A Century of Suffrage


For women, the right to vote was fought for, not given.

Rhode Island may be small, but it fights for its freedoms – and it tends to throw the first punch. By attacking the British warship HMS Gaspee in 1772, Rhode Islanders launched the first act of war leading to the American Revolution. On May 4, 1776, Rhode Island was the first colony in America to declare independence, months before the Declaration of Independence was signed. So it shouldn’t be a shock that our little state was the first on the East Coast to lead women’s suffrage in a meaningful way when it passed a 1917 “presidential suffrage” law giving Rhode Island women the right to vote in presidential elections. Three years later, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution extended voting rights to women. It hadn’t been an easy victory.

“Both in Rhode Island and nationally, the women’s suffrage movement had been largely unsuccessful for decades,” notes RIC Associate Professor of History Elisa Miller, Rhode Island’s state coordinator of the “Online Biographical Dictionary of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the United States.” In addition to her own research on Rhode Island suffragists, Miller supervised around twenty Rhode Island College students who wrote suffrage biographies for the project as assignments in history courses.

The first women’s suffrage organization in Rhode Island was founded in 1868, she says, and it took them half a century to earn presidential voting rights in 1917. They were able to achieve this before suffragists in other states through “persistence and innovative tactics.”

On Oct. 23, 1915, a large march drawing 60,000 people in New York City served as a major turning point to winning the vote. Here, women carry signs with information about each state's status in terms of women's voting rights.

“By the early 20th century, they had become good at tactics like open rallies by Kennedy Square, giving speeches on corners or addressing workers at mills and factories during lunch hour,” Miller says. “They were also saavy and successful lobbyists, even though they didn't have political rights or voting rights.”

Once women got the vote in 1920, Republicans and Democrats courted them, passing a flurry of social reform bills in the early 1920s on issues like maternal and infant health care, while suffragists in and beyond Rhode Island became leaders in local political parties in order to more directly effect change.

RIC Emeritus Professor of History J. Stanley Lemons was the first to offer a women's history course at Rhode Island College. Among his extensive publications is “The Elect: Rhode Island’s Women Legislators, 1922-1990,” in which dozens of local female politicians were interviewed. 

The use of symbols drawn from ancient Greece and Rome appealed to conservative values and asserted the respectability of the movement.
Bertha Margaret Boye's iconic poster was hung in shop windows during the 1911 California Suffrage Campaign.

Lemons says the first woman elected to the Rhode Island General Assembly was suffragist Isabelle Ahearn O'Neill in 1922. She had been an effective campaigner on behalf of Democratic candidates in 1920, and when she got her chance two years later, she served in both the Rhode Island House of Representatives and the Senate before being appointed to a federal position by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“The fact that she was even able to run for office in a system totally dominated by men was remarkable,” Lemons notes. Even with the power to vote afforded by the 19th Amendment, women could only run with the approval and patronage of the party boss until the primary system began in 1948. “So, even O’Neill had to have close ties to the political boss in her district,” he says. “She and her family lived just a couple doors away from Thomas Dorney, boss of the First Ward Democrats.”

In 1948 Florence Murray became the first woman to be elected who didn’t first have to get the nomination from a party selection committee (or boss), and more women followed suit. Today, 40 out of the 113 members of the State of Rhode Island General Assembly are women, as is our governor.

Rose O'Neill Kewpie Poster, 1915. O'Neill became the best-known and highest-paid female commercial illustrator in the United States and earned a fortune and international fame by creating the Kewpie, the most widely known cartoon character until Mickey Mouse.

Racial equality was another battle waged by Black suffragists. Not all American women received the right to vote from the 19th Amendment. Black women in the South had to wait 45 more years until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed. Yet Professor Miller cautions that it’s important to understand that Black women in the North did obtain the right to vote from the 19th Amendment.

“The narrative that only white women earned the right to vote from the 19th Amendment erases the efforts of Black women who fought hard for universal suffrage and who made tremendous use of their voting power, becoming social and political leaders,” Miller says.

Two such leaders in Rhode Island were Black suffragists: Bertha Higgins and Mary Jackson. Born into a poor southern family before moving to Rhode Island, Higgins viewed voting rights for Black women as a means of fighting for racial equality in the United States. After obtaining the right to vote in 1920, Higgins became both a local and national political leader.

“The Sky is Now Her Limit” political cartoon, August 1920, by Elmer Andrews Bushnell. Cartoonists used the press to change the conversation and battle anti-suffrage stereotypes and create a new image for the movement to enfranchise women.

She had President Warren G. Harding writing her thank-you letters and inviting her to his inauguration,” Miller marvels, “and Rhode Island congressmen telegraphed her looking for her support.”

Mary Jackson put her newfound political power to work by struggling tirelessly in Rhode Island to advance the cause of racial justice. She was particularly active in the labor movement, where she argued that racial unity was necessary for all female industrial workers.

Multiple Rhode Island College alumni were involved in the fight for the right to vote. Louise Peck (c.1880) passionately supported reform efforts on behalf of working-class women. Following the 19th Amendment, Peck used her new power to lobby citizens and political parties about social issues, from opposing a law that would exempt women from jury duty to emerging as a leading supporter of prohibition.

Pictures, from early engravings and photographs to colorful posters, proved central to suffragists’ efforts to change expectations for women, fighting back against the accepted norms of their times.

Helen Bowen, an 1873 RIC grad who taught at Providence’s Candace Street Grammar School and was a member of the Rhode Island League of Women Voters and was very active in the movement, including advocating and signing a suffrage petition that racked up 500,000 signatures by the time it was sent to the U.S. Congress in 1915.

And after earning her teaching degree at RIC in 1898, Enid Pierce fought to make education more universal, criticizing policies that ended education for many citizens at age 14. In 1919 Pierce lobbied the Rhode Island governor for a special session of the legislature on women’s suffrage and helped incorporate the Providence League of Women Voters. When the 19th Amendment was ratified the following year, Pierce recited a poem called “Victory,” which she had written for the movement.

“The fact that people like Peck, Bowen and Pierce were schoolteachers, the fact that more women were career women at the turn of the century, was critical in increasing suffrage,” says Miller. “Women had been to college, which expanded their horizons and made them feel confident, like they deserved a day in politics and society as a whole.”

At least 20 female politicians are alumni of Rhode Island College. In fact, two state senators, Gloria Kennedy Fleck in 1976 and Maryellen Goodwin in 1986, were elected while they were students at RIC.

“Women today are still grappling with a lot of the same issues and gender inequalities as their predecessors,” says Miller. Women hold less than 7.5 percent of CEO roles at Fortune 500 companies, and only 7.1 percent of top-ranking officers in the U.S. military are female.

“Those who are politically active now tend to come from a lens of Black Lives Matter or climate change or the LGBTQ+ movement,” she says. "They’re passionate about other political and social issues, and they feel that being active in electoral politics will help.”

Current Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, made history in 2007 as the first (and still only) woman to hold that position, while in November 2020, Kamala Harris became the first female vice president since the position was created in 1787.

It takes time to change social attitudes, says Lemons. “It took 70 years from the first formation of a suffrage organization to when the right to vote was achieved by all women. Social change tends to be glacial in nature.”

“Yet even with limited success and the long road ahead, they kept their eyes on the prize,” Miller says of those whose perseverance made the 19th Amendment possible.

This article was reprinted from the 2020-2021 Winter/Spring issue, Vol. 1, No. 2, of the RIC Magazine.