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  • Writer's pictureIthaca Heritage

“Tompkins County Women and the Fight for Woman’s Suffrage,” by Karen Pastorello

Tompkins County was very involved in the fight for gaining women the right to vote. Dr. Pastorello provides narrative and chronological highlights in this blog.

In the spring of 1878 Calista Andrews of McLean, New York, travelled to a meeting of women suffragists in New York City. Making her rail connection in Ithaca, she continued downstate to the Tenth Annual Convention of the New York State Woman Suffrage Association to serve as the delegate representing Tompkins County. Although the details of Callie’s life have yet to be uncovered, examining the world around her suggests the motivations for her suffrage activism. It is almost certain that she knew Dr. Almon Robinson, the town doctor and noted community leader who championed a number of reform causes. People escaping on the Underground Railroad who followed the creek bordering Robinson’s property frequently took refuge with the family before the Civil War ended slavery. In addition to his abolitionist activity, Robinson ardently supported women’s rights. Callie may have attended the Select School for girls that Robinson helped his daughter, Helen, establish. On more than one occasion, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott visited McLean to speak in the ballroom of the Robinsons’ large home. As the 1902 “Chronological Summary of Community Events” noted, “the move toward equal rights was strong in McLean.” Calista Andrews’ hometown was one of the many rural upstate towns that became a center for suffrage activism.

By the 1890s women throughout the state intensified their quest for political rights. In 1894 the leaders of the state suffrage association decided to hold their annual convention at a university center and chose Ithaca despite its lack of a suffrage organization. Led by New York State Woman Suffrage Association president Jean Brooks Greenleaf of Rochester, convention delegates voted to use more assertive tactics in their campaign for women’s enfranchisement. As the movement coalesced at the state level, suffragists shifted their activism from presenting general petitions to the state legislature in Albany to attempting to influence individual legislators in their home districts. In between convention sessions, Susan B. Anthony and future National American Woman Suffrage Association president, Anna Howard Shaw, tried to organize a local suffrage organization in Ithaca, but “not enough women could be found who were sufficiently interested.” One local suffrage activist however failed to be deterred. Louisa Lord Riley, recently relocated from Orange, New Jersey, established the Women’s Club of Ithaca in 1895. By 1899 the club’s Equal Suffrage Section had evolved into the Political Study Club and held its first meeting at Lucy Calkins’ lakeside home where a number of widows and teachers signed the membership roster. Susan B. Anthony came from Rochester, and Cornell graduate and hospital reformer Harriet May Mills visited from Syracuse to lend encouragement to the nascent organization.

Ithaca’s Political Study Club joined numerous pro-suffrage organizations in the county, including the Grange, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, Daughters of the American Revolution, the Child Study Club, the Campus Club, and the Political Equality League of Sage College. Most importantly, the Political Study Club proved a welcome addition to the expanding network of clubs belonging to the Tompkins County Suffrage Association, including those in rural Groton, East Groton, and Newfield. In 1909, inspired by Hornell suffrage activist Anna Cadogan Etz, women students at Cornell founded a branch of the Collegiate Equal Suffrage League. By the time the New York State Woman Suffrage Association, directed by president Harriet May Mills, assembled for the annual convention in Ithaca in 1911, the suffrage spirit permeated the city.



The movement continued to gain momentum as it headed toward the first referendum on woman suffrage in New York State. In anticipation of the referendum vote slated for 1915, Ithaca suffrage leaders Juanita Breckenridge Bates and Helen Brewster Owens helped to coordinate the so-called Empire State Campaign. Bates, who had sacrificed her professional career as a Congregationalist minister to marry, remained a committed activist and headed the Tompkins County Woman Suffrage Party from its inception in 1913. Cornell University Math professor Helen Brewster Owens founded the Cornell Suffrage Club for faculty and rose to the position of Sixth District Leader for the New York State Woman Suffrage Association. Bates and Owens worked alongside other local suffragists toward the passage of the 1915 referendum by inviting engaging speakers to the county and conducting suffrage schools in Ithaca that trained women to recruit men to the cause.


Tompkins County was one of only five counties that passed the 1915 referendum. The statewide defeat of the referendum on the question of woman suffrage surely disappointed Bates, Owens, and hundreds of other county suffrage supporters, yet the determined suffrage leadership regrouped and immediately began to work toward “Victory in 1917.” Within two years the energetic activists managed to push a woman suffrage plank through the state legislature to secure a second referendum on the ballot. This time the majority of male voters approved the referendum to grant New York State women full suffrage. Tompkins County women helped to make this crucial victory possible. Now state suffrage activists could turn their attention toward the passage of the federal woman suffrage amendment and, with it, share in the promise of what historian Sarah Hunter Graham called “a new democracy.”

Karen Pastorello, Karen Pastorello, History Professor, Tompkins Cortland Community College; Trustee, The History Center in Tompkins Country; and co-author of Women Will Vote: Winning Suffrage in New York State.

Originally written for the blog by Karen Pastorello.

Published April 3, 2018.

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