By Carol Crossed
“The windy city outdid itself,” reported the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle 100 years ago. Nov. 6, 1917, was the day New York State women won the vote, and the election returns in Buffalo proved its support for the emancipation of women. It stood apart from the rest of Western New York and even Albany, which voted against the suffrage amendment.
That surprising fact caused one jubilant woman to proclaim, “Buffalo, of all cities.”
National suffrage leader Dr. Anna Howard Shaw congratulated the nearly 12,000 suffrage workers, rich and poor, from diverse political parties and religions and ethnic groups, who distributed pamphlets and worked the polls.
Some Western New York papers congratulated the anti-suffragists, and blamed their loss on exorbitant contributions to the pro-suffrage cause, which raised over 10 times the money of those opposing it. The loss was predicted because of the “antics of the picketers” in Washington, D.C. One picket was Alice Paul, who was imprisoned for courageously holding a suffrage banner and detracting from Woodrow Wilson’s World War I display. The New York Times refused to endorse suffrage for the same reason: women leaders were “as a class, pacifists and enemies of preparedness.”
It’s hard to imagine today the anti-suffrage sentiment. Both pro- and anti-suffrage questioned whether the women’s vote would strengthen society or merely mimic the culture and male aggression. One Buffalo paper quoted a New York anti-suffragist woman who said after the election, “Until yesterday I regarded myself as the superior of the two sexes. Now the men have pulled me down to an equality with them.”
Unlike then, a rift in the feminist movement exists today over issues of violence as they relate to war and abortion. Our foremothers wanted the right to vote so that society would be more like a woman’s sphere: nurturing and nonaggressive.
Susan B. Anthony, an avid abolitionist, hardly supported the Civil War. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the most radical suffragist, said women are “infinitely superior to men” because of our motherhood. Suffragists condemned abortion as “a crime againt humanity.”
Heroic suffragists would find it tragic that women today celebrate their “right” to be combatants in war and their “right” to abort their children. Even the Women’s March in Washington’s purpose said nothing about opposing war, and went so far as to reject anti-war/anti-abortion women as sponsors. Pro-life feminists were not allowed to speak by intolerant “liberal” campus women’s forums. So-called “peace” groups have denied participation to women who oppose violence to unborn children. Maybe there was an element of truth in the woman who said we have “pulled ourselves down” to adapt to men.
One hundred years ago, pro-suffrage leader Mary Hay spoke wisely when she warned women after their win: “Don’t be exploited by politicians, you women. They’re after you. The women of New York must keep their heads.”
Carol Crossed, of Rochester, is president of the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum in Adams, Mass.