"Votes for Women": Vassar and the Politics of Women's Suffrage


by Miriam Cohen, Evalyn Clark Professor of History

      When Vassar College opened its doors in 1865 soon after the end of the Civil War, many Americans were thinking about expanding voting rights. Black and white activists sought suffrage for African American men, with some arguing that women, too, should be given the ballot. In Poughkeepsie, shortly before he died in April 1868, the college’s founder, Matthew Vassar, noted his own support for women’s suffrage. Those agreeing with Vassar would be disappointed by the Fifteenth Amendment (1870), which gave voting rights only to male citizens regardless of race. The battle to win women the same right would go on for another fifty years.

      During the first decade or so after the college’s founding, however, women’s suffrage was barely an issue on campus. As the suffrage movement grew at the turn of twentieth century–along with women’s participation in other social movements–Vassar students, faculty, and alumnae all played important roles in the campaign.  In doing so, they struggled to make a better world. They also tried to shed the prejudices of their times but they did not always succeed, leaving to later generations important work in the fight for social justice.

      In the 1870s, Vassar administrators were keenly aware that higher education for women was quite controversial; they sought to assure the public that cultivating women’s intellect should not be confused with encouraging ideas about women’s “political rights.”  True to the founder’s vision, President John Raymond (1864-1878) stated that Vassar graduates would be admired for “the breadth and clearness of their intelligence.” But, he added, the public would support educating women so long as it contributed to the development of more traditional female attributes, such as “the simplicity of and delicacy of their manners and for the dignity, purity, and symmetry of their character.”[1]

      Looking back on her Vassar days, alumna Harriot Stanton Blatch (1878), daughter of suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton and an important activist in her own right, echoed her mother’s dim view of the college as a site of serious suffrage activity. Blatch criticized the administration for discouraging students from taking “ any interest whatsoever in their own political freedom.” That doesn’t mean that there was no interest in the issues of the day, including women’s rights. Harriot, for example, organized the Vassar Political Club for students to encourage student interest in civic affairs.[2] One of her most inspirational teachers, the notable astronomer Maria Mitchell, invited suffragist leaders —including Elizabeth Cady Stanton herself– to speak on campus.

      By the end of the 1880s, a new group of inspirational faculty members, energized by the social movements emerging at the turn of the twentieth century, arrived on campus. This cohort included Lucy Maynard Salmon, founder of the History Department, Laura Wylie (1877), and Gertrude Buck, both in English, and Herbert Mills in Economics. They all supported women’s suffrage along with other reform initiatives. Like many academics in the Progressive Era, they believed that the best educational experiences for their students were those that made connections between what they were learning on the college campus and the social challenges of the community outside the ivory tower

      However, Vassar President James Monroe Taylor (1886-1914) deeply opposed these efforts to incorporate social activism into the life of the college. Chafing against the restrictions, which included a ban on suffrage activities, Salmon, and her partner, Vassar librarian Adelaide Underhill, took up residence in the city of Poughkeepsie in 1901. A few years later, Wylie and Buck followed them into the city. In 1909, Salmon helped Wylie form the Equal Suffrage League in Poughkeepsie; Wylie served as its president. Wylie and Salmon continued to work on behalf of suffrage and women’s political rights throughout their careers.[3]

      Salmon and Wylie came to Vassar just as the national women’s suffrage movement was emerging from a period of deep division. In the antebellum era, the campaign on behalf of women’s rights, including the right to vote, was deeply intertwined with the efforts to abolish slavery. After the Civil War, woman suffragists organized the American Equal Rights Association (AERA) to promote universal suffrage. But in 1867, as campaigns for suffrage began in the states, the divisions between those pushing for universal suffrage and those pushing for black male suffrage first became increasingly bitter. When she saw that many of her former allies in the Republican Party were abandoning women’s suffrage, Elizabeth Cady Stanton began using racist and nativist arguments in arguing for the importance of suffrage for educated white women.[4] In doing so, Stanton was calling on an all-too typical argument that many suffragists put forward.  Reflecting a narrow vision of democracy, they argued it was unfair that immigrants and black men were allowed to vote, while educated white women were not.  Some suffragists also argued that because they had no voting rights, women were lumped together with society’s “undesirables,” a list that might include paupers, criminals, the mentally challenged, and Native Americans.  In lending his support to women getting the vote in 1868, Matthew Vassar had told a pro-suffragist student he agreed it was unfortunate that, denied the vote, New York women were put in the “shameful” category of “criminals, paupers, and idiots.”[5]

      With the proposed Fifteenth Amendment stipulating that states could not deny the vote to citizens because of race but making no mention of women, Stanton and her great suffragist colleague, Susan B. Anthony, refused to support state campaigns for ratification. They broke away from their former allies to form the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), committed to the continuing fight for a federal amendment to enfranchise women. Other suffragists denounced the Stanton/Anthony approach. African American abolitionist and woman’s suffragist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper grappled with the issues facing black women, who were dealing with the intersection of race and gender. “You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs. I, as a colored woman have had in this country an education which has made me feel as I were in the situation of Ishmael, my hand against every man, and every man’s hand against me.”[6] She and others supporting the Fifteenth Amendment joined with suffragist Lucy Stone in founding the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). For the next couple of decades the two organizations remained apart, with the NWSA advocating a federal amendment to enfranchise women and the AWSA pushing campaigns for suffrage in the states

      In 1890 the rival factions united as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), agreeing to endorse the fight for a federal amendment and campaigns to change state constitutions. The woman suffrage movement was growing stronger in the 1880s, thanks in part to the powerful Woman’s Christian Temperance organization, which, under the leadership of Frances Willard, threw its support behind winning women access to the polls. In the 1890s, as part of an upsurge in women’s social reform, the voting rights movement grew even more powerful.

      Historian Ellen Dubois points out that throughout its history, women’s suffrage was never “a “single issue” movement.”[7] In the early twentieth century, networks of women mobilized on behalf of a variety of reforms, including women’s political rights. Middle-class and wealthy women, often members of women’s clubs, energetically addressed a variety of concerns, such as the growing poor neighborhoods across cities and social problems facing immigrants.  Excluded by the white women’s clubs, hundreds of African American women’s clubs focused on family welfare among black Americans who were dealing with both poverty and racism. Black and white women pushed suffrage both because they believed it was their democratic right, and because many believed that providing women with political power was critical to accomplishing other social goals.

      At Vassar President Taylor could no longer insulate the Vassar campus from the political and social ferment of the era. According to historian Lynn Gordon, Vassar student associations, such as the College Settlement Association, founded in 1890 to support settlement houses, the Consumers League, founded in 1900 to campaign against sweated labor, and the Christian Association, around since 1865, expressed “social consciousness, reform goals, and service ideals through their work on campus and off.”[8]

      Vassar’s interest in social reform came before its embrace of suffrage. Nevertheless, around 1900, a few students took an interest in suffrage. Crystal Eastman (1903) would later make her mark as an ardent feminist, an avowed socialist, and a peace activist. She studied with Salmon and took many courses on economics and the labor question taught by Herbert Mills. By the time she graduated, she already had a reputation on campus as a suffragist.  Eastman succeeded her very close friend, Lucy Burns (1902), as president of Vassar’s Civitas, an organization, “that focused on social and intellectual study of present day subjects.” Burns would later co-found the National Woman’s Party, working tirelessly to push for the federal amendment granting woman suffrage. Burns also took a number of economic courses, along with English and languages. Both Burns and Eastman enjoyed acting on campus, which might well have been where they honed their skills as orators.[9]

      As the suffrage movement beyond Vassar grew, President Taylor found it more difficult to keep it off campus; students began debating the pros and cons of the issue. Suffrage was still controversial, not only in the country at large but at Vassar. Some students opposed suffrage because they believed that women’s focus should remain with the private sphere of home and family, leaving the public sphere to men. Others thought that women could play important roles in the civic arena through influence, but not by entering politics. And others rejected the “whole principle” because they disapproved of the suffragists’ tactics.[10]

      In 1909 the Miscellany began running editorials advocating for the vote.  Faculty and students were becoming increasingly disturbed by Taylor’s ban on suffrage events on campus.  Many were furious in 1908 when Taylor refused to allow the renowned social reformer Jane Addams to give a lecture about suffrage on campus, though other Seven Sisters schools permitted her to speak.

      Among those unhappy with Taylor’s stance was Inez Milholland, a junior that year, well known on campus for her talents in theatre, her athleticism, and especially her political activism. Having spent her previous summer break in England working with the militant suffragist Sylvia Pankhurst, Milholland decided to confront Vassar’s president. That spring of 1908 Harriet Stanton Blatch’s New York organization, The Equality League of Self-Supporting Women, had organized a trolley car campaign to promote suffrage throughout the state. Blatch had formed the organization the year before as a partnership between working class and prosperous women to press for the vote. Milholland invited her to bring the campaign to Vassar, just before graduation. When Taylor refused to allow the meeting on campus, Milholland led some 40 Vassar students to the cemetery across from the campus for an open-air gathering.”[11]

      Vassar’s “suffrage in the cemetery meeting,” widely covered in the New York press, makes appearances in many histories of women’s fight for the vote. The speakers at the event embody the connection among various social movements galvanizing the Vassar students. Blatch herself spoke, as did noted feminist and socialist Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Vassar alumna Helen Hoy (1899), who at the time was the attorney for the Equality League. But according to Blatch’s biographer, Ellen Dubois, the star of the protest was labor organizer Rose Schneiderman.[12]  Just two years later, she would play a prominent role in organizing women garment workers in the famous uprising of 20,000 shirtwaist strikers in the winter 1909/10.  During that strike, students and recent Vassar graduates, including Milholland, walked the picket line. They raised money to support the strikers, and the Miscellany also reported on the event. In her short life after her Vassar graduation—she died at age thirty of aplastic anemia—Milholland became famous for her suffrage activities, but she also worked on behalf of trade unionism, socialism, and political rights for African Americans.[13]

      After the cemetery rally a suffrage club continued to operate on campus clandestinely. In 1912, students once again put pressure on President Taylor to allow suffrage activities on campus. In April 478 students signed a petition calling for open campus discussion of women’s right to vote. Relenting at last, Taylor allowed a mass meeting to be held that month.  Students, and faculty continued to contest Taylor’s approach to campus life and in early 1913 he submitted his resignation.

      Soon after Taylor left, the college granted permission for suffrage groups to operate openly on campus.[14]  Vassar’s chapter of the College Equal Suffrage League, a national organization affiliated with NAWSA, could now promote a whole host of activities, sponsoring debates on campus between proponents and opponents of suffrage, hosting guest speakers and actively helping state and national campaigns on behalf of the vote. In 1916 the Vassar chapter would become the first campus group to establish a suffrage school for training debaters and speakers. The growing enthusiasm for suffrage was reflected in a Miscellany 1914 poll, which showed that almost two thirds of the students were now in favor, considerably more than students who were polled in 1911; that year, only the senior class reported a majority of students who were pro suffrage. [15]

      Vassar’s new president, Henry Noble MacCracken (1915-1946), contributed to the changing campus culture. He was an outspoken proponent of suffrage, and a leader in the Men’s League for Woman Suffrage.  MacCracken embraced the educational ethos of the progressive faculty at the college; Lucy Maynard Salmon once noted that in his first five years, “there was more intellectual excitement and ferment than in the previous twenty-five years.”[16]

      The new outspokenness of suffragists on campus mirrored the changes in the movement at large. After 1910 suffragists became sophisticated publicists. They took to the streets with parades and open-air meetings, hawked newspapers and pamphlets, while also producing songs. They sold suffrage artifacts of all kinds, including dolls, dishes, tea sets, and food.[17] At the same time, all across the country the movement was energized from its growing diversity. In New Mexico, for example, Anglo and Hispanic women marched together in a 1915 suffrage parade.  Immigrant women active in the trade union movement were prominent participants in suffrage parades in New York, San Francisco, and Chicago.[18]

      African American suffragists also paraded but white activists often stymied them when they sought inclusion on equal terms.  The famous 1913 suffrage parade is a prominent example. By then, a group of suffragists, led by Alice Paul, along with Vassar’s Lucy Burns and Crystal Eastman, was active in NAWSA’s Congressional Committee. Suffrage was a transnational movement, and like Inez Milholland, Burns and Paul had been energized by time in England, working with Sylvia Pankhurst, her daughter Emmeline, and her sister Christabel. Frustrated by the painfully slow pace of the state-by-state strategy, Paul and Burns were pushing NAWSA towards a more focused campaign on behalf of a federal amendment. The two activists, under the auspices of NAWSA, organized the first national suffrage parade, which took place the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration.

      The event was nothing short of spectacular. Just behind the grand marshal, activist and close associate of Burns and Paul, Inez Milholland (Boissevain), rode a white horse. By 1913, Milholland, who had already led two New York City suffrage parades, one on horseback, had become a media sensation.  The suffrage movement well understood that Milholland’s good looks and the fact that she was married, made her an important symbol of the movement, whose leaders were consciously moving to counter an image of “mannish,” man-hating women. As the New York Sun noted,” No suffrage parade was complete without Inez Milholland, “for with her tall figure and free step, her rich brown hair, blue eyes and fair skin and well cut features, she was an ideal figure of the typical American woman.”[19]

      African American suffragists did not fit into this traditional white image of ideal womanhood. Alice Paul, in favor of black voting rights, originally invited black suffragists to march. When a group of white women objected to their participation, Paul acquiesced, determined not to antagonize the southern suffragists who shunned the prospect of supporting black voting rights. She expected that a very few black women would march inconspicuously scattered within the parade of 5,000 women. When some thirty African American suffragists from Howard University insisted on marching under their own banner with the other college delegations, Paul refused. Facing determined resistance from African Americans and some of their white allies, she “compromised” by allowing them to march but separating them from white women by a delegation of white male suffrage allies. Mary Church Terrell, the first president of the National Association of Colored Women, marched proudly with the Howard delegation.  However, when the renowned African American journalist/activist Ida Wells-Barnett, head of the Illinois’ black suffrage organization, the Alpha League, was told she needed to march with a separate black group, she refused, stepping from the crowd to join the regular Illinois delegation.[20]

      Some white suffragists firmly advocated for black women’s voting rights, including Vassar graduates Milholland, Blatch, Eastman, and the prominent social reformer, Julia Lathrop (1880).  Milholland objected to Paul’s planned banning of the Howard women but in the end she acquiesced to Paul’s “compromise,” riding in the parade that Paul wanted. “Ironically,” according to Milholland’s biographer, Linda Lumsden, her “unofficial anointment by the press and suffragists as suffragists’ ideal woman symbolized the movement’s exclusionary nature. It would be decades before [white] feminists would address racism in the women’s movement and the dangers of imaging the ideal woman as white, well educated, beautiful, heterosexual, and wealthy. The pedestal upon which suffrage leaders and the press had placed Milholland rested upon her many privileges, even as she challenged those privileges.”[21]

      The racism that marked this era of social reform and the expansion of women’s rights also lived on the Vassar campus. While Smith and Wellesley admitted black students Vassar at the time never “knowingly” admitted African Americans. (Mount Holyoke and Bryn Mawr, too, refused black women admission.) The tension between this stance and more progressive views on race was evident in May 1911, when alumna Ida Alice Tourtellot (1900), an instructor at the historically black Hampton Institute, brought a quartet of singers to campus for a concert, a program that included a speech by the Institute’s head. Vassar’s acceptance of these guests clearly had its limits, however. The singers ate at a separate table in the dining room and some students left rather than eat in the same room with the Hampton group. [22]

      As the suffrage movement grew nationally, the increasing militancy of Paul, Burns, and their allies led to a permanent split with NAWSA in 1914, when Paul organized the Congressional Union (CU); Blatch merged her own organization with the CU two years later and the year after that, CU leaders founded the National Woman’s Party (NWP). The split affected the politics of suffrage on the Vassar campus.  In 1915, incoming President MacCracken made known his hostility to the more militant faction. During the Fiftieth Anniversary celebration of the College, which coincided with his inauguration, he refused to allow a CU sponsored rally on campus in support of the federal amendment, (known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment), and was to feature VC alums Lucy Burns, Crystal Eastman, Inez Milholland, and Elsie Hill (1906).[23] A year later, MacCracken, who seemed to have particular objections to Milholland, again refused to let her to speak at Vassar.

      On the other hand, MacCracken did support NAWSA suffrage activities off-campus. He also backed the campus organization, the Equal Suffrage League. In 1915, the Vassar chapter worked hard on behalf of the New York state referendum for woman suffrage, which first appeared on the ballot that fall.  The Fiftieth Anniversary took place just before the ballot referendum. Two of the most prominent alumna participants at Vassar’s golden anniversary also spoke at a mass rally in Poughkeepsie. Katherine Davis (1892) was NYC Commissioner of Corrections. Julia Lathrop, appointed by President William Howard Taft as head of the newly created US Children’s Bureau, was the first woman to head a federal agency.

      MacCracken himself traveled throughout New York to speak on behalf of suffrage, though he maintained that as college president, he could not take an active part in the 1915 campaign. Faculty members however actively participated in the push. As early as spring 1914, in an effort to energize the African American community on behalf of the referendum, a meeting of African Americans congregants of Poughkeepsie’s AME Zion Church and the city’s Equal Suffrage League took place. Speakers included church members, among them Sadie Peterson, who offered a poem, entitled “A Suffrage Call,” and a number of Vassar faculty.[24]  In the fall 1915 Vassar students joined the effort, selling suffrage publications in dormitories, canvassing in Poughkeepsie, and marching in New York City. In September junior Mary Culver, in a letter to her father, included a sticker on the envelope, with the by-now ubiquitous slogan of the movement, “Votes for Women,” and a US map showing the status of suffrage, state by state.  In October, she wrote home that “Next weekend, I am going to New York [City] to the suffrage parade.  Oh yes I am. . . there are about twenty others [Vassar students] going to march in the parade.”[25]

      The 1915 campaign was soundly defeated, with only six counties, mostly rural, voting in favor. One formidable source of opposition was the women’s organization, the National Association Opposed to Suffrage. Founded in 1911, it was led for the next five years by Josephine Jewell Dodge, a member of Vassar’s Class of 1875, who left the college in 1873.  An active philanthropist, like many other anti-suffragists she embraced the idea that while women could participate in social reform they should avoid the masculine world of politics, which would sully their ability to be moral exemplars.[26]

      Despite the ballot defeat, Carrie Chapman Catt, the new head of NAWSA, remained convinced that winning the most populated state in the union, New York, would put critical pressure on politicians nationwide to adopt suffrage. Thus NAWSA and others took up the cause of another referendum in 1917. This time, the New York campaign was well organized not only in New York City but throughout the state. The New York Woman Suffrage Party reached out to trade union suffragists and the already very active New York City Colored Woman Suffrage Club. The Poughkeepsie Woman Suffrage Party, along with the Vassar community, worked hard mobilizing the vote throughout the city. Again. MacCracken spoke in favor of suffrage all over New York.  Again students marched, spoke, and canvassed.[27]  The referendum passed by a hundred thousand votes, with most of it coming from New York City, but Poughkeepsie also added its assent.

      While Carrie Catt and NAWSA saw victories in New York, along with those of other large states, as critical in moving the nation closer to suffrage, Alice Paul and the militants remained focused on a national amendment. To that end, Paul, Burns, and their NWP allies took a new approach, campaigning against Woodrow Wilson’s 1916 reelection because he refused to endorse the amendment. In 1917, with the media savvy Lucy Burns as a driving force, they took the unprecedented step—for anyone, let alone for women–of picketing in front of the White House, with large banners, targeting the newly reelected President for his inaction. Just before she died in 1916, during a whirlwind speaking tour for the NWP, Milholland asked, “Mr. President, how long must women go on fighting for liberty?” In tribute to their famous comrade, the picketers carried banners displaying her words.[28]

      When the US entered World War I in April, the Silent Sentinels, as the picketers were called, continued their soundless protest, carrying signs pointing out the hypocrisy of leading in a war to “protect democracy” while failing to support woman’s suffrage. Wilson tolerated the picketing until June 1917, when police began arresting women for obstructing traffic.  Lucy Burns was the first, but hardly the last to be hauled away. Almost 500 women were arrested between 1917 and 1919, including at least ten other VC alums, among them, Elsie Hill, active in the Connecticut suffrage movement, who became president of the NWP in 1921. About 150 women served jail time.[29]

      In the spring and summer the women were imprisoned for a few days but in the fall they faced longer prison sentences of anywhere from sixty days to six months, where they languished in wretched conditions. In protesting the situation, the NWP’s journal, the Suffragist, showed the limits of its democratic vision, noting that the harsh treatment included being “thrown into the workhouse with negros and criminals.”[30] In November, when their demands to be treated as political prisoners failed, fifteen women began hunger strikes, including alumna Elizabeth McShane Hilles (1913).  She, along with Burns and the others, were force fed. Hilles kept “jail notes” on her prison experiences, which she donated to Vassar in 1971. Looking back on her notes years later, Hilles recalled that the charismatic Lucy Burns “dominated the scene. . .she took care of us all.”[31]

      In fact, the picketers were not arrested for blocking traffic; they were arrested for criticizing the war’s hypocrisy. In that, they were not alone. To quell the mounting anti-war sentiment the federal government instituted massive censorship of written or spoken opinion, a major assault on the First Amendment. And so the women who picketed the White House were pioneers in the fight on behalf of civil liberties along with political rights. Indeed, a federal court in 1918 agreed with them, declaring their arrest unconstitutional. The police, however, continued to arrest the women, who picketed the White House, the Capitol, and Lafayette Square–the very site where in 2020 federal law enforcement removed peaceful demonstrators supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.[32]

      The more conservative NAWSA leadership criticized the militants for picketing the President and the divisions within the movement were reflected in the Vassar community as well. Julia Lathrop signed on to a petition of thirty suffragists, mostly government employees like her, criticizing the “heckling” tactics of the militants. Lucy Maynard Salmon had been on the Advisory Board of Paul’s Congressional Union for a while but left. [33]During the war, NAWSA President Catt, a lifelong pacifist, made a strategic decision to support Wilson, and to mobilize women across the country to contribute to the war effort in numerous ways, from volunteering at the Red Cross, to becoming nurses, from taking on new jobs while men served in the military, to planting victory gardens. If women, like men, were contributors to the national defense, Catt argued, they should be given full political rights.

      At Vassar, with MacCracken very much setting the tone—he was founder of the national junior Red Cross–faculty and students turned to aiding the war effort. Students participated in Red Cross training courses on how to aid the injured; they conserved food, and raised money for European relief. Towards the end of the war, the college played a special role in contributing to the effort by addressing the shortage of nurses needed to tend the wounded. In the summer of 1918, with the cooperation of the Red Cross and the Council of National Defense, Vassar recruited college graduates from all parts of country to be trained as nurses on the Vassar campus, then placed in American hospitals for accelerated training. [34]

      The wartime strategies of both the militants and NAWSA paid off. The public, unaccustomed to seeing prosperous white women treated so harshly, were outraged by the jailing and force feeding of suffragists, which put pressure on Wilson to support the federal amendment. Women’s contribution to the war effort, along with NAWSA’s determined lobbying, persuaded him to commit to the constitutional protection of the vote for women.[35]  Finally, because a number of states passed suffrage by decade’s end, pressure mounted on legislators from the other states to endorse suffrage. The amendment made its way through Congress in 1919, with ratification by the requisite number of states in August 1920.

      The important triumph of the Nineteenth Amendment exemplifies the paradoxical history of the fight for political freedom throughout American history. Its passage occurred at a time of nativist and racist backlash, along with concerted efforts to stem the labor movement. Many black women and men, especially in the south, could not vote, nor could most indigenous and Asian Americans.  Many Latinx also had to struggle for voting rights. After 1920 the struggle would go on, as women and men would continue to fight for basic rights of citizenship.

      Vassar suffragists were part of this ongoing struggle. After the passage of the Amendment, many kept up their support of women’s rights and other movements for social justice. “Now we can begin,” said Crystal Eastman in 1920, and she continued to promote women’s access to jobs and to support reproductive rights.[36]  She was also one of the founding members of the American Civil Liberties Union.  Blatch remained active in the Socialist Party and the NWP. Lathrop ensured the passage of the first federal public health program, which provided infant and maternal health care to women across the country.  Hilles worked for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America union, and also to eradicate occupational diseases. At age 79, she responded to an alumnae questionnaire by reporting that “ she was working to defeat Nixon and end the Vietnam War, and was interested in disarmament, racial integration, conservation of natural resources, and improvement of public education. “ Alumna Florence Brewer Boekel, (1908), a member of the NWP, was active in the peace movement. Hazel Hunkins Hallinan (1913), a Vassar picketer who chained herself to the White House gate in1917, worked in the labor movement, and after serving as a diplomat, she continued to fight for women’s rights, including the Equal Rights Amendment.[37]

      In the late twentieth century a new generation of Vassar students would push for African American voting rights, and on campus, for a racially diverse student body, along with new attention to an unfinished feminist agenda. They would also challenge faculty and administrators to embrace a curriculum that would give previously marginalized groups their rightful place. Continuing in that tradition, twenty-first century Vassar students, faculty and alumnae/i take up the struggles again and again for basic civil, political, and social rights, and for a more just, inclusive society, both on campus and in the wider world.

Thanks to my research assistant, Hanna Stasiuk (2020), for her extraordinary help in locating historical sources. James Merrell, Molly Shanley, Adelaide Villmoare, and Patricia Wallace carefully read drafts; their assistance made this a better essay.  I am especially grateful to Special Collections Librarian Mark Seidl and to Associate Director of the Libraries for Special Collections Ronald Patkus for their wonderful work on the suffrage project, and for being terrific colleagues.


[1] Lynn Gordon, Gender and Higher Education in the Progressive Era (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1990), 121, John Raymond quoted. 


[2]  For Stanton’s view of Vassar, see https://digitallibrary.vassar.edu/islandora/object/vassar%3A24503/Metadata;
Ellen Carol Dubois, Harriot Stanton Blatch and the Winning of Woman Suffrage (New Haven and London: Yale University Press), 26, Stanton Blatch quoted; 29.


[3] Eva Boice, “Woman Suffrage, Vassar College, and Laura Johnson Wylie,” Hudson River Valley Review 20:2 (Spring, 2004), 37-51.


[4] Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight For the Vote, official companion to the Library of Congress exhibition / foreword by Carla D. Hayden (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press and Library of Congress, 2019), 19; Lisa Tetrault, The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014).


[5]  Matthew Vassar to Miss Powell, April 28,1868 https://digitallibrary.vassar.edu/islandora/object/vassar%3A48461/Metadata. For other examples see Shall Not Be Denied, 47.


[6] Shall Not Be Denied, 19. The concept of intersectionality is dealt with in Kimberley Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum: Vol. 1989, Article 8.


[7] Ellen Carol Dubois, Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote  (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2020), 3.


[8] Gordon, Gender and Higher Education, 148.


[9]  Amy Aronson, Crystal Eastman: A Revolutionary Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 48, 50; “ Crystal Eastman,” Vassar College Encyclopedia http://vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu/alumni/crystal-eastman.html; “Lucy Burns, “ Vassar College Encyclopedia http://vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu/alumni/lucy-burns.html


[10] Dorothy M. Baldwin, “The Opinion of the Vassar Students on Woman Suffrage,” Vassar Miscellany 40:8 (May1, 1911), 599; Shall Not Be Denied, 52.


[11] Susan Goodier and Karen Pastorello, Women Will Vote: Winning Suffrage in New York State (Ithaca:  Three Hills, an imprint of Cornell University Press, 2017), 121.


[12] Dubois, Harriot Stanton Blatch, 105


[13] “For an excellent look at Milholland’s life, including her many commitments to social justice, see Linda J. Lumsden, Inez: The Life and Times of Inez Milholland  (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014).


[14] Barbara Page and Elizabeth Daniels, “Suffrage as a Lever for Social Change,” Vassar Quarterly 79:4  (Summer, 1983), 34.


[15] Gordon, Gender and Higher Education, 151,157. See also Dale Mezzacappa, “Vassar College and the Suffrage Movement,” Vassar Quarterly 69:3 (March 1, 1973), 5.


[16] Barbara Page and Elizabeth Daniels, ‘The Suffrage Movement at Vassar,” Vassar Encyclopedia http://vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu/interviews-reflections/the-suffrage-movement.html.


[17] Susan Ware, “The Final Push for Suffrage, “ in American Women’s History: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) 77,7; Shall Not Be Denied, 69; Mary Margaret Finnegan, Selling Suffrage; Consumer Culture and Votes for Women (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).


[18] Ellen Carol Dubois, “ American Women Won the Right to Vote When the Suffrage Movement Became More Diverse, That’s No Coincidence,” Time (February 20, 2020) https://time.com/5787130/suffrage-history-diversity/?fbclid=IwAR2qJ4DLfDDnQ88Z-kdSTeWhiwvadJv2v3nSdTgGj36GXOG6Z4OQ5NF4AOQ; Catherine Cahill, “Suffrage in Spanish: Hispanic Women and the Fight for the 19th Amendment in New Mexico,” Women’s Vote Centennial https://www.womensvote100.org/the-suff-buffs-blog/2020/6/24/suffrage-in-spanish-hispanic-women-and-the-fight-for-the-19th-amendment-in-new-mexico?fbclid=IwAR1tgajX8Kj_3l6DYf_Hg_y51UCVyif7soNcJVk9rHZWmCLnZGPWiE_pCU8;.  Robyn L. Muncy, talk at the panel,   “Gender, Race, Class, and the Vote: From the 19th Amendment to COVID 19,” Kalmnovitz Institute for Labor and the Working Poor, Georgetown University, June 23, 2020. https://www.facebook.com/kilwp/videos/263517371546632


[19] Lumsden, Inez Milholland, 70-71, New York Sun quoted.  Anya Jabour, “When Lesbians Led the Suffrage Movement,” The Conversation (January 24,2020) https://theconversation.com/when-lesbians-led-the-womens-suffrage-movement-129867; Wendy Rouse, “The Very Queer History of the Suffrage Movement,” Women’s Vote Centennial  https://www.womensvote100.org/the-suff-buffs-blog/2020/6/9/the-very-queer-history-of-the-suffrage-movement.


[20] Paula S.  Giddings, Ida B. Wells: A Sword Among Lions, (New York: Harper Collins, 2008), 517; Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, African-American Women and the Struggle for the Vote (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998), 121-124; Dubois, Suffrage, 190-192; Martha S. Jones, “ Black Women’s 200 Year Fight for the Vote,” The Vote https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/vote-black-women-200-year-fight-for-vote/-; Alison M. Parker, “Mary Church Terrell: Black Suffragist and Civil Rights Activist,” Women’s Vote Centennial https://www.womensvote100.org/the-suff-buffs-blog/2020/7/15/mary-church-terrell-black-suffragist-and-civil-rights-activist?fbclid=IwAR2wXC7sLNI0uQjeVmc64t3yLQsOFcoMVvobQ8GWqUaiQEVuXVIxviS5Zyc.


[21] Lumsden, Inez Milholland, 89.


[22] Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women’s College from Their Nineteenth Century Beginnings to the 1930s 2nd ed (Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1994), 155; “Anita Hemmings was Vassar’s First Black Student but the College Didn’t Know it When They Admitted Her,” http://pages.vassar.edu/passingbeyondpassing/the-gilded-years- ford-project/anita-hemmings/; Joyce Bickerstaff, “A Colored Girl at Vassar; The Life of Anita Florence Hemmings,” Vassar Miscellany News 127: 19 (April 2, 1999) https://newspaperarchives.vassar.edu/?a=d&d=miscellany19990402-01.2.25; Gordon, Gender and Higher Education, 157.


[23] See the poster announcing the rally outside Rockefeller Hall, which never took place. Mapcase 13, Vassariana Collection, VCSC.


[24] Bill Jeffway, “The Local Path to 1920:  ‘Votes for Women,’ ” Dutchess County Historical Society, https://dchsny.org/1920path/ There is no information on the poem’s content.


[25] Mezzacappa, “Vassar College and the Suffrage Movement,” 7; Mary Culver Pollack, ’17 to her father, September 22, 1915; Mary Culver Pollack,’17 to her family,” postmarked October 16, 1915, “ student letters, VCSC; M.P. Whitney, “Town and Gown in the Suffrage Movement,” Vassar Quarterly 1:2  (May, 1916), 122.


[26] Susan Goodier, No Votes for Women: The New York State Anti-Suffrage Movement (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 6.


[27] Mezzacappa, “Vassar and College and the Suffrage Movement,” 8,9; Gordon, Gender and Higher Education, 157; Goodier and Pastorello, Women Will Vote.


[28] Dubois, Suffrage, 212-218.


[29] Susan Ware, Why They Marched: Untold Stories of the Women Who Fought for the Right to Vote (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019), 238.


[30] J. D. Zahiniser and Amelia R. Fry, Alice Paul: Claiming Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 276, Suffragist quoted.


[31] Elizabeth McCone Hilles, “Jail Notes,” Addendum, Elizabeth McShane
Folder, Box 38, Alumnae/i Biographical Files, (AAVC), VCSC.


[32] Shall Not Be Denied, 81-82.


[33] Miriam Cohen, Julia Lathrop: Social Service and Progressive Government (Boulder, Co.: Westview Press, 2017), 95; Mezzacappa, “Vassar College and the Suffrage Movement,” 8.


[34] “The Vassar Training Camp for Nurses,” Vassar Encyclopedia http://vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu/wartime/nurses-camp.html.


[35] Shall Not Be Denied, 92.


[36] Crystal Eastman, “Now We Can Begin,” The Liberator  (December, 1920), 23.


[37] Jessica Roden, “Biography of Elizabeth McShane Hilles, 1891-1976,” based partly on sources in the Elizabeth McShane Folder, Box 38, Alumnae/i Biographical Files (AAVC), Vassar College Special Collections, Poughkeepsie, New York: Roden, “Biography of Florence Brewer Boeckel, 1885-1965,” based on sources in the Florence Brewer Folder, Box 26, Vassar College Alumnae/i Biographical Files (AAVC), VCSC; Roden, “Biography of Hazel Hunkins Hallinan, 1892-1982, based on the Hazel Hunkins Folder, Box 38,Vassar College Alumnae/i Biographical Files (AAVC), VCSC. Jessica Roden, VC, 2017, assembled these bibliographies for a biographical database on woman suffragists that is now available as part of the database Woman And Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000, an online resource for women’s history. For more on Hazel Hunkins, see Susan Ware, Why They Marched, 240-248.