The Fight for Women’s Suffrage in Westborough: An Online Exhibit

Women won the right to vote in elections across the United States in 1920, but the fight for women’s suffrage was drawn out over many years before then.

The issue of women’s suffrage first appeared in a Westborough newspaper on November 16, 1867, and arguments both for and against women’s suffrage were published off and on in the Westborough Chronotype up until women finally won the right to vote.

The first mention of women’s suffrage in a Westborough newspaper: Saturday Evening Chronotype and Weekly Review, November 16, 1867.

When it came to women’s suffrage, Massachusetts and other Eastern states lagged far behind Western states, where women earned full voting rights in local and state elections years before those in the East did. When women in Massachusetts finally earned the right to vote in 1892, they could do so only for candidates running for school committee.

Three women became the first to vote in a Westborough election after winning that right in 1892:

  • Abbie M. Fay of Ruggles St.
  • A. B. Harvey of South St.
  • Esther M. Howell of Cross St. (Source: a handwritten “true copy” note by E. E. Dunlap, Clerk Assessors added to the library’s copy of the 1892 Westborough Assessors report, p. 40).

Given the limited voting power that they received, few women exercised their right to vote in Massachusetts during this interim period, so the fight for women’s suffrage continued.

Debates in the Westborough Chronicle

Proposed Meeting Warrant

Beginning in 1880, the women’s movement in Massachusetts lobbied for the right to vote in municipal elections by seeking to include petitions in town meetings that encouraged the Massachusetts Legislature to grant women the right to hold town offices and vote in town affairs. Most of these petitions were rejected by voters.

One such attempt seems to have occurred in Westborough.

Westborough Chronotype, March 17, 1883

Note: No article regarding Women’s Suffrage appears in the Westborough Town Records for the March town meeting in 1883.

Woman Suffrage Convention in Westborough

The Massachusetts Women’s Suffrage Association was founded in 1870 by suffrage activists Julia Ward Howe, Lucy Stone, and Henry Browne Blackwell, among others, and was active up until 1919. In 1884, Westborough held a convention as part of a series of programs across the state that were sponsored by the association.

Phoebe Couzins, the featured speaker, was one of the first female lawyers in the United States, and at the time she was engaged in traveling across the country lecturing on women’s suffrage. Later that same year, she testified before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee on the legal status of women.

Phoebe Counzins (Published in History of Women’s Suffrage by Susan B. Anthony, et. al, Rochester, NY – https://archive.org/details/historyofwomansu03stanuoft; Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19172989.)
Westborough Chronotype, January 12, 1884

The Chronotype covered the activities of the convention in detail.

Description of the convention and Phoebe Couzins’s lecture. Westborough Chronotype, January 19, 1884

One Westborough suffragist objected to the coverage of the convention in the Chronotype.

Letter to the Editor, Westborough Chronotype, January 26, 1884

Anti-Suffrage Speaker

On November 2, 1915, men living in Massachusetts voted by referendum whether to support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to give women the right to vote. Debate across the state was intense, but the amendment was soundly defeated. Tewksbury was the only town in the state that voted to pass the referendum (with a vote of 149 for and 148 against), and only 35.5% voted in favor. Three other states voted on similar referendums at the time—New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York—and all three joined Massachusetts in defeating the measure.

Charles L. Underhill (Who’s Who in State Politics (1918) page 313; Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47515213)

Leading up to voting on the referendum, Charles L. Underhill spoke against women’s suffrage in Westborough. Hill served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and later went on to become a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Westborough Chronotype, June 18, 1915

One writer took issue with at least one of Underhill’s points about Kansas and prohibition.

Westborough Chronotype, July 2, 1915

Pro-Suffrage Speaker

Frances Kellogg Curtis was the Chief Marshall of the first Massachusetts Suffrage Parade and was on the Executive Board of the Massachusetts Equal Suffrage Association. She lectured on women’s suffrage–at times on a soap box set up on the street–and as a member of the Americanization Committee of the Boston Equal Suffrage Association, she taught English to Italian immigrant women in Boston’s North End.

Westborough Chronotype, August 27, 1915

A follow-up report appeared in the Chronotype a week after Curtis’s talk.

Westborough Chronotype, September 17, 1915

Debates in and around Westborough

At Town Hall

Westborough Chronotype, February 18, 1882
Westborough Chronotype, May 21, 1915

In People’s Homes

Westborough Chronotype, March 24, 1888

The Chronotype regularly reported meetings of the Westborough chapter of the Women’s Suffrage League, which took place in various people’s homes, between 1866 and 1888.

In Churches

Westborough Chronotype, March 6, 1914

House-to-House (and at Fenway Park)

Westborough Chronotype, August 6, 1915
Westborough Chronotype, October 29, 1915

At the Library

Westborough Chronotype, November 13, 1914
Westborough Chronotype, March 5, 1915
Westborough Chronotype, February 16, 1917

Success

Massachusetts finally became the eighth state to ratify the 19th Amendment on June 25, 1919, and women across the United States officially gained full suffrage after Tennessee became the thirty-sixth state to ratify the amendment on August 18, 1920.

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