Suffragist pioneers had connections to county
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of monthly articles.
On Nov. 6, 1917, the women of New York State finally won the right to vote in political elections. Women had fought a long battle for this privilege nationally, and major strides for suffrage were also made on local scale. In Chautauqua County, New York an astonishing 52 years of organization, turbulence, and hard work had been devoutly dedicated to the movement.
The liberal attitudes of the area enhanced the spread of the movement throughout the county, stimulating the interest of assertive, proactive women in the community. It is important to consider the suffrage movement among communities on a local level when seeking to understand the national movement in its entirety; neither story can be complete without the inclusion of the other. The very heart of the suffrage movement lay within the steadfast nature of the women themselves.
The leaders of the movement were entirely committed to its success, and the attitudes they carried were powerful enough to rally their communities. Although suffrage literature focuses more on the national movement, the history of Chautauqua County’s Political Equality Organizations demonstrate that this area acted as a major catalyst in the Political Equality Movement in New York state. Chautauqua County was the first in New York to form a County Political Equality Club, illustrating the progressive nature of the region. Once united with the State Suffrage Association, the Chautauqua County Political Equality Club was “the largest club in the United States” for several years, according to Elnora Monroe Babcock’s history.
The goals of the Political Equality Club of Chautauqua County were above all else to “elevate women to an equality with man in municipal, state and national rights and privileges,” “to seek information in political economy,” and “to aid in the dissemination of like knowledge.” Through valiant efforts, the Political Equality Club and like organizations of the area were able to reach such goals, facilitated by Chautauqua’s progressive environment.
In order to understand why Chautauqua County, of all counties within New York, was the first to take this revolutionary step, it is important to explore what progressive steps the county had seen before. By the time the Political Equality Club was founded in 1889, other local progressive groups were already in existence. The Fredonia Grange was established on April 16, 1868 as a type of fellowship to strengthen the local agricultural community. The Grange sought to help citizens to develop to their highest potential to contribute to the community, the state, and the nation. It was a place to acquire leadership skills while serving the community and establishing a political voice. Oliver Kelly was the organizer of the Patrons of Husbandry (or Grange) and local granges, and was directed by his niece that, “Your organization will never be permanent if you leave women out.” The Grange then became one of the first ways women could become involved in the administrative and political aspects of the community. The Grange thus became one of the first outlets for female equality in Chautauqua County. In the Grange, women were entitled to equal representation and an equal voice. The popularity of Granges increased, and they spread throughout the county. By 1875 the Pomona Grange had elected a woman by the name of Bela Lord as ‘Master.’ By 1888, the Pomona and the Ross Granges had created their own Political Equality Clubs, further stabilizing the view among the Grange that women should be treated as equals, given equal opportunities, and have equal rights. Minutes from the First Assembly District January 17, 1917 recorded, “Letters from Mrs. Whitehouse with regard to Grange speakers stating that the Chamber of Commerce at Oneida had asked for a Suffrage speaker for Grange convention and that Mrs. Willis Mitchell would be acceptable to them.” The works of the Political Equality Clubs were not only accepted at the Grange, but requested. Considering the popularity of the Grange among citizens of Chautauqua County, both male and female, it was vital that the Suffrage movement secured this wide scale support.
In addition to the forward thinking nature of the Grange, articles from the Fredonia Censor indicated clear support from the town for the Suffrage Movement. On December 14, 1887 an article entitled “Frances Willard on Municipal Suffrage” was published, summarizing the main ideas of Miss Willard upon re-election as President of Nashville’s Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Miss Willard addressed the significance of securing the vote to bring an end to the “liquor curse.” Miss Willard represented the views of many members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union across the nation in pursuing the municipal ballot. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union had been founded at Fredonia Baptist Church in 1873. The Union was created with the intention of impeding consumption of alcohol, although this was not the only focus. The organization also sought to reform prisons, enact child labor laws, achieve purity in arts and in literature, and work in cohesion with other ethnic groups. In order to see its agenda addressed and progress made within their organization, the W.C.T.U knew that gaining women’s suffrage was the first step to create true political headway. The W.C.T.U therefore had a specific committee dedicated to working towards women’s suffrage.
In the Meeting Minutes of the Women’s Suffrage Party of the First Assembly District, ties with the W.C.T.U come up frequently. On September 18, 1917, two months before Suffrage was granted in New York State, the secretary wrote, “The matter of a suffrage booth at W.C.T.U festival discussed and it was voted to donate $10.00 toward convention expenses and have a booth at festival for distribution of literature only.” Again, the intermingling of various organizations with similar goals created a sensible and successful means of progress. The main reason the W.C.T.U and the Political Equality Clubs were so closely knit was their common goal of Suffrage for the sake of prohibition. In First Assembly District meeting minutes from December 9, 1917, a letter was read from a representative of the W.C.T.U, which “asked for the cooperation of all women in regard to the prohibition amendment. It was voted to send a letter to the Congressman Chaz H. Hamilton asking him to support the amendment.” Together, the W.C.T.U and Suffrage Organizations alike were able to make real political progress.
Women of Chautauqua County were beginning to gain respect and influence in more areas than just politics. Calista S. Jones was a woman born in Jamestown in 1823. By the time she was eighteen years old, she was a successful young teacher. A male teacher of Jamestown was dismissed, and when asked to replace him, Jones agreed on the condition that she receive the same pay as he would have received. Jamestown school officials originally objected to the idea of a woman receiving equal pay to a man. In time, however, Jamestown did accept this proposition, and Calista S. Jones became the first woman to receive equal pay to a male educator in Jamestown. The tough attitude that secured Jones this liberty can be generally noted in other headstrong women Chautauqua County had produced.
Kathleen “Kate” Farrell graduated from SUNY Fredonia (2013) with a B.A. in history, and from the University of Buffalo Law School (J.D., 2016). She currently resides in Boston, Mass. where she is an associate attorney with Melick & Porter.
This is an abridged version of the essay Kate wrote for her senior history honors seminar at Fredonia, which was published in “Nearby History: Tales of Chautauqua County” (2013). This essay is based on Elnora Babcock’s history of the Political Equality Movement in the Centennial History of Chautauqua County (1921), newspaper articles, and records of local suffrage organizations held at the McClurg Museum.