Of all signers of the 1848 Declaration of Sentiments, only Rhoda Palmer lived to vote, not in 1920 as a result of the nineteenth amendment, but in 1918, when New York State passed its own woman suffrage law. Palmer's vote was the culmination of a long-time dream, the fulfillment of ideals of equality that she had developed from her earliest years as a Quaker, an abolitionist, and a woman' rights advocate.
Rhoda Palmer was born on June 25, 1816, the seventh of nine children born to Asa Palmer and Abigail Wooden Palmer in a house built by her father on Lyons Road, two miles north of Geneva, New York. Her father was a farmer, born in Rhode Island. Her mother came from Orange County, New York.
By 1850, neither rich nor poor, they had acquired land, livestock, tools and buildings worth about $3500. When she was still a little girl, people still lived in traditional ways. They used animals for power and wood for fuel. Women still made cloth at home. Native Americans were still very much a presence among white settlers. They would often camp in the area around her house. She would visit their homes, and they would visit hers. One night, four Indian women and a child slept all night on their kitchen floor. No railroads or canals had yet been completed through New York State. Only stage coaches, horses and wagons, drovers with cattle, sheep, and pigs came through the toll gates on the Seneca Turnpike. The tradition of the American Revolution was still very much alive. Some men still wore their hair in long braids down their back, in the style of the eighteenth century. And Rhoda's own grandfather, one of the first white settlers in the Geneva area, remained a cripple all his life from wounds he received as a soldier in the Revolution.
As a teenager, Rhoda Palmer saw her world expand. She attended the young ladies' seminary in Geneva. She saw the launching of the first steamboat, the Seneca Chief, on Seneca Lake. The Erie Canal had been finished in 1825. In the summer of 1836, when she was twenty-one years old, she traveled to Chicago, then a small town of only 6000 people. She took the Erie Canal to Buffalo and rode steamboats on the Great Lakes. She saw Niagara Falls for the first time in 1840, and she traveled widely to Philadelphia, New York, New England, and the upper Midwest.
All her life, Rhoda Palmer was influenced by ideals of equality, rooted in the religious tradition of the Society of Friends. Although she was not a birthright Friend (her parents had joined Junius Monthly Meeting in 1817 and 1818, after Rhoda's birth), and she never officially joined a Quaker meeting, she always considered herself a Quaker, and she regularly attended Junius Monthly Meeting. Her egalitarian religious beliefs remained important to her to the end of her life. Even as an old lady, she was proud to claim descent from Roger Williams, one of the great architects of the ideal of religious freedom. In the seventeenth century, Roger Williams founded Rhode Island, where Quakers, Jews, Baptists, and others unwelcome in Massachusetts Bay could take refuge. As a Quaker at Junius Monthly Meeting, she met the M'Clintocks, the Priors, the Bonnels, and other strong advocates for abolitionism and women's rights. She and her family promoted these values in their own lives. Her father, she remembered, "was a great anti-slavery man," and they hosted self-emancipated slaves who came through their home on their way to Lake Ontario and Canada. She also heard Sojourner Truth and other abolitionist lecturers.
In 1848, she attended the Geneva Medical College's commencement ceremony, and there she saw the first woman (Elizabeth Blackwell) as well as the first Native American (Peter Wilson, a Seneca) graduate from medical school. Through this Quaker-abolitionist network, she learned about the proposed convention to discuss the "social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women" at Seneca Falls. Many years later, in 1915, when she was 99 years old, Rhoda Palmer wrote one of the few eye-witness accounts of that meeting.
It was largely attended," she remembered. "There was a society of Quakers (or friends as they called themselves) living in the town of Waterloo nearby. I think without exception every member was present. . . . The session lasted two days. Myself and father, Asa Palmer, attended it. Had an enjoyable time, excepting one little incident. Our carriage broke down on our way home, and we were obliged to stay over night on the road.
Rhoda Palmer never wavered in her commitment to woman's rights. Through her travels, she connected local efforts to national reform. In 1853, she attended a convention in New York City, where abolitionists, woman's rights advocates, and temperance reformers all gathered. There she listened to such famous abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and Wendall Phillips. She remembered Ernestine Rose, born a Polish Jew, whose broken English made her the target for ridicule from young men in the audience. Palmer was especially impressed with Lucretia Mott. When Mott faced a long harangue from a man who believed, with St. Paul, that women should learn from their husbands at home, she simply waited quietly until he was finished, noted that "I don't agree," and quietly continued her own talk. Palmer, who always had a good sense of humor, also told a story about Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, perhaps the most influential paper in the country. To help the cause, Greeley organized a huge vegetarian banquet. He was worried, however, remembered Palmer, because there was no tomato soup.
In her later years, Rhoda Palmer became an accomplished painter. She lived in the house she had been born until she was 94 years old, when an injury forced her to move two doors away to live with a nephew. There she entertained friends, read, and maintained her strong commitment to women's rights. Rhoda Palmer outlived both her parents and her siblings, but, true to her Quaker tradition, she remained part of a close-knit family. For her one hundredth birthday, nieces and nephews from as far west as Michigan helped her celebrate. She gave an interview and sent a letter of reminiscences to the Geneva Daily Times. And she rode in an automobile, a major change from her youth, when ox carts and horses were the only way to travel. When local suffragists renewed their efforts to win the vote in the early twentieth century, they made an annual pilgrimage to visit Rhoda Palmer on her birthday. On the first Tuesday in November, 1918, when Rhoda Palmer was 102 years old, she was driven to the polls to cast her first ballot. "Her one wish that she would live to vote," noted the local newspaper, "was realized." She died August 9, 1919, aged 103 years old. She was buried with her parents and two of her brothers in the Quaker cemetery on Nine-foot Road in Waterloo, New York.
-Judith Wellman, Historian
Historical New York