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"A rash and dreadful act for a woman": The 1915 Woman Suffrage Parade in Boston

Anna J. Cook
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Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Victory Parade : Instructions for Marchers Broadsheet

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On 16 October 1915, supporters of women's suffrage in Massachusetts held a parade and rally in support of a ballot measure that would have amended the Massachusetts Constitution to grant women the right to vote. This broadsheet contains instructions for marchers participating in the parade and, on the reverse, songs to be sung during the parade and at the rally held immediately following.

Woman Suffrage in Massachusetts

On 27 May 1866, a group of women's rights activists gathered together at the Meionaon, a meeting hall on Tremont Street in Boston, for the organizing meeting of the American Equal Rights Association; Caroline Healey Dall convened the meeting and Lucretia Mott presided. When the Equal Rights Association split in 1869 over the issue of voting rights for African American men, the parent organization gave birth to both the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) and the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). In Massachusetts, leaders of the AWSA formed the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association, the group which would organize the 1915 parade.

By 1879, Massachusetts had passed a law allowing women to vote for school committee members, a seemingly radical act in a culture where, according to suffragist Harriet Robinson, "it was thought to be a rash and dreadful act for a woman to appear at the polls, or near the ballot box, in company with the MEN." Suffrage activists--while exercising their right to this limited franchise--protested that the measure was insultingly limited and (because of poll taxes) discriminated against poor women who were unable to pay for the privilege. They continued to campaign for full suffrage rights and by 1915 the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association claimed over 58,000 members.

Anti-Suffrage Activism

Massachusetts also had the oldest and strongest anti-woman suffrage organization in the United States: the Massachusetts Association Opposed to the Further Extension of Suffrage to Women, founded in 1895.Opponents of suffrage argued that giving women the right to elective franchise endangered what they considered the vital separation of male and female roles in society and represented a threat to the fundamental order of society. They also maintained that women didn't need or want the vote anyway. In a pamphlet published by the Massachusetts Anti-Suffrage Committee leading up to the 1915 vote, anti-suffrage activists pointed toward low turn-out by women in school committee elections as proof that the majority of women were uninterested in voting rights. They believed that suffrage was being forced on the general public by a small group of dangerous activists. Allowing women in Massachusetts to vote, they argued, would lead to an increase in divorce and higher taxes. They asserted that suffragists were allied with Mormons (viewed by many at the time as a threat to America's national security) and Socialists.

The 1915 Ballot Measure and the "Victory" Parade

In 1915, male voters in Massachusetts were asked to decide on an amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution that would strike the word "male" from the article that gave men the right to vote. In response to the upcoming vote, the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association organized a pro-suffrage parade on Saturday, 16 October 1915, involving some 15,000 marchers and 30 bands. The parade route began at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Beacon Street; marchers made their way past the Public Garden, Boston Common, and the State House before proceeding up Tremont Street and Saint James Avenue to Huntington. The parade ended at Mechanics Hall where a pro-suffrage rally was held.

Although both Governor David I. Walsh and Mayor James Michael Curley reviewed the parade and hundreds of thousands of spectators lined the route, Boston was not entirely sympathetic to the cause. According to the Boston Globe, on the day of the parade, "antis" (those opposed to women's suffrage) prepared over 100,000 red "blushing" roses for protestors to wear in silent testimony to their opposition to women's suffrage. Pro-suffrage marchers processed past houses draped with red banners bearing anti-suffrage slogans and motor cars festooned with giant red paper flowers, "hover[ed]...like flying cavalry seeking an opening for a flank attack" as boys ran among the crowd of spectators selling red roses pinned to cards bearing anti-suffrage messages.

Defeat in 1915, Victory in 1920

On 2 November 1915, Massachusetts men went to the polls and voted against universal suffrage by a nearly two-to-one margin, with 35.5% of men who voted on the issue voting "yes" and 64.5% voting "no." Massachusetts was one of four states to hold a vote on the issue of female suffrage that year; similar measures in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania were also defeated. Following the vote, Massachusetts suffrage activists held a conference at Faneuil Hall on 16 November, choosing to concentrate their efforts behind the national campaign to amend the federal constitution. The 19th Amendment of the United States Constitution, granting women the right to vote, was passed by the United States Congress on 4 June 1919 and became federal law just over a year later. Reversing its vote in 1915, Massachusetts was the eighth state to ratify the 19th Amendment on 25 June 1919, and when Tennessee became the thirty-sixth state to ratify it on 18 August 1920, it became law.

Sources for Further Reading

Baker, Jean H., ed. Votes for Women: The Struggle for Suffrage Revisited. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Boston Daily Globe, "Antis Plan Silent Demonstration at Suffrage Parade Tomorrow," October 15, 1915.

Cooney, Robert. Winning the Vote: The Triumph of the American Woman Suffrage Movement. Santa Cruz, CA: American Graphic Press, 2005.

Evans, Sara M. Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America. New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1997.

Library of Congress. American Memory: "Votes for Women": Suffrage Pictures, 1850-1920.

Marshall, Susan E. Splintered Sisterhood: Gender and Class in the Campaign Against Woman Suffrage. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997.

Massachusetts Anti-Suffrage Committee. The Case against Woman Suffrage: The Most Important Question on the Ballot at the State Election, November 2, 1915. Boston: The Committee, 1915.

Robinson, Harriet M. Massachusetts in the Woman Suffrage Movement: A General, Political, Legal and Legislative History from 1774 to 1881. Boston: Roberts Bros., 1881.

Stevens, Doris. Jailed for Freedom. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920.