Vassar and the Politics of Women's Suffrage

A Rising Activism

After 1900, students and faculty became increasingly active in the women’s suffrage movement. Their commitment to the cause was not always shared by members of the College administration. One prominent opponent was College president James Monroe Taylor, who maintained that suffrage, as well as all forms of social advocacy, was “propaganda” which, therefore, must be resisted in favor of higher educational values. During this period, several student activists went on to become prominent suffragists on the national stage.

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Lucy Maynard Salmon, certificate from National American Woman Suffrage Association (approx. 1900)

Photograph of Lucy Maynard Salmon (approximately 1900)

History Professor Lucy Maynard Salmon trained several generations of students in the ethos of “going to the source” to understand historical events. In addition, as a suffrage activist she advocated for right of students and faculty to bring pro-suffrage speakers to campus.

Photograph of Laura Wylie (approximately 1910)

English professor and long-time department chair Laura Wylie co-founded in 1909 the Poughkeepsie branch of the Equal Suffrage League. Her home with her partner, English professor Gertrude Buck, became a center of local suffrage activity.

Photograph (1913) of Lucy Burns (Class of 1902)

During her graduation in 1902, Lucy Burns served as the senior spade orator, who was responsible for passing on to the rising seniors the spade used by Matthew Vassar to break ground for the Main Building. A radical suffrage activist, Burns went on to co-found with Alice Paul the National Woman’s Party.

Photograph (1903?) of Crystal Eastman (Class of 1903)

A student of Lucy Maynard Salmon and the progressive economist Herbert Mills, Eastman was, at Vassar, an active member of Civitas, an organization devoted to engagement with “social and intellectual study of present day subjects.” As well as a prominent suffragist, Eastman became a noted labor advocate and anti-war activist.

Portrait photo of Inez Milholland (Class of 1909)

An energetic activist for a variety of social causes, Inez Milholland became a radical suffragist after meeting the English suffrage advocate Emmaline Pankhurst. After graduation, the charismatic Milholland continued to help organize and appear at major suffrage events in New York City, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

“Vassar Girls Held Suffrage Meeting in Calvary Cemetery.” Pokeepsie Evening Enterprise (9 June 1908)

An opponent of the suffrage movement, College President James Monroe Taylor refused permission for students to organize suffrage events on campus.

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Blatch, Harriot Stanton, Letter to editor re. cemetery rally. New York Morning Sun (15 June 1908)

Alumna Harriot Stanton Blatch and James Monroe Taylor engaged in a vigorous exchange of statements after Taylor publically criticized Blatch and other participants in Suffrage in the Cemetery event.

Photograph of James Monroe Taylor (1909)

The fourth president of Vassar, James M. Taylor served from 1886 to 1914. Though he opposed women’s suffrage, he saw himself as a defender of women’s intellectual rights and urged Vassar students to choose satisfying careers for themselves.

Taylor, J.M. “The Conservatism of Vassar” (1909)

Printed and distributed widely, Taylor’s address to the alumnae articulated views he had held throughout his career.

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Woodrow Wilson to J.M. Taylor (8 March 1909)

Alice N. George to J.M. Taylor (7 October 1912)

Taylor’s address drew praise from a variety of public figures, including future U.S. president (and then-president of Princeton University) Woodrow Wilson and anti-suffrage activist Alice George.

Class of 1912 petition to form chapter of College Equal Suffrage League.

President Taylor steadfastly refused to permit campus suffrage organizations. Although this petition did not move him to relent, the number of signatures is a measure of the pressure student activists placed on him during the last years of his administration. Further, the petition did prompt him to allow a mass rally on campus in 1912.

Photo of campus suffrage parade (1912?)

The event shown in this photo was possibly a parade in conjunction with the 1912 campus suffrage rally.

“The Opinion of the Vassar Students on Woman Suffrage.” Points of View, Vassar Miscellany, v. 40, n. 8 (May 1911)

During much of the period between 1865 and 1910, Vassar students were relatively indifferent to women’s suffrage. As this poll suggests, student commitment to the cause rose significantly after 1910.

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