One hundred years ago this month, the United States Congress voted in favor of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting women the right to vote. The movement that led up to this momentous occasion was called women’s suffrage and countless women fought and died for the ballot before they ever got the chance to finally cast one. Many women in Titusville were dedicated to this cause and booked national speakers, campaigned, organized, and even hosted one of the most famous icons of the suffrage movement. One hundred years later, we reflect on their tireless and important work.
Despite women only being enfranchised in the United States for fewer than one hundred years, the issue of women’s right to vote has always been on the minds of women in this country. When the new nation was first being formed, Abigail Adams told her husband, John, to “consider the ladies” when forming the laws and structure of our young country (needless to say, he did not). In 1838, the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society was founded and two years later, members were denied admission to an anti-slavery convention in London because of their sex. In response, they held their own convention in 1840 at Seneca Falls, New York and declared that all men and women were created equal — a controversial notion.
A women’s suffrage amendment was first proposed to the United States Congress in 1878. The amendment was not accepted that year, nor was it when it was proposed again in 1887. Despite no constitutional amendment granting the vote nationwide, many states enfranchised women anyway. In 1869, Wyoming was created and adopted suffrage immediately after being accepted into the Union. One of the reasons was to attract women to the new state and it certainly worked. Unfortunately, Wyoming remained the only state to give women the vote until Colorado did so in 1893. In 1896, Utah and Idaho joined the ranks, but the vote stalled again and no states passed suffrage for women for another fourteen years.
In the early 1890s, the women of Titusville created the town’s first Woman’s Club, with Annette Farwell Grumbine as the president. In November 1912, the Titusville Woman’s Club hosted Beatrice Forbes-Robertson Hale, a national pro-suffrage speaker. Hale was given rave reviews by both the women and men of Titusville when she spoke at the Presbyterian Men’s Club and the Woman’s Club. Hale told the men that if politics was so dirty that they did not want women involved, then they should work to clean it up.
Hale argued that women voters would help make the world a better place and that the desire for the vote was not a fad or a hobby for wealthy women, but an important endeavor in which the United States was leaving its women behind the rest of the world. She also hit back against the idea that if women were allowed to vote then that would increase the illiterate vote. She explained that twice as many girls as boys were currently finishing high school and thus the argument made no sense.
The women of Titusville continued their strong support of suffrage both in Pennsylvania and nationally. They created the Titusville Equal Franchise Association (also sometimes called the Titusville Equal Suffrage Association) and Bessie Benson Emerson was elected president. Other women who worked for the cause included Lillian Emerson, Ada Ailene Ford McKinney, Myra Lee Wheeler, Helen Merrick Semple, Mary Sands, Mary A. W. Cadwallader, Florence Payne Byles, Alice Neill Carter, Lu Rouse Westgate, and Gertrude Lammers Howland. Helen Merrick Semple also served as the President of the Federation of Pennsylvania Women at the state-level.
The organization opened a headquarters at 144 West Central Avenue and by late 1915 the group boasted more than 100 members.
By 1915, Washington, California, Oregon, Arizona, Kansas, and the Alaskan Territory had granted women full suffrage in their states. The Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association campaigned hard for the right to vote that year for their state. In their brochures and pamphlets, the association explained that in states where women could vote, voters had also passed equal guardianship (in twenty-five states the father was the sole legal guardian and in six states the father could will or deed away the children without the mother’s consent); an eight hour workday for women; protections against child labor; and raised the age of consent, whereas in states without women voters the age of consent was as young as ten.
As part of the campaign for women’s right to vote, a bell was forged, modeled after the Liberty Bell, and taken on a tour of every county in Pennsylvania. Chester County activist Katharine Wentworth Ruschenberger had the Justice Bell created at Meneely Bell Company in Troy, New York and suffragists escorted it around the state in the back of a modified truck to get people interested in women’s suffrage.
The Justice Bell arrived in Titusville on July 23, 1915 with its clapper held still by chains that represented women being silenced through disenfranchisement. The idea was that when suffrage was passed, the clapper would be released and justice would ring out for women across the commonwealth.
Alice Carter, treasurer of the Titusville Equal Suffrage Association, escorted the bell into town where several hundred men and women were waiting to greet them at city hall. Later that day, a public event was held with over 1,000 locals in attendance. The first speaker was Colonel John J. Carter, husband to Alice Carter, and avid supporter of women’s right to vote. Carter demanded of his fellow men that women’s suffrage “must succeed.” He implored the audience to understand that women were not excluded from alienable rights and that in the fall, men had a “paramount duty to perform, and that duty is to make all the people equal before the law. To do this: vote for women in November.”
The keynote speaker was Harriet E. Grim of Chicago who said that the Liberty Bell proclaimed liberty and justice to all inhabitants thereof, but this promise was not fulfilled since women were refused the vote. Taxation without representation is tyranny, she explained, and women have been subjected to tyranny for far too long. Louise Hall of Philadelphia and Emma Lenore MacAlarney of Harrisburg also spoke before the bell creator herself, Katharine Wentworth Ruschenberger, was recognized for her presence in Titusville. The crowd received handbills that illustrated the status of the vote nationwide, an example of which is shown here.
Despite the hard work of countless women, the men of Pennsylvania rejected the referendum and refused women the right to vote in 1915. However, Titusville has something to be proud of regardless of the state defeat. While the state referendum was defeated, the men of the city of Titusville and Crawford County both voted a majority in support of the suffrage referendum.
Though there was still no national women’s suffrage, Jeannette Rankin (above right) of Montana was the first woman elected to serve in Congress in 1916. Women such as Alice Paul (above left) and Lucy Barns, among legions of others, protested at the nation’s capital and were arrested in the following years. Paul spent seven months in jail for “obstructing traffic” and was even force fed during her hunger strike. In 1918, the suffrage amendment passed in the House, but failed in the Senate. Finally, on June 4, 1919 both bodies of Congress approved the 19th Constitutional amendment, stating that, “The right of citizens to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on the account of sex.” The wording of the amendment was exactly the same as the one that was proposed and defeated forty-one years earlier in 1878.
Pennsylvania was the eighth state to ratify the 19th Amendment on June 24, 1919. Finally, on August 26, 1920, thirty-six states had ratified the amendment, making it law in the United States of America. Voters were soon registered and on the first day, 1,010 women in Titusville became legal voters. In 1921, Annette Grumbine became the first woman elected to the Titusville School Board and by 1922 she was the president.
The fight for women’s right to vote was long and arduous, and millions of American women died before they ever got the chance to cast a ballot. The people of Titusville, women and men alike, were amongst the ranks of those who campaigned and debated and fought for women’s suffrage. We remember them now and always, for because of them our voices will never be silenced.
Sources: National Park Service, Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission, National Geographic, Library of Congress, National Women’s History Museum, Justice Bell Foundation, The Titusville Herald 11/19/1912, 10/31/1914, 7/24/1915, 7/28/1915, 10/18/1915, 5/24/1916, 9/2/1920
Cover Image: “Penn[sylvania] on the picket line,” by Harris and Ewing, 1917. Library of Congress.