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I Found It in the Archives: Women's Suffrage

Nov 06, 2012 by Clara Bertagnolli

Mount Holyoke College suffragettes rally for “Votes for Women,” circa 1916.

The Presidential election is upon us, and most students who haven't voted by absentee ballot will take a bus today from Blanchard to the South Hadley High School, where the polls are set up. On November 5, 1895, students cast in their votes for a different cause: suffrage! Massachusetts held a state-wide vote to see how interested its citizens were in granting suffrage to women. To see who was interested, Wellesley, Smith, and Mount Holyoke each had their students cast votes. In the end, Wellesley and Smith found themselves in favor. It may come as a surprise that Mount Holyoke actually came out against women’s suffrage, 114 to 185. The state’s majority also went against. 

Why were so many against the vote? A look into the Archives and Special Collections shows compositions and newspaper articles by anti-suffrage students explaining their side.

Anna Leonard, Class of 1869, wrote a composition on October 26, 1867 describing the view of a speaker on campus, who claimed that people were running out of conversation, so they were grabbing at whatever topic they could find. Not many women were upset that they didn’t have all the same rights as men, the speaker said, and women could always count on their husbands and fathers to vote for what they would vote for. Because women would be casting the same votes as their husbands and fathers, the vote would just be doubled. Also, the logic that women should have the vote to have a say in taxes because they own property would mean that people should have a number of votes relative to the value of their property, which is not fair to all. 

An article in The Mount Holyoke newspaper printed January 1903 (volume 12, issue 5) added that many felt it was against opinions that were fundamental to science, industry, and religion, and that “it [would] destroy the home and womanliness.” 

One student’s notes on a program from a debate held May 28, 1909, resulting in a tie, noted the anti-suffrage side argument that at the moment, only intelligent women exert a political influence, and that the female vote is more easily manipulated than the male vote. An article in The Mount Holyoke published in June 1909 (volume 19, issue 1) explained that “conditions could not be materially improved by the admission of women of all classes…the right would become too great a burden rather than a privilege for the majority.” 

Jeannette Bickford, Class of 1918, wrote in her November 13, 1914 composition that women already had the right to vote on educational matters in Massachusetts, but no great change came of that, despite the change that pro-suffrage women claimed would come from universal suffrage. She stated that it would increase the cost for elections and result in raised taxes for women, and that “woman under the present social regime has advanced as much as man who has had the ballot; so, what is the use of going to the trouble of changing our whole social and political scheme of life?” 

It may seem that the campus was decidedly against women’s suffrage. Susan Reed Stiffler, Class of 1907, recalled in the Spring 1972 edition of the Alumnae Quarterly (issue 56, volume 1) that even our progressive president Mary Woolley refused to attend the first suffrage lecture at Mount Holyoke, occurring in the 1905/1906 school year. Ms. Woolley wasn’t sure that the school was the right place to discuss the nation’s problems, and believed that the students ought to be left in peace while they studied because they would be involved in the world later in life. Ms. Woolley herself did not recall this and was actually quite ashamed when she heard the tale recounted later, said Stiffler. Still, as President Woolley’s shame shows, the movement for women’s suffrage slowly grew on campus. A Mount Holyoke branch of the National College Equal Suffrage League was established in Spring 1911, and its constitution was passed by the Faculty Committee on Constitutions on May 14, 1912. The group became so popular that it increased from 160 members in the 1913/1914 school year to 360 in 1914/1915. They raised money for the cause through a popular event called the “Kitchen Orchestra” in the spring of 1914, according to The Mount Holyoke, June 1914 (issue 24, volume 1). 

Students supporting suffrage would have worn pins like these, belonging to students of the Class of 1914 and 1918 respectively.

On April 25, 1915, they held an event called “Suffrage Day.” From a letter written on Apr. 25 1915 by Hortense Hubbard, Class of 1917, to her “folks”: 

"Yesterday was “Suffrage Day” and after chapel a girl dressed in white beat a drum and there were all sorts of signs around about suffrage. On the lawn between the Library and Mary Lyon Chapel they had a table where they distributed papers and tried to get people to join the society up here. Cornelia did but I didn’t. Late in the afternoon Miss Marks, one of the faculty, went around campus with her dog, a collie, and around his neck was a basket with jonquils in it and they were selling them for the benefit of suffrage. But I wouldn’t buy one, because I am not ready to ally myself with the suffragettes, although I think they have some arguments. For instance last night Cornelia was trying to convince Dorothy Richardson about suffrage. Something was said about the Catholics and Cornelia said that the head popes & priests etc don’t favor it, because that they realize it will mean more of an education and an enlightenment for the women, and they don’t want it. Is that true? I didn’t happen to get any of the papers that they distributed, but Cornelia did and maybe she will let me send them to you, if you will send them back.”

Hortense’s friend Cornelia would have picked up a pamphlet like this one. 

The support for suffrage didn’t stop there. According to the Springfield Republican’s article on October 24, 1915, the longest U.S. women’s suffrage parade was held in New York City on October 23, 1915. Around 30,000 women marched that day, causing the parade to take about 4 hours and 20 minutes for the entire parade to pass any one spot.  About 150 Mount Holyoke women participated, all in caps and gowns. 


At their graduation, students of the Class of 1916 held signs to show their continuing support for the movement. 

Four years later, the suffragettes finally achieved their goal of national suffrage for women. If you’d like to see the materials mentioned here or learn more about suffrage around Mount Holyoke and elsewhere, check out our Women’s Suffrage Research Guide before you stop by the Archives and Special Collections, open Monday through Friday from 9:30 am to 12 pm and from 1 pm to 4:30 pm.


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