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How to Find Your Suffragist / Suffragette Ancestors: Finding Local Leaders

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.

Whether or not your own ancestors were "suffragettes," learning about their local suffrage leaders will help you to personalize the suffrage movement. And its just as exciting to find out who led the suffrage movement in your own neighborhood!

Identifying Local Suffragists

Most suffrage histories are focused on a few prominent suffrage leaders -- women like Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Frances Harper, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Carrie Chapman Catt, and a few others who are, or should be, household names.

But it took more than a handful of women to win the right to vote for women. The suffrage movement relied on grass-roots organizing from its very beginning. Although the names of most local leaders have been lost to history, with a little digging you may be able to re-identify the women who organized meetings and events in your ancestors' neighborhoods. Even if you can't connect your own ancestor to a local suffrage organization, learning about these local suffrage leaders can open a tantalizing window onto how women activists operated in their neighborhood, and may also reveal hidden connections with your family members -- perhaps they lived next door!

 

 

In addition to newspaper articles and the other resources identified on the How to Learn More page, the following resources may help you to identify local suffrage leaders.

Directories

  • Look for directories like Club Women of New York (available online through HathiTrust), which includes suffrage organizations and identify their officers. Similar directories may have been published in your ancetors' states or cities
  • Suffrage organizations may also be listed in local city directories

Convention Proceedings

Reports of annual conventions, at both the state and national level, usually identify the delegates. State convention proceedings may also provide more detailed accounts about local women and their activities. For information on locating these proceedings reports, see Mapping the Movement.

Biographies of Lesser-known Suffragists

Not all the subjects of the biographies listed below would be considered "local" suffrage leaders, but each of them did make important contributions to the suffrage movement that have been largely lost to history. Reading their stories may inspire you to learn more about the contributions your own ancestors may have made.

Image credit: NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 1153462 (Connie Curl-Maxwell, local African American women's leader in Chicago, Illinois).

Maud Malone, NYPL Librarian and President of Harlem Equal Rights LeagueAs early as 1854, Susan B. Anthony introduced the then-novel method of using local "captains" to conduct meetings and carry out suffrage activities within each county of New York. This tactic was later perfected by Carrie Chapman Catt, the founder of the New York City Woman Suffrage Party ("NYCWSP").

Under Catt's system, NYCWSP members were enrolled into Assembly District Units, and selected their own Assembly District Leader, who coordinated local suffrage events and meetings and recruited additional members.

Assembly Districts were the election districts into which New York City was (and still is) divided. 

  • Voters within the Assembly Districts elect one representative into the lower house of the State legislature.
  • It was these elected representatives who held the fate of the suffrage bill in their hands. 
  • In order for the suffrage bill to be submitted to New York voters, a majority of the Assembly District representatives had to vote in favor of it.

The job of each NYCWSP Assembly District Leader was to persuade the elected representative of her Assembly District to support women's voting rights. This strategy ultimately proved to be highly effective.

Identifying Local Leaders

These Assembly District Leaders were the "foot soldiers" of the suffrage movement. Although they were far enough down the chain of command that their names are largely forgotten, they are identified (by name and address) in the following sources:

Once you identify the Assembly District leader who was responsible for your ancestors' neighborhood, you can search for their names in newspaper databases to discover additional information about local suffrage activities. It's also interesting to use traditional genealogy resources -- census records, directories, and the like -- to learn more about these individuals. Perhaps an Assembly District leader was your ancestors' next-door neighbor, or went to their church, or had children who attended school with your relatives, or shared a common ethnic or class background.

For an example of how to go about identifying local leaders, and what they might tell you about your own ancestors and/or neighborhoods, see the Case Study tab.

Image credit: Daily Worker and  Daily World Photographs Collection, Tamiment Library (Maud Malone, NYPL Librarian and President of the Harlem Equal Rights League).

As an example -- and hopefully, to inspire your own research -- we decided to investigate our own local suffrage leader.

Eleanor Erving, 27th Assembly District Leader

Who led the charge for women's voting rights in the election district of NYPL's Stephen A. Schwarzman Building?

Eleanor ErvingFirst step: we checked the Assembly District maps available at NYPL and found that in 1915 this address was part of the 27th Assembly District ("A.D. 27").

Next, we used a directory: The 1916 Brooklyn Daily Eagle Almanac, which includes a list of suffrage organizations in New York City, identifies the leader of A.D. 27 for the Woman Suffrage Party as a Miss Eleanor Erving, at 240 East 50th Street.

Time to check census records: A quick search of Ancestry Library Edition revealed an Eleanor C. Erving living at 17 West 50th Street in the 1910 federal census. At that time, Ms. Erving was 34 years old, and lived with her father, John Erving; her mother, Cornelia Van Renssalear Erving; and three unmarried sisters: Susan (46 years old), Katherine (36 years old), and Justine (28 years old). Also living in the household were three servants, all Irish immigrants: the cook, Annie Carey (25 years old), a “chambermaid,” Mary Roddy (26 years old), and a “waitress,”  Margaret Welch (21 years old).

In the 1915 New York State census, the family is still living at 17 West 50th Street, but without their mother, who died in 1913, and with three different Irish immigrant servants.

A "Gilded Suffragist?"

Like most of their mid-town neighbors at the time, the Ervings were wealthy and well-connected. Eleanor's father, John Erving, was a Harvard graduate and lawyer whose name is listed in Americans of Royal Descent: A Collection of Genealogies of American Families Whose Lineage is Traced to the Legitimate Issue of Kings (full text available through HathiTrust). His wife, Cornelia Van Rensselear, was the granddaughter of Stephen Van Rensselear, the “last patroon” of Rensselaerswyck. 

How did such an aristocratic lady become a foot soldier in the battle for suffrage? The first evidence of Erving’s suffrage activity appears in the 1910-1911 Club Women of New York, which lists her as a member of the Equal Suffrage Society. Formed in 1908 by wealthy socialite Katherine Duer MacKay, the Equal Suffrage Society had a tony headquarters at One Madison Avenue and met twice monthly at Maxine Elliot’s Theater at 109 West 39th Street. Its members (Erving included) epitomized the "gilded suffragists," a term used by author Johanna Neuman to describe the elite women who added glamor to the suffrage movement. 

Yet Erving’s interest in suffrage went beyond the merely fashionable, as we learned from numerous newspaper articles. By 1911, she was the highlighted speaker at suffrage meetings in Rye, NY, where the family had a second home. In 1912, she gained notoriety by heckling the speakers at an anti-suffrage meeting -- including a clergyman who thundered that “Satan Would be Better" than a militant suffragist!

At Home in the Theater District

Erving had a knack for getting media attention. She made news simply by virtue of her social status (“Society Represented at Suffrage Parade"), but also had an undeniable flair for the dramatic. Both were vividly expressed in her vehicle -- a green “machine” with “Votes for Women” painted in big white letters on the sides. This attention-grabbing car was enhanced by Erving’s equally flamboyant "uniform" of white, "with the suffrage colors, purple, white and green, on my cap band.” 

Erving's automobile became a suffrage trademark, and made headlines across the United States (“Rich Girl to be Suffrage Chauffeur”). In addition to delivering buttons, fliers, and speakers across both city and state, Erving “megaphoned to people along the route,” and used her car to speak from street corners. As she told reporters, Erving viewed an automobile as "more dignified for the city" than “the customary soap box.”

Another set of wheels used by Erving was less glamorous, but equally newsworthy: 

Eleanor Erving, an excessively energetic member of the Woman’s Political Union who, with her green automobile has chauffeured and cranked for suffrage, is now pushcarting for the cause.

Erving installed her pushcart -- legally licensed -- in the Bronx Bathgate Market, “between the pickle woman and the boys’ trousers man." Here she sold votes for women buttons, leaflets and flowers, and a weekly "suffrage special" (one week it was suffrage gum). In short, she excelled at the types of publicity stunts which played an instrumental role in winning New York women the vote in 1917. 

After this victory, we found little reference to Eleanor Erving. After 1917, there are no reports of her engaging in suffrage antics or activities -- even though the national suffrage movement continued for another three years. Her name still appears occasionally in the papers, but only in society columns, which reported on Erving's social and charitable activities. Erving's name also appears on the 1924 New York voting lists (available through Ancestry Library Edition) -- tangible and gratifying evidence that Erving exercised the voting rights she helped to win.

Using Erving's Story to Personalize the Suffrage Movement

More than just an entertaining story, the details we've learned about Erving paint a vibrant picture of the suffrage movement as our NYPL "ancestors" may have experienced it. Through Erving, we've discovered:

  • that suffrage meetings took place at 109 West 39th Street, just a block and a half from the Schwarzman Building.
  • the dates and places of other suffrage events that occurred in the neighborhood, including at least one occasion when Erving motored right past the Library in her green automobile
  • the names of other women who attended or were otherwise involved with suffrage activities in the area

These specifics help transform an accomplished historic event into a series of actual, unfolding incidents -- real-life occurrences that your ancestors experienced and absorbed. We can count how many steps it takes to get from the Library to 109 West 39th Street, where Erving and other neighborhood suffragists met. From the window in the Milstein Division, we can see just how visible Erving's automobile would have been as it passed by. We can also investigate whether other members identified in the Equal Suffrage Society lived close to, and perhaps patronized, the library.

But how likely is it that NYPL librarians would have joined forces with Erving and her local associates? The information we've learned about Erving also richly illustrates the tensions and conflicts that existed within the suffrage movement. There's little chance that any librarians employed at NYPL were part of Erving's elevated social milieu. Indeed, it's safe to assume that Erving's attitudes would have rankled at least one NYPL librarian: Maud Malone, a firebrand suffragist who denounced (and resigned from) the Ladies Political Union because it catered to the well-heeled crowd. As the pioneer of "open meetings" and street-corner speaking, Malone would certainly have resented Erving's sneering comments about "the customary soap-box," and the fact that Erving had three Irish servants might have also rubbed Malone -- the daughter of Irish immigrants -- the wrong way. By focusing on these individual stories, we get a vivid sense of suffrage as a highly personal issue -- not just a mass movement, but a struggle engaged in by specific people, including your ancesotrs.

Erving's story also opens up a number of intriguing avenues for further research, including the following:

  • What was Erving's connection to the library? was she a patron? perhaps her father was a trustee
  • Were any NYPL librarians members of the Equal Suffrage Society, or (probably more likely) were the wives of any library trustees active in this "gilded" suffrage society
  • what about the Erving's Irish maids? were they suffragists? maybe they were recruited by Maud Malone!

While not every local suffrage leader is likely to be as colorful as Eleanor Erving, identifying the women involved in organizing local suffrage activities will personalize the suffrage movement and allow you to glimpse aspects of your ancestors' lives that extend beyond the mere "facts."

Image credit: The San Francisco Examiner, May 18, 1913, accessed through Newspapers.com (available on-site at all NYPL locations).