Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Power in Suffrage

This blog post is part of a series about the Gibson family and the lead-up to the 1920 presidential election, which promised "a return to normalcy" after many years of social upheaval. Read about Boston's experience of World War I here and Boston during the flu epidemic of 1918 here.

The first two decades of the early twentieth century saw huge social movements in the United States, most notably the suffrage movement. Women had been fighting for their right to vote for many years, but the movement gained more traction in the 1910s. Women across the country marched, protested, and rallied for suffrage. An anti-suffrage movement also existed, largely driven by white, upper-class women. These women, although still second-class citizens in the United States, possessed a degree of relative privilege due to their race and class. The Gibsons belonged to this group, and the Gibson women used their position to advocate against women’s suffrage. 

Mary Ethel, the oldest Gibson daughter, was an anti-suffragist. In 1914, she and many other Back Bay women sold red roses to the public just ahead of a suffrage parade. As red was the color of anti-suffrage, the women intended for the thousands of roses to make a “dignified protest” against the suffragists in Boston. She protested alongside other women from her social circle during this event. Mary Ethel may have also participated in other anti-suffrage events in Boston; her sister and mother may have felt similarly about the cause.

Boston Globe, October 17, 1915.

The upper-class culture of Beacon Street led to its becoming a center of anti-suffrage in Boston. In fact, suffragists in Boston called the street “enemy’s country” because of its large anti-suffragist population. These privileged women could not take part in governmental politics, but were able to be involved in and influence the social politics of their upper-class culture through their connections. 

While some wealthy Boston women advocated against suffrage, others used their status to advocate for the cause. Several major suffrage groups emerged in Boston in the late 1800s and early 1900s, largely composed of women from Boston’s “elite circles of education and wealth.” These circles included many well-known white families of the time, such as the Agassiz, Shaw, and Grimke families, who each had political and social influence in the city. The suffrage groups, including the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association, College Equal Suffrage League, and Boston Equal Suffrage Association for Good Government, sought out other educated, affluent women to join the movement. Since society largely restricted them from working, they had the time to devote to the cause and did not fear the loss of jobs or other repercussions of their political involvement. When recruiting other suffragists, women typically did not stray far from their socio-economic circles or race. 

Working-class women, too, became players in the fight for suffrage in the early 1900s. Unions across the state allied with existing suffrage groups to combine their efforts in the movement. Because working-class women made up a significant number of potential female voters, both working-class and upper-class women organized events and speakers for their cause. College-educated suffragists saw the value of aligning with working-class women and sought them out, but working-class women, too, showed agency in their decision to join forces with those in the upper classes. 

In 1910, the Gibsons employed five women in their home: Annie A. Kelley as a cook, Jane C. Clark as a waitress, Beatrice Hardon as a laundress, Cecelia Wain as a lady’s maid, and Nora Radican as a chambermaid. Their personal ideas or experiences regarding suffrage do not survive in the historical record, but they may have supported the cause. As young immigrants, these women likely hoped to gain political autonomy and may have wanted to become active members of their new country. At a 1915 event in Boston, laundry workers marched and held signs for the cause; perhaps Beatrice Hardon was in attendance. 
Parade route map, 1915.
Massachusetts Historical Society

On October 16, 1915, suffragists organized the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Victory Parade. The parade weaved through the Back Bay and along Beacon Street to end at a “mass meeting” on Huntington Avenue and West Newton Street. The Gibsons likely witnessed the march from their home, as anti-suffragists on Beacon Street protested the event by adorning their homes with red decorations, the color of anti-suffrage. Suffragists, however, outnumbered the “anti” demonstrators, with 9,000 marching. The parade was split into divisions, with several including working women, like the domestic workers at the Gibsons’ home. White suffragists largely excluded women of color from the march, however, with only a handful of Black women present in the hundreds of rows of marchers.
Boston Globe, October 14, 1915.

In 1920, the U.S. ratified the Nineteenth Amendment for women’s suffrage; however, this historic moment did not mean that all American women were able to vote. Restrictions, such as poll taxes and various education requirements, excluded a large percentage of women of color from voting. Moreover, white women often did not use their new voting rights to fight against the disenfranchisement of women of color. Instead, white suffragists in major suffrage groups, such as the National Women’s Party and the National American Woman Suffrage Association, believed the fight for suffrage had been won. They felt states should decide which women could vote, which allowed Southern states to block women of color from voting. These groups feared losing support from white voters, believing that the disenfranchisement of Black women was a race issue instead of a women’s issue. Laws denied indigenous women citizenship and voting rights until 1924 (some native women were not granted the right to vote by their state until 1962); the Chinese Exclusion Act prevented Chinese women from voting until 1943; and laws withheld Black women’s rights until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

—Betsey Donham, Intern (Smith College)

Visit the Gibson House Museum to see our outdoor exhibit, "1920: The Gibsons' New Normal," on view from October 1 through December 17, 2020.

For further reading:
  • "19th Amendment and the Aftermath." Massachusetts Debates a Woman's Right to Vote. Massachusetts Historical Society
  • "From Anti-Slavery to Women's Rights." Massachusetts Debates a Woman's Right to Vote. Massachusetts Historical Society
  • Orleck, Annelise. “Common Sense: New York City Working Women and the Struggle for Woman Suffrage.” In Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States, 1900–1965, 2d ed. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 87–114.
  • Sklar, Kathryn Kish and Jill Dias. “Introduction.” In How Did the National Woman's Party Address the Issue of the Enfranchisement of Black Women, 1919–1924. (Binghamton, N.Y.: State University of New York at Binghamton, 1997).
  • Strom, Sharon Hartman. “Leadership and Tactics in the American Woman Suffrage Movement: A New Perspective from Massachusetts.” Journal of American History 62, no. 2 (1975): 296–315.
  • "The Suffrage Centennial Display Project." Suffrage 100 MA.

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