Bustles to Ballots
Bustles to Ballots is an ongoing exhibit in the Carriage House at the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site. It features a display of First Ladies from Martha Washington to Michelle Obama and a collection of women's suffrage artifacts acquired though a generous gift from the Lacy Family and the Lacy Foundation, honoring the memory of Edna Balz Lacy. The suffrage collection is from the Cecelia E. Harris Collection.
Right To Vote
The right to vote is a privilege that has long been debated. Our founding fathers restricted the populations who could vote, fearing the power that the vote gave and believing that not all people possessed the intelligence to wisely use such power. Many men in the late eighteenth century believed that the vote was a privilege only to be conferred to those who possessed enough money and land to be politically reliable. This considerably limited those who could vote for George Washington in 1788 and those voting for Benjamin Harrison in 1888.
Minorities proclaimed that the vote was a right, and that anyone who lived under the laws formed by the politicians had a right to help select those writing the laws. This legal debate began before the Constitution was even ratified. The following is an excerpt from a letter Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John, showing the concerns of one woman for her legal rights.
"I long to hear that you have declared an independancy and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation."
Abigail Adams' strong words were treated as a joke in March of 1776, but they show the beginning spark of the women's suffrage movement in the United States. She did not advocate that women receive the vote or hold public office. Abigail only wanted a separate legal existence.
The first Women's Rights Convention was held on July 19 and 20, 1848, at the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York. It was organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Coffin Mott. The meeting drafted a "Declaration of Sentiments" and 11 Resolutions. The declaration was signed by 100 people (68 women and 32 men). The 9th resolution dealt with the right to vote and was nearly voted down.
In 1873, Susan B. Anthony spoke about her arrest after voting in the 1872 presidential election. She stated that it would be her intent to prove that in thus voting, she not only committed no crime, but, instead, simply exercised her citizen's rights, guaranteed to her and all United States citizens by the National Constitution, beyond the power of any state to deny. "It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union. And we formed it, not to give the blessings of liberty, but to secure them; not to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity, but to the whole people - women as well as men. And it is a downright mockery to talk to women of their enjoyment of the blessings of liberty while they are denied the use of the only means of securing them provided by this democratic-republican government - the ballot."
Many of the western states and territories began to give women the right to vote, but women would not secure the national vote until 1920. Alice Paul and other suffragists picketed the White House during Woodrow Wilson's term. After the United States entered WWI, the picketing was seen as embarrassing. The ladies were arrested and jailed. The poor conditions and treatment of the jailed suffragists soon became a major public relations problem for Wilson. He pardoned all of the jailed suffragists. Two months later, he came out in favor of a suffrage amendment to the Constitution. In January 1919, the bill passed the Senate, and on August 26, 1920, after two-thirds of the states had ratified the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, women finally won the right to vote.
Even though women could not vote in 1888, a woman did run for the presidency. Belva Lockwood ran under the National Equal Rights Party of California. This was not the first time Lockwood had challenged the cultural biases of her day. She had practiced law as a married woman and passed a bill in Congress that allowed all qualified lawyers, male or female, to practice law in the highest courts.
The Harrison Women
When Benjamin Harrison entered the White House in 1889, little had changed for women. The restrictions of owning property, race, etc., had been lifted allowing most men the right to vote. Women were now fighting for the vote along with other legal issues. Many clubs, groups, and movements had formed. The Harrison women as well as Indianapolis women had been influenced by the times. Caroline Harrison refused to donate any money to Johns Hopkins Medical University until they admitted women. She wrote them a check when they did so in 1891 and helped a committee raise $100,000 for the school. May Saunders Harrison sat on the committee for the Women's Building at the Columbian Exposition in 1893. The Harrison women came from a background and family setting in which they were encouraged to be well educated.
Benjamin Harrison was a young boy in Ohio when the first Women's Rights Convention was held July 19, 1848, in Seneca Falls, New York. Early in his life, Benjamin's grandmother—Anna Symmes Harrison, his mother—Elizabeth Irwin Harrison, and his first teacher—Mrs. Harriet Giesey helped to form his ideals and beliefs, which helped him develop his own personal conscience. Later in his life, his wife Caroline was a strong influence. Harrison hired Alice B. Sanger as a White House stenographer in 1889; she was the first woman employed in a job other than domestic service at the White House. Harrison had been challenged by a woman for the presidency, which heightened his awareness of the issues that the National Women's Suffrage Association was fighting for in the 1890s.