The right to vote became the focus of the women’s rights movement during World War I. A new generation of women activists brought new ideas and new energy to the suffrage movement. The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting women the right to vote, was passed by Congress in 1918 and by the Senate in 1919. It was ratified in 1920, becoming law on August 26 of that year, just in time for the November elections. The number of women voters was small at first: the ratio of male to female voters did not become roughly equal until 1957.
The Cornwall Equal Suffrage League was formed in 1911. The first meeting in Cornwall held in support of voting rights for women was organized in 1912 by Josepha Newcomb Whitney, an artist who spent her summers here with her family.
Members of the National Woman’s Party picketing the Republican Convention in Chicago, June 1920.
(Collection of Library of Congress, Manuscript Division)
September 18, 1920
Had quite an exciting time today. All the ladies who had passed their names in were to be made voters. Mrs. Grand-Lienard asked me to go with her. When we got there Ed Bennett told us our names hadn’t been passed in and there were at least fourteen names not put in and blamed it on Wallace who is the registrar. of course I said there must be some mistake That my name was in sure but Dr hunted and then he said there must be another list but they couldn’t find it, so we went for a ride to Cornwall Bridge and down there we called up Wallace and he said they had sent for him and he would come over immediately. So we went back, but all it amounted to was some words. It seems they think the other piece of paper with the names on it was stolen or lost on purpose because they were about all republicans. I think so too. They all acted so queer. Ed Bennett, Geo Beers and Cap O’Donnell, but of course no one could say so. We can’t be made for the town election but we will later for the State. Doctor was so excited and mad.
Tuesday, November 2, 1920
This is the first election that women have voted, so we all did. Dr took mother, Olive, Mrs. Southwick, and I over. Wallace had to be over there all day. It was ten tonight when he got home and such an awful storm tonight. Wind & rain. The whole town went Republican.
~ Excerpts from the diary of Ethel Hart, Collection of Cornwall Historical Society.
Anti-Suffrage petition sent to Senator George P. McLean by prominent Cornwall families, April 18, 1918.
(Collection of Center for Legislative Archives, Washington, D.C.)
Many people were opposed to allowing women to vote. Their arguments included the claim that voting was a “burdensome duty” that women shouldn’t have to take on, that men’s and women’s duties were “divinely ordered to be different,” and that political equality would deprive women of existing special privileges.
Hon. Geo. P. McLean, Senator from Connecticut.
We, the undersigned, residents of the Town of Cornwall, wish to register with you our absolute disaproval [sic] of Woman Sufferage [sic] and desire that you use every means in your power to defeat any movement for that object as related to this State or the United States.
We realize that the small minority in favor of the Sufferage [sic] Movement are making more noise than the large majority that are opposed.
~ Transcript of Anti-Suffrage Petition, April 18, 1918.
Cornwall Board of Admissions was very prompt in notifying the town women of the date set for examining candidates for the electorate. The Clark women, of course, were ready and anxious to go.
So, on a beautiful fall day, my father, Andrew Clark, drove my mother, Mary L. Clark age 62 years, and me, age 25 years, to the Cornwall Town Hall. In those days the town clerk’s office, the usual meeting place, was a tiny room on the second floor, which on this day was too small for the expected group. We women gathered in the main room of the building. It was not set up as an auditorium, so we sat about informally, wherever we found chairs.
…each of us, individually, was asked to read a few sentences of the United States Constitution to make sure we were literate. Then we were told to wait as we would be given the oath as a group. If I remember correctly, a poll tax of $1 was collected from each.
I looked about to see any of our friends. …I was surprised that the greatest number seemed to be elderly people.
This should have been a happy, smiling celebration of victory after 100 or more years of struggle, but the women were quiet, subdued and very serious.
At last, [town clerk] Whiting J. Wilcox and [selectman] Cop O’Donnell rapped for attention. Whiting mounted the right-hand steps to the platform and said, “Raise your right hand and take the oath. Are you all 21 years or older?” He had a knowing grin because he had often said that women would never vote because they would not give their age.
~ Harriet Clark, reminiscence of voting for the first time in 1920, from her 1990 Christmas letter.