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Votes for Women An Island Perspective

2020 marked the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment — the culmination of over seventy years of activism and advocacy that ended in women voting for the first time in national elections.

While there was never any active party for or against women’s suffrage here on the Island, the debate played out on a smaller scale in Vineyard newspapers, literary clubs, and parlors. Women like Elizabeth Oakes Smith journeyed to the Vineyard to speak to the gentlemen of the Island on the topic and women like Florence Blackwell Mayhew ventured off Island to participate in suffrage conventions and marches. The Vineyard also provided a welcome respite for some of the movement’s most avid supporters, including Lucy Stone, one of America’s earliest and most fervent suffragists.

While the road to this victory was long, it would prove much longer for black women, indigenous women, and women of color, who had to wait years, even decades, to gain the same voting rights given to white women in 1920. Not until 1965 were adult citizens of all races and genders formally granted the foundational right — and profound responsibility — of the vote.

This exhibit is presented in five parts —

  • A Topic for Debate explores mid-19th to early 20th century down-Island residents’ sentiments towards women’s suffrage through documents they left behind — newspaper articles and men's and women's club meeting minutes and publications.
  • Power and Equity provides insight into the Wampanoag’s perspective on women's rights and explores Wampanoag women’s efforts to have their customary rights recognized.
  • A Family in the Forefront tells the story of the Blackwell family — the first summer residents of Chilmark — who were leaders of social reform on several fronts, including women’s suffrage. It features the stories of Lucy Stone, Alice Stone Blackwell, and Florence Blackwell Mayhew — three resourceful women who publicly advocated for women's suffrage.
  • Taking Action presents imagery, arguments, and legislative initiatives employed by suffragists and anti-suffragists in Massachusetts to advance or thwart expansion of women’s voting rights.
  • One Milestone Achieved marks the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, while acknowledging that work remained to achieve equal voting rights for all U.S. citizens. It explores the local response to the expansion of rights for Island women following passage of the 19th Amendment.

A Topic for Debate

The question: “Would the condition of society and of women be improved by placing the two sexes on an equality with respect to civil rights and duties?”

The answer: “Yeas 6, Nays 13.”

So went the debate of the Edgartown Lyceum on March 19, 1838. Although the rules of the society were suspended to allow non-members (including women) to participate, even the ladies present agreed, with a vote of “Yeas 5, Nays 13.” And yet, the mere fact that the question was asked hints at the shifting sentiments of the period.

Women and their changing role in society was becoming a topic of debate on the Island. The Lyceum, which was composed of Edgartown’s leading male citizens, touched on the topic several times before it disbanded in 1854. As the women’s suffrage movement began to gain momentum in the later part of the century women began to form their own literary societies — to socialize, present research papers, and discuss the issues of the day. There too the topic was debated.

THE EDGARTOWN LYCEUM

In the mid-19th century a new form of adult education emerged in the northeastern and midwestern United States. Known as lyceums, these debating societies were made up of educated professional men interested in having high-minded discussions about local and national civic issues.

In 1837, David Davis (1802-1668) founded the Edgartown Lyceum. Over the next 16 years, the group hosted over 75 lectures and 120 debates, five of which related to women and their role in society. While questions about whether the “fair sex” should be held in highest estimation or if they should receive an “intellectual education” elicited favorable responses, more radical questions, like the sexes being placed “on an equality in respect to rights and duties” were met with resounding nos. For a moment the group considered allowing “the Ladies” to join the Lyceum, but after an initial favorable vote, they changed their mind (see image behind). Instead, women were permitted to attend meetings and have the “privilege of the Library,” but not participate in any of the discussions.

A WOMAN'S VOICE

Only one woman was ever asked to address the men of the Edgartown Lyceum. In 1852, Mrs. Elizabeth Oakes Smith (1806-1893) gave a four-part lecture series on the topics of “Manhood,” “Womanhood,” “Humanity,” and “Dress and Beauty.”

The men of the Edgartown Lyceum responded favorably, declaring it a “pleasure and delight” to hear Mrs. Smith speak. They praised the “high toned, logical method, eloquence, and rhetorical beauty” of her lectures and the “highly dignified and truly lady-like bearing” of her presentation. In a set of resolutions the group passed following Smith’s lectures, they noted her “Womanhood” lecture in particular and stated their support of the “right and necessity of the moral influence of woman in the legislative, judicial, and civil codes of nations.”

Edgartown Lyceum meeting minutes, January 9-10, 1852.
1847 — Lucy Stone becomes the first woman from Massachusetts to graduate college; she declines to write a commencement speech when told she will not be allowed to deliver it

Elizabeth Oakes Smith

Elizabeth Oakes Smith (1806-1893) was a poet, novelist, and feminist lecturer. In 1850, after attending the first National Woman's Rights Convention, Smith was inspired to write a series of essays on women’s rights and capacities, titled Woman and Her Needs. The following year Smith began to lecture publicly. She was the first woman to join the Lyceum movement circuit, speaking first in New York and New England, and then in the Midwest. Smith lectured on women’s rights, abolition, and prison reform and sometimes preached religious sermons. She visited the Vineyard in 1852.

> Elizabeth Oakes Prince Smith, 1845, oil on canvas by John Wesley Paradise. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

1848 — The first Women’s Rights Convention is held in Seneca Falls, NY; of the roughly 300 attendants, 100 sign the Declaration of Sentiments, calling for an end to discrimination against women
Left: Edgartown Lyceum and Institute published resolutions, Vineyard Gazette, February 6, 1952. Right: Mrs. E. Oaks Smith in Boston, Vineyard Gazette, February 6, 1952. Images courtesy of the Vineyard Gazette, edited for display purposes.

Following her four part lecture, Edgar Marchant, founding editor of the Vineyard Gazette and a member of the Edgartown Lyceum, published the Lyceum’s five resolutions in praise and support of Mrs. Smith in his newspaper (see left image above). Marchant also republished the Daily Mail’s coverage of a speech Smith had given in Boston (see right image above). Their editor had been less impressed by Smith, summarizing her remarks in a dismissive tone and calling for no more women preachers. By including Boston’s disdainful coverage of Smith, Marchant sought to show just how high minded the Edgartown men were, not only ready to listen respectfully to a woman like Smith, who was stepping out of women’s traditional domain, but willing to publicly praise her work.

INFORMATION, IMPROVEMENT, SOCIABILITY

Beginning in the late 19th century, women’s clubs provided a welcome form of entertainment and intellectual engagement for middle class Island women during the off season. The Vineyard was home to several of these clubs, including the Want to Know Club and Acanthus Club of Vineyard Haven, the Triad Club of Oak Bluffs, and the Women’s Club of Edgartown.

The Want to Know Club, the first to be formed, was founded by “a few energetic women who united to form an association to promote the social pleasure, intellectual growth and moral development of its members.” Within a few years of its founding in 1893, its members held a debate on women’s suffrage, after which twelve women came out in favor of municipal suffrage, four against, and two undecided. The other women's clubs on the Island similarly addressed the issue, with Mrs. Marshall giving an account of the suffrage movement to members of the Triad Club in 1909 and Mrs. Abby Hillman presenting on the question “Will Women’s Suffrage Benefit Mankind” to members of the Edgartown Women’s Club in the same year.

Click images to enlarge and see complete articles. Top: Triad Club Yearbooks, 1913-14 and 1915-16. Bottom: Newspaper clippings from the Triad Club Secretary's Minutes vol. I about annual Gentleman's Night, 1908 and 1913.

The Triad Club of Oak Bluffs was founded in 1908 with a trio of goals — improvement, information, and sociability. The members met regularly in the off season and sometimes held joint meetings with other women's clubs on the Island. Once a year they allowed the men to participate and held a Gentleman’s Night, “when the husbands and gentlemen friends of the members” were invited to attend a special gathering.

According to local newspaper coverage from the time, when the Triad Club held their first Gentleman’s Night in December of 1908, the men attended with “fear and trembling, lest they might be assembling to listen to a lecture upon ‘suffrage’ or a like subject,” but all were “agreeably surprised” to instead enjoy a “pleasing farce” and musical numbers. Four short years later though, Gentleman’s Night was just what they had feared — the halls were decked with suffrage banners, “Votes for Women” badges were handed out at the entrance, and the night’s entertainment began with “The Hike to Washington” and continued with a short play, “When Women Vote” (see articles above).

1850 — The first National Woman’s Rights Convention is held in Worcester, MA; 186 of 268 attendees who sign-in are from Massachusetts
Click images to enlarge. Co-founders of the Edgartown Women's Club. Left: Mary Wesley Worth. Right: Sara Joy Mayhew.
Annual Report of the Edgartown Women's Club, 1909-1910.
1856 — John P. Norton and others from Dukes County submit a petition to the Massachusetts legislature asking that women be allowed to vote

Power and Equality

The Wampanoag women of the Island traditionally played an active role in tribal government. Even the newly arrived English colonizers recognized the respect they commanded and the authority they exercised, with female sachems signing deeds and indentures along with their male counterparts.

In Gay Head (Aquinnah), women as well as men acted as Proprietors, overseeing the lands the tribe held in common. They were equal in status to the men. In two 18th century petitions submitted to the governors of the Massachusetts Bay Colony by the Proprietors of Gay Head over a third of the signers of each were women. When Gay Head became a town in 1870, the common lands were divided among individual tribal members and the role of Proprietor was abolished. Wampanoag women — who, like their white counterparts, were not granted the franchise by the United States government — lost their voice in the political process.

Click image to enlarge. Left: Petition of Priscilla Freeman for support of her mother, Jemima Easton, January 1865. Right: Petition of Priscilla Freeman for land rights in Deep Bottom Reservation, February 25, 1869. Images courtesy of the Massachusetts Archives.

Despite disruptions to their traditional tribal government and the limitations placed on their participation in the political processes of Massachusetts and the United States, many Wampanoag women sought to have their voices heard and rights respected by submitting petitions to the government.

One such woman was Priscilla Freeman, (1812-1888), who in March of 1869 sent a petition to the state of Massachusetts as “the only living female inhabitant on the Deep Bottom Reservation” for the enfranchisement of native people and the right for women to vote. Priscilla was tenacious, and while this petition went unheard, she continued to fight for equal access. Over the years she submitted numerous petitions about land rights, fishing rights, and asking for help supporting her mother, Jemima Easton (see images above). In 1874 she even appeared before members of the Massachusetts Legislature to plead for the restoration of her fishing rights in Tisbury Great Pond.

A Family in the Forefront

Over a century and a half ago Henry Blackwell (1825-1909) rowed ashore at Squibnocket in search of a post office to mail a letter to his wife. While making the two-mile trek to what is now Beetlebung Corner, Henry fell in love with this Island. Soon he and his siblings began bringing their families to Quitsa each summer, a tradition that continued for generations, making the Blackwells the first summer residents of Chilmark.

Henry was from a large but close knit family, all of whom had strong moral codes and were dedicated to social reform. Henry himself was a businessman and advocate of abolition and women's suffrage. Amongst his family were some truly remarkable women. Lucy Stone (1818-1893), his wife, was a pioneer in the women’s suffrage movement; Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) and Emily Blackwell (1826-1910), his sisters, were the first and third female physicians in the United States respectively and founded the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children; and Antoinette Brown Blackwell (1825-1921), his sister-in-law, was the first woman in America to be ordained as a minister. These women all pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable for the “fairer sex” to do, blazing a trail for other women to follow.

The Island provided a welcome respite for the family and offered them the opportunity to relax and reconnect with one another amidst their otherwise busy lives. Henry and two of his brothers, Samuel and George, bought homes in Chilmark and three of their sisters, Elizabeth, Emily, and Ellen, regularly spent summers on the Island with them.

Blackwell and Spofford families, c. 1875-1880. Henry Blackwell and Ainsworth Spofford, the sixth Librarian of Congress, were good friends, and it was Ainsworth who first introduced Henry to the island of Martha’s Vineyard. Back row: Dr. Emily Blackwell, Ainsworth Rand Spofford, Alice Stone Blackwell, Lucy Stone, Sarah Spofford. Front row: Henry Backwell, Florence Spofford. Image courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.
c. 1864 — Henry Blackwell visits Martha’s Vineyard for first time; the Island becomes a retreat for generations of Blackwells
View of Quitsa and Menemsha Ponds from Lookout Hill, c. 1928.
Click images to enlarge.  Top row, left to right: Road past Quitsa Pond in Chilmark, 1905; Blackwell family at Fulling Mill Brook Cove of Chilmark Pond, c. 1888; Sugarloaf Rock, overlooking Squibnocket Village, c. 1887. Bottom row, left to right: Members of the Blackwell family on a sailboat, 1901; Members of the Blackwell family sailing, 1901. Bottom images courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.
1866 — Congress passes the 14th Amendment, in which “citizen” and “voters” are defined as “male”

Lucy Stone

Known as the “morning star of the women’s rights movement,” Lucy Stone (1818-1893) was a trailblazer in many ways. She was the first woman from Massachusetts to graduate from college and the first woman to refuse to give up her name upon marriage.

At first reluctant to enter into matrimony, over a two year courtship Henry Blackwell gradually convinced her that they could share a truly egalitarian marriage. At their wedding in 1855 they read (and then published) an egalitarian marriage agreement and protest statement.

At a time when women were not welcome in the public sphere Lucy Stone became a traveling lecturer, giving speeches in support of abolition. Soon she began speaking on women’s rights too. Stone would go on to help arrange the first National Convention for Women’s Rights and help found the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), which worked towards a constitutional amendment by first gaining women voting rights at the state and local level. In the summers she would take a break from her active travel schedule to relax on the Vineyard and reconnect with family.

> Image courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

Petition for Universal Suffrage, 1866. This is just one of the many petitions Lucy Stone signed with other early leaders of the women’s suffrage movement calling for universal suffrage. Image courtesy of the National Archives.
1869 — The American Equal Rights Association (AERA) splinters into two rival groups over support of the 15th Amendment, which gives the right to vote to African American men but not to women; the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, oppose the amendment while the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), led by Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe, support it
Click images to enlarge.  Left, top: Mail stage at Cliff Cottage, c. 1900. Alice Stone Blackwell is second from right; Mrs. Barrow, Henry Blackwell’s housekeeper, is at the far left. Left, bottom: Cliff Cottage in Chilmark, c. 1920. Right: Henry Blackwell, c. 1870-1885. Left bottom image and right image courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.
1870 — Lucy Stone and Henry Browne Blackwell found Woman’s Journal, a weekly suffrage paper, in Boston

Alice Stone Blackwell

The only child of Lucy and Henry, Alice Stone Blackwell (1857-1950) followed in her parents' footsteps. She worked for, and eventually ran, Woman’s Journal, the leading women’s rights publication of the era, founded by her parents in 1870. She also regularly appeared before the Massachusetts legislature to respond to the arguments of anti-suffragists and was considered by many “one of the most eloquent advocates of equal rights for women.”

Alice began visiting the Island as a child and continued to return almost every summer. In a 1939 letter to the Vineyard Gazette she remembered staying at the Gay Head Lighthouse during her first visit to the Island over 70 years prior.

> Image courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

Alice Stone Blackwell speaking at a suffrage meeting, August 13, 1918. Image courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.
Antoinette Brown Blackwell and Alice Stone Blackwell in a horse-drawn carriage at a suffrage parade, c. 1913-1917. Image courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

Years later, Horace Robinson, a descendant of Antoinette Brown Blackwell, remembered his suffragist relatives celebrating the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

Samuel and Antoinette Blackwell and four of their daughters, c. 1884-1894. Back row: Agnes Blackwell (Jones) and Florence Blackwell (Mayhew). Seated: Samuel Charles Blackwell and Rev. Antoinette Brown Blackwell. Front row: Dr. Edith Blackwell and Dr. Ethel Blackwell (Robinson). Image courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.
1876 — NWSA publishes the Declaration of Rights of the Women of the United States

Florence Blackwell Mayhew

Florence (1856-1937), the eldest of Samuel and Antoinette Brown Blackwell’s five daughters, settled on the Island, marrying E. Elliot Mayhew, postmaster and storekeeper in Chilmark. Like her mother and aunts, Florence was a suffragist, she attended at least one national convention, and actively engaged in public life here on the Island.

Long before women could vote, she regularly attended town meetings, where she was often the only woman present. When Massachusetts women gained the right to vote for school committee positions, Florence promptly registered to vote and shortly thereafter ran for school board and was elected. She went on to help found the Chilmark Library, the first public library on the Island.

A 1927 Vineyard Gazette article observed: “There has been... and still is at least one lady living on the Vineyard, who has been as active in suffrage as the environment would allow... Mrs. Florence Blackwell Mayhew of Chilmark is the lady who from inclination and from an inherited interest in public and professional matters has worked, almost unsupported, for the cause which she believed in until success having been attained she turned her mind and efforts to other things and has attracted the Island’s attention by her recent appointment as a local preacher.”

Huntington family in cart pulled by Bob, 1909. Anna Huntington, better known as Nan, was the adopted daughter of Dr. Emily Blackwell. Here she rides in a cart with three of her sons, Gale, Frederick (Fritzie), and Wilfred (Willie). Gale Huntington would go on to set down roots on Martha’s Vineyard, marrying Mildred Tilton, teaching at the local high school, and editing the Dukes County Intelligencer.
Blackwell family home in Chilmark, 1907. Image courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.
1878 — A women’s suffrage amendment is introduced in Congress and suffragists testify before senators on the issue of women’s suffrage for the first time

Taking Action

It took generations of activism for women to gain the right to vote. Over the years they used many arguments, from declaring the equality of men and women, to arguing that women could bring a unique, and important, “maternal perspective” to the ballot box. Although disagreements arose within the movement about the best approach to take, countless women continued to work tirelessly, asserting their right to participate in the political process — they made speeches, wrote articles, put up posters, signed petitions, picketed, went on hunger strikes, and marched.

In 1915, Massachusetts held a referendum on the question of women’s suffrage. The men of the state were asked whether the word “male” should be removed from the article of the Massachusetts Constitution that granted the right to vote. On October 16th 15,000 suffragists, accompanied by 30 bands, marched in support of the amendment in what was optimistically called the Victory Parade. Hopes were high, but ultimately the measure failed, defeated by a nearly two-to-one margin.

Symbolic Imagery

Visual imagery played an important role in the suffrage movement and different groups used a variety of colors, symbols, flowers, and animals in their messaging.

When suffragists in Massachusetts organized in support of the state’s 1915 referendum on women’s suffrage they deployed a little blue bird. On July 15, “Suffrage Blue Bird Day,” they plastered the state with roughly 100,000 colorful bluebird pins, like the one shown here, calling for the men of the state to cast their ballot in favor of women’s right to vote.

On the day of the pro-suffrage parade held shortly before the critical vote, anti-suffragists also made their voices heard using carefully chosen imagery, preparing over 100,000 “blushing” red roses for dissenters in the crowd to wear.

> Bluebird pin. c. 1915, loaned by Jackie Baer.

1879 — The Massachusetts Legislature votes to allow women to vote for school committee members; initially about 5,000 women register to vote
Click image to enlarge. Top, left: "Votes for Women" poster, c. 1913. Top, right: “Dispossessed” poster, c. 1911. Bottom, left: "For the long work day" poster, c. 1911. Bottom, right: Inez Milholland Boissevain poster, c. 1913-1916. Images courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.
1885 — Voter registration among women is low; no women on Martha’s Vineyard are registered to vote

DRESSED TO IMPRESS

Savvy women in the suffrage movement of the early 20th century realized the power of fashion in the fight for equality. Taking inspiration from the 1908 London rally, in which their British counterparts gathered by the tens of thousands all dressed in white, American suffragists incorporated the National Women’s Party colors of white, purple, and gold into their wardrobes.

Anti-suffrage propaganda often portrayed women involved in the movement as masculine, so suffragists instead conformed to feminine norms of the day, donning white dresses and accessorizing with sashes, pins, and jewelry that reflected the colors and symbols of the movement. At marches and rallies, the result of this fashion choice was visually striking and gave the appearance of a harmonious, united front.

Today, the tradition of wearing white continues. Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to be elected to Congress, wore white on her first day on the job. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did as well, stating “I wore white today in honor of the women who came before me, and the women yet to come.” To mark the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, the League of Women Voters of Martha’s Vineyard donned white and gathered at Five Corners in Vineyard Haven, both to celebrate the anniversary and urge women to use that hard earned right in the upcoming election.

League of Women Voters of Martha's Vineyard rally, 2020. Photograph by Brooke Bartletta.
1895 — Massachusetts holds a non-binding referendum to gauge public opinion about women’s suffrage; it is overwhelmingly rejected

ANTI-SUFFRAGE

Massachusetts was home to some of the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement, but it was also home to one of the nation’s strongest anti-suffrage groups, the Massachusetts Association Opposed to the Further Extension of Suffrage to Women (later the Women’s Anti-Suffrage Association of Massachusetts). One of the main fears of anti-suffrage campaigners was that if women participated in civic life it would break up the family — women would no longer “properly care” for their husband and children.

Anti-suffragists argued that suffrage should not be “thrust” upon women who did not want it — only if the majority of women wanted to vote, should any woman be granted the right to vote. In 1895, anti-suffragists in Massachusetts called for a referendum on the question and claimed any woman who didn’t vote was effectively voting “no.” The women who went to the poll overwhelmingly voted in the affirmative (96%), but when many more men voted and many of them voted “no,” the referendum failed.

1911 — Four women vote for the first time at an Edgartown town meeting
Click images to enlarge and see complete pages. "Objections to Woman Suffrage Answered," by Henry Blackwell, 1986. From the Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, courtesy of the National Archives.

Shortly after the failed 1895 Massachusetts referendum, Henry Blackwell, a longtime Vineyard summer resident and a strong supporter of the suffrage movement, attempted to rebut some of the anti-suffragists’ arguments.

Highly progressive for his time, many of Blackwell’s arguments for the respectability of women and their qualification to participate in political life ring true today. However, others feel dated, including his emphasis on how specifically the “refined, temperate, [and] chaste” nature of women would shape government. In responding to the argument that women were already represented in government he argued that, “Men cannot represent women, because they are unlike women. Women as a class have tastes, interests and occupations which they alone can adequately represent. Men specially represent material interests; women will specially represent the interests of the home.”

1915 — Massachusetts holds a referendum to amend the state’s constitution to strike the word “male” from the article giving the right to vote; it fails by a two-to-one margin

One Milestone Achieved

On June 4, 1919 Congress passed the 19th Amendment. Within a month, Massachusetts had ratified the Amendment. It took another year, but by the end of August 1920 enough states had ratified it to make it part of the constitution. That fall, many women across the nation voted for President for the very first time.

Yet, the fight was not over.

While a woman’s gender could no longer be used to disenfranchise her, many women still could not vote. For decades to come racial discrimination in the form of poll taxes, literacy tests, voter intimidation, and the withholding of citizenship prevented countless black women, indigenous women, and women of color from voting. It would take another half century to dismantle many of these barriers. In 1965 the Voting Rights Act explicitly banned such practices, but charges of systematic state- and local-level attempts to disenfranchise voters of color continue to this day.

Having achieved one major milestone in the fight for women’s rights, many suffragists turned towards other women’s issues. In the past century, more inroads have been made. Women can now serve on juries and in the armed forces, there are protections against discrimination in the work place and at school, and progress has been made towards gaining reproductive rights. Women now have a place in the public sphere, and with each ballot they cast and speech they make they can help bring us closer to that American ideal, “liberty and justice for all.”

Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, June 4, 1919. Image courtesy of the National Archives.
June 4, 1919 — Congress passes the 19th Amendment

ISLAND VOTING

On November 4th, 1920, 49-year-old Almah Pease Jernegan became the first Edgartown woman to ever cast a ballot in a presidential race, this one between Republican senator Warren G. Harding and Ohio governor David Cox.

Two months earlier, the Vineyard Gazette reported, not without some condescension, that 68 women from Edgartown, 56 from Oak Bluffs, and 115 from Vineyard Haven had already registered to vote.“Mere men who acted as registrars of voters were unqualified in their approval of the spirit in which the women of the Island are approaching their new task. And as for the old stigma which has attached to womankind from time immemorial – her foolish reluctance to tell her age – that bubble has burst for ever, if Vineyard experience is any criterion.”

It would take many more years for Islanders to adjust to women’s involvement in civic and political life. There was more than one false start. In 1923, only a year after voters in Chilmark elected three women to town offices, the Up Islanders did a one-eighty, not only removing the women from their positions, but altogether eliminating the offices they had held!

> Behind: Chilmark Town Hall, c. 1915.

Click images to enlarge and see complete articles.  Left: Women Disprove Pet Theory They Won’t Admit Their Age, Vineyard Gazette, September 2, 1920. Right, top: First Edgartown Woman to Vote For President, Vineyard Gazette, November 4, 1920. Right, Bottom: Petticoat Government in Chilmark at End, Fall River Daily Evening News, February 8, 1923. Left and top right images courtesy of the Vineyard Gazette.
June 25, 1919 — Massachusetts ratifies the 19th Amendment

ACTIVE CITIZENSHIP

After gaining the right to vote many women of the Island took their new responsibility seriously. They registered to vote and began participating in local politics. Members of the women’s clubs who had once debated and promoted women’s suffrage began to educate themselves and each other on their new responsibilities as voting citizens.

In the 1920s, the women of the Want to Know Club began devoting a portion of their regular meeting to “civic studies and their application,” covering such topics as town government, taxes, and “organized womanhood.” Shortly thereafter the women of Tisbury formed what would eventually become the League of Women Voters of Martha’s Vineyard. The League is devoted to promoting “political responsibility through informed and active participation of citizens in government” and remains active on the Island today.

Click images to enlarge. League of Women Voters of Martha's Vineyard publications, c. 1970.
August 18, 1920 — Tennessee becomes the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, passing the two-thirds threshold needed to pass the Amendment
August 26, 1920 — U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby certifies the 19th Amendment, making it law

. . . . . . . . . . .

Votes for Women: An Island Perspective was on display at the Martha's Vineyard Museum from October 27th, 2020 through January 3rd, 2021 in the Adele H. Waggaman Community Gallery.

The exhibition was sponsored in memory of Jane K. Schapiro.