The League of Women Voters and the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote, share a centennial in 2020. As part of the many observances of these two landmarks, the Falmouth League (founded as a separate entity only in the 1950s) will offer some historical perspective as well as some fun (and sometimes hard-to-believe) facts on this early “women’s movement.”
The Women’s Suffrage Movement in the United States was active from at least 1848, the date of the Seneca Falls conference. The declaration of the Seneca Falls women repeated almost word-for-word most of Thomas Jefferson’s 1776 Declaration. But it attacked not the tyranny of a king over free people but the tyranny of men over women. The Western states were the first ones to grant women suffrage in the 19th century, Wyoming in 1869 and Colorado in 1893.
From the early 1900s the Enterprise aimed to keep its readers informed of developments both pro and con for women’s suffrage. A long article in the Enterprise of November 29, 1902, quoted a suffragist commenting on the changes that Colorado had noticed since women could vote: “Women have shown themselves to be keenly alive to the investigation of social problems that have their solution directly through politics.”
In April 1909 the Falmouth Lyceum, described as an organization “in which the younger men can acquire the art of debating,” sponsored a debate on women’s suffrage. Two “professional men” led the debate, “ladies [were] especially invited” and “will be expected to express their minds.” The members of the Lyceum, unsurprisingly, used common arguments of the era: pro-suffrage speakers felt that women deserved this basic democratic right; anti-suffrage speakers often implied that, because women could never be logical in their thinking, giving them the vote would be unwise. Furthermore, one speaker argued, “Colorado politics are hysterical, to say the least.”
The Enterprise article that covered this debate reported that the speaker favoring women’s suffrage argued that women’s “intuition in reaching conclusions [is] usually more correct than the reasonings of men,” while his opponent, although accepting the opinion about women’s intuition, countered that “they did not have the time and the disposition to vote” on issues such as free trade.
Efforts on the Cape also attracted interest from activists in Boston. On August 23, 1913, the Enterprise reported on [f]our large and enthusiastic meetings” that were held in Falmouth at various locations, featuring “suffragists from Boston on their present end-to-end campaign of the Cape.” One speaker quoted President Wilson, who noted that mothers teach citizenship to their children and it “must be lived by her before” she can teach it. Another speaker repeated one of the “suffrage slogans”: “We prepare children for the world; let us prepare the world for our children.”
That same month the paper noted local fundraising efforts. Card parties and bake sales were popular ways to raise money for the cause. “On Saturday, Aug. 15th, suffragists of Woods Hole, with a card party at the home of Dr. and Mrs. Gilman A. Drew...raised the sum of $40 to send to the campaign fund of the national Suffrage Association.”
Enterprise articles over several months of 1915 attest to the steady growth of support for women’s suffrage. The June 5 edition reported that “The ‘Votes for Women’ campaigners struck Falmouth Wednesday evening.” In the June 11 edition, readers learned that “A suffrage rally was held in front of the postoffice at West Falmouth Tuesday evening.” Efforts continued into the fall. “Fully 150 persons listened intently” to the September 15th speech of Mrs. Gertrude Newell,” where she expressed hope that the women of Massachusetts will gain the right to vote now held by “women in 12 western states.”
The Enterprise also chronicled the appearances on October 11, 1915, of the “Campaigners against Woman Suffrage.” Perhaps in reaction to the enthusiastic turnout at the pro-suffrage rallies, the anti-suffrage men spoke at four different locations: “from 11:30 to 12 noon opposite the drinking fountain at North Falmouth”; “from 12:15 to 12:45 p.m. in front of the post office at West Falmouth”; ”from 1:00 to 1:30 p.m., opposite the Elm-Arch Inn, Falmouth”; and “from 2:30 to 3:00 p.m., opposite the library at Woods Hole.” Opponents of women’s suffrage often relied on the importance of women’s philanthropic work or on the “woman’s place is in the home” argument. As Mr Magee had said at a Falmouth Lyceum meeting, reported on April 17, “If the women would stay at home and teach the children, there would be no danger in the future for the welfare of the country.”
The women’s battle wasn’t over, as supporters must have learned with disappointment from the November 6 Enterprise that year. With “an unusually large vote being polled in the Woods Hole precinct last Tuesday” the amendment “Relative to Woman Suffrage” got 49 yes votes and 61 nay votes. The town-wide vote was even more lopsided: 172 yes votes and 384 no votes.
But the women didn’t give up, as their intrepid fight for the right to vote continued.
Ms. Hobbie is a member of the League of Women Voters of Falmouth.