Baltimore Women Stood on the Frontlines of the Suffrage Fight | #students | #parents

“People with power, which in this case was men, do not give it up willingly,” says Jean Baker, Goucher College professor emerita and author of several acclaimed books, including Sisters: The Lives of America’s Suffragists.

Winning the right to vote would ultimately require the commitment, creativity, and courage of three generations of women. The journey was fraught and complex as they navigated the shifting political winds of the Progressive Era, not to mention recessions, wars, epidemics, and segregation. Suffragists were often compelled to align with reformers who had other political priorities—notably women’s prohibition groups—in an effort to broaden their support. Initially, they had allied with abolitionists. Later, white suffragist leaders banned Black women from their organizations in an appeal for Southern support where Jim Crow was already suppressing the vote of Black men by every means available.

Over the course of what must have seemed a struggle without end, suffragists continually tweaked their strategies and tactics. They relied on state and national conventions, parlor meetings, petitions, protests, marches, and acts of civil disobedience, including the refusal to pay taxes—throwing the Founding Fathers’ “no taxation without representation” admonishment at legislators—to draw attention to their cause. They printed pamphlets and started newspapers. Their PR shops constantly sent articles out to local and national dailies with the intention of changing the hearts and minds of the public. They deployed sophisticated lobbyists and pressured elected officials at every level when that failed.

“[The battle] is about political power and political will,” says Elaine Weiss, the Baltimore-based author of the award-winning 2018 account of the passage of 19th amendment, The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote. “The story of the suffragists is a bare-knuckled political tale with women as the lead protagonists. You don’t get that too often. Like the ‘Me Too’ movement, they stood up and demanded to be listened to.”

And they did it all before radio, television, and social media.

In Maryland, the state’s elected officials, as well as its leading newspaper, The Baltimore Sun, remained staunchly anti-suffrage for the entirety of the women’s movement for the right to vote—and then some, it would turn out. By the 20th century, the Maryland State Suffrage Association, the Just Government League of Maryland, and the Equal Suffrage League were all campaiging throughout the state. Members of the state organizations also joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association, putting their delegates on trains, not a comfortable mode of transportation in those days, and sending them to conventions around the country.

As in many parts of the U.S., Black women in Maryland formed civic organizations, including suffrage groups. Augusta Chissell, one of the founding members of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP, and Margaret Hawkins, a history teacher, were neighbors at 1532 and 1534 Druid Hill Avenue—the site of a new National Votes for Women Trail historical marker. They formed a committee known as the Dubois Circle, which meets to this day, and then the Progressive Women’s Suffrage Club to advocate for the enfranchisement of all women in the state. But members sought redress for other issues as well. After the 19th Amendment was ratified, Augusta Chissell penned an Afro-American column called “A Primer for Women Voters” to guide women.

“Many of the Black women advocating for suffrage were educators,” says Morgan State University archivist Ida Jones, a biographer of Victorine Q. Adams, Baltimore’s first Black councilwoman. “They were advocating for the right to vote, but they were also seeking the same pay for the same job white teachers were doing. They were trying to address the conditions of the city schools, wage, public education, housing, and health care inequality, many of the same issues as today.”

The pushback suffragists confronted was unrelenting. They were derided as radicals, socialists, communists, anarchists, Bolsheviks, and perverts, and mocked as unattractive and “unsexed.” Predictably, opposition came from male-dominated institutions—state houses, Congress, corporate interests, the legal community, and churches—but other sources as well that might be unexpected today. The National Association Opposed to Women Suffrage, which had state chapters, including one in Maryland, and headquarters in both New York and Washington, D.C., was founded by a woman. In fact, many organizations formed to oppose suffrage were led by women. (Suffragist women informally referred to each other as “suffs” and those opposed to voting rights as “antis.”) The most painful rebukes often came from their own families, who sometimes cast them out altogether.

Gladys Greiner, a young professional golfer and suffragist from Baltimore, was repudiated by her establishment parents in The Sun following an arrest in New York after marching with other suffragists in the city’s annual Christmas Day parade in 1919. “[We] regret very much that she thought it was her duty to take part in this silly parade,” her father was quoted, “which could not possibly result in anything except ridicule or pity for the misguided women who were tools of some other parties, who remained in the background.”

Even after the 19th Amendment passed in 1920, the battle continued in Maryland where a local judge sued the state to remove the names of two Baltimore women from the list of registered voters. His position was that the Maryland constitution granted voting rights only to men, and that the state was not among the 36 that ratified the 19th Amendment. Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his claim. Meanwhile, the amendment was not ratified by Maryland until March 1941, and the vote itself not certified until 1958.

None of this opposition would have surprised Anthony, the pivotal women’s rights activist, orator, and lifelong social reformer, who had begun collecting signatures on anti-slavery petitions in the 1830s as a teenager. She made her last speech at the Lyric Theater in Baltimore during a convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in February 1906, having already trained the next generation of leaders.

“I am here for a little time only, and then my place will be filled,” the 86-year-old told the audience. “The fight must not cease. You must see that it does not stop. Failure is impossible.” Battling serious illness even as she delivered the speech, she died a month later, 14 years before the amendment named in her honor became the law of land.

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