Transcript for Indiana Women’s Suffrage: The New Day Comes Slowly
Crouch: The new day comes slowly, it is true, but none can fail to see that it approaches . . . the women who are asking for political liberty want it chiefly because it will enable them to get certain things . . . When enough women awake to the necessity of these things, then the battle will be won . . . We must reach the ‘women of the long gray streets,’ as well as . . . women of wealth and leisure. This will take time, patience, and tireless effort. A great responsibility rests upon those of us who have heard the call and have taken the yoke upon us. We have the consolation of knowing that ours is perhaps the greatest cause that has ever engaged the attention of the world – it is the cause of human liberty, which will not be attained until woman is recognized as joint partner with man in all the affairs of life.
By 1911, Indiana suffragists crackled with energy, hope, anxiety, and intention. They were a new generation of young activists determined to be the last struggling for the vote. They were peaceful, but radical, both in their demands and the innovative techniques used to gain support for their cause. They were, according to the Indianapolis News, “engaged in warfare—moral warfare—an assault on prejudice and ignorance.”
In this episode, we’ll meet the diverse suffragists who led Hoosier women’s fight for the vote during the re-invigoration of the movement starting around 1911. We’ll follow them as they organize, educate, lobby, protest, and march in the streets. And as we commemorate 100 years of women’s suffrage, we can learn from their struggle. After all, women are still fighting for equality, from equal pay to equal representation in government. And while it may be disheartening that women still haven’t secured an Equal Rights Amendment after generations of work, today’s activists can take some solace in looking to the generations that came before. Suffragists have taught the next generation to organize, agitate, lobby, and most importantly, in the words of Terre Haute suffragist Mabel Curry, they taught us: “We must be fearless.”
I’m Lindsey Beckley, and this is Talking Hoosier History.
Since 1851, Hoosiers from all backgrounds had been clearly, loudly, and bravely demanding the vote. That year, a small group of men and women held Indiana’s first Woman’s Rights Convention in Dublin, Wayne County. There, they passed resolutions that seem surprisingly modern – equal access to employment and education, equal pay for equal work, and the abolishment of laws which discriminated against women. Most importantly, they demanded “the same rights of citizenship with man,” or, simply put, they demanded suffrage.The following year they established the Indiana Woman’s Rights Association (IWRA).
Shrewd leaders emerged. In 1859, Dr. Mary Thomas became the first woman to address the Indiana General Assembly, pointing out the injustice that
Ellis reading Thomas: the law, with its ruthless hand, undertakes to ‘settle her business for her,’ when she had no voice in making that law.
Beckley: Just how frustrating that would be – working to change the laws denying your rights, but being stymied at every turn because you don’t have those very rights you’re working towards.
The Civil War gave Hoosier suffragists hope that they would finally gain their rights. They believed that their work nursing soldiers, running the farms, and raising funds for the war would force lawmakers to recognize their citizenship. They even put their suffrage work on hold to serve their country, proving their dedication to the nation. When the war ended and they were not rewarded with suffrage, they resumed the fight.
The first IWRA meeting after the Civil War, held in 1869, was also the first time historians have been able to document African American women’s participation in the state’s suffrage organizations. At the meeting one woman demanded assurance that Black voices would be included as well. The IWRA agreed. Black women would remain an essential part of the fight for suffrage, especially in Indianapolis. When Black men gained suffrage with the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870 and women were still left without the vote, disappointed Hoosier women were determined to work more directly for change.
By the 1880s, they shifted their approach to directly lobbying their representatives. Historian Anita Morgan explained that by this point, women recognized that “the path to success for suffrage was persistence and continuous pressure.” But they couldn’t have known just how long it would take to travel that path.
In 1881, it looked like all of their work lobbying and delivering impassioned speeches before the Indiana General Assembly had paid off. A women’s suffrage bill passed both the House and the Senate. Only one, seemingly small technicality stood between Hoosier women and the ballot box. At that time, bills for constitutional amendments had to pass two legislative sessions, so it would have to be brought up for another vote in 1883. Again, Indiana women wrote letters, signed petitions, delivered speeches, and lobbied their representatives, and hundreds of suffragists, both Black and white, gathered at a mass meeting in Indianapolis to make their voices heard. Despite all of this, the suffrage bill wouldn’t even get a hearing in 1883.
In what Dr. Morgan called “a clear case of political chicanery,” suffrage opponents brushed off a dusty rule that stated pending legislation must be printed in full in the House and Senate Journals before it could be voted on in the following session. The suffrage bill somehow-mysteriously-wasn’t printed in 1881 and thus couldn’t be considered in 1883. To get so close to the vote only to be unjustly thwarted was a huge blow to the movement.
Nevertheless, they persisted. Over the following decades, Indiana’s suffragists used political and legal strategies to further their cause. Hoosier women solidified partnerships with national suffrage organizations and spoke before the U.S. Congress. In 1894, Indiana women attempted to vote without a suffrage law, knowing they would be denied, in order to sue for their rights through the court system. Helen Gougar of Lafayette took her case all the way to the Indiana Supreme Court. Despite her argument for the “Constitutional Right[s] of the Women of Indiana,” in which she declared that a “right withheld is a wrong inflicted,” her appeal failed.
As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, the women’s club movement helped make suffrage more mainstream. It became increasingly clear to the highly educated clubwomen who were interested in political reform that only the vote would allow them to completely achieve their goals.
However, despite being a more mainstream idea, by the turn of the 20th century, after more than fifty years of struggle, the Indiana suffrage movement itself had stagnated. It’s not surprising that after half a century of work, some women were beginning to feel apathetic by the slow pace of change. But that wasn’t the only reason for this stagnation – the movement was also divided along ideological lines and by the strong personalities of its leaders, who clashed over goals and the methods for achieving them.
Some believed prohibition went hand in hand with suffrage in protecting women from abusive situations and loss of property. Others, including the large number of German immigrants whose cultural celebrations included beer, believed prohibition would drive many away from the cause. Some suffrage supporters thought women should first work for partial suffrage – or the right to vote in limited, local elections. Others believed full suffrage was their natural right and they would settle for nothing less. Some wanted to work for suffrage at the local and state level; others thought only an amendment to the U.S. constitution would guarantee the vote.
It’s really no surprise their views were diverse because so were suffragists. The heroes of Indiana’s suffrage movement were immigrants, African Americans, and union members. They were rich women, poor women, working women – Republicans, Democrats, Progressives, Prohibitionists, and Socialists. They were Quakers, Jews, Protestants, and Catholics. Indiana’s movement included everyone who believed that women who paid taxes, contributed to their communities, and aided in war efforts when called – women who had proved their worth as citizens time and again – deserved a say in who represented their interests.
After years of stagnation, and with a richly diverse pool of potential supporters, Indianapolis firebrands Grace Julian Clarke and Dr. Amelia Keller put a defibrillator on the weakly-beating heart of Indiana’s suffrage movement in 1911. After lobbyists failed to convince the legislature to pass partial or municipal suffrage bills, the two women recognized the need to overcome apathy and seriously mobilize, forming the Indiana Woman’s Franchise League (WFL). At the same time, Indiana’s Equal Suffrage Association (ESA) ramped up efforts to gain support for women’s enfranchisement. While the groups shared the same underlying goals, the Equal Suffrage Association embraced different tactics and audiences. Unlike the WFL, it welcomed men. It also worked more closely with labor unions and African American women, especially early in its history. Within the reinvigorated movement emerged new leaders from both groups, who embraced savvy political and promotional tactics. Suffragists, long familiar with statehouse chambers, increasingly spread their message to public squares, street corners and even the skies.
Long maligned as being militant or overbearing, the suffragists decided to generate public interest with a variety of innovative approaches throughout 1912. Among these, there were a few stand outs. The spring brought a “Funfest,” which featured peanuts, a fortune teller, and a satirical “opray,” which had even anti-suffragists laughing against their will. More importantly, it provided an influx of much-needed funding. In June, suffragists led by Grace Julian Clarke, undertook an automobile tour of Hamilton County, distributing flyers and spreading information about suffrage with fantastic results. Perhaps most innovative of all, suffragists took to the skies in May and June, flying over events in hot air balloons showering spectators with “votes for women” buttons and circulars reading,
Ellis reading circular: Women of Indiana . . . come and show that you are no longer satisfied to be ignored and that you insist in having a voice in this government.
As these tactics helped the movement grow, Hoosier reformers recognized the need to be more representative as many of Indiana’s suffragists were white and financially well-off. The Equal Suffrage Association sought new partners in the historic fight for equal rights, with association president Dr. Hannah Graham speaking to working women around the city about how the vote could help the labor cause. The diversity of the ESA was even more obvious at a meeting held in Indianapolis in the summer of 1912. There, members of over a dozen unions, representatives of Black organizations, members of various political parties, and Indianapolis Mayor Lew Shank converged to hear speeches and debate about suffrage. The argument made by African American civil rights leader Freeman Ransom, that without the ballot women were forced to pay taxes without representation, was one of the most applauded speeches of the day.
But the ESA wasn’t alone in diversifying their membership. The Woman’s Franchise League also made laboring classes a priority at its 1913 state convention. At the convention, there was the following reading of Luluabelle Kern’s “Factory Meetings and the Working Woman,” :
Ellis reading Kern: The answer is that the working woman must study the Constitution of the United States and see just where she stands. Working women are in the majority and we must get them interested in suffrage. We cannot gain the ballot without them.
Later that year, WFL member Harriet Noble spoke before attendees of the Central Labor Union’s meeting in Indianapolis. There, she implored working women to support the movement, saying that it was them who would benefit the most from the vote if it were secured.
Along with members of organized labor, suffrage groups also sought to work with those members of Indiana’s African American community who supported the cause. With these relationships forged, Dr. Graham, along with Black leaders like Freeman Ransom, helped found Indianapolis’s African American branch of the ESA, No. 7, in 1912. None other than revered Black entrepreneur, Madame C.J. Walker, hosted the branch’s first meeting at her home, where public school teacher Carrie Barnes was elected president. Of the branch’s work, Barnes proclaimed
Ellis reading Barnes: We all feel that colored women have need for the ballot that white women have, and a great many needs that they have not.
Beckley: Black suffragists hosted debates at the Senate Avenue YMCA and local African American churches and worked with white ESA branches and trade unions to forward women’s right to vote. While historians are still working to discover more about Black suffragists and their role in the movement, it’s clear that their work led to greater citizenship for women. The unlikely collaboration of Indiana’s privileged white women, laboring classes, and African American community—one which was uncommon in other Midwestern states—would help lead to the ratification of women’s suffrage.
These coalitions were needed more than ever when in 1913 Governor Thomas Marshall proposed a new, increasingly restrictive state constitution that would further cement women’s disenfranchisement.
Suffragists needed to convince the General Assembly to create equal suffrage legislation before it was too late. Despite the shared goals of the ESA and the WFL, the two groups took opposing positions during a January discussion before a legislative committee weighing a partial suffrage bill. The debate at this commission meeting was simple: should suffragists support this limited suffrage bill in hopes it would lead to more rights in the future or should they hold out for full suffrage? The ESA supported the former solution, while the WFL insisted on the latter.
This division grew fierce. ESA leader Dr. Hannah Graham was an outspoken proponent of full suffrage, but put her ideological stance aside. She felt like Hoosier women couldn’t miss the opportunity that this bill afforded. According to the Indianapolis Star, ESA members voted to support the partial suffrage bill because “such franchise is as much as can be expected at this time.” Simply put, a little suffrage was better than none and may help in winning full suffrage down the road.
WFL leaders vehemently disagreed. Digne Miller noted first that the bill would only grant this partial suffrage to women in Indianapolis and Terre Haute – more a fractional suffrage bill than a partial one. Dr. Amelia Keller expressed her fear that the bill could actually hurt the larger movement. Before the legislative committee, Dr. Keller argued:
Ellis reading Keller: If that bill goes through it will be immediately sent into the courts on protest of being unconstitutional and then when the vote for full suffrage really comes we will receive our answer, ‘O that question is now in court. Wait until that is settled and we’ll see about it then.’
Beckley: Even members of the same organization voiced their disagreement during the meeting. Prominent WFL member Belle Tutewiler broke with her WFL colleagues to support the bill. Her argument in favor of partial suffrage was to use this limited franchise to pry open the door of full suffrage. Her point may have been overshadowed by her fiery language. She called the league’s opposition “childish” and stated:
Ellis readiness Tuttewiler: It is mere child’s play to say that if we can not get all, we will take nothing. I think it would be better to take school suffrage now and use that as an entering wedge for full suffrage later.
Beckley: As the debate continued, the women’s language grew more contentious. In the midst of the discussion, Elizabeth Stanley of Liberty threw open a suitcase “scattering yards and yards of cards bearing a petition for full suffrage” and “ridiculed the idea of using school suffrage as a wedge.”
The women exchanged more heated words before the ineffective meeting was adjourned and the partial suffrage bill abandoned.
Public clashes such as these weren’t great press, and the WFL and ESA knew it. The organizations, both experienced in publicity, realized they needed to present a united front before the General Assembly. After all, both groups supported a proposed amendment to the constitution that would remove the word “male” as criteria to vote. The WFL and ESA would march to the Indiana statehouse on March 3, 1913, the same day 5,000 suffragists paraded through the nation’s capital. Five hundred Hoosier suffragists from across the state walked into the statehouse that Monday afternoon. As historian Jill Weiss Simins points out, this was not a celebratory parade, nor was it a raucous demonstration. It was a protest. The suffrage bills being considered by the General Assembly were unlikely to pass and the Senate had already rejected at least one of the pending propositions earlier in the day. The suffragists were there not because they thought any “immediate good” would come from the day’s session. Rather, hundreds of women marched into their capitol that day to make their collective power felt.
In fact, even in the unlikely event that one of the measures were to pass on that day, it had to be approved again at the next session in 1915, and then voted on in a statewide referendum in 1916 at the earliest. Hoosier suffragists had lost this battle before, celebrating the passage of suffrage bills at one session, just to be disappointed at the next. The women marching in the Indiana statehouse that day would have, if anything, been cautiously hopeful, rather than celebratory if the bill passed, because they knew passage of a bill didn’t always lead to a change in law. Their spirit would have been somber and determined.
The women were there to “work on the legislature,” to show them that suffrage was not a fringe movement, that a large number of Hoosier women demanded the vote. Decked in yellow “Votes for Women” lapel ribbons, the women walked through the statehouse, stopping to pin ribbons on a few willing lawmakers, like Governor Samuel Ralston. Most Indiana lawmakers didn’t take a ribbon, and pages mocked the women’s efforts.
Because their march was a protest, they chose to silently file first into the House and then to the Senate. Lawmakers would have to face legions of the state’s most upstanding Hoosiers before voting to continue to deny them their right as citizens. As predicted, the suffragists didn’t achieve their legislative aims, but they didaccomplish their goal in marching: they presented a united front. Even in the face of this success, suffragists were mocked as ignorant women with the Indianapolis News writing,
Clark reading from Newspaper: Although hundreds of suffragists were jammed in the senate when Senator Grube introduced to the state Constitution to allow women suffrage, no one of them seemed to realize what ‘was doing.’ No demonstrations of any sort took place.
Beckley: This claim that the women didn’t realize what was happening is preposterous. Many of these women had dedicated their life to the cause – does it seem likely that they would have been ignorant of any upcoming legislation that would lead to victory? Of course not. What’s more, the leaders of the WFL and ESA had been working with members of the General Assembly on the legislation in question. But this protest wasn’t about legislation. It was about perseverance. And they would need that perseverance. Hoosier suffragists had a long road ahead of them.
If anything, this legislative defeat galvanized the suffragists and weeks after the march, Dr. Keller stated:
Ellis reading Keller: Against this new spirit of women nothing can stand. The wave of their determination cannot be stayed by any legislature bidding it make no further progress. It will come on and on, sweeping all obstacles which attempt to bar its path.
Beckley: Once the women made their presence known in the statehouse, they were determined to make it felt constantly. In 1914, Grace Julian Clarke formed a lobbying group, the Legislative Council of Indiana Women. The council held lawmakers’ feet to the fire regarding women’s rights bills and represented 50,000 Hoosier women from various and diverse groups. Securing an office in the statehouse, suffragists worked alongside AP statehouse reporters.
Suffragists also worked to keep the issue in front of the public. Between Illinois Street and Monument Circle a bugle sounded in the spring of 1914, summoning 300 men and women. They listened, some on foot and others in cars, as Luella McWhirter read the Woman’s Declaration of Independence and the Anthony Amendment (what would become the 19th Amendment). Suffragists like Clarke used the power of the press to inform the public about women’s right to vote. Others continued to court the laboring classes, slipping pro-suffrage literature into the hands of reform-minded celebrants at Fountain Square’s May Day festivities.In 1915, Anna Dunn Noland secured the endorsement of 1,600 miners at a national convention in Indianapolis. Support for the cause seemed to be increasing daily.
In working for the right vote, women in Indiana and across the nation found their civic and political voice as never before. Decades of winning and then losing the right to vote didn’t quell their determination. It gave them a chance to hone their organizational skills, articulate the many rationales for women’s enfranchisement, and learn how to weather criticism. In the reinvigorated movement of the early 20th century empowered Hoosier suffragists enrolled in public speaking courses and hosted citizenship classes in their homes. Surely, as the audacious women pressed forward, the fear that the ballot would always be just out of reach lingered. But on the horizon was an event that would change the course of history, and the fortunes of suffragists: World War I.
In the next episode, we’ll discuss how Hoosier women clenched the long-awaited vote, in part, by leveraging war relief work.
Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History. Talking Hoosier History is produced by the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. I’d like to thank Lt. Governor Suzanne Crouch and the director of the Propylaeum Liz Ellis for lending their voices to the show. This episode was written by Nicole Politika and Jill Weiss Simins. Sound engineering by Justin Clark and production by Jill Weiss Simins. We’ll be back in two weeks with another installment of Giving Voice. Until then, find us on Faceook and twitter as the Indiana Historical Bureau and remember to like, rate, and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.
Thanks for listening.
Show Notes for Indiana Women’s Suffrage: The New Day Comes Slowly
If you’re interested in the story of Indiana’s Suffrage Movement, we highly suggest reading Dr. Anita Morgan’s book, We Must Be Fearless.
Read more about the suffrage movement in Indiana with the Indiana History Blog.
Indianapolis News, June 10, 1913, 5.
Indianapolis News, May 2, 1913, 23.
Indianapolis Star, May 2, 1914, 5.
Jill Weiss Simins, “A Silent Roar: Indiana Suffragists’ 1913 March to the Statehouse,” Indiana History Blog.
Jill Weiss Simins, ”Suffrage Up in the Air:” The Equal Suffrage Association’s 1912 Publicity Campaign,” Indiana History Blog.
Anita Morgan, “We Must Be Fearless”: The Woman Suffrage Movement in Indiana, IHS Press, Indianapolis, Indiana, 2020.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan Brownell Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, History of Woman Suffrage, Volume 6, Susan B. Anthony, 1922.