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.