Vassar and the Politics of Women's Suffrage

Early Vassar

When Vassar College opened its doors in 1865, women’s suffrage was becoming an important national issue. The suffrage cause gained adherents among the faculty and administration of the College, including the founder himself, Matthew Vassar. Even so, suffrage was slow to capture the imagination of students, and many maintained anti-suffrage attitudes. Nearly 30 years would pass before women’s voting rights became an important topic of debate in the College at large.

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Photograph of Matthew Vassar (approximately 1865-1866)

Matthew Vassar to Miss Powell (28 April 1868)

Matthew Vassar attended a lecture by the suffrage activist Anna Dickinson who was invited to speak by astronomy professor Maria Mitchell. The title of Dickinson’s lecture, “Idiots and Women,” referred to a long-standing legal formulation that denied the vote to “criminals, paupers, idiots, and women.” While Vassar clearly expresses his support for women’s suffrage, and hopes students at his college will work to secure voting rights, he does so by way of uncritical acceptance of this elitist, exclusionary construction.

Mansfield, Adelaide (Claflin) to Edith Claflin, (10 December 1883)

Adelaide Mansfield’s letter to her sister Edith captures the anti-suffrage attitude of many Vassar students during the first decades of the College’s history.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Laura Brownell Collier (21 January 1886)

Suffrage leader Elizabeth Caddy Stanton visited Vassar as the guest of astronomy professor Maria Mitchell. However, like her daughter, Harriot Stanton Blatch, Stanton expressed disappointment at the relative indifference to suffrage among the students.

Photograph (1878?) of Harriot Stanton Blatch (Class of 1878)

Although suffrage was not a crucial issue to most Vassar students of this period, Harriot Stanton Blatch, after her graduation, became one of the most prominent suffrage activists in the United States.