Woman Suffrage in New England

Lucy Stone from the Library of Congress
Figure 1. Lucy Stone of Massachusetts, November 1853. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
By Heather Munro Prescott

Although many histories of woman suffrage use the 1848 convention in Seneca Falls, New York as a starting point for the movement, New York State was not the only place women fought for the right to vote during the mid-nineteenth century. Women and men from the New England states of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island also mobilized for women’s rights in the 1840s. Because Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s history of the suffrage movement emphasized Seneca Falls and downplayed or even left out suffragists from other parts of the country, the significance of the New England region in the national suffrage campaign has been neglected.[1] An examination of the history of woman suffrage in New England not only uncovers examples of critical suffrage activism on the state and local level, it demonstrates how suffragists from the region helped build the suffrage cause into a national movement.

As in other parts of the country, the women’s rights movement in New England grew out of efforts to abolish slavery. In 1837, noted female abolitionists Angelina and Sarah Grimké toured New England and staunchly defended a woman’s right to speak out against slavery in public. The Grimké sisters persuaded women and men from the region to join the fight against slavery and inspired a small number of New England women to use the abolitionist cause as a platform for advancing the rights of women.[2]

New England’s most notable early suffragist was Lucy Stone of Massachusetts. Ten years after the Grimké’s toured the region, Stone delivered her first lecture on behalf of women’s rights at her brother’s church in Gardner, Massachusetts. Soon after, she moved to Boston to begin a position as a paid lecturer for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Stone enraged some audiences by daring to criticize women’s lack of rights alongside her condemnation of slavery. Declaring, “I was a woman before I was an abolitionist,” Stone defended her actions.[3] Stone’s renown as a speaker soon extended beyond New England. Following the 1848 women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, Elizabeth Cady Stanton suggested that convention organizers enlist Stone as a national lecturer on women’s rights. Although no one took up this proposition, Stone, along with Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, soon became among the most prominent suffrage leaders in the country.[4] (Figure 1)

In 1850, Stone and several other New England women, including Abby Kelley Foster of Massachusetts and Paulina Wright Davis of Rhode Island, organized the first national women’s rights convention in Worcester, Massachusetts, to see if they could generate support for suffrage around the country. Nearly one thousand men and women from eleven states attended. All but two of the attendees were native-born, white Protestants. The exceptions were Sojourner Truth, a former slave and prominent abolitionist, and Ernestine Rose, a Jewish immigrant from Poland. In an impassioned speech, Foster declared women had the same duty to rise up against tyranny as their ancestors had against King George III. In 1851, another national convention held in Worcester drew an even larger audience.[5] These meetings, along with lectures by Stone and other suffrage leaders, inspired women throughout the nation to organize their own local efforts on behalf of women’s rights.[6]

Like their counterparts elsewhere, women’s rights activists in New England put their cause on hold during the Civil War. After the war, they resumed their activism and began planning the formation of a regional suffrage organization. In 1868, they founded the New England Woman Suffrage Association (NEWSA), naming noted poet and author Julia Ward Howe, best known for writing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” president, and Lucy Stone a member of the executive committee. Other founding members included Paulina Wright Davis of Rhode Island and Isabelle Beecher Hooker of Connecticut.[7]

The NEWSA soon became embroiled in the national debate over the Fifteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which would prohibit denying the franchise based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” One of the founders of the NEWSA, Olympia Brown, favored Anthony and Stanton’s insistence that woman suffrage be pursued alongside the enfranchisement of African American men. But Howe declared she would not demand the vote for herself until the freedman first obtained that right. Stone, while disagreeing with Frederick Douglass’s claim that “the cause of the negro was more pressing than that of woman’s,” nevertheless agreed that Black male suffrage should come first.[8]
margaret foley distributing suffrage news. Coll. Library of Congress
Figure 2. Massachusetts suffragist Margaret Foley distributing the Woman’s Journal and Suffrage News in Boston, November 1913. The Woman’s Journal was the official organ of the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The NEWSA formed the basis of the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), founded in 1869 as an alternative to the National Women’s Suffrage Association (NWSA) led by Stanton and Anthony. Unlike the NWSA, the AWSA protested both gender-based and race-based discrimination and prioritized the struggle for Black male suffrage. In order to avoid putting the fight for woman suffrage in direct conflict with Black suffrage, the AWSA abandoned efforts to include woman suffrage in the same constitutional amendment as Black suffrage. Instead, it focused its efforts on changing state laws that prohibited women from voting. Only when Black men had the right to vote would the AWSA seek a separate constitutional amendment for woman suffrage.[9]

This schism between the AWSA and the NWSA continued even after passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870. The two organizations disagreed primarily over political strategies. The NWSA insisted that an amendment to the US Constitution was the best way to achieve woman suffrage. The AWSA, on the other hand, argued that Congress would not support woman suffrage until a critical number of states had granted women the right to vote. The AWSA encouraged the growth of state organizations that would campaign for woman suffrage on a state-by-state basis. Stone and her husband, Henry Blackwell, also created the weekly newspaper the Woman’s Journal, which served as the AWSA’s the principal means of communicating with affiliated state organizations.[10]

Stanton and Anthony considered the state-based tactic foolhardy: leaving woman suffrage to the states, Stanton argued, would “defer indefinitely its settlement.”[11] Nevertheless, most women from New England agreed with the AWSA strategy and formed their own state organizations to pressure their respective legislatures to extend the vote to women. Since most New Englanders considered the education of children and youth to be within women’s proper sphere, New England suffrage activists were most successful in campaigns for school suffrage and for the right of women to sit on school boards and to elect its members. New Hampshire was the first to approve school suffrage for women, in 1878, followed by the other New England states in the next few years.[12]

New England suffragists used the argument of “social housekeeping”—that women would clean up urban politics and social ills—to make a case for allowing women to vote in municipal elections. Frequently these campaigns for municipal suffrage drew on anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic bigotry. In Massachusetts, for example, anti-immigrant Republican men believed that native-born Protestant women would be more likely to vote than Catholic women, who would be discouraged from voting by their husbands. Thus, woman suffrage would save the state from “rum and Romanism” by diluting the Catholic vote and promoting the cause of temperance. Despite these appeals, the Republican Party as a whole did not support municipal suffrage for women. The Democratic Party, especially its Irish Catholic wing, which linked woman suffrage to nativism, temperance, and anti-family radicalism, also opposed enfranchising women.[13]

Vermont was the only New England state to grant women the right to vote in municipal elections. The municipal suffrage campaign in the Green Mountain State was successful largely because, as a rural state, Vermont lacked a sizable urban immigrant population to mount an anti-suffrage attack. On the other hand, the temperance movement, considered an appropriate political cause for women to embrace, was extremely popular in the state. Vermont suffragists convinced state legislators that female voters would help make the state dry. In 1917, the Vermont state legislature approved granting women the right to vote in municipal elections.[14]

The work of New England suffragists eventually contributed to a rapprochement between the AWSA and the NWSA. Lucy Stone’s daughter, Alice Stone Blackwell, was instrumental in unifying the competing national suffrage organizations. Negotiations between Blackwell, representing the AWSA, and Rachel Foster, of the NWSA, led to the formation of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in 1890. The new organization elected Stanton president, Anthony vice president, Stone chair of executive committee, and Blackwell corresponding secretary. The Woman’s Journal became NAWSA’s official publication and remained based in Boston. NAWSA retained the AWSA strategy of campaigning for woman suffrage on a state-by-state basis. (Figure 2) Although this tactic had limited success in New England, it led to a number of suffrage victories in the far and middle West. This strategy also reinvigorated state and regional suffrage organizations in New England and other areas of the country.[15]

Julia Ward Howe expressed concern that the merger would lead to the abandonment of the AWSA’s commitment to racial equality. Howe’s fears proved correct: NAWSA dedicated itself solely to woman suffrage. It also adopted a racist and nativist strategy of “educated suffrage,” which argued that educated, usually white and native-born women were more deserving of the vote than “ignorant” Black and immigrant men. Although educated suffrage could, theoretically, include the small number of educated Black women in the country, white suffrage organizations excluded or marginalized Black women.[16]

During the 1890s, middle-class Black women founded their own organizations dedicated to fighting both gender and race discrimination. Among the leaders in this endeavor was Josephine Ruffin of Boston, founder of the city’s Woman’s Era Club and the monthly newsletter the Woman’s Era, dedicated to providing a venue for “intercourse and sympathy” for women of all races but especially “the educated and refined, among the colored women.” The pages of the Woman’s Era expressed strong support for Ida B. Wells’s campaign against lynching and chastised NAWSA for its tacit support of white supremacy. In 1895, the Woman’s Era Club organized a convention in Boston for representatives from Black women’s clubs around the nation. Attendees created the Federation of African-American Women, forerunner of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). The NACW established a woman suffrage department to educate members about the suffrage cause, but it received no support from NAWSA, which continued its policy of ignoring and refusing aid to Black suffragists.[17]
Catherine Flanagan arrested. Coll Library of Congress
Figure 3. Connecticut suffragist Catherine M. Flanagan (left) being arrested for picketing the White House East Gate, August 17, 1917. Flanagan and other picketers were sentenced to 30 days in Occoquan Workhouse. The banner reads “How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?"

Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

NAWSA and its regional affiliates did reach out to white working-class women in an effort to expand its membership and win the support of white working-class male voters. This cross-class alliance was epitomized by the creation of the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) at the American Federation of Labor’s national convention in Boston in 1903. The WTUL elected Mary Morton Kimbell Kehew, a wealthy woman from Boston and descendant of a former Massachusetts governor, president and Mary Kenney O’Sullivan, an Irish Catholic labor organizer and resident of Denison Settlement house in Boston, secretary and first vice president. O’Sullivan’s leadership was instrumental in persuading working-class men to support the suffrage cause. The WTUL, dedicated to improving pay and working conditions for women workers, served as an umbrella organization for other women’s trade unions. Its goals aligned perfectly with the social housekeeping mission of the mainstream suffrage movement. The WTUL established a suffrage department in 1908 and urged working women and their male allies to attend suffrage rallies.[18]

During the 1910s, some suffragists renewed demands for a federal amendment to the US Constitution granting women the right to vote. In 1913, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns took over the Congressional Committee of NAWSA, which they renamed the Congressional Union. Paul and Burns soon alienated NAWSA with their militant tactics. Most egregious was their proposal to campaign against Democratic candidates in the western states in order to pressure Congress and President Woodrow Wilson into supporting the suffrage amendment. NAWSA expelled the Congressional Union from the organization in 1914, and Burns and Paul formed the National Woman’s Party in 1916.[19]

The National Woman’s Party had local chapters in all of the New England states except Vermont. It is unclear why Vermont did not have a chapter, but it is likely that the population of the state was too small to accommodate two suffrage organizations. Members of the state chapters of the National Woman’s Party sent representatives to Washington to lobby Congress to pass the federal suffrage amendment and participated in the various parades and demonstrations organized by the National Woman’s Party, including the pickets of the White House during 1918 and 1919. Thirty suffragists from New England were charged with “obstructing traffic” and sentenced to prison where they endured deplorable living conditions and mistreatment by guards.[20] (Figure 3)

Katherine Houghton Hepburn, president of the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association (CWSA), disagreed with the tactics of the NWP but also praised its dedication to the suffrage cause. In an interview with the Hartford Courant, Hepburn expressed her support for Catharine Flanagan, who was arrested in August 1917: “I admire Mrs. Flanagan very much for being willing to go to jail for her convictions. It is more than most people could conceive of doing for an ideal.”[21] This was markedly different from the position of NAWSA, which denounced the picketers as un-American and threw its support behind President Wilson and the war effort. When NAWSA refused to condemn the horrific treatment of suffragists in prison, several leaders of the CWSA, including Hepburn, resigned from their offices in protest.[22]

The work of suffragists on the local and national level paid off. After President Wilson urged Congress in 1918 to support woman suffrage as a war measure, suffragists around the country lobbied intensively to persuade their representatives and senators to follow through and pass a suffrage amendment. On January 10, 1918, Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin of Montana introduced the Nineteenth Amendment on the floor of the House of Representatives. The House passed the amendment the same day 274–136, just over the two-thirds majority required. The Senate voted the following day but fell two votes short of the necessary two-thirds. Although the majority of Republican senators voted in favor of the amendment, the Republican senators from Massachusetts—Henry Cabot Lodge and John Weeks—voted no. NAWSA and the National Woman’s Party joined forces to target Weeks and three other senators who had voted against the amendment for defeat in the November 1918 election. The efforts of the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association contributed to the unseating of Weeks, who was replaced by Democrat David Walsh, a former governor and the first Democratic senator elected from Massachusetts in over a century. The following year, Senator Lodge attempted to delay a vote on the suffrage amendment on procedural grounds but failed. On June 4, 1919, the Senate passed the amendment, sending it to the states for ratification.[23]

Four of the New England states contributed directly to ratifying the Nineteenth Amendment. Massachusetts was the eighth state in the nation to do so, in 1919, followed by New Hampshire and Maine the same year, and Rhode Island in 1920. Although Connecticut and Vermont were the thirty-seventh and thirty-eighth states to ratify the amendment, these actions proved critical when the validity of the Tennessee and West Virginia votes were challenged in court. Plaintiff Oscar Leser sued the state of Maryland to prevent two women from voting in Baltimore, charging, among other things, that the state legislatures in Tennessee and West Virginia had violated their rules of procedure in adopting the Nineteenth Amendment. In Leser v. Garnett, the US Supreme Court declared this point was moot: since Connecticut and Vermont had ratified the amendment, the amendment had been ratified by enough states to become “valid to all intents and purposes as part of the Constitution of the United States.”[24]

Although New England suffragists had limited success in gaining votes for women in their respective states, their political skills were critical in the push for a federal amendment to the US Constitution. Their story complicates the canonical history of woman suffrage that focuses on Seneca Falls. Several nationally prominent suffrage leaders hailed from the New England states, and the first two national women’s rights conventions were held in Worcester, Massachusetts. From the mid-nineteenth century through to 1920, New England suffragists fought tirelessly for votes for women on the both the state and national level.
Heather Munro Prescott is professor of history at Central Connecticut State University. Her research and teaching interests include US women’s history, history of medicine and public health, and the history of childhood and youth. Her first book, A Doctor of Their Own: The History of Adolescent Medicine (Harvard, 1998), received the Will Solimene Award of Excellence in Medical Communication from the New England Chapter, American Medical Writers Association. Her most recent book is The Morning After: A History of Emergency Contraception in the United States (Rutgers, 2011).
[1] Lisa Tetrault, The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848–1898 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).
[2] Barbara F. Berenson, Massachusetts in the Woman Suffrage Movement: Revolutionary Reformers (Charleston, SC: History Press, 2018), 21–22.
[3] Andrea Moore Kerr, Lucy Stone: Speaking Out for Equality (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992), 52.
[4] Berenson, Massachusetts in the Woman Suffrage Movement, 34.
[5] Berenson, Massachusetts in the Woman Suffrage Movement, 34–37.
[6] Ellen Carol DuBois, Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women’s Movement in America, 1848-1869 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978), 49–50.
[7] Carole Nichols, Votes and More for Women: Suffrage and After in Connecticut (New York: Haworth Press, Inc., 1983), 6.
[8] DuBois, Feminism and Suffrage, 164–169.
[9] DuBois, Feminism and Suffrage, 195–196.
[10] Berenson, Massachusetts in the Woman Suffrage Movement, 13.
[11] DuBois, Feminism and Suffrage, 170.
[12] Edmond B. Thomas Jr., “School Suffrage and the Campaign for Women’s Suffrage in Massachusetts, 1879–1920,” Historical Journal of Massachusetts 25, no. 1 (Winter 1997): 3.
[13] Berenson, Massachusetts in the Woman Suffrage Movement,78–81.
[14] Deborah P. Clifford, “The Drive for Women’s Municipal Suffrage in Vermont, 1883–1917,” Vermont History 47, no. 3 (Summer 1979): 173–190.
[15] Berenson, Massachusetts in the Woman Suffrage Movement, 87–89.
[16] Berenson, Massachusetts in the Woman Suffrage Movement, 83–88.
[17] Berenson, Massachusetts in the Woman Suffrage Movement, 106–108.
[18] Berenson, Massachusetts in the Woman Suffrage Movement, 103–106.
[19] Eleanor Flexner, Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States (1959; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980), 174–175.
[20] Doris Stevens, Jailed for Freedom (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920), 354–371.
[21] “Mrs. Flanagan’s Vacation Now up to President Wilson,” Hartford Courant, August 20, 1917, 1.
[22] Nichols, Votes and More for Women, 18–19.
[23] Berenson, Massachusetts in the Woman Suffrage Movement, 155–159.
[24] Christopher A. Anzalone, ed., Supreme Court Cases on Gender and Sexual Equality (New York: Routledge, 2015), 17.

Anzalone Christopher A., ed. Supreme Court Cases on Gender and Sexual Equality. New York: Routledge, 2015.

Berenson, Barbara F. Massachusetts in the Woman Suffrage Movement: Revolutionary Reformers. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2018.

Clifford, Deborah P. “The Drive for Women’s Municipal Suffrage in Vermont, 1883–1917.” Vermont History 47, no. 3 (Summer 1979): 173–190.

DuBois, Ellen Carol. Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women’s Movement in America, 1848–1869. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978.

Flexner, Eleanor. Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States. 1959. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Kerr, Andrea Moore. Lucy Stone: Speaking Out for Equality. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992.

Nichols, Carole. Votes and More for Women: Suffrage and After in Connecticut. New York: Haworth Press, Inc., 1983.

Stevens, Doris. Jailed for Freedom. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920.

Tetrault, Lisa. The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848–1898. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

Thomas, Edmond B. Jr. “School Suffrage and the Campaign for Women’s Suffrage in Massachusetts, 1879–1920.” Historical Journal of Massachusetts 25, no. 1 (Winter 1997): 1–17.

Part of a series of articles titled The 19th Amendment and Women's Access to the Vote Across America.

Last updated: December 10, 2020