Splitting the Vote

The subject for the next debate of the Hillhouse High School Debating Club, which will be held on Friday, January 19, is, “Resolved, That the right of suffrage should be extended to women in all political elections.” The club has invited all the young ladies of the school to attend, and an interesting session is expected.

So reads a note on page five of the January 16, 1900, New Haven Evening Register. How “interesting” that debate turned out to be has been lost to history, but it would be another 20 years before the women of New Haven and the nation would earn their right to vote in national elections, with the ratification of the 19th amendment to the US Constitution. At the time of that Hillhouse event, Connecticut women had the right only to vote for school officials. In 1909, they would earn the right to vote on library issues as well.

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The 100th anniversary of women’s full suffrage in all 50 states officially occurs this August 26, the date on which the amendment was adopted. That followed successful votes in the House and Senate in May and June of 1920, respectively, and ratification by 36 states, the last of which was Tennessee on August 18. Connecticut’s anti-suffrage governor, Marcus H. Holcomb, held back on convening the state legislature in order to avoid status as the deciding state. The Nutmeg State was, instead, 37th to ratify the amendment.

On the August 26 anniversary, three Connecticut historians will present “The Work Must be Done: Women of Color and the Right to Vote,” a Zoom talk organized by the New Haven Museum. A traveling exhibit titled Rise Up, Sisters! from the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame, documenting the timeline of women’s suffrage in Connecticut, will be on display at the museum September 3 through 17.

Women had understood for a long time that men would play a key role in the eventual success or failure of women’s suffrage. Gladys Bragdon, a member of the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association (CWSA), kept a handwritten notebook of interviews conducted with prominent men, most of them from New Haven, in which she recorded their positions on women’s suffrage. “She noted if the man was worth speaking to again or if his mind was made up,” the Connecticut State Library reports. For example, of New Havener Walter Camp—president of New Haven Clock Company and the “father of American football”—she wrote, in part, “Old time Yale Coach. Republican. Ardent advocate of suffrage by F. A. [federal amendment]. Also wife. Signed petition. Wants to address our political organization.” Of New Haven mayor David E. FitzGerald, she wrote, “Very popular and deservedly so. A good practical sincere suffragist.” Others received a less than glowing report: “Hoyt, Judge Samuel E. Lawyer 195 Church. Republican. Jolly but evasive. Try to pin him down. Claims to favor suffrage but does not wish his name published. Not formidable.” The notebook, dated July 1918, was donated to the state library in 2011 by the Connecticut League of Women Voters.

In the meantime, women of color played a less-remembered but important role in the suffrage movement. Leading white suffragists asked women of marginalized groups—African Americans, Italians, Jews—to create their own organizations to work on suffrage for women, says Karen Li Miller, research historian at the Connecticut Historical Society, who will speak at the New Haven Museum talk. They were told, “We’re not integrating or uniting our efforts, we’re working side by side, separately,” Miller says. Such an attitude was pervasive, says Brittney Yancy, assistant professor of humanities at Goodwin University in East Hartford, another talk participant. “To be able to get their southern counterparts to be on board with this, they know that they have to play into the racial politics that are part of the country,” Yancy says, noting that “racial politics” was a northern problem, too.

At the same time that some women were organizing for more political power, others were ardently opposed to their own suffrage. Among them was Laura Belle McCoy, a member of the Mohawk tribe who married a black man and moved to New Haven, where she became a community organizer, youth worker and, ultimately, the first woman of color in the country elected to a city council—New Haven’s Board of Alders—in 1940, despite her anti-suffrage views. That contradiction is “absolutely fascinating,” Miller says. McCoy’s concern was that “women would lose all charms, lose all distinction if they were engaged in voting because that was the men’s sphere, not something women needed to be involved with.” McCoy’s story highlights what Yancy calls the “contradictions and complexities” that don’t always make it into remembered history.

Meanwhile, other women of color were organizing statewide, particularly in Hartford and New Haven, Yancy says. She names, as an example, Sarah Lee Brown Fleming, who was a leader of New Haven’s Women’s Civic League, a black women’s club, and later a statewide organizer who brought together disparate clubs in Connecticut under the National Association of Colored Women Clubs. Fleming also founded the Phyllis Wheatley Home for Girls in New Haven in 1935. She was just one of many activists of color in the early 20th century in New Haven, most of whom haven’t been recorded by history. “Something is happening in New Haven, where there is a way in which women come together,” Yancy says of that time. “They’re thinking, they’re strategizing, they’re organizing in ways that you don’t see in other parts of the state.”

According to news accounts, New Haven’s suffragettes marched on multiple occasions, sometimes numbering more than 1,000. Whether women of color were included in those marches is still a matter for research, Miller and Yancy say. As one of the largest chapters of the CWSA, New Haven’s women raised funds to support campaigns statewide. An October 1912 item in the Saturday Chronicle noted the suffragettes were “astonished at the ready response of Connecticut to their appeals, and they feel confident, in the face of such growth and such enthusiasm, that it will not be long before success will crown their work.”

In fact, it would be nearly eight more years before the 19th amendment was ratified. The women of New Haven and the rest of the nation earned their right to vote in the 1920 presidential election, in which Warren G. Harding defeated James M. Cox, a Democrat from Ohio. The losing candidate’s running mate was a 38-year-old assistant secretary of the Navy named Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Like every president from Harding on, when Roosevelt finally made it to the Oval Office himself, women had their say in putting him there.

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 1 and 3, featuring local suffragettes circa 1916, photographed by Joseph Candee. Image 2 features founding members of the Women’s Twentieth Century Club, which took up women’s suffrage (among other issues), circa 1901. All images provided courtesy of the New Haven Museum.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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