before they could vote, Schenectada Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Schenectady County Women’s Club, the Federation of Women’s Clubs and in February of 1917 she founded the Schenectady County Republican Women’s Club. Living in Schenectady at the turn of the century was a time of great innovation, industry, and building.
EUNICE NEWTON FOOTE (1819-1888)
Anne Clothier is the Director of Education at Brookside, home to the Saratoga County Historical Society in Ballston Spa. She was born in Corinth, got her four-year degree at SUNY-Oneonta and her masters at the Cooperstown Graduate Program.
Eunice Newton Foote was a scientist and inventor who lived in Saratoga Springs in the 1860s. She published two scientific papers in the 1850s, one of which contained the first experimental confirmation of the role of carbon dioxide in heating the earth’s atmosphere. She also invented improved machinery for manufacturing paper. Born in Connecticut in 1819, she moved with her family to western New York in 1821. She completed her formal education at what is now Emma Willard School in Troy during the 1836-37 school year. Her classmate was Catherine Cady, younger sister of the famous advocate for women’s rights, Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
That same year, a former law student of Judge Cady (Elizabeth’s father) by the name of Elisha Foote, was elected District Attorney of Seneca County in western New York. It seems likely the Cady connection brought Eunice and Elisha together. They married in 1841 and made their home in Seneca Falls where they raised two daughters before moving to Saratoga Springs. The couple shared involvement, perhaps catalyzed by the Cady connection, in the burning topics of the day, abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage. Eunice was on the five-person committee at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention which arranged the publication of the proceedings, which was printed by the Rochester print shop owned by Frederick Douglass.
MATILDA JOSELYN GAGE (1826-1889)
Jenna Peterson Riley is the education director at the Arkell Museum in Canajoharie. She is a native of Ankenny, Iowa, currently lives in Niskayuna, and went to Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa before heading to New York where she got a masters at the Cooperstown Graduate Program.
As an Iowan by birth, my initial reaction is to choose Amelia Bloomer, who lived the last 52 years of her life in Council Bluffs. But now, living in New York, I have gotten to know a number of other women, and my current pick is Matilda Joselyn Gage. She grew up in Cicero, New York, in a home that served as a station for the Underground Railroad. When she and her husband moved to Fayetteville, they set up another station there. She attended the third national Woman’s Rights Conference in 1848 and was a founding member of the National Woman Suffrage Association before she broke off and formed the more radical Women’s National Liberal Union.
She was a strong supporter of the separation of Church and State, and a staunch advocate of the rights for the Mohawk and other Native Americans. She also wrote countless essays on a wide range of topics as editor of The National Citizen and Ballot Box from 1878 to 1881 and The Liberal Thinker from 1890 onward. Gage has had a lasting legacy even beyond our right to vote. In her 1870 essay, “Woman as Inventor,” she identified what historian Margaret W. Rossiter later dubbed the “Matilda Effect,” the phenomena of acknowledging male scientists for the achievements of their female colleagues.
ELIZABETH CADY STANTON (1815-1902)
Patricia Fahy was elected to the New York State Assembly in 2012 and re-elected in 2014 and 2016. A Chicago native, she got a degree in public administration from the University of Illinois and a masters in public history from Northern Illinois.
Born in 1815 in Johnstown, Stanton studied at Emma Willard Academy in Troy and is remembered for her instrumental role at the convention at Seneca Falls and her advocacy for divorce, custody and birth control rights for women. She is most remembered for her eloquence and was a trailblazer on recruiting women and paving the way for women activists and officials. Her story holds a special resonance with me.
Cady Stanton was the first woman to appeal to a state legislature for women’s suffrage. In her speech she also appealed for a woman’s right to property. She was not allowed to deliver the speech in person, as it was viewed to be improper, so she sent the legislature printed copies. She was certainly a product of her time, holding some views unacceptable by today’s standards, such as opposition to the 14th and 15th amendments.But she also held some remarkably forward-looking views for the time, including interracial marriage. She was a remarkable, complex and sometimes flawed woman who propelled women into the public life through her oratory skill, and for that we shall all be thankful.
KATHRYN H. STARBUCK (1887-1965)
Mary Ann Fitzgerald has been historian for the city of Saratoga Springs since 2004. She also worked for 18 years as an administrative assistant at Skidmore College, where she got a degree in American Studies.
Kathryn’s parents owned and operated Starbuck’s Department Store on Broadway for several decades. When Kathryn’s brother became president of the family business, Kathryn served as vice-president. A pioneer in many fields and a graduate of both Vassar and Albany Law School, Starbuck practiced law in New York City and was a professor of law at Skidmore. She was an active member of many organizations, and during World War II she established a child care center at the Katrina Trask House to aid working mothers.
She also played a significant role in the Woman’s Suffrage Movement in Saratoga County. A meeting in Mechanicville in 1916 was attended by women from all over the state, and women from local organizations around Saratoga County united under Starbuck’s leadership. The Saratoga County Woman Suffrage Party’s annual convention was held at the Worden Hotel on Broadway. Delegates re-elected Starbuck as the party leader to direct the 1917 campaign in New York State in support of the woman’s suffrage referendum on the November ballot. When New York adopted woman suffrage in 1917, the political balance began to shift, influencing President Wilson’s decision to support an amendment.
ALICE MORGAN WRIGHT (1881-1976)
Tammis K. Groft is the executive director at the Albany Institute of History and Art and is a graduate of Hartwick College and the Cooperstown Graduate Program.
Wright was a well-known early 20th century avant-garde sculptor who was among the first artists to experiment with Cubism, and was also an internationally recognized advocate for women’s rights and later animal rights. She attended St. Agnes School in Albany and graduated from Smith College in 1904. She became interested in the Women’s Suffrage Movement when she met noted English suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst in 1912. She was one of over 200 women who were jailed after participating in a now-famous London suffrage demonstration.
After spending two months in jail, she was released and returned to the U.S. in 1914 where she continued sculpting and participating in suffrage activities. She was an early member of the New York State Women Suffrage Party, actively campaigning for female votes, and a founder of the New York State League of Women Voters. She continued to campaign for women’s rights until 1945 when her interests turned to animal rights. She was instrumental in founding the National Humane Education Society with her friend Edith Goode and establishing the Peace Plantation in Virginia.
MARTHA COFFIN WRIGHT (1806-1875)
Ashley Hopkins-Benton is a senior historian/curator at the New York State Museum. A native of Catskill and current resident of Kinderhook, she’s a graduate of SUNY-Potsdam and the Cooperstown Graduate Program.
My favorite suffragist comes from the early part of the story of women’s rights in New York state. From this period, many people know the names of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, but it was Mott’s sister, Martha Coffin Wright, who caught my interest during research. Wright attended the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, and was active at many conventions and meetings prior to the Civil War. She did not focus her attentions strictly on woman suffrage, but instead took a holistic view of women’s rights, something that was common in the early movement. Wright wrote about her views on equality both in newspaper articles and in letters to friends and family.
Her views and her wit in her writing, especially regarding women’s role in the home, often seem almost modern. Wright lived her ideals, and promoted equality in her own home. She took great interest in the education of both her daughters and sons, and her sons were taught to knot, a skill she thought was important for both sexes during idle time. She pushed her husband for better pay for their seamstress when she found out she was paid less than half of what they paid their hired hand, arguing that life as a seamstress was just as detrimental to one’s health. The Wrights were also active in the abolition movement, and hosted both anti-slavery speakers and runaways in their home in Auburn, New York.
MINIE CATHERINE ALLEN (1852-1922)
Starlyn D’Angelo has been director of the Shaker Heritage Society in the town of Colonie for 14 years, the original Shaker site in America. She is a native of Loveland, Colorado, got a BA in Art History and Business from Colorado State University and a masters in museum studies from the Cooperstown Graduate Program.
Minie was sent to live with the Shakers in New Lebanon following the death of her father. In 1908, she was appointed to the Lead Ministry, which oversaw the temporal and spiritual life of all Shaker communities. While Shakers did largely separate themselves from the outside world in order to focus on worship, they never were entirely self-sufficient nor did they ignore what was happening in the world. Eldress Catherine supported several worldly popular movements, including the National Women’s Suffrage Association.
Among the Shakers, voting was something that was seen as a divisive and potentially destructive activity because the smooth operation of their community demanded unity among its members. Voting meant taking sides with one party or another, which was contrary to the Shaker way of life. While Shakers generally did not vote, they did respect that it was an important right for worldly people. They also believed in gender equality. Each of these worldly causes reflected Shaker values. Perhaps Eldress Catherine also hoped that supporting them would lead new converts to her door.
MARGARET SANGER (1879-1966)
Mary Zawacki is the executive director of the Schenectady County Historical Society and a native of the lower Hudson Valley. She got a degree in French and History at SUNY-New Paltz and her masters in Cultural Heritage Studies from Newcastle University in the United Kingdom.
Truthfully, I don’t have a favorite suffragette. When it comes to progressive era feminists, it’s all about Margaret Sanger, the nurse, the founder of Planned Parenthood, and a champion of working class or immigrant women. Sanger saw the suffrage movement as too narrow, and believed that millions of poor or working class women were left behind. It’s true — suffragettes tended to be from privileged white families, and were often women who had the time and money to dedicate to the cause.
Sanger, on the other hand, believed that working class women faced more pressing issues such as birth control, fair wages and emancipation from squalor and entrenched gender roles. Sanger fought for women of all backgrounds, she smuggled diaphragms from England, she developed the first oral contraceptives, and she changed the idea of choice in motherhood for all future generations.