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How to Find Your Suffragist / Suffragette Ancestors: New York Suffragists

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.

New York suffragists exerted an influence that spread far beyond their own state. Learning how suffragists organized in New York offers clues for researching your suffragist ancestors, even if they lived elsewhere.

To win the right to vote, women had to develop a sophisticated political strategy, and New York served as their primary training ground. Embedded in the story of New York suffragists are many clues for how to discover information about suffrage activities elsewhere.

Strategic Importance of New York

The fight for suffrage was waged on two fronts:

  • A national campaign to persuade Congress to amend the U.S. Constitution to guarantee all American women the right to vote; and
  • A series of separate state campaigns to secure voting rights for women within each individual state (with the idea that if enough states granted women the right to vote, the federal government would eventually be forced to pass a constitutional amendment guaranteeing women in all states the right to vote)

At both the national and state level, New York played a central role in shaping the activities of suffragists across the country. As the headquarters of the national suffrage movement, New York spearheaded the numerous state suffrage campaigns waged across the United States. And it was in New York's own hard-won state suffrage campaigns that women perfected the political skills necessary to win ratification of the 19th Amendment.

National Suffrage Movement in New York

At the national level, New York was the epicenter of the suffrage movement:

  • The national suffrage movement was born in New York (the Seneca Falls convention envisioned voting rights for women across the nation, not just in New York)
  • New York was the home of many feminist leaders -- including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Chapman Catt, Harriet Stanton Blatch -- who were active in national as well as local sufftrage activities
  • New York City was the headquarters for the primary national suffrage organization, the National American Woman's Suffrage Association (a second national woman's suffrage organization, which eventually became known as the National Woman's Party, was founded in Washington, D.C. in 1913).
  • More suffrage conventions were held in New York than anywhere else
  • The first suffrage parades occurred in New York City

Suffragist leaders from New York traveled across the country to lead local movements for voting rights under other states' laws, and to assist in other states' efforts to ratify the 19th amendment after it was finally passed by Congress. New York City was also the center of the publishing industry, providing press coverage of the suffrage movement here that was picked up by other papers across the nation. So whether or not your ancestors lived in New York, they may well have been influenced by events unfolding here. The suffrage movement in New York both reflected and influenced the concerns of suffragists everywhere.

The New York State Suffrage Campaign

Flyer, What Women Have Done in New York State for the VoteDespite being the site of the first woman's rights convention, New York lagged behind many other states in granting its own female residents the right to vote. Not until 1917 did New York women finally succeed in removing the word "male" from the state constitution so that women would have an equal right to vote -- trailing behind eleven other states that had already extended voting rights to women (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Washington, California, Arizona, Kansas, Oregon, Montana, and Nevada).

However delayed it may have been, the victory in New York was highly significant. Most historians believe it was the decisive factor in compelling Congress to finally pass a federal constitutional suffrage amendment just two years later. What made New York so important?

  • New York was the first eastern, industrial state to extend the right to vote to women prior to the federal amendment in 1920
  • As the most populous state, New York had the most Congressional representatives and thus the most voting power to pass the 19th amendment
  • The political strategies perfected by New York suffragists in their state struggle were essential to winning the looming battle for ratification of the 19th amendment

Were your ancestors involved in, or influenced by, the pivotal push for women's voting rights in New York? The adjoining pages will give you the background information you need to start answering this question.

Image credits:

NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 58103265 (Why not in New York? suffrage rally photograph).

Flyer, National American Woman Suffrage Association papers, Manuscripts Division, NYPL.

A Grueling Process

Winning the right for women to vote in New York state presented a formidable political challenge: 

Although each state adopts its own procedure for amending its constitution, the majority use some variation of the process followed in New York.

Seizing the Opportunity 

In 1894, New York State held a convention to revise its state constitution. Suffragists seized this opportunity to persuade legislators to propose an amendment that would grant women in New York the right to vote.

 

Working out of Susan B. Anthony's home in Rochester, they launched a campaign that sent letters and petition blanks all over the state. Local suffragists canvassed their neighborhoods to secure signatures -- if you had ancestors living in New York at the time, they most likely knocked on your family's door! 

Grass-Roots Organizing

The petition drive was bolstered by mass meetings in every county seat in the state. In New York City, for example,  on May 7, 1894, the New York Times reported that

A lively and well-attended mass meeting was held at Cooper Union in Manhattan earlier this evening, and there certainly seemed to be plenty of people willing to do whatever it takes to remove a single word from the New York State Constitution, which presently grants the right to vote to “every male citizen" of the age of 21 years.

To further this goal, the article reported, a Manhattan "suffrage headquarters" had been established at 10 West 14th Street and would be "open all summer." Women attending the meeting were also recruited to host "parlor meetings in their homes" in support of suffrage.

Local "Political Equality Leagues" were also formed at this time in Brooklyn (Brooklyn Heights), Queens (Woodhaven, Hempstead, Newtown and Long Island City), and Staten Island. So whatever borough your ancestors lived in (or you live in now), there was likely suffrage activity taking place in or around their neighborhoods. You'll find tips on finding information about local suffrage activities on the following pages: 

Similar activity occurred in communities across the state. By the time of the Convention, nearly 600,000 signatures had been collected (including individual men and women, and endorsements from unions and other organizations). As the New York Woman's Suffrage Association reported in its account of the campaign (New York State Woman Suffrage Association, Annual Convention Report 1894), "it may safely be said that scarcely a township is without its suffragists, and that every city numbers them by the hundreds." 

Disappointing Results

Despite these efforts, the (all male) Convention delegates voted against allowing the issue to be decided in a public referendum, and women continued to be barred from voting under the State constitution (to learn why, read the Debates upon the report of the Suffrage Committee in regard to woman suffrage.. ., available at NYPL).

While unsuccessful in New York, the tactics employed here were adopted in many states where women subsequently won the right to vote, and can provide helpful clues for investigating suffrage activity in other areas. For example, "Political Equality League" was a popular name for early suffrage organizations across the country, and the practice of canvassing neighbors and petitioning the legislature became widespread.

Image credits:

NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 809320 (The Constitutional Convention at Albany).

NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID G91F171_024F (Rev. Henry Ward Beecher's parlor [typical example of setting where early suffragists met])

Rural and Urban Suffragists

Following the 1894 petition campaign, suffrage activism in New York State remained concentrated in rural communities, primarily in New York's central and western counties.

  • In 1900, approximately four-fifths of the members of the State Suffrage Association lived in the counties west of Utica.
  • Although New York City contained 50% of the state's population, only 15% of the State Suffrage Association's members lived there.

After the turn of the century, local suffrage societies proliferated across the state, many of them affiliated with the statewide New York State Woman Suffrage Association. Initially these organizations worked out of their members' homes, but as both membership and work expanded, local offices were established -- offices which would have been visible to passers-by. From these offices, women distributed flyers and organized highly-publicized events like parades and pageants. 

Increasing Sophistication

During these years, New York suffragists developed increasingly sophisticated -- and aggressive -- tactics that were eventually adopted by suffragists across the county. Among these were open-air meetings and "street stumping," parades, pageants, automobile tours, and other attention-grabbing stunts designed to attract press coverage and public attention.

Although credit for these innovations is often assigned to Harriet Stanton Blatch (daughter of pioneering feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton), contemporaneous accounts suggest that it was actually one of the Library's own "ancestors"  -- a radical NYPL librarian named Maud Malone -- who organized the first suffrage parade and street meetings. Her contributions, like those of many suffragists, have been largely forgotten until recently. African American women, in particular, have been overlooked by history -- their significant contributions to New York's suffrage campaigns, as elsewhere, are only beginning to be uncovered. Who knows what you may discover about your own ancestors?

Suffrage Becomes Fashionable

The efforts of New York suffragists finally paid off in 1913, when the Legislature first passed a proposed state constitutional amendment. In 1915, a newly elected Legislature passed it for the required second time. For the first time, the issue of whether women in New York would be granted the right to vote was going to be submitted to the males eligible to vote in the state. 

By this time, women's suffrage was front-page news, a part of the fabric of life in New York City and across the state. Indeed, as historian Susan Goodier notes, suffrage "had become fashionable. Everywhere one turned signs of suffrage and anti-suffrage sentiments barraged the New Yorker. In the process, suffrage became more common" (p. 115).

Anyone living in New York City at the time would have felt the impact of the suffrage movement, and exploring the suffrage activities that took place in or around your ancestors' neighborhoods provides a unique avenue for imaginatively entering their milieu. Consult the Find Their Local Organizations, Find Their Local Leaders, and Did They Vote For or Against? pages for tips on getting started.

Image Credit: NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 733588F (Room at New York where suffrage literature is sent out from).

1915 Referendum

In November 1915, suffragists were finally able to place a ballot presenting the issue of voting rights for women before New York voters. A flurry of activity, both for and against suffrage for women, preceded the 1915 Suffrage referendum.

The most spectacular took place on October 23, 1915, when 25,000 suffrage supporters marched in the largest parade held in New York City up to that date. In addition to 20,789 women marchers, the New York Times counted:

  • 2,539 men marchers
  • 74 women on horseback
  • 145 automobiles averaging 6 passengers each, and
  • 1,068 musicians playing in 57 marching bands. 

Proceeding up 5th Avenue from Washington Square Park to 59th Street, the parade attracted crowds of onlookers and all but shut down New York City. It was an event that many New Yorkers participated in or attended, and that caught the attention of people across the nation, including many of your ancestors. A selection of contemporaneous news accounts is available on this Bowery Boys blog, and you'll find many more in the newspaper sources described on the How to Learn More tabs.

However sensational, events like these did not result in immediate success. The 1915 referendum was defeated by a margin of 194,984 votes (out of a total of 1,304,340 votes cast). Only six counties approved woman suffrage:

  • Tompkins (51 percent approval)
  • Broome (51 percent approval)
  • Chemung (52 percent approval)
  • Schenectady (55 percent approval)
  • Chautauqua (58 percent approval)
  • Cortland (61 percent approval) 

The New York City area counties of Bronx, Kings, New York, Queens and Richmond defeated the measure by 57 percent of the vote. 

1917 Referendum

The defeat galvanized New York suffragists, who immediately began campaigning for a second referendum on woman suffrage in New York state.

  • To counteract claims by anti-suffragists that “most women didn’t want the vote,” in 1916 suffragists canvassed households across the entire state. In rural towns and large cities, suffragists went door-to-door, eventually collecting over a million signatures on a petition.
    • Could your ancestors' be among them? Unfortunately, the petitions were not saved, but you may be able to locate newspaper articles reporting on canvassing and other suffrage campaign activities in your ancestors' neighborhoods.
  • On October 17, 1917, thousands of suffragists marched down Fifth Avenue with placards carrying all the names of women who had signed. This Procession of Petitions was front-page news -- just one of many suffrage "publicity stunts" that received widespread media attention throughout the state suffrage campaign. 
    • Reading these accounts is the best possible way to get caught up in the atmosphere that permeated your ancestors' lives.

 

 

On November 6, 1917 -- just two years after the 1915 suffrage referendum was defeated -- New York voters passed woman suffrage by 102,353 votes.

A number of factors contributed to this remarkable turn-around, including the following:

  • In 1917, New York suffragists had over $500,000 for its campaign -- an 80 percent increase over the $90,000 available for their 1915 effort. Some of it came from the National American Woman Suffrage Association, which had received $500,000 from the estate of Mrs. Frank Leslie.
  • In April, 1917, the United States entered World War I, and suffragists mobilized to aid the war effort -- knitting socks, conserving food, and selling Liberty bonds. They used these contributions to promote their own cause, with slogans like "Our sons are fighting for democracy, in the name of democracy give us the vote!" 
  • The biggest turn-around occurred in New York City, where suffragists mobilized support from immigrant and working-class voters who helped to carry the day

How did the voters in your ancestors' districts vote on these suffrage referendums? Were your male ancestors among the registered voters? To explore these issues, consult the pages Did They Vote For or Against? and Don't Forget Your Male Ancestors! 

Image credits:

NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 733582F (Flyer in support of 1915 New York Suffrage Referendum).

NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 731284F (Suffragette Parade, New York City 1913)

Having secured the right to vote under New York state law in 1917, suffragists in New York turned their attention to the next steps: helping women to exercise their new right to vote, and passing a federal amendment so that women in all states would enjoy the same privilege.

Education of Women Voters

Both the New York State and New York City Woman Suffrage Party decided to keep their organizations intact. Almost immediately after winning the vote, they embarked on a program of education for newly-eligible women voters. On December 20, 1917 -- barely a month after New York women won the right to vote -- the New York City Woman Suffrage Association began a series of free lectures on the duties of a citizen and voter at their headquarters on East 38th Street. A similar series was offered by the New York State Woman's Suffrage Party, and the Institute for Public Service offered correspondence courses "for the benefit of women in country districts."

If you had female ancestors in New York at this time, they may have taken advantage of the numerous opportunities to educate themselves on their new civic responsibilities. In addition to classes, suffrage organizations also published educational material designed to inform women of "what they ought to know in order to make each vote count." Reading these texts can give you insights into the mindset of your female ancestors as they began to exercise their voting rights -- and you may even pick up a few pointers for yourself! To find them, see the Additional Resources tab above.

New York suffragists also canvassed door-to-door urging women to register to vote, distributing 400,000 fliers in advance of the New York State elections in November, 1918. Did your female ancestors register to vote? you may be able to locate voter registration records that will answer this interesting question. Although not a definitive clue, if your female ancestors registered to vote as soon as they were eligible, this suggests that they may have actively participated as suffragists in the fight to win voting rights for women.

World War I

Like suffragists across the nation, New York suffragists also devoted considerable energy to assisting with the war effort, and promoted their contributions to solicit support for a federal suffrage amendment.

The New York State Woman Suffrage Association formed a War Service Committee which sponsored "Suffrage Sacrifice Sales." The proceeds were used to fund Y.M.C.A. units at Plattsburgh and Niagara Falls. Suffragists in other states engaged in similar activities, including knitting for the Red Cross, selling war bonds, and promoting food rationing.

Suffrage leaders missed no opportunity to remind national politicians of the importance of their war efforts. They promoted their war activities as evidence that women put patriotism above self-interest and deserved the right to vote. In the years leading up to the passage of the 19th Amendment, Carnegie Hall hosted over two dozen events relating to women’s suffrage. Emmeline Pankhurst and Jeannette Rankin were among those who gave speeches here promoting women’s suffrage. In 1918, the National Woman’s Party held a meeting at the hall. 

More radical suffragists also picketed the White House with signs denouncing the President as "Kaiser Wilson" -- comparing him to the German Emperor to highlight what they saw as the hypocrisy of supporting the cause of freedom in the First World War while denying freedom to women at home. Many of these leaders -- including New York Public Librarian Maud Malone -- were jailed in the notorious Occoquan Workhouse in Washington, DC. Their experiences are detailed in the 1920 book Jailed for Freedom (available online through HathiTrust), which also includes photographs of all the suffragists who became prisoners.

These patriotic arguments eventually proved  persuasive: President Wilson endorsed the 19th Amendment as a "war measure," and on January 10, 1918 it was passed by the House of Representatives.

Image credits:

NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 733584F (Banner carried by suffragettes)

NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 5111354 (War Bond Poster, 1918)

This page highlights resources specific to suffrage and suffragists in New York. There are many additional resources for connecting your ancestors to the suffrage movement, both in New York and elsewhere. For a complete overview, see How to Learn More. The names of many New York suffrage organizations are listed on the Find Their Local Organizations page.

Websites

Books and printed material at NYPL

To locate additional materials in our collections relating to suffrage in New York, try browsing our online catalog with the following subject headings:

Archival Collections