Julia Ward Howe Speaks at the Marble House Suffrage Convention of 1909

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Oakland Tribune Cartoon

On August 24, 1909  socialite Alva Belmont opened her Marble House for the benefit of the suffrage movement.  Nine hundred guest held tickets.  Guests came from Newport society, local residents and from Boston.  Those holding dollar tickets were able to visit the grounds and the lecture tent.  Those holding the five dollar tickets were able to view the interior of the grand home.

As the hour for the lectures approached, Ninety year old Julia Ward Howe was brought in with an invalid chair.  After the Newport Mayor introduced her, Julia was lifted from her chair to the platform.  She was supported on one side by Mayor Boyle and on the other by her daughter Florence Howe Hall.  Although her voice was not as strong as it once was, she was heard distinctly.

Hartford Sentinel Cartoon

“Dear Friends, I feel a very pleasant inspiration to speak to you on this occasion so novel and to me so unusually full of interest.  Mrs. Shaw and I have addressed many gatherings in different parts of the county.  We have spoken in rural districts, where we could not hold a meeting in the morning because the farmers’ wives had to stay at home and get the farmers’ dinners.  We told the farmers’ wives what they ought to have and what they ought to do, and I have watched the movement from these early beginnings to this time, when we seem to have come into the full sunshine of human favor.

The change that I have seen in the position of women in the ninety years of my life is something miraculous.  I remember the colleges, where no one would have thought of inviting us, and now how welcome women are to the women’s colleges and co-educational colleges.  The many professions that are open to women that never were thought of then have increased and are increasing every year, and women are better friends with each other because they so much better understand each other.

Men used to say ‘women cannot reason, women have no logic,’ but always when a woman amounted to something, they would say that that woman was an exception.

We used to believe that once, but then we could not believe it any more, because we knew better.  A man would say, ‘Madame is an exception’ but I lost illusion in regard to my own superiority and realized that the majority of the women were capable of intellectuality.  The world will be very enlarged for us when we appreciate what women really are.

We are coming to find out what the capacity of the real woman really is,  that she is making up for centuries of waste behind her.  The blessing of happy service is ordained for us and we will do our best to fulfill it.”

Words of Julia’s speech from New York Times, 25 August 1909.

Details of events from Newport Mercury, August 28, 1909.

“The Greatest Event of Our Lives” : Abby Sherman and Portsmouth’s First Women Voters


Abby Sherman

“The Greatest Event of Our Lives.” Abby Sherman’s diary* records what a Portsmouth woman thought of her opportunity to vote for the first time.  Abby was not the type of women you might imagine as a “suffragist.”  Her father was an Almy and her mother a Sisson – both families descending from early Portsmouth settlers.  Her husband, Benjamin C. Sherman, was a state representative and her son, Arthur Sherman,  became both a state representative and state senator.  Abby was one of the founders of the Portsmouth Free Public Library and was active in the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution), temperance work and Sunshine Society (a charity which aimed to help blind and disabled children).  In 1908 Abby is listed as the corresponding secretary of the Newport County Woman Suffrage League.  She was part of the effort to secure the vote for women.

Abby Sherman noted a few suffrage related entries in her diary.

1910 – March 2 “Hearing before committee on Constitutional amendments in favor of Woman’s Suffrage.”

1917 – November 7 “I read on the board that the New York state and city has voted women the franchise.  Be something done now I guess.”

The entries for 1920 give us a brief but first hand account of a woman voter.

1920 – June 8 “At one o’clock I went down to the Town Hall and registered.  Now I am a voter or shall be after I vote.  Who knows but what I might be President of the United States.”

Abby had lost no time in signing up to vote.  A Newport Mercury article on June 26th 1920 gives us a little more information on the women voters.

“June 30 is the last day upon which the women of this town may register, so as to be allowed to vote next November at the Presidential election.  A number of women registered last fall, but now a lively interest is being taken in affairs, and the town clerk is being kept busy at his task.  It is hoped that many more may attend to their registration fore it is too late.  Mr. George R. Hicks, the town clerk, is doing all in his power to help the ladies in this line.”

Abby’s suffrage entries continue:

1920, 30 September:  “Today happens the greatest event of our lives.  That is the women will cast their first vote at the Republican caucus.  It was a very quiet pleasant meeting.  We were welcomed cordially and we were all interested and eager to know our duties.  Now we are fellow workers.”

For a women whose family was very active in Republican politics, being a “fellow worker” and voter was important.  Many of Portsmouth women suffrage leaders favored the Republican party and became active in roles within the party once they had the vote.  It is interesting that this caucus vote was Abby’s first vote and very meaningful to her.  A newspaper article (Newport Mercury 9 October 1920) shows that women gained roles as delegates to the state convention and congressional convention.  Cora Mitchel’s neice, Clara May Miller and Veva Storrs (both women very active in the Newport County Woman’s Suffrage League) were elected to the Republican town committee.

Newspaper articles show that voter education was an important element of the first votes for women.

Many of the suffrage leaders were active in St. Paul’s Episcopal church.  In early October sixty women attended a meeting at St. Paul’s for instruction on how government works.  Clara May Miller was elected the chairman for the women.  Town Clerk George Hicks stated the qualifications of a voter.  “He said that it is compulsory to register once, even though (one is) a real estate taxpayer…” It seems there were different rules for those who owned property or real estate and those who didn’t.  Walter Chase talked about the role of the town committee, State Senator Arthur Sherman (Abby’s son) and Representative Boyd spoke of “the manner in which state affairs are conducted,” and School Committee Chairman Earl Anthony spoke about the schools.  All members of the town’s committee and town council were present and took questions from the ladies.  (Newport Mercury 3 Oct. 1920)

Town Hall

At yet another meeting, women were instructed on the actual ballot process.

“A meeting of the women voters was held at Town Hall on Wednesday afternoon.  They were addressed by Mr. Davis Arnold of Bristol Ferry, who instructed them in the use of the ballots and many questions were answered by Mr. Arnold. ”  Newport Mercury, October 30, 1920.

Another article relates the first vote:

“The ladies were out in large numbers, and did their voting, many of them going in the morning.  One of the oldest women in the town, Mrs. Letitia Freeborn, aged 82, was the first woman to enter the voting booth, but on account of poor eyesight had to have the assistance of a supervisor, so was not the first woman to cast a ballet, but came second.  Mrs. Harrison Peckham was next behind Mrs. Freeborn, and was the first woman to cast a vote.  The voters from Prudence came over in an oyster boat which was sent for them by some of the candidates for office.  The boat was met by automobiles.  Many automobiles were used to go for voters at a distance.”  (Newport Mercury, 6 November 1920).

And how did Abby describe her first vote?

1920 – 2 November:  Today we cast our first ballot.  The women of Portsmouth.  Everything was conducted in a quiet manner.  It was the greatest event of our lives.  The men all said that it was the best town meeting that we ever had.

*Transcriptions of Abby’s diary are by Portsmouth Historian Jim Garman.

A “Nerve Center”of Woman’s Suffrage: The Bristol Ferry Group

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Letitia Lawton, Cora Mitchel and Emeline Eldredge 1907

National suffrage leaders called the Newport County Woman Suffrage League a “nerve center” for suffrage work in Rhode Island.*  The league was founded in 1907 by Cora Mitchel and her group of “philanthropic” women from the Bristol Ferry neighborhood. The organization would continue to spread across Aquidneck Island and it functioned until Rhode Island ratified the 19th amendment in 1920.  This article focuses on the founding days when Cora Mitchel served as president.

Who were the women of the founding Bristol Ferry group?  What were their backgrounds?  Where did they meet?  What were their suffrage activities?  Newspaper articles help us to get a picture of these wonderful women and their work to gain the right to vote.

Who were the original members? The “History of Woman Suffrage” lists a few of the women.  This source lists the date of 1908 as the founding, but newspaper accounts show they were founded and active in 1907.  The ladies listed as part of this group were Cora Mitchel’s friends:   Sarah Eddy, Mrs. John Eldredge (Emeline), and Mrs. Barton Ballou (Mary).  The history goes on to say that “Mrs. Julia Ward Howe was present at the first meeting and as long as she lived took great interest in its work.”  A photo taken in front of Sarah Eddy’s home shows three of the members – Cora Mitchel, Emeline Eldredge and Letitia Lawton.  Early meetings were held at the home of the “Misses Mitchel” so Cora’s sister Sophie was probably involved as well.

The original Bristol Ferry ladies came from different backgrounds – farmer’s wives, a wealthy heiress, a manufacturer’s wife, and artists.    As you read about them you will notice that the Bristol group had a distinct advantage.  At least three of the women had long experience with the suffrage movement on the state and national level.

Cora Mitchel (1847-1929) came from a brave and resourceful family that had to make a daring escape from Florida when the Civil War broke out. The family settled in the Bristol Ferry neighborhood which was part of their mother’s heritage.  The Mitchel family had large tracts of land around Bristol Ferry Road.

Sophie Mitchel (1853-1912) was Cora’s younger sister.  She was an accomplished artist with studios at Bristol Ferry and Brooklyn.  She originally painted landscapes and flowers but turned to working on miniature paintings.  Sophie was involved in arts education.  She would travel to different locations in the Northeast and bring young women artists with her to practice their painting.

Sarah Eddy (1851-1945) was a noted painter and photographer. She used her family fortune to promote good causes.  Humane treatment of animals, arts education and providing a community center (the Social Studio) were among her main causes.  She began her suffrage activities in Providence but made a permanent move to Portsmouth around 1900.  Sarah’s family had connections to national leaders such as Susan B. Anthony.  She often attended national meetings as a delegate.

Mary Ballou (1837-1926) was married to a wealthy jewelry manufacturer from Providence.  She worked in suffrage causes for fifty years on the state level, in Providence and in Newport.  She was one of the founding members of the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association.  She served as a treasurer.  Around 1900 the Ballou’s built a summer home on Bristol Ferry Road and Mary became a bridge between Providence and Portsmouth suffragists.

Emeline Eldredge (1853-1934) was the wife of a Portsmouth farmer.  A close friend of Sarah Eddy, she was the director for the Social Studio, an art center founded by Miss Eddy.  Emeline was active in the Portsmouth Free Public Library Association and was a superintendent of schools in Portsmouth.

Letitia Lawton (1860-1939) was a local Portsmouth wife and mother who was active in her church and helped nurse people who were ill.  She was often a companion to the Mitchel sisters in their travels.

Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) was famous for writing the words to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  Julia is noted for her abolition work and literary accomplishments.  She spent summers in Portsmouth for over 40 years.  Julia helped found the New England Suffrage Association in 1868  and later the American Women Suffrage Association as well as a statewide Massachusetts Women Suffrage Association.  She edited the Woman’s Journal for 20 years.  Julia was a noted speaker for the suffrage cause.

The newspaper accounts do not mention specific suffrage activities, but they seem to meet frequently.  Perhaps gathering more local women into the fold was the first activity.

*Susan B. Anthony, Editor – History of Woman Suffrage Vol. 4

More information can be found in this blog about the women.

Mary Ballou:  https://portsmouthhistorynotes.com/2019/12/13/mary-ballou-a-rhode-island-suffrage-pioneer/

Sarah Eddy: https://portsmouthhistorynotes.com/2019/11/14/sarah-eddys-suffrage-work/

Cora Mitchel and Sophie Mitchel: https://portsmouthhistorynotes.com/2018/03/25/portsmouth-women-the-mitchels-cora-sophie-floride-and-clara-may-miller/

Emeline Eldredge: https://portsmouthhistorynotes.com/2017/09/08/portsmouth-people-emeline-eldredge-suffrage-agitator/

Julia Ward Howe:https://portsmouthhistorynotes.com/2019/12/17/a-division-among-the-suffragists-julia-ward-howe-and-susan-b-anthony/

January 6, 1920: Rhode Island Ratifies the 19th Amendment


Ratification document 1920

Rhode Island was not among the first states to ratify the federal constitutional amendment that would grant the vote to women. In fact, two attempts to secure a special legislative session failed in July and September of 1919. Just a few days before the opening of the January 1920 legislative session, word was out that there would be a suspension of rules so that on January 6 the vote would be taken.  At that point the Providence League of Women Voters began to plan for a Victory Dinner.  Congressman Jeanette Rankin would be the lead speaker.  Rankin came from Montana which had granted women the vote in 1914 and in 1916 Rankin was the first woman elected to Congress.  She had a long history of working for the vote for women.

Women gathered outside the State House.  Suffragists filled the seats in the galleries along with the first lady of the state, Mrs. R. Livingston Beeckman.Not all the politicians had been converted to the suffrage cause.  The Speaker of the House, Arthur Sumner (a lifelong opponent of the vote for women) asked for permission to cast the first vote against the amendment.  Women in the room began to fear that the speaker could somehow hold up the vote, but in the end there were only two other votes against – William Taylor of Bristol and Albert Zurlinden of Lincoln.

With that vote taken, the resolution was taken across the corridor to the Senate.  The chair of the Senate was a “friend of the cause” – Lt. Governor Emery J. San Souci.  With no speeches, the resolution was passed by voice vote.  There was only one dissent – John H. McCabe of Burrillville.

With the passage of the resolution to approve the 19th Amendment, the Victory Party was held at the Turks Head Club.  Men and women dined together on the turkey dinner.  “Jolly little speechlets” were given by those who had worked hard for suffrage during the previous fifty years.  Among those speaking were three who had Aquidneck Island ties – Anna Darlin Spencer, Sarah Eddy and Maud Howe Elliott.  Mrs. J.K. Barney spoke for the pioneers and especially those who could not be there like Portsmouth’s own Mrs. Barton Ballou.

On January 7th 1920 a large delegation of the suffragists witnessed Governor Beeckman sign the Ratification Resolution.  Sara Algro, reporting for the “Women Citizen” summed it this way.  “Thus ended in a most satisfactory manner the glorious victory which will long be remembered in the annals of Rhode Island.”