The 19th Amendment and Bryn Mawr College
On the centennial anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, the Bulletin honors the persistence and courage of the Mawrters who fought for the right to vote—even as we acknowledge those who have been written out of the history. Today’s Mawrters celebrate progress made and dedicate themselves to supporting present and future generations who are destined to claim goals not yet imagined.
Bryn Mawr first opened its doors in 1885—58 years after the history-making Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, the first convention to explore the civil, social, and religious rights of women. When it ended three days later, the long, arduous campaign to secure the vote for women had been launched. Bryn Mawr College officially committed to the Woman’s Suffrage Movement in 1908, when M. Carey Thomas accepted the presidency of the National College Equal Suffrage League (NCESL), an affiliate group of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Even before the College joined the movement, “members of the earliest Bryn Mawr classes were officers at all levels of NAWSA and its affiliates. [They] gave speeches, sold suffrage newspapers, helped with canvassing, marched in parades, and raised money for the cause.” [Dedicated to the Cause: Bryn Mawr Women and the Right to Vote.]
Many were featured in the 2003 exhibit, Dedicated to the Cause: Bryn Mawr Women and the Right to Vote. They include Katharine Martha Houghton Hepburn, Class of 1899 (mother of actress Katharine Hepburn ’28), co-founder of the Hartford Equal Franchise League and later president of the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association, an affiliate of NAWSA. By 1917, she was a member of the National Executive Committee of the National Woman’s Party. Her older sister, Edith Houghton Hooker, Class of 1901, founded the Just Government League of Maryland and started the Maryland Suffrage News. She later worked for The Suffragist, the official newspaper of the National Woman’s Party. Caroline McCormick Slade, Class of 1896, was a trustee of the College Equal Suffrage League as an alumna in 1912 and became chairman of the Woman Suffrage Party of New York City in 1917. Margaret Stewart Dietrich, Class of 1903, in Nebraska; Anne B. Lawther, Class of 1897, in Iowa; and Mary T.R. Foulke Morrisson, Class of 1899, in Chicago and later Connecticut, all continued to participate in women’s suffrage organizations for years after they graduated.
Ignited by Suffrage
It was Mary Elizabeth Garrett, Thomas’ lifelong companion, who was really “ignited by suffrage.” She, the quiet revolutionary, pushed Thomas for years to play a significant role in the suffrage movement. Garrett, heiress to the B&O Railroad fortune, though certainly well-educated by any standard, had been denied the education she longed for, and for years she was forced to fight her brothers and the courts in order to gain full control over her finances. In the movement, she saw an opportunity to correct some of the societal wrongs that she had had to endure simply because she had been born a woman. Her eagerness to be involved in the suffrage movement may also have been fueled by her belief that it was central to the mission of Bryn Mawr College to encourage the intellectual and financial independence of the young women in its charge. In an 1894 letter to Thomas, Garrett wrote:
“ I am more and more convicted and conscience-stricken over doing absolutely nothing in connection to Woman Suffrage, when it is so essential to the accomplishment of everything, we have most at heart. I wish I could think of something ... .” [Sanders, Kathleen Waters. Mary Elizabeth Garrett: Society and Philanthropy in the Gilded Age, p. 238.]
Initially, Thomas resisted attaching herself to the movement because she thought it was disorganized, rowdy, and was composed of too many women whose worldview did not match her own. More and more women were entering the workforce and were subject to rules and policies over which they had neither agency nor redress. Interest in and enthusiasm for suffrage organizations grew among this demographic. Garrett’s enthusiasm eventually persuaded Thomas that she and, by extension, the young women at Bryn Mawr must take their rightful place in the fight.
It would take more than a decade before a satisfactory entry point presented itself. At about the same time (1900), Maud Wood Park (Radcliffe Class of 1898) and Inez Haynes Irwin founded the College Equal Suffrage League (CESL) in Boston with the intent of recruiting and educating a younger generation who would, in time, begin to take on more and more responsibilities within the organization. Largely due to the efforts of Park and Irwin, CESL chapters organized in 30 states in a matter of a few years. At the 1908 NAWSA convention, which Garrett and Thomas helped to plan and which was hosted in large part at the Garrett Baltimore estate, the state chapters formed the National College Equality League with Thomas as its president and Park as vice president. Garrett, then director of the College, became treasurer, and Marion Reilly, dean of the College, served as chairperson of its membership committee. The role of NCESL was to educate, motivate, and activate the next generation of women on the importance of being participants in broad-based economic and political equality and social reform.
The 1908 Convention would be Susan B. Anthony’s last, and the thing she wanted most was $60,000, which she felt would allow her life’s work to continue and permit her to step away from the constant travel and fundraising efforts that had consumed her later years. Garrett and Thomas, through donations from their financially well-situated friends, raised the funds in three days. Thomas’ undisputed stature as an educator and administrator and Garrett’s wealth and family status positioned them well to lead the NCESL in this newly defined era. They were a perfect team to shape the “New Women” who would push the movement to its final goal.
Through the diaries of Mary Whitall Worthington, Class of 1910, the favorite niece of Thomas and a prolific diarist who was thoroughly enamored of the suffrage movement, we get a peek into student involvement on campus. Her enthusiasm was such that one of her diary entries read simply: “There is nothing practical for a suffragist to do in college except just be a suffragist.” [Worthington, Mary Withall. Diaries. 1910. 20.3.] When Worthington graduated in 1910, nearly one-third of the 337 undergraduate population considered themselves CESL members. Students—and sometimes faculty—wrote and performed plays, participated in mock marches and debates, marched in College Day parades sponsored by NCESL/NAWSA and often held in D.C., hosted teas for campus lecturers, and were front and center for the highly publicized March 13, 1913, march on Washington. They would be among the 5,000 participants at that march. Delegations from all of the Seven Sister institutions were present.
A Who's Who of the Movement
With Thomas and Garrett’s new responsibilities came prestige within the movement, and prominent personalities, both pro-suffrage and anti [referred to as Antis], were eager to accept an invitation to speak at the College. “When Jane Addams came to speak in 1908, the chapel was overflowing … and interest in the question [of enfranchisement] grew even stronger.” [The College News. 1918 v.3, no. 20, p. 21.] That Bryn Mawr had its own CESL chapter, that Thomas was an eminent scholar and administrator, and that Susan B. Anthony had visited campus in 1902, meant that the most renowned speakers were eager to come to Bryn Mawr. Every NAWSA president other than Elizabeth Cady Stanton visited between 1910 and 1921, as did many British pro-vote leaders, both male and female, and even the most notorious of British radical suffragists. Their visits and the chapter’s activities were reported in campus publications, particularly the Alumnae Quarterly, and discussed in alumnae club meetings. Bryn Mawr was recognized as the most active of the CESL chapters. One can only imagine how this frequent and close contact with prominent speakers in the suffrage movement affected students. The list of pro-suffrage speakers to visit the campus reads like a Who’s Who in the suffrage movement:
Carrie Chapman Catt (1859–1947), president of NAWSA when the amendment was ratified, first spoke at Bryn Mawr in 1921, when she gave the first set of lectures in honor of Anna Howard Shaw. To launch the series, Thomas arranged to have Catt address the campus in five large and lavish meetings in the gymnasium (now the Campus Center). Maud Wood Park (1871–1955), founder of NCESL, started branches in 30 states and is credited with inspiring the establishment of Bryn Mawr’s chapter during her campus lecture in the spring of 1907. Antoinette Funk (1873–1942), an attorney from Chicago and executive secretary of the Congressional Committee of NAWSA, came several times. Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935), considered a radical feminist, spoke to the Bryn Mawr campus on women and democracy in 1911 and again in 1915 on women and economics. Jane Addams (1860–1935) spoke at the College many times, including as a lecturer during part of the Shaw series of lectures. In her first year as president of NCESL, Thomas organized a speaking tour for Addams, who had a national reputation for being “the” person to recruit students. Early in Addams’ lecture tour, Thomas wrote to express her gratitude:
"We receive from every quarter unanimous testimony to the conviction you brought home to your hearers. People who have been unwilling to consider the subject before are now warm believers in it. One of your most important disciples is now Professor Vida Scudder of Wellesley. After your address at Bryn Mawr, 29 students who had been unconvinced capitulated; and it has been so everywhere. Miss Garrett and I are delighted with the results." [Thomas, M. Carey. Letters.]
There were not as many anti-suffrage speakers invited to campus, but there were some. Marjorie Dorman, a well-known Anti, spoke on the economic burden of double suffrage on March 13, 1917. She declared that a “woman’s service is to society … not Government.” [Offerings to Athena: 125 Years at Bryn Mawr College. p. 70.] In keeping with the philosophy of the national anti-suffrage organization, her stance was that if women won the vote, they would be responsible for the demise of the American family, and that they wielded more power through their husbands and fathers than they ever could voting individually or in blocs.
Written Out of the Story
As we celebrate the centennial anniversary of this historic milestone and pay homage to the exceptional women (and men) who led the struggle, when we turn an honest eye on the period, we see that for all their persistence, courage, and passion, they were also imperfect.
The period was replete with racism. In Helen Horowitz’s The Power and Passion of M. Carey Thomas, she points out that Thomas was known to be an acolyte of Charlotte Perkins-Gilman, a published eugenicist whose 1898 book, Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution was read and praised by Thomas. The theory that, by virtue of evolution, some cultures were more suited to learning than others was used as a mask for racism. Thomas was not above “[using] racial categories and racial arguments of contemporary eugenicists to explain and solidify [her] revulsion” [Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz. The Power and Passion of M. Carey Thomas, p. 382.] for anyone who did not look like her. This meant anyone who could not trace their family ancestry to a Western European country. Members of the African and Asian races and Jews were without genetic redemption. This sentiment was shared by many scholars and early leaders in the suffrage movement and is credited in large part as the reason that “colored women” were not welcomed under the woman suffrage tent after 1894. Their exclusion was explained as making it easier for NAWSA to embrace their white Southern sisters.
As far back as Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, African American women were involved in abolitionist work, temperance, and education movements as well as various other social justice issues related to their communities and relevant to the suffrage. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825–1911) joined the American Anti-Slavery Society and became one of the best traveling lecturers for anti-slavery, temperance, and women’s suffrage of her day. Gertrude Bustill Mossell (1855–1948) was from a prominent Philadelphia family. She was a professional journalist and wrote a woman’s column for The New York Freeman. She was also herself a middle-class housewife and feminist.
Mary Church Terrell (1863–1954), writer, suffragist, and civil rights activist, as well as a prime mover among Black women suffragists and club women of the 20th century, was the first president of the National Association of College Women, which became the National Association of University Women. She was a member of NAWSA for years, but during the 1913 march on Washington, she, along with members of the other African American groups, were asked to march in the back of the procession rather than with their state delegation as their white peers did. She complied and marched with the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority from Howard University. Shortly after the march, Terrell resigned from NAWSA. She continued to represent African American woman at conferences and conventions throughout her life.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862–1931) cut her journalistic teeth investigating lynching throughout the South. She was also a newspaper editor, suffragist, and civil rights leader, as well as an active member of NAWSA. She traveled to D.C. with her Chicago colleagues for the 1913 march. When she was asked to march at the back of the procession, she initially stood to the side, but as her delegation from Chicago walked by, she left her position on the sidewalk, joined arms with the white delegates with whom she had traveled, and finished the march with the delegation from Illinois. She too left NAWSA shortly after but continued to lead the Alpha Suffrage Club for African American Women and to work for the vote and other social justice issues.
Charlotte Forten Grimké (1837–1914), originally from Philadelphia, was raised in a family of abolitionists and activists. She was a poet and author, an educator of freedmen, an abolitionist, and a suffragist who helped start the National Association of Colored Women in 1896 and was affiliated with NAWSA for many years. Her mother, Mary Virginia Wood; paternal aunts Margaretta Forten, Sarah Forten Purvis, and Harriet Forten Purvis; and grandmother Charlotte Vandine Forten were founding members of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. Her husband, Francis James Grimké, was the son of Henry Grimké, a white slaveholder from South Carolina, and Nancy Weston, an enslaved biracial woman. Henry’s sisters, Sarah and Angelina Grimké—the Grimké sisters—were active abolitionists and supporters of women’s suffrage.
Charlotté’s aunts, Margaretta and Harriet, along with Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) were strong proponents of “universal suffrage,” which posed a philosophical difference with most of their white colleagues. Charlotte was the personal tutor of her niece, Angelina Weld-Grimké (1880–1958), and her niece’s friend Anna Julia Cooper (1858–1964), one of the first African American women to earn a Ph.D., a prominent educator and feminist, and founder and first president of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. The Forten and Grimké family—one of the only mergers of a Northern activist family and a Southern slaveholding clan—lent their combined legacies to abolition, suffrage, and feminism. The list of African American women involved in the suffrage movement is long and filled with names that were less well-known until recently but no less instrumental in the long campaign to gain the franchise for themselves, their communities, and all citizens. Their names do not appear in the six-volume History of Women’s Suffrage, written by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1881). In spite of the 15th Amendment, which technically gave African American men the right to vote, it was not until the Voting Rights Acts of 1965 that African Americans were fully, truly enfranchised.