“Leaving Party Politics to Man:” How Some Hoosier Women Worked Against Suffrage

Anti-suffrage booth at the 1915 Old Home Days in Skaneateles, New York, courtesy of New York Heritage Digital Collections.

It is easy to assume that women unanimously supported woman’s suffrage, while men, clinging to their role as the households’ sole political actor, opposed it. However, this was not the case. In 1914, suffrage leader Alice Stone Blackwell wrote, “the struggle has never been a fight of woman against man, but always of broad-minded men and women on the one side against narrow-minded men and women on the other.”[i]

With the centennial of women’s suffrage upon us, we celebrate the determination of those women who fought for so long to secure their own enfranchisement. Understandably, many examinations of the suffrage movement only briefly touch on organized opposition of the movement, if at all. This is likely because it is much easier for us to identify with suffragists than it is with their counterparts. However, this lack of coverage can lead to the assumption that the anti-suffrage movement was weak or inconsequential compared to that of the pro-suffrage masses. That assumption would be incorrect. According to Historian Joe C. Miller, organized anti-suffragists outnumbered organized pro-suffragists until 1915, just five years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment. [ii]

Suffrage Madonna postcard from 1909, showing the fear of anti-suffragists that women with the vote would leave men to care for their families. Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution.

In the wake of suffrage gains in western states, anti-suffragists began to organize in 1895, forming the Massachusetts Association Opposed to the Further Extension of Suffrage to Women. Later, women formed similar organizations in New York (1895) and Illinois (1906). In 1911, leaders within these groups came together to establish the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage (NAOWS), which led to increasing organization on a national scale. By 1916, when pro-suffragists finally outnumbered antis, NAOWS claimed to have organized resistance in 25 of the 48 states.[iii]

You may be wondering why so many women felt strongly about legislation that we would consider to go against their best interests. That’s a difficult question to answer since, as with any movement, each woman would have had her own reasons to oppose suffrage. The various pamphlets and broadsides distributed by NAOWS, such as the one below, shed light on their reasoning.

“Why We Oppose Votes for Women,” courtesy of Tennessee Virtual Archive.

Views like those expressed in “Why We Oppose Votes for Women” became even more pervasive throughout 1916 and 1917 in response to a national spike of suffrage activity across the nation.[iv] Some Indiana women belonged to this opposition movement. Hoosier suffragists were working tirelessly to promote three separate bills that could lead to their enfranchisement. In the midst of the 1917 legislative session, anti-suffragists made their appearance in the form of “The Remonstrance,” a petition sent to State Senator Dwight M. Kinder of Indianapolis.

Indianapolis News, January 20, 1917, 7.

This “Remonstrance,” presented to the Indiana General Assembly on January 19, 1917, and subsequently reprinted in Indianapolis newspapers, laid out arguments against suffrage in three broad strokes:

  1. We Believe it is the demand of a minority of the women of our state.
  2. We are opposed to woman suffrage because we believe that women can best serve their state and community by leaving party politics to man and directing their gifts along the lines largely denied to men because of their obligations involved in the necessary machinery of political suffrage.
  3. We believe that with women in party politics there will arise a new party machine with the woman boss in control.

While these are the core arguments presented in the petition, it’s worth reading it in its entirety, as the supporting statements are fascinating. The petition’s arguments are similar to some of those put forth by the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, and there is a reason for that. On January 13, the Indianapolis News reported that anti-suffragists from Boston had been in the city for two weeks,

prepared to do a big and brave work. They went from house to house telling the poor misguided women of Indianapolis what a dreadful thing would befall them if they obtained equal suffrage. They asked that the women sign a petition against this particular brand of punishment the men of the legislature might mete out to them.

This was the same petition that would land on Senator Kinder’s desk days later. These East Coast anti-suffrage activists, either from the national organization or the closely-related Massachusetts group, came to Indiana, where no anti-suffrage organization existed, to turn women against their own enfranchisement.

While this work did convince some Hoosier women to submit the petition, it wasn’t particularly successful—if anything, the petition generated more support than ever for the suffrage bills before the Indiana General Assembly. While the document claimed to represent the “great majority of women” in the state, it was signed by just nineteen women, all of whom lived in the same upper-class Indianapolis neighborhood and who would likely have traveled in the same social circles. The response from suffrage activists around the state was swift.

Just two days after “The Remonstrance” appeared in Indianapolis papers, the Indianapolis News published an article penned by Charity Dye, an Indianapolis educator, activist, and member of the Indiana Historical Commission (which eventually became the Indiana Historical Bureau). Responding to the antis’ claim that they represented ninety percent of Hoosier women, Dye released the results of a poll taken in the fall of 1916. The women polled were all residents of the Eighth Ward of Indianapolis and each woman could select from “pro,” “anti,” and “neutral,” options. Of 1,044 women polled, 628 (60%) were in favor of suffrage. Dye ends the article, “In view of the fact that nineteen Indianapolis women asserted in The News Saturday that 90 per cent of Indiana women are opposed to suffrage, this is interesting reading.”[v]

Indianapolis News, January 23, 1917, 3.

The next day, women from around the state began sending their own list of nineteen names to newspapers—all in favor of suffrage. First, nineteen librarians and stenographers declared their support for suffrage “for what it will mean to them in the business world.”[vi] Next came nineteen Vassar College graduates, who signed their names “in protest against the assertion of nineteen anti-suffragists that women do not want suffrage.”[vii] Finally, nineteen “professional women,” who held medical degrees added their names “just because it is right.”

As lists of names continued to pour in from around the state, Joint Resolution Number 2, which would have granted Hoosier women full suffrage if passed, was winding its way through the Indiana General Assembly session. Just as enthusiasm for the bill reached its zenith, a new, even more promising prospect appeared when the legislature enacted a Constitutional Convention bill on February 1. According to Historian Anita Morgan, “A new Indiana Constitution could have full suffrage included in the document and eliminate the need to rely on a state law that could be overturned.” Pro-suffrage support for the convention flooded in.

Anti-suffragists saw this as possibly their last chance to block the enfranchisement of women in Indiana and called for a legislative hearing, where they could voice to their grievances.  Their goal was to persuade future members of the Constitutional Convention not to add women’s suffrage to the newly penned constitution. They got their hearing, but it didn’t exactly go as planned. On February 13, 1917, men and women, who supported and opposed suffrage, flooded the statehouse. What followed was hours of “speeches for and against votes for women [which] flashed humor, keen wit and an occasional bit of raillery or pungent sarcasm that brought laughter or stormy cheering.” First, state representatives heard from pro-suffragists, who pointed out that both the House and Senate had already expressed support for suffrage – all that was left now was to hammer out the details. The crowd, overwhelmingly composed of suffrage supporters, cheered throughout the address. Then Mary Ella Lyon Swift, leader of the original nineteen anti-suffrage remonstrants, spoke. She opined:

Suffrage, in my opinion, is one of the most serious menaces in the country today. With suffrage, you give the ballot to a large, unknown, untested class – terribly emotional and terribly unstable. . . If you thrust suffrage upon me you dissipate my usefulness, and in the same way you dissipate the usefulness of the most unselfish, most earnest and most capable women, who are working in their way, attracting no attention to themselves for the good of their country and mankind.

When one representative asked Swift to explain that last statement, she replied that suffrage would make “it necessary for us to fight the woman boss and the woman machine.”

Minnie Bronson, Buffalo Times, March 27, 1909, 2.

There again appears that talking point from the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, that once women get the vote, they’ll be irrevocably corrupted, with all-female political machines being run by female political bosses. One of the only other female speakers opposing women’s suffrage was Minnie Bronson, the secretary of NAOWS. Bronson addressed the overwhelming presence of pro-suffragists, quipping, “[Anti-suffragists] are not here pestering or threatening you, but are at home caring for their children.” Finally, after hours of  debating, Charles A. Bookwalter, former mayor of Indianapolis, delivered the decisive line, “It is 10:35 o’clock. Suffrage is right and hence inevitable.”[viii]

This hearing seems to have been the last gasp of the anti-suffrage movement in Indiana. While suffrage detractors continued to voice their opposition from time to time, the organized efforts of NAOWS in Indianapolis had come to an end. The nineteen women who sent “The Remonstrance” to the Indiana General Assembly went back to hosting parties, attending literary club meetings, doing charity work and, presumably, not exercising their newly-granted rights when the 19th amendment was ratified in 1920.

[i] Joe Miller, “Never a Fight of Woman Against Man: What Textbooks Don’t Say about Women’s Suffrage,” The History Teacher 48, no. 3 (May 2015): 437.

[ii] Ibid., 440.

[iii] Mrs. Arthur M. Dodge, “Keynote of Opposition to Votes for Women,” Boston Globe, October 15, 1916, 54, accessed Newspapers.com.

[iv] Dr. Anita Morgan, “We Must Be Fearless”: The Woman Suffrage Movement in Indiana (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society Press, 2020), p. 137-138.

[v] Charity Dye, “Gives Suffrage Vote for the Eighth Ward,” Indianapolis News, January 22, 1917, 22, accessed Newspapers.com.

[vi] “Petition of ‘Nineteen’ Stirs the Suffragists,” Indianapolis News, January 23, 1917, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.

[vii] “Protest of Vassar Women in Factor of Equal Suffrage,” Indianapolis News, January 24, 1917, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.

[viii] “Sparks Fly at Hearing for Women,” Indianapolis Star, February 14, 1917, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

Taking It to the Streets: Hoosier Women’s Suffrage Automobile Tour

Indianapolis Star, June 6, 1912, 5, courtesy of Grace Julian Clarke’s scrapbooks.

“Five prominent suffragists wooed Nora, stormed Carmel, showed Westfield the sun of political equality rising in the East, and splintered their verbal swords, maces, spears and daggers against two club closing days and a bridge party in Noblesville.”  The June 6, 1912, edition of the Indianapolis Star vividly described what was probably the first women’s suffrage automobile tour in the state. The suffragists in question—Sara Lauter, Grace Julian Clarke, Mrs. R. Harry Miller, Julia Henderson, and Mrs. W.T. Barnes—represented the Woman’s Franchise League (WFL), one of the two major suffrage organizations in the state (the other was the Equal Suffrage Association).

This Hamilton County event was part of the Woman’s Franchise League’s re-energized campaign to get the vote.  After sixty-one years of petitioning state legislators to enact laws that recognized women’s right to vote with no success, the WFL decided to take its arguments more directly to the people.  Suffragists wanted to better inform the public about the benefits for all people when women voted and hoped that constituents would in turn pressure their legislators to enact women’s suffrage legislation.  The WFL needed to garner enough support over the summer of 1912, when travel was easiest in the still very rural state, to have suffrage legislation introduced in the 1913 state legislative session. Gov. Thomas Marshall had added an urgency to the task with his proposed new state constitution.  Marshall wanted only “literate male citizens of the United States who were registered in the state and had paid a poll tax for two years” to be permitted to vote. The existing state constitution, with its arcane amendment system, which had prevented women from gaining the vote in 1883, at least did not designate a sex as criteria for voting as Marshall’s proposal did.

To get their message to the people, the WFL came up with innovative publicity ideas. At the WFL’s request, women’s suffrage supporter and former U.S. Vice-President Charles W. Fairbanks hosted a heavily attended suffrage-themed lawn party at his Meridian Street home. WFL member Lucy Riesenberg suggested a suffrage baseball game. The Indianapolis Athletic Association, owners of the local field, agreed to host the event as long as the WFL sold 3,000 tickets at 50 cents each.  The suffragists deemed those terms “unreasonable” and dropped the idea. Grace Julian Clarke, ardent member of both the WFL and the Federation of Clubs, urged the group to pursue a suffrage auto tour as she heard had been completed by suffragists in Wisconsin. Sara Lauter offered the use of her car for the occasion and they almost immediately put the plan into action.  What better way to reach women than to go directly to them.

Indianapolis News, June 6, 1912, 12, accessed Newspapers.com.

On June 5, the five suffragists fastened a yellow “Votes for Women” banner to the side of Lauter’s car, loaded suffrage flyers and themselves into it, and set out from Indianapolis at 9:30 a.m.  Traveling north, they left some of the flyers behind in Nora and then motored to Westfield.  A group of men and women suffragists hosted the travelers at the public library, where everyone enjoyed lunch and the Indianapolis women gave short talks about how women voters could improve the lives of mothers, working women, and everyone else. Westfield suffragists formed a new WFL branch league on the spot, with Mrs. N.O. Stanbrough named President of the new group, Anna D. Stephens named Vice President, and Lizzie Tresmire as both Secretary and Treasurer.  The enthusiastic Westfield women even offered to travel to the village of Carmel, just three or four miles to the south, to establish a branch suffrage league there. When the Indianapolis suffragists returned to their car to take their message to Noblesville, they found it decorated with peonies, roses, and lilacs.

Indianapolis News, June 6, 1912, 12, accessed Newspapers.com.

The Noblesville visit did not go as planned. The WFL suffragists had unfortunately chosen an inconvenient day for their visit. Women’s clubs did not meet in the summer and June 5 was the last meeting day of the year for two Noblesville clubs. The final day of the club season was a highlight of any club’s yearly program and not to be missed—even for a suffrage auto tour. Disappointed with the small number of women who attended the meeting at the First Presbyterian Church, but understanding the importance of the last day of the club year, WFL suffragists made the best of a bad situation. First, they promised to return the following week, and Mrs. Harry Alexander, Mrs. Walter Sanders, and Mrs. Charles Neal of Noblesville agreed to make the arrangements. Second, Clarke and Lauter took to the streets, where they distributed suffrage flyers and talked to unsuspecting shoppers and business owners around the courthouse square.  At the end of the day, the suffragists headed south to Allisonville, distributed more flyers, returned to Indianapolis around 5:00, and declared their first auto tour “a good day’s work.”

Motivated by their warm reception in Westfield and undaunted by the problems in Noblesville, suffragists chose Boone County as their next destination and traveled to Zionsville and Lebanon the following week. Hanging the “Votes for Women” banner from Mary Winter’s car, Winter, Julia Henderson, and Celeste Barnhill took on the task. The Rev. G.W. Nutter hosted the suffrage meeting at his church, the Zionsville Christian Church.  He announced his full support for women voting and asked to be allowed to join the WFL.  As had happened in Westfield, other men also attended the meeting and displayed as much support for the cause as women.  Winter and Barnhill welcomed them and noted the support the WFL received from many men.  They worried more, it seems, that some women remained indifferent to the vote. They tried to turn that indifference into support by explaining how the vote had the potential to improve the lives of all women through enactment of health and sanitation laws, regulations on child labor, and even by limiting or prohibiting the manufacture or sale of alcohol.

Indianapolis Star, June 13, 1912, 7, accessed Newspapers.com.

Leaving behind suffrage flyers in Zionsville, the women trekked to the courthouse in Lebanon for their next meeting.  This time, Mary Winter stressed that women voters could bring about the introduction of new legislation that dealt with working conditions and wages, liquor legislation, and vice regulation. She noted that women who worked in factories realized the need for the ballot more than women who did not work outside the home.  She hoped that those two groups of women would join forces and improve working and living conditions for everyone.  As with Zionsville, while the crowd expressed an interest in the cause, Boone County residents did not create a new suffrage organization.

In the end, Marshall did not get his new state constitution that would have explicitly forbidden women from voting.  He instead joined the ticket of Democratic presidential candidate Woodrow Wilson and in the November 1912 election became the Vice President of the United States.  No suffrage legislation passed out of the 1913 state legislative session.  In spite of that setback, auto tours became a standard means to reach women.  In Indianapolis, suffragists used automobiles as speaking platforms for impromptu street meetings. By standing in their cars, women were elevated enough above the crowd to clearly be seen and heard.

Indianapolis News, November 2, 1920, 13, accessed Newspapers.com.

As a sign of the success of the auto tours, street meetings, and other suffrage work, in 1917 the state legislature had granted women partial suffrage (they could vote for some state officials). After a court challenge, however, the state Supreme Court ruled the partial suffrage bill unconstitutional.  Before that ruling, suffragists, sometimes with a public notary in tow, traveled the state in cars adorned with “Votes for Women” banners to be sure that women registered to vote.  Thousands of women registered in the summer of 1917 in part because of the persistent auto tours of the WFL. The experiment of 1912 became the standard means of reaching Hoosier women and promoting suffrage in even the remotest part of the state.

On January 16, 1920, the Indiana General Assembly ratified the 19th Amendment to the federal Constitution which recognized women’s right to vote. Finally, after federal ratification, Indiana women from all walks of life, sometimes with children in tow, stood in line in the bitterly cold weather to vote on November 2, 1920. Even an automobile accident did not prevent one Indianapolis woman from voting when, after a quick trip to the hospital, a friend drove her to her polling place.  The automobile proved crucial not only in getting the vote, but to the voting booth.

Indianapolis News, November 2, 1920, 13, accessed Newspapers.com.

Further Reading:

Susan Goodier and Karen Pastorello, Women Will Vote:  Winning Suffrage in New York State (Ithaca:  Three Hills Press of Cornell University Press, 2017).

Genevieve G. McBride, On Wisconsin Women:  Working for Their Rights from Settlement to Suffrage (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993).

Eleanor Flexnor and Ellen Fitzpatrick, Century of Struggle:  The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States (Cambridge:  Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Enlarged Edition 1996).