Holliston’s Women Fight for Suffrage – A History

Election Day is often on November 4, and this year, the Holliston Historical society presented a program that celebrated the suffrage movement in Holliston. Alas, in March 2020, we were rehearsing the program and were just about to present it to the public when so many activities were cancelled and postponed. But on November 4, 2021, we bravely returned in person to celebrate – a little belatedly – the 100th anniversary of Women’s Suffrage in the United States.  We know many of the stories of this history in the United States, but what happened here in Holliston? Who were our Suffragettes? And what did they experience while they campaigned and fought for the right to vote?

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, women in Holliston were working for economic and political equality and for social reforms. The right to vote was just one battle in that long-fought war.

On December 27, 1856, the following was published in our local newspaper, The Holliston Transcript:

                HINT TO ENGAGED YOUNG LADIES

Ratification of the 19th amendment to the Constitution brought to a new level and extended national franchise to about 26 million women. About 19 million women already held the right to vote for President, under state laws, but only 7 million heretofore could vote for Congress. The first demand for woman suffrage was made in 1647, when Mistress Margaret Brent, heir to the Honorable Leonard Calvert fortune in the Virginia colony, requested a place in the legislature of that colony, on the grounds that she was an extensive property holder.  When the United States Constitution was being written, Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams,  made a famous plea to John asking that women be given a voice in the new government:

            “If in the new laws particular care and attention are not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound to obey any laws in which we have no voice.”

And rebel, we did.

Such was the plight of women in the nineteenth century. But at this same time, female rumblings were emerging. Women had begun to look forward to greater freedom – and independence from laws, and social norms. And when did they start to do this? The Seneca Falls, New York Convention in 1848, with such luminaries as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott had fanned the flames into a conflagration, the movement had been well-trained by women’s involvement with the anti-slavery movement. The Free Soil Party was a short-lived political party in the United States, active from 1848 to 1854, when it merged with the Republican Party. The party was largely focused on the single issue of opposing the expansion of slavery into the western territories of the United States. And in Holliston there was a Free Soil Party committee that met to discuss the political issues of the time, that included not just men, but women as well. And, of course, there was resistance to women’s roles in fighting slavery and campaigning for voting rights. The leaders of the influential Congregational Church in Massachusetts prepared a letter that they ordered ministers to read from every pulpit. It warned that:

Such thoughts doggedly haunted women’s suffrage activities, as we will hear, right up to the final vote for the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1920.

The first National Woman’s Rights Convention was held at Worcester Massachusetts, on October 23, 1850.

The Civil War mobilized all citizens toward its victory, Holliston sent 429 men to war. The memorials here bear witness to the sacrifice in lives. But at the war’s end, women, who had learned quite a lot serving on anti-slavery committees, conventions for the rights of women, and temperance societies now watched emancipation and voting rights granted to free – male, of course – former slaves. Not that women protested their rights, but now they were asking, “What about us?” What were women in Holliston after the Civil War thinking and doing?

SHALL WOMEN VOTE?

This is a question that is fast assuming such proportions that it is useless for intriguing demagogues and conniving politicians to attempt to sneer it out of existence.  Woman should and shall vote.  Indeed there is no reason at all why she shouldn’t, in this very generation, have the full exercise of that right, and there are thousands of reasons why she should have had it seventy-five years ago.  What was the cry that only one century ago was ringing through this land from one end to the other, and from the wild Atlantic’s shores to the lonesome forest of the then far West?  It was this: “Taxation without representation is tyranny.”  Yet these same men, after they had established a government upon the principle that all mankind is created free and equal, deprived one-half of their legal citizens of one of their most sacred and just rights.  Nor was this all.  Not satisfied with this, they sheltered under the strong arm of the law a chattel slavery throughout the country, and nursed and fed it until it arose, powerful in its own strength and turned upon its foster mother, drenching the land in blood and filling the country with mourning and isolation.

But how much freer do we stand to-day before the nations of the earth?  But little.  The country has been rid of a terrible pest in the shape of slavery, but woman is still held in subjection without a  voice in her government; and she may accumulate property, while man —  that little, puny being, man — who thinks himself almost a god, will extort from her as high a tax upon it as possible in order to further his own sordid self-interest and selfish  ends. 

That woman will have the right of suffrage is only a question of time; then I say to the women of the country, Demand your just rights.  Let every woman in the land take a vote and march to the ballot box (as she can do under the XIV amendment), and mankind will give way before woman kind like the western forests before the march of civilization.  When woman shall exercise the right of suffrage to its fullest extent there will be a greater rustling among the dry bones than ever before.  The coming woman, who is yet to rule on an equality with man, will be no political demagogue and moneyed tyrant, living on the earnings of honest people, but fearlessly and justly will mete out punishment to those who deserve, and execute the laws without the fear of man or the desire of earthly power.  That it will bring about great and startling changes in the surging sea of politics all can see, but the waves of revolution and political agitation, however stirred by the shifting winds of partyism, have no fears for those who bravely face the brunt of battle and stand firm and steadfast on the side of truth and reform.

Holliston,  October 17, 1871.                         C.C.M.

The Framingham Gazette, October 25, 1871.

In 1878, a Woman Suffrage Amendment was proposed in the U.S. Congress. When the 19th Amendment passed 41 years later, it was worded exactly the same as the 1878 amendment. The first vote on woman suffrage was taken in the Senate in 1887. It is defeated.

Fast Day was an old holiday traditionally on the first Thursday of April, a day proclaimed by the Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as a day for “fasting, humiliation and Prayer,” a day that a minister could expound upon subjects moral, political, social and not necessarily religious in content. We ceased celebrating this holiday in 1893, and a new April holiday was re-invented as Patriots Day, traditionally April 19. Thursday, Fast Day, April 3, 1879, a sermon was delivered in Holliston:

WOMEN CAN VOTE FOR SCHOOL COMMITTEE

August 8, 1879 – By act of the last Legislature the women of the State can vote for members of School Committee.  Every woman who has paid a proper tax within two years from the first of May last, can vote by showing the receipt for such tax to the selectmen in the towns, or to the Registrar in the cities, and having her name put on the register two weeks before the election.  Every woman who has not paid such a tax must apply to the assessors for a poll tax.  As no person can be assessed after September 15th, it is important that this assessment should be made as soon as possible.

The women of Holliston wasted no time in getting involved and on a caucus ballot. The following women appeared on the first town election ballot to ever contain the names of women:

  • Lucy Partridge
  • Mrs. A.J. Stevens
  • Anastasia Grace
  • Nellie Farquhar
  • Mrs. J.S. French
  • Mrs. George B. Fiske

Lucy Partridge won a seat on the School Committee with the highest total of 261 votes.  Hooray for Lucy! Our first woman of Holliston to appear on a town ballot and she won! But Lucy declined. She had her good reasons, as she was a teacher at the Beach Institute in Savannah, Georgia and later at Talladega College in Alabama, schools that were founded for freed slaves, male and female, after the Civil War. She made frequent trips back to Holliston and gathered donations from Holliston citizens in support of her work there. The voters of Holliston, especially the women voters, would have to wait a little more than a decade before another caucus promoted a female candidate. The outcome, that time would be different.

Discussion about suffrage for women continued to be a widely debated topic in the local press. A letter to the editor appeared in the August 29, 1879 edition of the Holliston Transcript.

WOMEN’S SUFFRAGE

There was much that the women of Holliston needed to learn to get up to speed on voting rules. The following notice appeared in the September 12, 1879 edition of the Holliston Transcript. Listen carefully, and you’d better take notes:

Nancy Cutler did live long enough to vote in the March 1880 town election. The women who voted sent a “cheerful” note thanking the town authorities for “their considerate and gentlemanly manner in making the way so easy and pleasant for them to cast their first votes.”

The women’s Suffrage Alliance, Number 82, of Holliston, was organized on April 25, 1888, with 18 members, with Mary A. Cutler (Nancy’s daughter-in-law) as president and with three men listed as vice-presidents of the organization.

Mary Anna Johnson won a seat on the school committee in 1893, the first of two terms. Her father, Peter Rogers Johnson inspired in her an interest in politics. He was the owner of a shoe shop located on Elm Street. In 1859, he was elected the president of the Massachusetts Association of Base Ball Players – only the second person ever to hold that position. Her father was also a state representative elected in 1873, and served until 1877. He served the town of Holliston as a selectman and as an assessor. Mary Anna inherited an interest in politics from him. At the town election of 1893 she saw an opportunity to put her knowledge, legacy – and courage – to work, and was elected to Holliston’s School Committee, the first woman – albeit not the first elected – but the first to be elected AND to serve on a town committee.  Could she have imagined she was beginning a trend that would grow for years, decades and centuries to come. And yet, the promoters of anti-suffrage continued to push back.

The first opportunity for women to vote was actually not the national election in November of 1920. Woman were given the right to vote in Massachusetts in time for the primary election on September 8, 1920. The polls opened at 4 pm and closed at 8 pm.  The first male vote was cast by Thomas Gooch.  Emma Clark cast the first female vote in Holliston under the new suffrage laws.

But that’s not all. When the 19th amendment became law on August 26, 1920, millions of adult female Americans were nominally eligible to vote. But full electoral equality was still decades away from many women of color who counted among that number. The federal suffrage amendment prohibited discrimination based on sex, but it did not address other kinds of discrimination that many American women faced: the women from marginalized communities were excluded on the basis of gender and race. Native American Asian American Latin X in African American suffrage had to fight for their own enfranchisement long after the 19th amendment was ratified. Only over successive years did each of these groups gain access to the ballot. In 1920 Native Americans weren’t allowed to be United States citizens, so the federal Amendment did not give them the right to vote. The first generation of white suffragists had studied native communities to learn from a model of government that included women is equal democratic actors, but the suffragists did not advocate for indigenous women. Nonetheless Native American activists continued to organize and advocate with white mainstream suffragettes with the passage of the Snyder Act in 1924 American born native women gained citizenship but until as late as 1962 individual states still prevented them from voting on contrived grounds such as literacy tests, poll taxes, and claims that residents on a reservation meant one wasn’t also a resident of that state.

Native born Asian Americans already had U.S. citizenship in 1920 but first-generation Asian Americans did not. Asian American immigrant women were therefore excluded from voting until the immigration and nationality act of 1952 allowed them to gain citizenship more than three decades after the 19th Amendment. Despite being barred from citizenship and from voting Asian American suffragists worked alongside white native-born women in the years leading up to 1920.

Latin X women contributed to the success of the suffrage movement at both state and federal levels particularly with their efforts to reach out to Spanish speaking women.  And in Puerto Rico suffragettes like Luisa Capetillo worked to attain women’s voting rights which were first given to literate women in 1929, and all Puerto Rican women in 1935. And yet literacy tests remained an effective means of keeping some Hispanic in other women of color from voting long after the federal Amendment was passed. It took a 1975 extension of the Voting Rights Act prohibiting discrimination against language minority citizens to expand voting access to women who rely heavily on languages other than English. Some African American suffragettes in the north were able with the 19th amendment to realize the rewards of the activism, but throughout much of the country the same voter suppression tactics that kept black men from the polls kept black women from voting.  Literacy tests, poll taxes, voter ID requirements and intimidation, and threats and acts of violence were all obstacles. The struggle for suffrage which began for black women in the early 1800s continued until activists fought for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, two hundred years later. After the 19th amendment the work to secure the vote for all women has continued beyond 1920, as diverse women expanded voting access for more Americans. Their project of creating a more equitable society through voting rights persists even today.

Ladies, next time you are called to jury duty, remember this: Massachusetts first allowed women to serve on juries in 1949. Massachusetts was the last of the New England states to grant the right.

Written, Researched and Posted by Joanne Hulbert, Town Historian

……always on the trail to a better understanding of Holliston’s history

Joanne Hulbert

1 Comment

  1. Deb Moore on November 14, 2021 at 9:01 am

    Thank you Joanne for all the work you put into making this happen. It would be a great learning experience for Holliston’s students. You did a wonderful job putting it together! It was fun to participate!

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