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How to Find Your Suffragist / Suffragette Ancestors: Did They Vote For or Against?

Use this guide to connect your ancestors, their neighborhoods, and/or the places you live now to a revolutionary social movement! Not just for genealogy, this guide can be used by anyone who wants to uncover "ordinary" people who changed the world.

How did the residents of your neighborhood or your ancestors' neighborhoods vote on women's suffrage? If you live—or your ancestors lived—in a state where a suffrage referendum was submitted to voters, the results can help you gauge local suffrage sentiment.

Voting Results

How successful were local suffrage organizations and leaders in persuading their neighbors (including your ancestors) to support votes for women? An interesting way to take the temperature of suffrage activities in your ancestor's neighborhood is to see whether residents voted for or against granting women the right to vote on a state referendum.

 

 

Voting on State Referendums

Although the federal Constitution did not confer the right to vote on women until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, suffragists won the right to vote under the laws of many states well before that time -- and in many additional states, suffrage referendums were, regrettably, defeated.

Regardless of the outcome, if your ancestors lived in a state where an amendment to extend voting rights to women was submitted to voters, you may be able to locate information on how residents in their election district voted on it. 

  • Results were often reported in local newspapers and/or in suffrage periodicals, or may be available from a local government agency or historical society.
  • Results from a few state referendums are also available through Suffrage on the ballot on the website Ballotpedia. but be aware that this is not a comprehensive resource.

While these results will not disclose how your individual ancestors voted, they can reveal interesting information about the overall pattern of voting in the neighborhoods where they lived.

  • For example, although New York voters soundly defeated a referendum for women's suffrage in 1915, a few New York City assembly districts voted in favor of it.
    • if your ancestor(s) lived in one of them, this would be a tantalizing clue, indicating at the very least that their were passionate supporters of women's suffrage circulating in their neighborhood.

For a list of states that passed referendums extending the right to vote to women, see the Mapping the Movement page. For a list of states that defeated referendums for women's suffrage, see the Don't Forget Your Male Ancestors! page. 

  • One wrinkle: the procedure for amending state constitutions varies from state-to-state, so not every state referendum was submitted to voters. In some states, women's suffrage was passed into law by executive order or legislative amendment, rather than by popular vote.
    • So before you spend time looking for suffrage voting results in a particular state, make sure a referendum on the issue was submitted to voters! 
    • Which state had women's suffrage first? The answer is more complicated than you might think.
  • Another approach: were your male ancestors registered to vote at the time a state referendum was submitted?

Voting After State Referendums 

If your female ancestors lived in a state where women won the right to vote under state law prior to 1920, did they register to vote as soon as they were eligible? You may be able to find out: see Voting Records and Other Genealogical Resources on the How to Learn More page to find out how.

Suffrage Referendums in New York

In 1915, male voters defeated a suffrage referendum in New York; two years later, in 1917, a referendum was again submitted to voters -- and this time, it passed. So New York provides the perfect test case for using suffrage referendum results as a sort of crystal ball into your ancestors' attitudes about voting rights for women. 

To determine how the residents in your ancestors' (or your own) neighborhood voted on these referendums is a two-step process:

  • First, you need to identify the election district in which the address is located
  • Then you need to find the voting results for that election district

To make matters more complicated, between 1915 and 1917, the number and boundaries of Assembly Districts changed under a re-apportionment (or, some would say, "gerrymander") plan. So the same address may be located in a different election district in 1917 than it was in 1915.

 

6th Assembly District Map, 1914Voting Results in New York City

You can use the following resources to identify the election district of a particular address:

Referendum results by district were reported in a number of sources, and are provided on the adjoining tabs. In 1915, only four of the 36 Assembly Districts in New York City voted for the suffrage amendment -- maybe your ancestors lived in one of them!

Voting Results in New York State

The following resources may help you to identify the election district for a New York ancestor living outside of New York City in the years of the suffrage referendums:

  • Search for your ancestors in the 1915 New York Census, which will list the assembly district, election district, and ward at the top of the page.
  • Maps showing election districts for 1915 and 1917 may also be available through:
    • the local city clerk's office
    • a county or state archive office
    • a county or state historical society

Election results by county are included on the adjoining tabs. In 1915, only five counties voted in favor of extending the right to vote to women: 

  • Broome
  • Chemung
  • Chautauqua
  • Schenectady
  • Tompkins.

In 1917, women's suffrage won in Auburn, Binghamton, Buffalo, Newburgh, Ossining, Oswego, Schenectady, Syracuse, and Westchester, but lost in Albany, Kingston, and Rochester. 

More detailed breakdowns by election district or ward were often reported in local newspapers.  For example, the list on the right showing how each ward in Buffalo voted on the successful 1917 suffrage referendum was published in the November 7, 1917 Buffalo Courier, available online through Newspapers.com (accessible on-site).

To locate detailed results for other cities and towns in New York, try searching in local newspapers. If you can't find digital versions, look for print copies in your local library or historical society -- since the results would have been published close to the date of the election, it's possible to find them by browsing just a few issues. For information on local newspapers and how to find them, see the How to Learn More page.

Bonus Resource!

For a breakdown of the numbers of citizens versus aliens in each New York election district, see the Report of the Secretery of State of the enumeration of the Inhabitants 1915. It provides an interesting glimpse into the demographics of your ancestors' neighborhoods.

Image credits:

NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 826194 (Mary Augusta Wallihan, photographers in Colorado, the first state to pass women's suffrage by popular vote).

Maps showing the Assembly districts of New York City (Map of 6th Assembly District, 1915 -- one of only four New York City assembly districts to vote for the 1915 referendum in support of women's suffrage).

Buffalo Courier, November 7, 1917, accessed through Newspapers.com (available on-site at all NYPL locations).

 

The results of the vote on the 1915 Referendum to extend voting rights to women in New York were published in the February, 1916 issue of The Woman Voter.

The results of the vote on the 1917 Referendum to extend voting rights to women in New York were published in the New York Times on November 8, 1917.