Suffragists in Mercersburg
A Look at the Struggle for the Right of Women to Vote
With Emphasis upon Suffrage Activities in Mercersburg
By Joan C. McCulloh
The following short article appeared in the Mercersburg Journal in the November 28, 1913, issue: Entitled “There You Have It,” the article states: “Miss Hall, the suffragist, opened her address at Chambersburg last week by saying she thought it was most unfair when women asked for the vote that anyone should say ‘prove that you are fit to vote.’-The only people to whom the vote is denied are children, lunatics, and criminals. It is denied to children because their sense has not been developed; to lunatics because they have lost their sense; to imbeciles because they never had any sense; and to criminals because they have made wrong use of their sense.-And with the present state of affairs women are classed with the above.”
This struggle for recognition of women’s place in society was a long time in coming. Mary Wollstonecraft in 1792 in England had written A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a document then considered not just controversial but inflammatory. She, of course, was vilified. Nevertheless, her writing was a seminal point in the long struggle. On both sides of the Atlantic women began agitating for a place in society equal with that of men. Although this agitation developed on both sides of the Atlantic, it was more pronounced in England.
Most of the early agitators for rights of women in the United States began their work as antislavery advocates, as abolitionists. From 1792 until the advent of the Civil War many women were active anti-slavery workers. In 1840 Henry Stanton was one of the delegates to an anti-slavery conference in London. Along with him went his wife Elizabeth Cady Stanton and six of her women friends all of whom were active in the anti-slavery movement. When the women arrived, much to their chagrin, they learned that they, because they were women, could not be seated at the convention. To increase their isolation they were coerced to sit in a balcony with a cloth curtain in front of them. This humiliation was the catalyst, it seems, in bringing these women together to work for the cause of women’s rights.
After their return home they began to correspond and to express to one another their frustrations at being considered second class citizens. In 1848 they agreed to meet on July 19 and 20 in the small town in which Henry Stanton, a minister, and his wife Elizabeth Cady Stanton lived, Seneca Falls New York, for a conference in the local Methodist Wesleyan Church, a conference which about three hundred people, including about fifty men, attended.
Under the leadership of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, a Quaker abolitionist and advocate for women’s rights, the group at the conference adopted on July 19, 1848, a Declaration of Sentiments, a direct parody of the Declaration of Independence. Just as Jefferson wrote, “All men are created equal, the women wrote, “All men and women are created equal.” Just as Jefferson enumerated the actions King George III had taken against the colonies, the women enumerated the actions man had taken and was taking against women. They stated, “He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise. He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice. He has withheld from her rights which are given to the most ignorant and degraded men - both natives and foreigners. He has made her, if married, in the eyes of the law, civilly dead. He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns. He has denied her the facilities for obtaining a thorough education, all colleges being closed against her. He has endeavored, in every way that he could, to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to head a dependent and abject life.” The women wrote: “We shall employ agents, circulate tracts, petition the State and National legislatures, and endeavor to enlist the pulpit and press on our behalf.”
This movement that began officially with the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 caught the attention of women throughout the nation. Women began to feel more empowered and began to take up more space in society Eventually the United States women’s suffrage movement split into two main groups - one wishing to work upon suffrage for African Americans first and one wishing to concentrate upon only suffrage for women. In addition, some women wanted to focus upon gaining the right to vote only, but others wanted not only to gain the right to vote but also to have more power economically. Some wanted to achieve the right to vote state by state, but others wanted a national effort. Independent women think independently. Eventually two groups were formed, the American Woman Suffrage Association and the National Woman Suffrage Association. After many years these two groups combined to form the American National Women’s Suffrage Association. Most of these women preferred to be known as suffragists rather than suffragettes as they thought the suffragettes in Great Britain were too radical and wild. Later a more militant group, the National Woman’s Party guided by Alice Paul, was formed and was extremely active.
The first suffrage conference in Pennsylvania occurred in West Chester in 1852. Founded in 1869, the Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association by 1915 was well established with headquarters in Harrisburg so that its leaders could meet, cajole, and confront those in the state’s political power. It became especially active in 1915 as it was stimulated by the fact that a proposed amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution that was to be voted upon in the November election of that year would permit women in this state to vote. In March the Mercersburg Journal, owned and edited by George Fleming, reported that the state Senate had passed a bill approving woman suffrage but that the final decision would be made by the state’s citizens on November 2. The Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association, an active political party in Pennsylvania, especially during that year, generated a great deal of publicity including articles that stressed actions in western states that had been the leaders in this movement especially Wyoming Territory that had granted women the right to vote in 1869 before it was admitted into the Union and Utah Territory that had granted women the right to vote in 1870. The publicity also recognized important people who were in favor of woman suffrage and utilized cartoons, songs, and verse. An example of the latter is the following, a parody upon the familiar Comin’ Through the Rye.
If lassie wants the ballot
To help to run the town
And a lassie gets the ballot
Need a laddie frown?
Many a laddie has the ballot
Not so bright as I
And many a laddie votes his ballot
Overcome with rye.
If a lassie works for wages
Toiling all the day
And her work the laddies’ equals
Give her equal pay….
In May 1915 women in Mercersburg founded their own suffragist organization, a branch of the Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association.
On Saturday, May 15, a Mrs. Binz from Philadelphia, accompanied by A. B. Hess, superintendent of schools in Chambersburg, Mrs. Hess, and other ladies came to Mercersburg. In Town Hall at eight o’clock in the evening Mrs. Binz spoke after having been introduced by Mr. Hess, who, in his introduction, according to the Mercersburg Journal, made “an impressive address, recommending equal rights for women” and stated that there were many educational advantages “to be derived from woman suffrage.” Mrs. Binz, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College, the local newspaper reported, followed “with a lengthy address, setting forth the many advantages to be derived from the woman’s vote and made an earnest appeal to the voters to support the amendment this fall.”
At the end of the meeting the local group elected Mrs. J. C. Rankin as chair, Mrs. Carrie R. North as vice-chair, Mrs. H. C. Caldwell as secretary, Mrs. H. H. Spangler as treasurer, and Mrs. J. A. Philips as literary chair and agreed to meet at the home of Mrs. Rankin on the following Friday afternoon. Mrs. Rankin and Mrs. Spangler were both charter members of the Woman’s Club and wives of local attorneys; Mrs. Caldwell, a young graduate of Wilson College, was the wife of the local Methodist minister; Mrs. J. A. Philips was the wife of Joseph Philips, owner and operator of J. M. Philips Seed Co., founded by his father, Joshua M. Philips, and was mother-in-law of Thelma Philips. Mrs. Carrie North was of the North family that had established the first tannery in town, the North Star Tannery. Later that fall the Journal noted that the committee had been busy all summer distributing materials urging men to vote for woman suffrage.
On a Wednesday in September of that year Mrs. Binz again spoke at eight o’clock in the evening this time in the Square to a large group of men and women. The workers for suffrage nationwide had learned that meetings and activities outdoors brought many more people than those held indoors. According to the Mercersburg Journal the meeting to be held in the evening had been announced only at noon on that day. Despite the late notice the band was prepared and played several selections before “The president of the Association brought the speaker of the evening in her handsome automobile into the square.” Mrs. Carrie North and Dr. James G. Rose, minister of the local Presbyterian Church, accompanied the speaker. After having been introduced by Dr. Rose, Mrs. Binz spoke for over an hour. According to the Journal, she was “thoroughly posted on her subject and there was marked interest manifested in her address by the large audience.” The newspaper opined that judging by the large attendance and “the sentiment now expressed” voters in Mercersburg would approve the proposed amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution.
Fortunately for the women this was the era in which the internal combustion engine, that made possible the motor-car, had been developed, and women soon learned to make use of this new mode of transportation. The leadership of the Pennsylvania suffrage movement was not far behind others in having a traveling campaign. The Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association in order to bring the attention of the citizens of Pennsylvania, especially to the men who would do the voting, to this proposed amendment conceived the idea which it carried out of mounting a full sized replica of the Liberty Bell, that they called the Justice Bell, upon the bed of a truck and taking it, accompanied by women speakers, throughout the state.
Mrs. Katharine Wentworth Ruschenberger of the Philadelphia area, who commissioned the casting of the bell, paid $2,000 to the Meneely Bell Foundries in Troy, New York, for the casting of the two thousand pound bronze bell and for the truck, which need to be strengthened in order to carry that great weight. The only difference between it and the Liberty Bell was the addition of the inscription Establish Justice. With Mrs. Ruschenberger’s husband as driver of the truck, carrying this bell, the women planned to take this Woman’s Liberty Bell or, as they called it, the Justice Bell, over five thousand miles to every one of the sixty-seven counties in the state, to visit as many towns as possible, and to use part of the bed of the truck as a platform from which to speak.
The women were active and persevering in focusing people’s attention upon their cause. The traveling campaign with the bell began in mid-June in Sayre in Bradford County and by July 4 was in Pittsburgh for the July 4 celebration. It was then taken in a zig-zag route throughout the state and ended in Philadelphia the night before the election, which would occur on November 2. The bell was to be in travel for twenty-four weeks and was to cover twenty to thirty miles each day. According to the plans of the Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association each time the truck with the bell crossed a county line a delegation from the entering county would be on hand to escort the truck and the accompanying speakers to the next town. In that way, the newspaper stated,”…the trip of the Woman’s Liberty Bell will be one continuous demonstration for suffrage from one end of the State to another.” In addition, the women stated that the clapper of the bell would be chained to the bell and would not be loosened until women received the right to vote. Although some people urged the women to “let their bell boom out its proclamation of political liberty now, just as the old bell did in 1776,” the women declined to do so but insisted that they would ring the bell only when men recognized equality with them, noted that the upcoming election would give “the men of Pennsylvania their first opportunity to grant political freedom to their womenfolk,” and expressed confidence that the men “would grasp it.”
In late September the Mercersburg Journal reported that the Woman’s Justice Bell would arrive in Mercersburg on Monday, October 4, about three o’clock in the afternoon, that it would remain on the Square for about a half hour, that women speakers would accompany it, and that they would deliver speeches. The Journal added “…the women speakers who are accompanying the bell will explain the message and ask the help of the men of the town to unfasten the chains which hold the great brass tongue of the bell silent. The men’s help is needed because the chains are not to be removed from the bell until the women of Pennsylvania are granted the right to vote. It is within the men’s power to say just when that day shall be.” That newspaper article also stated that Miss Mary E. Bakewell would be the principal speaker and that “not one of the objections to suffrage has any terrors for her.”
Miss Bakewell of Sewickley, Pennsylvania, was no stranger to Mercersburg as on December 8, 1914, she had spoken about suffrage for women at a meeting of the Woman’s Club, now the Women’s Club, and evidently during her time here had stayed at Hotel Mercer as the club’s minutes reflect a vote of thanks to Charles McLaughlin, owner of the hotel. The minutes of that Woman’s Club meeting state that “Miss Bakewell of Sewickley gave a most interesting address on ‘Suffrage’ which all enjoyed exceedingly…”
On Monday, October 4, 1915, the Woman’s Justice bell came to Mercersburg from McConnellsburg after having been earlier in the day in Chambersburg and through St. Thomas and Fort Loudon. The Mercersburg Journal reported the following:
“The bell was late reaching Mercersburg. The party had been detained at McConnellsburg by Gov. Brumbaugh and his party who were passing over the Lincoln Way.
“However, at about four o’clock the party was met out at the pike by representatives of the town in automobiles. The line was formed at the toll-gate and escorted the bell into town. The procession was led by Frank Long and Seth Steiger as marshals on horseback, followed by the Mercersburg Band, Burgess Mowery, members of Town Council, and editor of the Mercersburg Journal in automobiles. Mrs. Rankin’s car, handsomely decorated, carried the Local Committee of which Mrs. Rankin is chairman and Rev. H. C. Caldwell. Several other cars carried citizens of the town and people from the surrounding community.
“The circle in the center of the public square was decorated with green vines, flags and yellow flowers and bunting. It made a pretty appearance. Dr. Mary Wolfe made two addresses in the square, the first one while waiting for the truck carrying the bell to arrive. Not in the history of the new square has it at any time been so crowded with people; men, women, and children from town and country were anxious to see the bell and were also attentive to the address. Dr. Mary M. Wolfe is from Lewisburg and is the finance member of the State Committee of the Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association. She is a woman of fine appearance, logical in her addresses and won votes for women here in Mercersburg. The entire occasion was creditable to the cause - The party was escorted to Greencastle, its next stop, by a number of cars from this place. Mr. Runk of Chambersburg, in his car, piloted the party here.”
At the regularly scheduled meeting of the Woman’s Club on October 5, the day after the arrival of the Woman’s Justice Bell, the members of the club passed a motion to pay for the cleaning of the Square before the event on October 4.
In the edition of the Mercersburg Journal published on October 22 the newspaper reported the following: “By the votes of men Woman Suffrage was defeated in New Jersey on Tuesday of last week. What will Pennsylvania do on November 2?”
In the week preceding the November 2 election at the end of a list of local officers to be elected such as town councilmen, school directors, and constable the Journal reminded its readers without additional comment, “And don’t forget the vote for women.” In the issue published on November 5, three days after the election, the newspaper at the end of the list of local election returns noted again without comment “Votes for women - 104 men voted for the amendment - 145 men voted against the amendment.”
The voters of Pennsylvania defeated the amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution by 55,000 votes. Interestingly, people in Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania and in the northern tier of counties approved the amendment while those in Philadelphia and Eastern Pennsylvania and the southern tier of counties including Franklin rejected it.
Unfortunately, women in Pennsylvania, like those in many other states, had to wait until the ratification of the nineteenth amendment in 1920 before they were permitted to vote. After the proposed amending granting the right of women in all of the states had lain in Congress for forty years, in June 1919 after a long struggle Congress with much pressure from women’s groups passed what became the nineteenth amendment that states simply in thirty-nine words : “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
The amendment had to be ratified by the legislatures of thirty-six states. The seventh state to ratify, Pennsylvania ratified on June 24, 1919. The struggle in many states was intense. It was believed, and unfortunately so it happened, that legislatures in many of the southern states would not ratify the amendment because they did not want women of color to vote. The last two states whose legislatures scheduled to vote were North Carolina and Tennessee. It was believed, and again unfortunately so it happened, that North Carolina would not ratify. Therefore, the final fight occurred in Tennessee, and there the future was uncertain. However, on August 25, 1920, the legislature of Tennessee after a bitter fight ratified the amendment. On August 26, 1920, therefore, women in all forty-eight states had the right to vote. With two simple declarative sentences women became full citizens.
Locally some women were well prepared to vote. It is interesting to note that, when the Mercersburg school board in the fall of 1920 wanted voters in Mercersburg to approve a bond issue for the building of a high school, it appealed to the Woman’s Club for help in persuading people to vote affirmatively. The women were prepared.
The minutes of the Woman’s Club state the following: “The President [Miss Ella Bradley, a teacher of history in the local high school] then spoke of the bond issue to be voted on at the coming election [November 1920] and said that the School Board asked the cooperation of the Club in presenting this matter to the citizens of the town in preparation for the mass meeting to be held during the latter part of October. Mrs. Herman spoke of the great need of the proposed school building and the unsanitary conditions due to the present over-crowded rooms. Mrs. North spoke of the satisfaction of being able for the first time to take part personally in this important decisions.
“ The President presented Miss Parker [Miss Sadie Parker, assistant principal and teacher of English and algebra in the local high school] who told of the growth of the study of civics in the High School and of the elections, [which she held in her classes] which were introduced by her own efforts and are now held regularly by which our future citizens learn the intelligent use of the ballot.
“The President announced that through the kindness of Mr. J. L. Wilson sample ballots had been secured. After the ballots had been distributed to the members of the Club, the President explained the advantages of the Australian ballot and the difference between a straight party ticket and a divided ticket and the method of marking the ballot for each way of voting.
“At the request of Mrs. Waidlich the President read an article stating that assistance in voting can be given only for actual physical disability and describing the actual method of voting.”
The result of that November’s election due in part to the women’s vote was the construction in 1921 of a high school at the corner of South Park and West Seminary Streets. The school board and the women had done their work well as the vote was 456 for and 31 against the building of the school.
After women had won the right to vote, the following poem that indicates both some changing perceptions and unchanged perceptions about women and their newly acquired right appeared in the Mercersburg Journal. The husband, who is proud of his wife’s voting, wants her to be as she has always been, an accomplished and diligent housewife.
A Husband’s Confession
Yesterday Mirandy voted
But so far I haven’t noted
That she’s sprouted any whiskers or adopted trouserettes
And she hasn’t indicated
Since she got emancipated
That she means to start out raiding with a bunch of suffragettes.
Took her half an hour to do it,
An’ as soon as she was through it,
She came hustling home without a
Stop to scrub the pantry floor;
Cooked the dinner, did some baking,
Trimmed a dress that she was making,
Mended socks and got the ironing all
Done by half past four.
She appears to be as able
To keep the victuals on the table
And to keep the moths from feeding
On my go-to meeting coat-
Just as handy with the baby
(Or a little more so, maybe)
As she was before they told her
Women ought to have the vote.
Far as I have observed Mirandy
She is just as fond of candy
And as keen to read the fashions and
The daily household hints
As before she was equal
And, however strange the sequel-
I’ve been just a trifle prouder of
Mirandy ever since.
Not everything had changed. In 1920 the work for women’s equality had just begun.
Notes: The Woman’s Justice Bell, which Katherine Wentworth Ruschenberger had cast in in 1915 and which was taken throughout Pennsylvania in order to garner support for the passing of a proposed amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution granting women the right to vote, by a stipulation in Mrs. Ruschenberger’s will is now installed in the bell tower of the Washington Memorial Chapel in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.
Although George Fleming, who owned and operated the Mercersburg Journal from 1904 until his death in 1918, did not live to see the passing and ratification of the nineteenth amendment, he deserves credit for his advancing progressive causes in Mercersburg such as his support of suffrage, the establishment in 1913 of a local free library by the Woman’s Club, and efforts to make the town cleaner and more beautiful.
Founded in 1909, the Woman’s Club of Mercersburg is now known as the Women’s Club.
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