November 6th 1917: Women win the right to vote in New York State
By Susan Ingalls Lewis
How did women get the right to vote in New York State? Most of my students assume that all women in the United States were granted suffrage at the same time, as the result of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, passed in 1920. To the contrary, women won the vote across the country in an irregular, piecemeal fashion. The territory of Wyoming allowed women to vote in 1869, and joined the union in 1890 as the first state where women could vote in all elections. By the time the women’s suffrage amendment was passed, 15 states across the country (including New York) already had full suffrage, and more had partial suffrage – that is, women could vote in some but not all elections. For example, in some states or localities women could vote in presidential elections, primaries, municipal elections, or school board elections.
Often my students assume that New Yorkers Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were responsible for winning the suffrage campaign. Unfortunately, neither lived to see women gain the vote either nationally or state-wide. Essentially, they failed—not for lack of energy, organization, or compelling arguments, but because they were unable to convince the male voters of their period that women needed or deserved the vote. Even the majority of women in the United States were probably not persuaded that enfranchising women was a good idea at the time that Stanton and Anthony died (1902 and 1906, respectively). Surprisingly to us today, there was actually a strong anti-suffrage movement led by women, including a chapter in New York.
Independent scholar, speaker, historical consultant, and Huffington Post contributor Louise Bernikow is currently writing a book about the 1917 campaign and promoting the importance of the 2017 anniversary of women gaining the vote in New York. According to Berkinow, “When New York women won the right to vote in 1917, they changed the national political landscape. The victory was a critical tipping point on the road to a constitutional amendment.” Her research has uncovered colorful demonstrations by women at New York’s landmarks, including a dramatic protest in 1916 (the year between an unsuccessful campaign for the vote and the final victory). As President Woodrow Wilson rode out toward the Statue of Liberty on the presidential yacht “toward a ceremonial flick of the switch that would bring electric light to the statue” there appeared in the sky:
a phalanx of what were then called bi-planes, each piloted by a single woman, having taken off from a field in Staten Island [see my October 10th blog: “New York: Aviation Pioneer” for more on women aviators]. The aviatrixes hovered above the yacht, following its course, then criss-crossed the river, bank to bank. From each open aircraft floated bits of paper, like doves descending, but these messages urged not peace, but increasing militancy of the feminist kind. “Votes for Women” the leaflets said.
The story of how women in New York and the rest of the United States finally succeeded in gaining the vote is an exciting and important historical narrative, though familiar to almost none of my college students or even my colleagues. In fact, students are far more likely to have heard of New York’s Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, where Stanton announced resolutions demanding the vote, than to have any idea how the vote was finally won after decades of struggle. If they are aware of the final push for women’s suffrage during World War I, they are more likely to be familiar with radical leader Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party (NWP). Paul and her followers picketed the White House, were jailed repeatedly, demanded to be treated as political prisoners, went on hunger strikes, and were force-fed and sometimes physically abused in jail. However, I would argue that Paul and her organization—though courageous and important—were not primarily responsible for winning the vote for women, either in New York State or nationally. Instead, I would like to credit a different woman with both the New York and U.S. victories: Carrie Chapman Catt.
Carrie Lane Chapman Catt (1859-1947), President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), is often associated with the state of Iowa where she grew up and attended college. But after the death of her second husband, Catt spent the last 32 years of her life based in New York, and died at her home in New Rochelle. Under her leadership and what became known her “Winning Plan,” by 1916 NAWSA represented two million members. According to historian Jonathan Soffer’s excellent essay, “Modern Women Persuading Modern Men: The Nineteenth Amendment and the Movement for Woman Suffrage, 1916–1920”:
A board of wealthy women devoted themselves full time to the cause, creating a well-financed lobbying, advertising, and political organization. Headquartered on two floors of a Manhattan skyscraper, they deployed the latest technologies to persuade Americans of women’s right to vote and maintained transnational and intercontinental connections. They transformed NAWSA into a modern, urban, cosmopolitan lobby for women’s right to vote.
Catt’s commitment to women’s rights was life-long, but went through several phases. She had been tapped by Susan B. Anthony to head NAWSA in 1900, but left that post after the death of her husband to travel in Europe and promote women’s rights internationally. Under the leadership of Anna Howard Shaw, the organization was troubled with internal dissention. In 1914, Miriam Leslie, editor and head of a publishing empire, left almost one million dollars specifically and personally to Catt for the cause of women’s suffrage. Then, in 1915, Catt returned to lead NAWSA to victory.
Catt’s “Winning Plan” proposed that NAWSA focus simultaneously on state-by-state and federal campaigns, using state victories to influence and propel the eventual passage of a federal amendment. In 1916, NAWSA convinced both the Republican and Democratic parties to include women’s suffrage in their platforms. With the advent of World War I, Catt put aside her pacifism and announced that NAWSA would work for a third goal: the war effort. (Here she learned a lesson from Stanton and Anthony, who had put aside their push for women’s rights during the Civil War, and later regretted that decision.)
According to Robert P.J. Cooney, Jr., author of Winning the Vote: The Triumph of the American Woman Suffrage Movement (2012):
An enormously ambitious house-to-house canvass was the main feature of the 1917 campaign in New York. The tactic was diplomatically chosen, Mary Peck noted, because “it demanded service from every worker, did not offend sensitive patriots as more spectacular efforts would have done, and reached into individual homes as meetings never could.” To answer charges by opponents that most women did not want to vote, suffragists spent more than a year going door-to-door in nearly every city and town in the state, collecting the signatures of over one million women who said that they wanted to vote. Organizers climbed thousands of tenement stairs, walked country lanes, and visited the homes of the rich and poor. The result was the largest individually-signed petition ever assembled, eventually totaling 1,030,000 names, a majority of the women in the state.
To gain the vote in New York City (where the campaign had lost by more than 80,000 votes in 1915), NAWSA organized “effort focused on a combination of sophisticated advertising and block-by-block organizing, both particularly geared to the city’s unrivalled population density and political culture.” On the eve of Election Day in 1917, Catt was quoted in the New York Times as appealing to the voters on the basis of the petition and American ideals:
Remember that our country is fighting for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own government. Vote for woman suffrage, because it is part of the struggle toward democracy.
In the end, suffrage won in every borough, and the large majority in the city overcame a slight loss upstate, so that the measure carried by more than 100,000 votes statewide. Suffrage won in Auburn, Binghamton, Buffalo, Newburgh, Ossining, Oswego, Schenectady, Syracuse, and Westchester, but lost in Albany, Kingston, and Rochester. Both “Colonel” (former president Teddy) Roosevelt and William Randolph Hearst hailed the victory.
Of course, Catt was not the only individual responsible for the ultimate success of the women’s suffrage campaign in New York, just as Martin Luther King was not the only person responsible for the success of the Civil Rights Movement. In particular, Catt’s colleague and partner Mary Garrett Hay was vital to the New York victory, as were thousands of other organizers, not to mention the men who supported them, some to the tune of $10,000 contributions. Yet, at the very least, the name of Carrie Chapman Catt, and the story of how women won the vote in New York surely deserve greater recognition than they currently enjoy.
In honor of the upcoming centennial in 2017, CRREO (the Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach) and the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at SUNY New Paltz have just begun planning for a state-wide academic conference. By the end of that year, we hope that the story of women’s struggle for suffrage in New York State will be much better known than it is today. If you have suggestions or would like to be part of the process, please contact me at email@example.com.
 Louise Bernikow, “Lady Liberty: A Counter-Narrative,” The Huffington Post, Posted: 07/04/2013 8:39 am.
 Louise Bernikow, NYC SUFFRAGE VICTORY, 1917, Lecture Programs and Books.
 Jonathan Soffer, “Modern Women Persuading Modern Men: The Nineteenth Amendment and the Movement for Woman Suffrage, 1916–1920,” Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. http://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/politics-reform/essays/modern-women-persuading-modern-men-nineteenth-amendment-and-mo
 Robert Cooney, “New York Battles for Equal Suffrage 95 Years Ago, Part 2,” National Women’s History Project, NWHP Blog (August 2, 2012). http://www.nwhp.org/blog/?p=1221
 Soffer, “Modern Women Persuading Modern Men.”
 SUFFRAGISTS MAKE FINAL STATE APPEAL: Great Promise of Victory in New York, Says Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt. SOLDIERS GIVE APPROVAL Whole Company of 71st Infantry Pledge Support and Attacks the Antis in a Letter.
New York Times (1857-1922) [New York, N.Y] 05 Nov 1917: 15. Historical New York Times database.
 SUFFRAGE MADE GAINS UP-STATE: Syracuse Reversed Its Verdict of Two Years Ago and Gave Majority to Amendment. ROCHESTER STILL AGAINST Westchester Gave Votes for Women 5,000 Majority–Suffrage Won 5,000 Majority–Suffrage Won Schenectady County. Westchester 5,000 for Suffrage. Buffalo’s Big Overturn.
“Carrie Chapman Catt,” Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics, Iowa State University;
“Mary Garrett Hay,” National Women’s History Museum;
“New York Battles for Equal Suffrage 95 Years Ago, Part 1,” National Women’s History Project, NWHP Blog by Robert Cooney (July 30th, 2012); http://www.nwhp.org/blog/?p=1226
“New York Battles for Equal Suffrage 95 Years Ago, Part 2,” National Women’s History Project, NWHP Blog by Robert Cooney (August 2, 2012); http://www.nwhp.org/blog/?p=1221