The Fight For—and Against— the Vote

More than a century ago, Wellesley faculty, alumnae, and student activists fought to gain women the vote, but in the early days, they faced campus opposition from those who wanted to focus on ‘our half of the world’s work’ and let men do the governing.

A suffragist holds a banner reading "Mr. PRESIDENT HOW LONG MUST WOMEN WAIT FOR LIBERTY"


Imagining the lives of American women more than 100 years ago feels almost dystopian. Maybe you were one of the lucky ones—born white and wealthy enough to live a mostly comfortable life, though still with little autonomy. Maybe you came of age when colleges like Wellesley opened, and you were able to access higher education. Maybe you worked in one of the limited jobs available to women, earning a fraction of what a man would have made for the same work. If you were married, any property, wages, or inheritance you earned could belong to your husband—because you did not exist separately from him. If you were Black, the fresh legacy of slavery still barred you and your family from nearly every right and benefit of society.

Put simply—legally, politically, and economically, women were not considered individuals.

Until they fought back.

“If we have a responsible share in government, we shall ourselves profit in growth of power and character, and we shall be more intelligent and loyal citizens. … Womanhood is getting restless under its stigma of irresponsiblity,” reads a 1912 notice for the Equal Suffrage League in the Wellesley News.

By the 1910s, the College and the nation were approaching the finish line in the fight for suffrage—and women were restless indeed. A fight more than seven decades in the making culminated in August 1920, 100 years ago, with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which guaranteed most women the right to vote nationwide. (It would still be decades before millions of women of color could exercise full voting rights in practice.) The amendment boils down to just 28 words: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

When Wellesley opened its doors in 1875, the suffrage movement was already humming. The first women’s rights convention was convened in Seneca Falls, N.Y., about 25 years earlier—ending in the forceful declaration that “because women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of these United States.”

Wellesley students participate in a march for suffrage in Philadelphia in 1915.
Courtesy Wellesley College Archives

Beyond Seneca Falls, there were small movements popping up across the country—including by women of color—to lobby states to allow women to vote. Women were beginning to break out of their prescribed roles and step into every corner of society.

By the early 1900s, Wellesley’s campus was already awakening to the suffrage movement, and faculty and alumnae were involved in local and national chapters of suffrage leagues, according to news reports and notices from the time.

In 1902, students were invited to participate in an essay competition by the College Equal Suffrage League—a fundamental part of the movement that was created by two Radcliffe alumnae to attract younger participants.

Wellesley had its own chapter of the Equal Suffrage League, which frequently advertised open meetings in the Wellesley News. The notices are a window into the start of student activism at Wellesley. “We have our contribution to make to the government, as well as to the census, and we shall not be less admirable women because we are more efficient citizens,” read one notice.

“It should be the joy of every woman to believe in the capacity of her sex,” read another.

Perhaps the most visible demonstrations of the movement were the marches and parades—comprised of rows of women in long white dresses, often with sashes and signs reading “Votes for Women,” and some men. The Wellesley community participated in several such parades leading up to the passage of the 19th Amendment.

Wellesley student E. Eugenia Corwin 1914 wrote of attending a suffrage parade on May 2, 1914—a day when coordinated parades were held across the country, including a large one in Boston. The parade, she said, “meant not only the music and banners and swing of a great procession, but inconvenience, long waiting, a hard march. It gave us, in a very small way, a chance to sacrifice something to a noble idea.”

The next year, Massachusetts held a suffrage “victory parade” in Boston, beginning on Massachusetts Avenue, to support a state ballot measure, which later failed, that would have guaranteed women the right to vote. The Wellesley News reported that 80 students, “clad in white, with Wellesley blue bands and flaunting yellow chrysanthemums, marched in the college division”—one of the largest contingents in the section. Faculty and alumnae in caps and gowns formed another group in the section. “The Wellesley section, headed by a large college banner,” the News reported, “received much applause along the line of march because of the splendid marching order which it kept.”

Mary Church Terrell, pictured here in the late 1800s, was a well-known African American activist and proponent of civil rights and suffrage. She addressed Wellesley students on the topic of “The African Woman in America” in 1913.
Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Elsewhere in the country, alumnae and faculty were doing their part. Henrietta Wells Livermore 1887 was a leader in New York’s final push for suffrage. In 1910, she organized a group of activists at her home—a meeting that evolved into a statewide movement that ultimately won suffrage there in 1917. She later became the first president of the Women’s National Republican Club.

“You have it in your hands to win,” Livermore said in 1920, according to a profile by the Independent Women’s Forum. “You have new ideas, new methods in politics, and I cannot impress upon you too strongly the part you have to play in the coming campaign.”

Other alumnae worked to advance the cause alongside their chosen professions. Famed writer and conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas 1912 lobbied for women’s suffrage. Faculty member Emily Greene Balch, who studied the economic role of women and went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize, was also active in the movement. And Mabel Seagrave 1905, a physician who treated battlefield casualties and ran a hospital in France during World War I, was an advocate of women’s voting rights. Charlotte Anita Whitney 1889 was an early communist who led a campaign for a suffrage amendment to the California constitution and later worked for the movement in other Western states.

In February 1906, Mary W. Calkins, a professor of philosophy and psychology at Wellesley, shared a Baltimore stage with other women’s college representatives and suffrage legend Susan B. Anthony. Calkins was active in the movement and spoke at several suffrage conventions.

That night, the crowd—“brilliant in dress, in intellect and in achievement,” according to a Baltimore Sun story from the time—had assembled “to pay tribute to Miss Anthony and to her cause.” When Anthony rose to speak, “the handkerchief of every woman in the assembly fluttered—a white flag of affection—and the assembly arose as one man—or rather one woman—to do honor to this courageous pioneer.” Anthony confided to the president of Johns Hopkins, who hosted the event, that she was optimistic about the cause of suffrage, as she had been for nearly 70 years. “That is a magnificent lesson for everyone,” he told the Baltimore Sun. “Few of us keep optimistic about any subject for so long a time.”

‘It was not only a political thing, but it also was a personal thing. Lives would be changed …’

—Ruth Belcher Dyk 1923

It is worth noting that there were few African American students at Wellesley at the time. Black women nationally, however, were organizing passionate suffrage movements despite being largely excluded from the national leadership of the movement. In February 1913, Mary Church Terrell, a nationally known advocate for civil rights and suffrage, came to speak at Wellesley on “The African Woman in America” and “the subject of opportunities, or rather the lack of opportunities, for colored girls,” according to The Crisis magazine. Mary Eliza Clark Wilber 1913 was quoted: “I do not know when a speaker has aroused so much interest and changed so many ideas in a short time.”

To the women educated at Wellesley and other colleges, their involvement in the suffrage movement was born of a desire to reach beyond their own educations.

Women back then graduated from colleges like Wellesley into professional and political arenas that were still largely closed to them, says Ellen Carol DuBois ’68, author of the new book Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote (see Shelf Life for a review). “Women got to go to college before they got to have jobs that used those college educations,” DuBois says.

Wellesley’s Equal Suffrage League deployed that argument on campus. “The college woman is under special obligations to support the movement for woman’s suffrage,” the group stated in the Wellesley News in 1912, “because at present she is enjoying the privileges which the first pioneers of the woman’s rights gained for her. In the second place, in the professions which college women take up after graduation, they are constantly hindered by the preference given to men over women.”

The movement provided one of the first paid occupations for young, college-educated women, DuBois says. Wealthy women endowed the movement, which allowed young graduates, many of whom were middle-class in those days, to get paid for their work.

But these graduates also saw their work as bigger than the paycheck—it was along a continuum of rights they had already started to benefit from. “From the beginning of women’s rights, the sequence was education, economic rights, and political rights,” DuBois says.

But few activists at the time, it seems, could have predicted just how much the suffrage movement would affect their own lives and subsequent progress for women. In the winter ’82 Wellesley magazine, Almira Morgan McNally 1912, then in her 90s, recounted her involvement in the suffrage movement, along with her roommate Helen Paul 1911—sister of suffrage leader Alice Paul. McNally was president of Wellesley’s Equal Suffrage League her junior year. “In our college days, few suffragists spoke of women’s rights other than political ones—the right to vote and hold office,” she said. “The ramifications of the feminist movement with all its economic implications were largely in the future.”

Ruth Belcher Dyk 1923 followed her mother’s path in attending Wellesley. She was born in 1901 and recalled joining her mother to march for suffrage in Boston holding a “Votes for Women” banner.

She and other suffragists, she said in the 1999 documentary Not for Ourselves Alone, believed great things were going to come out of the movement. “Great in terms of the position of women in our culture, position of women in their jobs, position of women everywhere, and this was going to improve that,” she said. “So it was not only a political thing, but it also was a personal thing. Lives would be changed, you see, lives would be changed.”

While Wellesley was in many ways a natural fit with the suffrage movement, not everyone joined the cause.

“We suffragists were truly a minority group, sponsoring a cause unpopular with a large majority of the students,” McNally wrote.

In 1911, Wellesley classes and faculty participated in a suffrage poll. The News reported two-thirds of students opposed it, while most faculty supported the movement.

The paper mostly brushed off the opposition as naiveté, attributing it to lack of knowledge and indifference on the part of the majority of the student body. Unlike Vassar, “where the spirit seems uncommonly militant of recent years,” reported an editorial, at Wellesley “this vote on woman’s suffrage scarcely reflects anything but the indifference to contemporary life of a lot of sheltered young women.”

Suffragists in New York City hold umbrellas advertising a May 1912 parade.
FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images

But the anti-suffrage arguments were actually much deeper than naiveté. Since the beginning of the movement, an anti-suffrage response had existed. Early suffragists were sometimes met with vitriol, as Ellen Carol DuBois documents in her book. When Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton campaigned in Kansas in the 1860s, an “anti-female suffrage” faction spewed nasty, sexualized innuendo, calling woman suffrage advocates “male women” and “poodle pups.”

Some feared women’s entry into the political sphere would disrupt the family. In a query received in Wellesley’s Equal Suffrage League’s question box in spring 1912, a Wellesley student asked: “Why don’t we put our whole strength of mind and purpose into doing what is distinctly our half of the world’s work, and let the men go on, doing the governing and fighting?”

In many corners, the opposition was blatantly racist, classist, and, of course, sexist. Opening the vote would allow uneducated women and people of color to gain more power. Some suffragists played right into that argument, selling out the rights of Black citizens to advance their own political cause. As DuBois writes, the Black abolitionist and suffrage movements worked together early on, but that connection broke down as suffragists choose to more narrowly focus on white women. Celebrated suffrage leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton went so far as to argue that women would be degraded if Black men were also granted the right to vote. “To raise the lowliest of men above the most elevated of women,” DuBois quotes Cady Stanton as preaching, “was ‘a deliberate insult to women of the nation.’”

Perhaps ironically, some prominent anti-suffragists were women who had benefited from college educations. Alice Vant George 1887, reportedly one of the most prominent opponents of suffrage in Massachusetts, argued that women should have some role in shaping policy and work, but that giving them “political responsibilities” would detract from that.

“Until we are sure we are going to get a better State with the woman’s vote than without it, we should hesitate before we hinder the best service women can do by putting them into political activities … ,” George said before the Committee on Woman Suffrage in Massachusetts in 1913. “The anti-suffragists believe that it is expedient for the State that the motherhood of the state should not be drafted off into political channels.”

Announcing George’s visit to campus in 1914, the Wellesley anti-suffrage group addressed “criticism from the Suffragists that those who are not for suffrage are incapable of thinking or do not think.”

“On the contrary,” the group wrote, “many of the non-suffragists in college are not only ‘on the fence’ but are firmly convinced that suffrage for women is not the wisest nor the best thing for our country or its people.”

A couple years later, the campus anti-suffrage group brought Marjorie Dorman, president of the Wage Earners’ Anti-Suffrage League of New York, to campus to speak. “If a married woman votes as her husband does, two people do the work of one and there result twice as many votes at no gain,” she said. “If the wife votes against her husband, the two votes nullify each other and are equally useless.”

She also argued that women should not be allowed to vote as long as men were the primary wage-earners—unless they were willing to become equal earners themselves: “If women want equality with men in suffrage, they should be willing to accept it in other departments of life.”

By early 1920, the tide on campus had turned to favor suffrage. “A great awakening is taking place,” wrote the Wellesley News in February 1920, “suffragists and old-time antis and women hitherto indifferent to the whole question are today earnest students of government and practical politics in their determination to be ready for the new responsibility of voting.”

Women had flooded into the workforce during World War I, which not only added to women’s value in the eyes of men, but also woke up many women to the injustice that they had no say in the political matters of the day despite making unquestionable contributions to the country both in the workplace and at home.

After several state amendment efforts failed, national leaders stepped up their tactics, launching pickets of the White House, facing jail time, and organizing hunger strikes.

In August 1920, the 19th Amendment was finally ratified and became part of the Constitution, giving most female citizens the right to vote in all elections. Black women, however, still faced enormous obstacles in exercising their voting rights, as literacy tests, poll taxes, and other discriminatory measures were deployed to keep them from voting.

By the time students came back in fall 1920, Wellesley’s campus was buzzing with a new kind of political activism.

On Oct. 30, just days before women voted for the first time, students held a large political torchlight rally through campus, culminating in speeches in favor of their favorite presidential candidates in front of Tower Court. “Nearly everyone in college took part in the rally with the spirit which was bound to make it a success,” the Wellesley News reported. “‘Yea Harding!’ ‘Cox and the League’ and other cries equally desirous of drowning all sound but their own, rang out on campus Saturday night.”

The victory of the suffragists echoed throughout campus that night, as it has in the lives of women in the 100 years since.

That Nov. 2, Ruth Belcher Dyk 1923 proudly went to vote with her mother, with whom she had marched in Boston. As excited as she was, she later said in Not For Ourselves Alone, she was even more thrilled for her mother, who had “worked longer than even I had.”

“I was terribly frightened that I would push the wrong lever. I still go into that booth with the same feeling,” she laughed. “What if I vote Republican?”

Dyk’s life spanned a remarkable arc of American history. Born in 1901, she fought for suffrage, was educated at Wellesley, and spent her final year campaigning for a Senate seat for Hillary Rodham Clinton ’69, who would go on to nearly win the highest political office in the land.

When Dyk died at the age of 99, Clinton called her “an example for women everywhere.” To her daughter, Penelope Carter, Dyk’s legacy was one shared by suffragists across time and generations. Carter told the New York Times that one of her earliest memories was her mother looking her in the eye and telling her, “Don’t be so good.”

“She meant you had to have some spirit,” Carter said. “Go against the grain.”

Amita Parashar Kelly ’06 works at NPR as a Washington editor, where she sees the fruits of women’s hard-fought participation in democracy in action every day.

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