Abigail Adams’ oft-quoted admonition to her husband: "In the new code of laws … I desire you would remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors”, did little to sway John Adams and both the Massachusetts and Federal Constitutions were drafted with no provision made for female enfranchisement, let alone gender equality. Civil law, at the time, upheld the presumed inequality of the sexes, including “the belief that women lacked the capacity to reason as soundly as men” which became the rationale for withholding the franchise from them. During the first half of the 19th century, however, the anti-slavery movement would become a political training ground for reform-minded women intent upon securing for their sex the right to vote, and Massachusetts women would be in the vanguard of the movement, particularly following 1850 when the first Women’s Rights National Convention was held at Worcester.
In 1853, the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention refused to strike the word “male” from the state constitution on the grounds that it felt that the vast majority of women were opposed to such an action. That decision was lauded by at least one section of the community in Middleborough, if it is to be believed that Samuel Brown, editor of the Namasket Gazette, was speaking on behalf of that community. “Women of any sense know,” wrote Brown in 1853, “that they now have more and better influence than that which is asked for them by these gad-about men, who like wolves in sheep’s clothing, are at work for another object, for which they wish to excite sympathy…. The women of this State, and of this Union have and exert as much influence as so many voters, and happily for them, they are too well aware of it, generally, to be duped into supporting these men who are trying to live by any deception which they can practice with sufficient success.”
Yet, despite Brown’s approbation of the decision of 1853, the issue of enfranchisement for women was less and less easily dismissed, and the tenor of the times locally may clearly be indicated by a pair of lectures delivered in Middleborough some twenty months apart in 1855 and 1856.
The first was given by a Reverend Mr. Walker on March 6, 1855. The topic – “The Model Woman”, a subject which Editor Stillman Pratt of the Namasket Gazette confessed was both “delicate and difficult.” Yet Pratt felt the subject was “ably handled” by Reverend Walker “and called forth repeated bursts of applause from the large audience.”
Reverend Walker took as his source the last 22 verses of chapter 31 of the Book of Proverbs which describes the Biblically-model woman:
10Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies.
11The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil.
12She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life.
13She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands.
14She is like the merchants' ships; she bringeth her food from afar.
15She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens.
16She considereth a field, and buyeth it: with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard.
17She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms.
18She perceiveth that her merchandise is good: her candle goeth not out by night.
19She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff.
20She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy.
21She is not afraid of the snow for her household: for all her household are clothed with scarlet.
22She maketh herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple.
23Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land.
24She maketh fine linen, and selleth it; and delivereth girdles unto the merchant.
25Strength and honour are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come.
26She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness.
27She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness.
28Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her.
29Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all.
30Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the LORD, she shall be praised.
31Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.
According to Walker, a woman was to be, first and foremost, virtuous. Among her other attributes were to be a uniform consistency and steadfastness, a loving heart, physical energy, vigilance, humanity, forethought, taste and a neatly groomed and attired appearance. At no point did he mention that she was to be intellectual or independent-minded.
A year and a half later, in December, 1856, Mrs. Elizabeth Oakes Smith (1806-93), addressed the Young Men’s Literary Union at the American Hall in Middleborough on “The Dignity of Labor”, and her remarks at the time essentially constitute a rebuttal of Reverend Walker’s remarks from the previous year. Smith was an acknowledged leader of the suffrage movement at the time, a compatriot of the likes of Lucy Stone and the anti-slavery Wendell Phillips.
Elizabeh Oakes Smith
Mrs. Smith’s lecture touched a nerve within the community with what, at the time, were considered radical thoughts. Yet, because her argument was both rational and articulate, criticism took, instead, a derisive attack upon her character and chastisement of the Young Men’s Literary Union for sponsoring such radicals as Mrs. Smith (and previously the historian Theodore Parker). One unknown and disaffected correspondent wrote to editor Pratt under the pseudonym of Socrates Crow: “The policy of the Y. M. L. U. seems to be not so much to furnish lectures worth hearing and profitable to the community as to seize upon every peculiar and eccentric specimen of the ‘genus homo’ that will consent to be exhibited for a price, and, placing it upon a platform, subject it to the scrutiny of those who delight in ‘lion seeing,’ for the consideration of so much a head. Accordingly a certain ‘lady-bird,’ who has contrived to make herself somewhat notorious, was announced to lecture upon ‘The Dignity of Labor.’ Instead, however, of a lecture upon ‘The Dignity of Labor’ the dear, indulgent, and good natured people were treated to the old and stereotyped, or rather, perhaps I should say, worn and thread-bare homily upon ‘Woman’s Rights.’” The writer’s next statement was clearly revelatory, though it said little about Mrs. Smith’s beliefs and much about the writer’s own. “This woman seems to be blessed with an amount of impudence truly sublime. Just imagine, if you can, a woman standing up before a large audience and coolly informing them that she is so wonderfully smart as to be able to compose her own baby songs! – that she can write books!! – yea, even tragedies!!! – and all this without neglecting her babies!!!!” Perhaps unknown to the anonymous critic, Smith up to that time had authored sixteen books, raised a family of six sons and supported her husband following his bankruptcy which had been brought about by speculation leading up to the Panic of 1837.
Fortunately others were more tolerant and amenable to the ideas presented by Mrs. Smith. Editor Pratt of the Gazette indicated his respect for Elizabeth Oakes Smith when he noted her “noble courage to come out openly, as she did and advocate a Radical change.” This is perhaps not surprising given Pratt’s decidedly liberal views. Pratt clearly recognized the intellectual equality of the sexes, though few others may have done so, and he wrote (admittedly somewhat chauvinistically) that he found intellectual women charming. More specifically, he looked forward to the day when women would be able to speak freely upon any topic, as indicated by a comment he wrote in late 1865: “Let us welcome all the sign of the times that bespeak the mental and spiritual exaltation of woman, and be ready to hail with gladness the era when the same lips that descant upon the trials and joys and economies of domestic life, shall not disdain to talk of subjects that affect the happiness and progress of humanity.” In response to a lecture given by Miss Octavia Brown of Weymouth at the American Hall on December 20 of that same year, Pratt spoke of what he considered the inevitability of the enfranchisement of women. “When the question of color suffrage vanishes from the arena of civil strife in our fair country, who that searches the future with thoughtful spirit, can fail to see that it will but give place to the broader question of universal suffrage?”
Yet, though women would steadily gain equality of opportunity in education and equality before the law in the matter of property rights during the latter half of the 19th century, the ultimate goal of enfranchisement would continue to be withheld from them.
In 1869, an amendment to the state constitution extending suffrage to all women within the Commonwealth (though reported favorably upon in committee) was defeated by the legislature after a very public opposition by Mrs. Dolly Chandler and hundred and ninety-four other women of Lancaster, who petitioned “that the exercise of the elective franchise would diminish the purity, the dignity, and the moral influence of woman, and bring into the family circle a dangerous element of discord, without securing additional strength, efficiency, or wisdom to the government of the nation….”
Concurrent with efforts at amending the state constitution to provide female suffrage, came a new approach to achieve enfranchisement piecemeal, a strategy then reflecting the split within the national suffrage movement. In 1866, and again in 1867, the Massachusetts General Court was petitioned to permit women to vote in local school committee elections only, it being argued that as mothers and teachers, women were uniquely qualified to speak (and vote) upon matters relating to the education of their children and students. While it ultimately took some thirteen years to pass, in 1879, the Massachusetts state legislature finally permitted women to register and vote in school committee elections and to hold elected positions as school committee members. While suffragists initially saw this as a stepping-stone towards full enfranchisement, they would be ultimately disappointed.
Following adoption of the new law, in September, 1879, eight Middleborough women registered to vote: Elizabeth Ryder, Sarah A. Tinkham, Jane P. Ryder, Jerusha K. Leach, Hattie L. Chapin, Betsey L. Baker, Sarah E. Bartlett and Lillian E. Thomas.
Not soon afterwards, Adaline V. Wood, the wife of Middleboro Gazette publisher and owner Lorenzo Wood, became the first female to hold elective office in Middleborough when she was elected a member of the School Committee. Though the Wood family was deeply interested in the community’s educational matters, there is today sadly little recognition of Mrs. Wood’s pionering role. Eventually, Mrs. Wood would be followed in the 1890s by Joanna T. Leonard and Annie Davis Deane.
Despite these small successes, suffrage faced an uphill battle in Massachusetts. By 1895, that number of registered women voters in Middleborough had reached only 24, seemingly lending credence to the argument made by suffrage opponents that women were not interested in the vote, despite the fact that Middleborough women were described as displaying an “unusual degree of interest” in registering at the time. The reason for this flurry of registration activity was that, for the first time, a non-binding referendum was to held involving the participation of women on the issue of suffrage. “Their vote will simply be an expression of sentiment as to whether they desire the ballot or not”, remarked the Gazette, regarding, as did many, School Committee voter registration numbers as a barometer of women’s desire to be enfranchised. Though Middleborough women overwhelmingly supported the 1895 referendum, the town narrowly defeated the measure as did towns throughout the Commonwealth. Between 1897 and 1907, suffrage bills and proposals were defeated over 30 times by the Massachusetts legislature, partly through pressure exerted by a powerful anti-suffrage lobby.
Ironically, as social commentators at the time noted, “the suffrage cause has been most constantly defeated where it has been best and longest known; its headquarters having been established in Massachusetts forty years ago”. The Massachusetts anti-suffrage movement began in 1882 with the founding of the Massachusetts Association Opposed to the Further Extension of Suffrage to Women (MAOFESW). Organized, staffed, and led by women, the organization opposed woman suffrage. The movement soon spread to other states, and by 1911 there was a national anti-woman suffrage association.
Anti-suffrage women opposed extension of the franchise to women on a number of grounds arguing that voting was “unwomanly”, that they held more influence without the vote, that suffragists were associated with controversial issues such as birth control and “free love”, and that suffragists were radicals and socialists. Many voted against enfranchisement “simply to put distance between themselves and the image of suffragists. In 1918, following the achievement of suffrage in state elections for women in New York, suffragists scoffed at claims by suffrage opponents that women would be responsible for a surge in the popularity of socialism, citing the results in New York which proved just the opposite. Nonetheless, Flora L. Mason of Taunton still took the Middleboro Gazette to task in July, 1918, for reporting the news arguing that “there is strong presumptive evidence of an alliance between woman suffrage and socialism”
Other opponents maintained that voting was “unwomanly”, an argument which was rooted in the chauvinism of the era. One reporter, writing in 1909 in the Middleboro Gazette felt that women should confine their basketball playing to the gymnasiums of girls’ schools or colleges so that they might not “cheapen themselves by appearing as an entr’acte to a game between teams of young men, with the attendant coarseness and familiarity which is almost certain to be inflicted upon them.” As late as 1929, considerable controversy could be aroused in Middleborough by an advertiser having the temerity to display a billboard depicting a woman smoking, an act which resulted in a number of protestations from conservative residents.
Susan Walker FitzGerald
Not all community members, however, were supporters of female suffrage. Shoemaker Elmer E. Phinney penned a not very good poem which the Gazette nonetheless saw fit to print. Taking his cue from the suffragists, Phinney entitled his poem, “Votes for Women”, the second verse of which ran: “If they wanted to vote they surely could/ They don’t want to vote, if they did, they would/ Suppose that they were given the chance/ They soon would be wearing plug hats and pants.” Sadly, Phinney saw the opposite sex as fickle and shallow. Yet his badly-written poetry speaks volumes, for in it there is a recognition that women had been denied the right of enfranchisement, not because of a lack of desire or any political immaturity on their part (which was frequently alleged), but precisely because of the prejudices of men like Phinney who regarded women as inherently inferior.
Demonstrating, in fact, that women were not inferior locally was Susan (or “Susie”) L. Cushman, a woman who should be better known locally than she is. Born at Middleborough the second of three daughters of Elbridge and Elizabeth (Shurtleff) Cushman of Lakeville, Susie L. Cushman was raised in a strongly female household. (Tellingly following the death of her father, Susie's mother would note under the "occupation" column of census records the phrase "own income", indicating that she was not dependent upon a male relation for her financial support). Cushman was educated at Bristol Academy in Taunton and Wellesley College (Class of 1891), and did later post-graduate work at M. I. T. before engaging in work as a teacher. Cushman’s upbringing and liberal education undoubtedly cultivated a strong social consciousness within her. For two years she taught at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, an institution devoted to providing educational opportunities to African Americans. She would later turn her sights towards the injustice of disenfranchised womanhood.
Susan L. Cushman
Perhaps not accidentally, Cushman’s activism coincided with a renewed interest in and activity surrounding suffrage in Middleborough. On July 15, 1914, Mrs. Claibourne Catlin, dressed in a khaki traveling suit and wearing a green sash marked with white letters reading “Votes for Women”, addressed some 100 listeners for 45 minutes on the topic of female suffrage at Middleborough center. The Unitarian Church hosted a pair of lectures on the topic, as well. Winona Osbourne Pinkham spoke in favor of suffrage before the church’s People’s Forum, at which time she was described as “quiet-voiced, although altogether persuasive.” The Gazette would later reprint her address in full. Responding to Mrs. Catlin’s lecture two weeks later was former Massachusetts state legislator Charles L. Underhill. In contrast to Catlin’s remarks two weeks previously, those of Underhill appear to modern readers as illogical and offensive.
The vote of one ignoramus offsets the vote of Charles W. Eliot, president emeritus of Harvard. … If women vote, they can vote but one of two ways; if they vote the same ticket as their husbands, the vote is doubled, and if they vote the opposite way, the vote is nullified. What, then, is the value of their ballot?
In March, 1915, following a suffrage meeting at the local Y. M. C. A. on North Main Street, a joint committee of Middleborough and Lakeville women was formed to further the goal of suffrage, and included representatives of the Cabot Club, Daughters of the American Revolution, Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Grange and Daughters of Isabella. The organization canvassed the towns for signatures in support of women’s voting rights. Among those assisting neighboring communities were Susie Cushman and Mary Louise (Dorrance) Cleveland, the Episcopal rector’s wife, who were soliciting signatures for the movement in Plymouth. Active at the time in the local suffrage movement, besides Cushman and her mother Elizabeth, were Mrs. B. J. Allen, Mrs. Carrie W. Holmes, Middleborough town librarian Mrs. Adelaide K. Thatcher, her neighbor Mrs. Myra K. (Leonard) Tillson, Mrs. Emily (Hinckley) Harlow and her daughter, Eva Harlow. Much of the time was spent by these women canvassing house to house for signatures, writing local newspapers, and “circularizing” the voters. Frequently, they hosted other suffragists to lectures in their homes as did Mrs. Adelia C. (Baker) Richards when she sponsored a gathering at her home in order to hear Mrs. Phoebe Clifford of the Plymouth County W. C. T. U. speak on the topic March 10, 1915. To maintain the local momentum, Mrs. Agatha Stackhouse spent an entire week on suffrage work in town, with the great William Lloyd Garrison’s grandson arriving on September 29 in a van covered with posters, representing the Men’s League for woman suffrage. Additionally, in anticipation of a November, 1915 non-binding referendum on the matter of female enfranchisement in Massachusetts, the Nemasket Grange on October 16, 1915, endorsed female suffrage, an action echoing a move already taken by the national organization.
The November, 1915 referendum proved a disappointment to suffragists throughout the Commonwealth. Only one community – Tewksbury – voted in favor of granting women suffrage. In Middleborough, the measure was a resounding failure, voted down 703 to 331 with 147 blanks.
The defeat of the referendum followed a year later by the death of Susan L. Cushman was disheartening to local suffragists. Downright embarrassing, however, was Massachusetts’ record of opposing suffrage. “Massachusetts has been peculiarly backward in recognizing the worth of its women and the value of their voice” and was the only liberal northern state whose House delegation in Washington opposed the 1917 suffrage amendment. These reverses were a blow to the local movement which lost momentum following 1915. “For some years the question of women suffrage has not been to the front in the minds of the people of Middleboro” wrote the Gazette in June, 1918, of the sad state of the local movement. Efforts to revive the suffrage question were undertaken with a mass meeting held June 17, 1918, at the Unitarian Church, with speakers including Miss Katherine Ludington, President of the Woman Suffrage Association of Connecticut, and Susan Walker Fitzgerald who had campaigned in eleven states. The meeting closed with an endorsement of suffrage. Undoubtedly the local movement undoubtedly received a boost when Middleborough’s Representative in the Massachusetts State House, Morrill S. Ryder, endorsed suffrage, becoming one of a hundred legislators in Boston to do so. Nonetheless, both Massachusetts in general and Middleborough in particular would fail to fully take up the cause of “Votes for Women” and many local women still seemingly appeared disinterested in political matters. Of 968 individuals casting votes as part of the 1920 annual town meeting, only 44 of them were women.
Ultimately, despite the best efforts of local suffrage supporters, both women and men, it would be the role of other states and other communities to finally achieve the goal of female enfranchisement. In preparation for what many hoped would be inevitable, the Citizenship League of Middleboro Women was formed to educate women in civics, headed by Mrs. Adelia C. Richards, president, and Adelaide K. Thatcher and Fannie Harlow, vice-presidents. A series of lectures including “How Middleboro is Governed”, “What Women Need to Know as Citizens”, “How a President is Elected”, and “The Constitution of Massachusetts” were offered. Though the Massachusetts state legislature passed Chapter 579, Acts of 1920, which provided for the transfer of women’s names from the School Committee polls to the regular voting list, the low number of registered female voters meant that most would need to register for the first time. An anonymous correspondent to the Gazette stressed not only the practical importance of doing so, but its symbolic relevance as well.
… The women of the state should realize that the sincerity f their 70 years of effort to win their share in our political life, even their fitness to do so as evidenced by their political intelligence will, to a certain extent, be judged by the registration figures this year …. The fact cannot be dodged that a small registration will be used as a weapon against them.
On August 26, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the right to vote was ratified. Two days later, in Middleborough, church bells were rung and the fire alarm was sounded at noon in observance of the culmination of seventy years of struggle. The sounding of the alarm prompted one uninformed (male) member of the fire department to race to the School Street firehouse “at a pace greater than permissible by law”, only to discover the reason.
Fears that women would fail to register to vote proved unfounded. In late September, 76 women added their names to the rolls, and by November, of Middleborough’s 2871 registered voters, 1023 (or 35%) were women. A remarkable feat in the course of just weeks.
Elizabeth Oakes Smith (1806-93), portrait
Smith was likely the first advocate of female suffrage to speak at Middleborough. Her lecture of December, 1856, sponsored by the Young Men's Literary Union was both praised and reviled, an indication of the strong passions women's suffrage would arouse over the subsequent decades.
Suffrage postcard, early 20th century
Though this postcard dates from late in the suffrage movement, the sentiment that it expresses, was employed early on, when men were encouraged to support the rights of daughters to enfranchisement.
Susan Walker FitzGerald (1871-1943), photograph, c.1913, courtesy of Special Collections Department, Bryn Mawr College Library
Noted suffragist Susan Walker FitzGerald addresses a crowd on the topic of female enfranchisement. A dynamic speaker, FitzGerald was active in Massachusetts as well as on the national stage. She twice visited Middleborough and when she spoke to a crowd of 250 at the Four Corners, the scene would have been similar to that depicted in this view.
Susan Louise Cushman (1869-1916), photograph, Putnam, Middleborough, MA, c. 1887
Middleborough suffragist Susie L. Cushman is seen in this portrait taken about the time of her graduation from Bristol Academy. An active and able advocate of female suffrage, Cushman tragically died just three and a half years before adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment. Travelling to Battle Creek, Michigan for what was to have been a routine minor operation, Cushman contracted peritonitis following the operation and died on December 23, 1916, at the age of 47.
Tremont Temple, Boston, MA, photograph, c. 1900
The venue for Susan L.Cushman's most widely-heard address was Tremont Temple in Boston where she spoke before a large audience on October 18, 1915.
Saturday Evening Post, cover, December 31, 1911
In late 1911 when noted American illustrator J. C. Leyendecker depicted "Baby New Year" as an enfranchisement-minded girl on the cover of the popular Saturday Evening Post, local suffragists were optimistic about the prospects for their cause. Despite the apparent burgeoning strength of the local suffrage movement, it remained small, and within a few years, agitation for suffrage locally had all but fallen from the "minds of the people of Middleboro."