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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

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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.”

A Division Among the Suffragists: Julia Ward Howe and Susan B. Anthony

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Susan B. Anthony painted by Sarah Eddy

When Susan B. Anthony visited Portsmouth in 1901, she went to visit Julia Ward Howe. What was extraordinary about that visit is that it probably would not have happened a dozen years before.  Until I began to research the local suffragists, I was not aware that there were divisions among them.   I will try to explain the differences between the various suffrage groups.

During the Civil War activists for women’s rights set aside their cause.  As they took up their activities again,  many of them sought to combine their cause of rights for women with rights for African Americans.  The American Equal Rights Association was formed in 1866 with the rights of women and blacks as their cause.  In November of 1868 there was a regional meeting in Boston of the Women’s Rights Convention.  Some of those who participated in that meeting (Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell, Isabella Beecher Hooker, Julia Ward Howe and T.W. Higginson) founded the New England Woman Suffrage Association (NEWSA). Julia Ward Howe was the first President.   Frederick Douglass spoke at the first convention and said “the cause of the negro was more pressing than that of the woman’s.” Julia Ward Howe is recorded as saying at the convention that she would not demand suffrage for women until it was achieved for blacks.

This did not sit well with those who were more focused on the woman’s cause.  In May of 1869 Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and others formed the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA).  To counter this organization, the executive board of the New England Woman Suffrage Association formed the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) in November of 1869.

What were the goals of each group?

AWSA – Julia’s group – Headquarters in Boston

  1. Focus on the vote for women and largely ignored other women’s rights issues.
  2. Supported winning suffrage state by state instead of federal approach
  3. Supported the Republican Party
  4. Used a delegate system
  5. Men were full members and served as officers
  6. AWSA was the more conservative and larger group.
  7. Opposed confrontational strategies.
  8. Published “Woman’s Journal”

NWSA – Susan B. Anthony’s group – Headquarters in New York

  1. Advocated for range of reforms for equal rights for women – not just the vote.  (Discrimination, pay issues, marriage and divorce laws).
  2. Condemned passage of 14th and 15th amendments unless woman’s suffrage was included.
  3. Female led group.  All members were women although men could be affiliated.
  4. Sought a national, constitutional change to insure voting rights.
  5. Sought help from Democrats as well as Republicans.
  6. Had a “top-down” organization.
  7. Published – “The Revolution”

After the 15th Amendment was passed in 1870, voting rights for blacks was no longer an issue.  In 1878 a woman suffrage amendment was proposed and Congress defeated it, so the NWSA began to use the state by state approach, too.  Those active in woman suffrage were discouraged and tired of the divisions. There was little difference between the two groups at that time.   Lucy Stone  proposed at a AWSA convention that the organization should approach the NWSA and women in the two groups began to negotiate an alliance.  In 1890 the two organizations merged into the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

Oak Glen – home of Julia Ward Howe

Susan B. Anthony wrote to her sister.  “I went in the carriage one afternoon to call on Julia Ward Howe, whose summer home is six miles from here; she was charming and I had an interesting time.”  Two great leaders in the suffrage movement were meeting in Portsmouth through the efforts of Sarah Eddy.  The woman’s suffrage cause was much stronger together than it had been divided.

Resources:  I recommend the online articles by “ThoughtCo” on the various groups.  This one is on AWSA, but there are others on NWSA and the American Equal Rights Association.

Lewis, Jone Johnson. “American Woman Suffrage Association.” ThoughtCo, Jun. 4, 2018, thoughtco.com/american-woman-suffrage-association-3530477

Sarah Eddy and Susan B. Anthony: The Artist and Her Subject

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Sarah Eddy’s mother and grandmother left Susan B. Anthony money in their wills to further the cause of woman’s suffrage, but the two ladies had not met until 1885.  Miss Anthony had been able to get away from her work to go to the “Progressive Friends” (a Quaker offshoot) meeting in Pennsylvania.  In her diary she wrote:  “Last evening as I sat on the sofa Miss Eddy put her arms around me and said, ‘I am so glad I love you; I should have felt very sorry if I had not.’ And so should I, for the sake of her dear mother and grandfather, who had so much confidence in me.”

Sarah and Susan went on to New York together and then to visit Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  A friendship was formed that lasted until Susan’s death.  Miss Anthony could not be there when Sarah would visit Rochester for a convention.  Miss Anthony wrote a friend “I am sure you would be glad to entertain her, she is a sweet, lovely little woman; thoroughly sympathizing with everything and everybody that suffers injustice.  I am very sorry that sister Mary and I must be away and can not have the dear girl with us.” *

Larger portrait re-creating 80th Birthday

Susan B. Anthony came to Portsmouth to visit Sarah and sit for a portrait.  In August of 1901 a Rochester newspaper account quotes Miss Anthony saying that after a meeting in Buffalo – “Oh, after that I am going to make a long promised visit at Bristol Ferry, with Mrs. Sarah Eddy,…Mrs. Eddy has been trying to get me to sit for her for my portrait for years, but I have never seen the time when I could stay long enough, but now that I am taking life so easy that I have consented, and she will see what she can do with me as her subject…**

Small portrait now at Bryn Mawr

Miss Anthony would write to her sister about the visit.  Every morning was spent sitting for the two portraits Sarah was painting.  One was a “bust portrait” – the other was a larger image of Susan’s 80th birthday celebration.  This birthday celebration was two years before in Washington, D.C. Eighty children filed pass Miss Anthony to bring her an American Beauty rose.  Sarah used local children as her models.  As a subject, Susan B. Anthony didn’t consider the portrait flattering.  In a letter almost a year later to Sarah, she would write that “There is something about the hollowness of the left cheek that makes me look as if I had had a ball thrown at me and hit me good and hard!  Could you fill it out with a touch of the brush?” ***

Turret Room with 5 windows.

In her letter to her sister Susan wrote: “Every afternoon I have the most refreshing sleep and when I wake the slanting rays of the sun are shining on Narragansett Bay and from all the five windows of my big room is the most glorious view imaginable. We have delightful drives over the old stone bridge that connects us with the mainland, to Tiverton and along the shores of Sconset River, which is really an arm of the ocean, and here we can see the whole length of the island with Newport in its beauty on the coast.  It is ten miles away and we went by train one day, took the famous ocean drive and passed the palaces of the nabobs.  I went in the carriage one afternoon to call on Julia Ward Howe, whose summer home is six miles from here; she was charming and I had an interesting time.” ****

A Rochester newspaper account of the visit reports that Miss Anthony visited the women’s section of Brown University.  She remarked to the women:  I see you girls at present have to peek over the fence at the boys, but the time will come when you will be admitted there on equal terms with them.”  The 200 women students applauded the idea. *****

  • *From “Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, 1880-1887.  Rutgers, 1997.
  • **Rochester Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester NY, 8/11/1901)
  • ***Letter from Susan B. Anthony to Sarah Eddy – June 12, 1903 in the collection of the University of Rochester.
  • ****The Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony, Vol. 3, Ida Husted Harper 1908.
  • *****Rochester Democrat and Chronicle (11/8/1901).