Vassar and the Politics of Women's Suffrage

A Suffrage Movement at High Tide

Among Vassar’s progressives, women’s suffrage was never the sole focus of attention. Rather, suffrage was one of many causes to which student activists devoted themselves. These causes included labor advocacy, settlement house work, and child welfare, to name a few. These student progressives outlasted the anti-suffrage James Monroe Taylor, who retired as president of Vassar in February 1914. During the months leading up to and just after his retirement, student activists continued to push for official acceptance of women’s suffrage on campus. In 1915, Taylor’s successor, Henry Noble MacCracken began his long presidency. More politically progressive than Taylor, MacCracken supported women’s suffrage and encouraged students’ efforts to secure voting rights.

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Vassarion (1903): College Settlement.

In addition to undertaking suffrage work, many student activists joined College Settlement Association, to support settlement houses, which offered education programs and other services to the urban poor.

Vassarion (1910): Consumers League.

A student affiliate of the National Consumers League, this organization focused on labor and economic issues, such as product and workplace safety.

The Supplement, v. II, n. 1 (Dec. 1914)

In addition to its own child welfare work, the Christian Association collaborated with other student organizations to provide educational opportunities and other benefits to the College housekeeping staff.

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Photograph, Vassar Socialists (Eleanor Taylor, Frances Wood, Katrina Brewster, Marjorie Jones, Gertrude Falkes; all Class of 1916), (March 1916)

Some student progressives embraced socialism in response to what they saw as the failures of American capitalism.

“Why Taboo Suffrage?” Vassar Miscellany, v. 1. n. 6 (13 March 1914)

After President Taylor’s departure, student suffrage advocates, such the writer of this column, explicitly questioned the College’s official policy of forbidding pro-suffrage lectures and organizations on campus.

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“College Suffrage Meeting,” Vassar Miscellany, v. 1. n. 8 (27 March 1914)

After Taylor’s departure in February, the interim administration of the College lifted the ban on campus suffrage meetings. This news item reports on what may have been the first such meeting. In addition, the poll included in the item shows that student support of women’s suffrage continued to rise.

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“President Bars Vassar Campus Suffragists.” (12 October 1915)

Although Henry Noble MacCracken genuinely supported women’s suffrage, he did not endorse the aims and methods of those he judged to be radicals. He rejected a proposed campus suffrage meeting (the poster for which appears below), planned to coincide with his inauguration ceremony, that would have featured militant activists such as Inez Milholland.

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Suffrage rally poster (1915)

Ethel Puffer Howes to Henry Noble MacCracken (27 October 1915)

MacCracken’s support for suffrage was well known and, moderate though it may have been, earned him the praise of many suffrage organizations.