Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Parade of the Women in White Rocks New York

Note:  This was first posted on this blog a year ago.

On October 23, 1915 more than 25,000 women marched down Fifth Avenue in New York City in one of the largest parades for Women’s Suffrage yet held.  That would be impressive enough, but the demonstration was only part of an unprecedented year long campaign to convince Empire State voters to approve a state constitutional amendment giving women the vote.  Nothing like it had ever been seen in complexity and breadth of organization.

New York had long been a leading hot bed of suffrage agitation.  The Brooklyn Woman Suffrage Association was formed in 1869 and the New York City chapter a year later.  By 1903 there were at least 15 organizations in the metropolitan area promoting votes for women.  That year the indefatigable Carrie Chapman Catt brought the various organizations together under the umbrella of Interurban Woman Suffrage Council (IWSC).  Within two years it had more than twenty affiliates and 150 individual associate members who included both established leaders and wealthy women who could bankroll significant campaigns.  They established a headquarters in the Martha Washington Hotel and employed Fannie Chafin to manage day to day operations.

Catt, however, was not satisfied with just the stepped up lobbying, public rallies, and demonstrations.  She realized that support for suffrage was largely still confined to well educated, middle class Protestant women.  In order to secure passage, it would be necessary to secure votes—votes of men of all classes including the teeming ethnic and religious minorities of New York.  That required a political operation modeled on the existing apparatus of the Democratic and Republican parties.

 The IWSC called a founding convention of the new Woman Suffrage Party of Greater New York at Carnegie Hall on October 29, 1909.  804 delegates and 200 alternates attended the convention.  The Party set a goal of having a leader for each of the 63 Assembly Districts of the city and a captain for each of the 2,127 election districts (precincts), with a chair and committee in each borough, under the direction a city chair board of directors—just the way Tammany Hall did it.

 It was an ambitious project and obviously not all positions were filled immediately.  But the women were committed to the long haul and built membership and capacity steadily.  The party sent its forces to local political conventions; held mass meetings; issued thousands of leaflets in many languages; conducted street meetings, parades, plays, lectures, suffrage schools; gave entertainments and teas; sent appeals to churches and all kinds of organizations and to individual leaders; brought pressure on legislators through their constituents and obtained wide publicity in newspapers and magazines.

 The ground work was laid when the Assembly voted to submit a suffrage amendment to the voters in the November 1915 election.  Catt became chair of the statewide campaign, which divide the state into two upstate districts and metropolitan New York.  Mary Garrett Hay, chair of the City party, and her associates sprang into action.  They raised $50,000—an enormous sum in 1915—for the city campaign alone.  A careful campaign with designated tasks from January to Election Day was planned.  The campaign committee was established—including liaisons to the city’s ethnic communities.  In January alone there were 60 district conventions, 170 canvassing suppers, four mass meetings, 27 canvassing conferences and a convention in Carnegie Hall.  The plan was to personally canvas all voters 661,164 registered voters in their homes as well contacting them in factories, offices, shops, and all manner of public gatherings.  Women spent thousands upon thousands of hours climbing narrow tenement staircases, and knocking on doors in dark grimy hallways as well as visiting fashionable apartments and suburbs.  As the campaign rolled on, registered membership in the Party swelled to 60,535.

The Party made special efforts to reach out to men by meeting them where they worked.  The designated a number special suffrage days dedicated to various professions.  They visited firemen, barbers, street cleaners among others bring each special and appropriate gifts and literature.  Workers in the subway excavations were visited with Irish banners and shamrock fliers; Turkish, Armenian, French, German and Italian restaurants were canvassed as were the laborers on the docks, in vessels and in public markets. They did not neglect the denizens of the offices either—they visited brokers, bankers, and lawyers smothering them all with flattery instead of yelling in their faces.

No did they neglect public spectacle.  In addition to the great Fifth Avenue March there was a Night of the Interurban Council Fires, when on high bluffs in the different boroughs huge bonfires were lighted, fireworks and balloons sent up, with music, speeches and displays of illuminated transparencies. There were 28 neighborhood parades and numerous torch light rallies.  The party sponsored street festivals and dances on the Lower East Side for the Irish, Syrians, Poles, and Italians.  There were meetings conducted in Yiddish and dozens of other languages.  Big events like a night with opera stars at Carnegie Hall attracted wide spread press attention.

According to an article by Oreola Williams Haskell, head of the campaign’s press bureau by Election Day the campaign had accomplished the following:

Voters canvassed (60 per cent of those enrolled): 396,698
Women canvassed: 60,535
Voters circularized: 826,796
Party membership increased from 151,688 to 212,223
Watchers and pickets furnished for the polls: 3,151
Numbers of leaflets printed and distributed: 2,883,264
Money expended from the City treasury: $25,579
Number of outdoor meetings: 5,225
Number of indoor meetings (district): 660
Number of mass meetings: 93
Political meetings addressed by Congressmen, Assemblymen and Constitutional Convention delegates:  25
Total number of meetings: 6,003
Night speaking in theaters: 60
Theater Week (Miner's and Keith's): 2
Speeches and suffrage slides in movie theaters: 150
Concerts (indoor, 10 outdoor, 3): 13
Suffrage booths in bazaars: 6
Number of Headquarters (Borough 4, Districts, 20): 24
Campaign vans (drawn by horses 6, decorated autos 6, district autos 4), vehicles in constant use: 16
Papers served regularly with news (English and foreign): 80
Suffrage editions of papers prepared: 2
Special articles on suffrage: 150
Sermons preached by request just before election: 64 

Despite all of these impressive efforts, the campaign failed.  In the City the vote was 320,853 opposed and 238,098 in support.  The defeat was more lopsided Up State.  But the women were far from discouraged.  Two days after the election the City Party united with the National Association for Women’s Suffrage in a mass meeting at Cooper Union, and $100,000 was pledged for a new campaign fund. 

Two years later they ginned up the campaign all over again.  That time they won.  New York State became one of the first Eastern states to adopt women’s suffrage—all due to good old fashion street level politics.

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