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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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
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.
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
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.
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.