Bronx women instrumental in suffrage movement

Albany voting march kicked off at West 242nd Street train station in 1914

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Next year will mark the centennial of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the landmark legislation that gave women the right to vote. Historians and educators nationwide will spend this year highlighting the women who fought alongside their sisters for the most basic of democratic rights.

Some of that commemoration began recently at Wave Hill as part of a lecture sponsored by the Bronx County Historical Society and Community Board 8. It highlighted the journey for women’s suffrage beginning in 1848 until women nationwide were finally allowed to vote in 1920.

“Women were very determined to see this” amendment ratified, CB8 education, libraries and cultural affairs chair Sylvia Alexander said.

Vivian Davis, the historical society’s education coordinator, spoke about extraordinary women with ties to the Bronx like Puritan reformer Anne Hutchinson, Revolutionary War heroine Charity Ferris, the African American nursing students of Lincoln Hospital, U.S. Rep. Bella Abzug, and Cuban political activist Emilia Casanova de Villaverde.

Although women’s contribution to the nation’s history and society was undeniable, there were still people — of both sexes — at the time who questioned whether they deserved a vote.

“Some argued that the Constitution did not include the word ‘woman’ in it, so clearly that meant that equal rights for the fairer sex was out the window,” Davis said. “Others believed that, in order to be useful, women needed to stay in their domestic sphere and let the men handle the heavy lifting of day-to-day.”

In fact, a manifesto opposing suffrage published by the Woman Anti-Suffrage Association of New York stated that men “of the state are capable of conducting the government for the benefit of both men and women, their interests, generally, being the same” and that women weren’t “suffering from any injustice, which giving them the ballot would rectify.”

In response, the city’s nearly 100 women’s clubs spread leaflets and made speeches persuading men and women to double their political clout by giving women a voice at the ballot box.

“Before my hunt for women’s suffrage movements in the Bronx in the 1910s, we didn’t have much information in the society,” Davis said. “That’s not to say that it’s because no one tried to research the topic, as I quickly realized there’s not much in general about the movement specifically in the borough.”

Many of the women’s suffrage organizations in the Bronx were part of a collective body headquartered in Manhattan. But three — the Athenaeum Club of Wakefield, the Women’s Independent Suffrage League, and the Women’s Suffrage League of New York’s borough chapter — engaged Bronx ladies in “the intellectual and social improvement of its members.”

Suffragettes organized into self-described “armies” to lead crowds of advocates to Washington, D.C. in the late 1910s. The very first of these “suffrage hikes” began here at home on Dec. 16, 1912 from the West 242nd Street subway station.

“About 500 women came together at the step-off point with over 200 newspaper reporters, starting to walk north,” Davis said.

Suffragette Rosalie Gardiner Jones — the army’s “general” — rallied her troops to make the slow journey to Albany so they could deliver a petition to state legislators calling for female poll watchers to ensure there was no funny business at the ballot box when the issue came up in 1915, according to a Jan. 2, 1914 account by The New York Times.

The hike continued for 13 days in rain, cold and snow over 170 miles. People joined and left the walking party, but ultimately a small group of Jones’ army arrived in Albany to make their demands to the legislature, Davis said.

“We highlight movers and shakers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Alice Paul,” Davis said. “We talk about famous points in suffrage history like the women’s hunger strikes as protest of President Wilson’s dismissive attitude toward the bill.”

Stanton, along with fellow suffrage figures Carrie Chapman Catt, Mary Garrett Hay and Alva Vanderbilt Belmont are buried in the Bronx’s 400-acre Woodlawn Cemetery. It is the resting place of a number of notable American figures such as Irving Berlin, Herman Melville, Joseph Pulitzer and Duke Ellington.

And although names of the suffrage movement’s leaders will be the center of exhibits and talks for the next year, it was the ordinary wives and mothers of the Bronx and beyond who ultimately won their fundamental rights.

“‘President Wilson,’ they cried. ‘How long must women wait for liberty?’” Davis said.

They got that liberty on Aug. 18, 1920, when Tennessee became the 36th and final state needed to ratify the 19th Amendment. Eventually, all 48 states in the union at the time would ratify the amendment, the last being Mississippi on March 22, 1984.

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