Maud Malone: Open Air Suffrage Meetings

Bettina Borrmann Wells, from New-York Tribune (January 20, 1907)
Bettina Borrmann Wells, New-York Tribune (January 20, 1907).
by Dan Meharg

In the spring of 1907, Maud convinced her fellow members of the Harlem Equal Rights League to adopt one non-violent aspect of the radical English suffragettes: open-air meetings on street corners. She wrote “When…the Harlem Equal Rights League voted to start open air suffrage meetings, it was the idea that it was a great opportunity to present our cause to men and women who would not come to hear the question debated in public halls or private drawing rooms.”[1] Maud was interested in challenging a wide audience of men and women to begin to develop an opinion, positive or negative, about women suffrage.[2]

But who would show up with her to speak? Which fellow club members would risk their reputation to join her? Maud attempted to drag her fellow clubbers out of their hotel banquet halls and onto the streets[3] with this invitation in the New York Times on December 1907:

“The first of a series of open-air meetings will be held on Tuesday, this week. The purpose of these meetings is to focus public attention upon the question of women suffrage and so obtain signatures to the petition for the amendment to our State Constitution obtaining for women the right to suffrage… We women do not believe that we will ever succeed in this state, or elsewhere, unless we bring our agitation for women suffrage over into our public life and make it a question of the day to the great mass of men and women. We think we can do this best by the course of action which we are adopting, and our appeal will be, not to one sort of condition of men and women, but to all sorts. To reach these with the least expenditure of time, money, and labor we have decided to abandon the old methods of renting halls, with all the additional expense involved…”[4]

A ferocious debate arose in women’s clubs across New York City about whether to participate. Most everyone refused, saying that a female speaker would certainly lose everyone’s respect.[5]

Maud pushed ahead anyway. She found a location, Madison Square Park, set a date and time and found one male and two female speakers brave enough to join her. Her most important ally was English Suffragette Bettina Borrmann Wells who worked beside her to introduce English tactics to the United States.[6]

The first open air suffrage meeting on December 31, 1907 was a huge success. Over three hundred men and about ten women participated. Hundreds of signatures supporting women's suffrage were collected. Newspapermen wrote glowing reviews of the event. The mostly male audience listened to the speeches by the women and many reconsidered their opinions.[7] Maud pioneered an American version of a question and answer session with male voters. Her Q and A session used humor, sarcasm and insightful ideas about feminism to spark debate and discussion among male voters. At least one influential woman club member lingered on the outskirts of the meeting and witnessed Maud’s triumph.[8]
“The place for wimmins is in the home and to cook the dinner,” said a German in a disgusted tone.
“She can get his dinner better if she knows he had good wages to provide it,” answered Miss Malone. “Women know as much about politics as men. If you men knew politics, would you have the men in power that you have now in New York?”
“‘That’s Right’ came the voices.” Reported the journalist for the New York Times.[9]

The New York Sun included more of the back and forth:
“A woman doesn’t have to stay away all day just because she votes…she can’t spend all her time preparing dinners. Besides it isn’t necessary that all the cooking should be done by women. Look at the hotels and restaurants around here where cooking is done by men.”
“Do women know enough to vote?” asked a blond who might have been a grocer’s clerk.
“I guess they know as much as any of you men,” answered the speaker.
“How do you know?”
“Why, I can tell by looking into your faces!” snapped Miss Malone. And the cheers were all for her.” [10]

During the next few months Maud and her team attended women’s club meetings, arguing for the effectiveness of open air meetings.[11] Mirroring the British trend, women like Maud who supported more militant methods began to call themselves “suffragettes,” while those who favored collecting signatures and conducting letter writing campaigns continued to call themselves “suffragists.”[12] Both groups argued furiously about tactics, but remarkably they frequently worked together.[13] Maud often assisted both groups.[14]

[1] “Miss Malone Quits the Suffragettes” The New York Times March 27, 1908. “…In view of the fact that I have been connected with the movement in this city from the beginning, having organized the open-air meetings in Madison Square and the Sunday Parade…When a year ago, in April 1907, the Harlem Equal Rights League voted to start open air suffrage meetings, it was the idea that is was a great opportunity to present our cause to men and women who would not come to hear the question debated in public halls or private drawing rooms. Business engagements prevented us from starting open air meetings in the summer as planned. In December, however, the Harlem Equal Rights League held its first open air meeting in Madison Square.”
[2] “Maud Malone Says she is not militant” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 31, 1912 p. 4. “…Nobody can be on the fence in such a question as the suffrage. Everyone must have a conviction of some kind or other…”
[3] “Men she can’t reason with: Maud Malone’s street canvas for suffrage” The Sun [New York] December 10, 1908. “A Man who goes to a Suffragist meeting in a hall” said she, “is either a suffragist already or he goes to please some woman who is a suffragist. It is in the street meetings that you get opinions of undiluted masculinity.”
[4] “The Woman’s Suffrage Movement: To the editor of the New York Times” The New York Times December 29, 1907.
[5] “Votes for women: Suffragettes adopt English War cry- Conservatives wrathy” The New York Daily Tribune, December 29, 1907. “Mrs. Frederick Nathan, Vice President of the New York Suffrage League does not approve of the plan. ‘They do things that way in England, ‘she said, ‘but it isn’t the way for America. Our population is too heterogeneous to be moved by such methods.”
“Women Suffragists not all in harmony: Some of the leaders doubtful about the advisability of open air meetings here, one set or Tuesday next.” The New York Times December 29, 1907.
[6] “Suffrage Meeting, women are nervous” New York Tribune December 31, 1907 “Mrs. B. Boormann Wells, the English suffragette who is accused of being at the bottom of the event…”
[7] “Men she can’t reason with: Maud Malone’s street canvas for suffrage” The Sun [New York] December 10, 1908. “I always open a meeting by telling them [the men] I want to vote and as they will not come to meetings I have come to them. I say that I have a right to speak in the streets and I expect them to respect that right as I respect theirs. They listen to every word…I think we convert as many women as men by street work and they are quite important.”
[8] “Suffragettes open Campaign here: Mrs. Boorman Wells of England and Two American Women address an Open-Air Meeting, Men listeners approve” The New York Times January 1, 1908. “Miss Malone when she stood the stand called for questions and remarks…Mrs. L.C.A Volkman went among men in the audience getting signatures.”
“First gun fired, Female Revolutionists” The New York Daily Tribune January 1, 1908. “Miss Maud Malone the general of the Suffragette army, challenged the audience to ask questions.”
“Suffragist or Suffragette” The New York Times, February 29, 1908 “She has attended the open air meetings at Madison Square as a listener.”
[9] “Suffragettes open their Campaign here” The New York Times, January 1, 1908.
[10] “Hear Suffragette’s Appeal” The Sun [New York] January 1, 1908.
[11] “Women are divided on outdoor talks” The New York Times January 3, 1908.
[12] “Two Sides of Suffrage: Mrs. Wells and Mrs. Craigie for the Warlike and the Diplomatic” The Sun [New York] January 8, 1908.
[13] “Suffrage Marching On” The Sun [New York] January 3, 1909. “The suffragettes firmly believe that the renewed interest in suffrage on the part of all organizations that favor it is entirely due to the agitation which they started a year ago. The conservative associations say that it is the silent, steady work that really counts in the long run…In the meantime there is a growing tendency on the part of all the organizations to realize the value of cooperation with each other and to recognize that there are different way to accomplish the same purpose.“
[14] "Women Socialists Rebuff Suffragists," The New York Times December, 20 1909 "I don't believe in attacks on an individual woman," [Maud Malone] said. "You are taking a lower stand when you do that as was done in our recent political campaign. And the regular suffragists are not capitalists. Their interests are not distinct from those of the working woman and I am not a Socialist. The suffragists have always been kept back because of the need of money, which is a great help. You should not condemn the whole suffrage movement because a few people do not live up to the ideals. All people do not live up to the ideals. All people do not think alike. I believe in militant methods and others do not but there is no reason for disagreeing."

Part of a series of articles titled Maud Malone - New York City Librarian and Suffrage Powerhouse.

Last updated: July 5, 2019