Author shares tales of notorious suffrage movement with stop in Dayton

One hundred years ago, three suffragists stopped in Dayton on a cross-country trip carrying an audacious banner: “We demand an amendment to the United States Constitution enfranchising women.”

“We demand.”

It was a word deemed unladylike, impertinent — even among some suffrage circles.

Cleveland Mayor Newton D. Baker, offended by that very phrase, refused to sign the suffrage envoy’s petition. Local members of the National Woman Suffrage Association distanced themselves from the Suffrage Envoy.

“They believed that women should ask nicely for the vote,” said Maine author and historian Anne Gass. “They deplored the entry into the rough-and tumble. They thought it wasn’t helpful to the suffrage cause, in part because it made many men angry.”

By 1915, however, more radical suffragists — represented by The Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage — had grown weary of asking “pretty please.” Four million women in 11 Western states had won the right to vote. “Women voters were telling Woodrow Wilson, “If you don’t move this through Congress, we are going to be heard, and it could cost you the presidency,” Gass said.

So The Congressional Union decided to dispatch The Suffrage Envoy as part publicity stunt, part impassioned plea. Spokeswoman Sara Bard Field, driver Maria Kindberg and mechanic Ingeborg Kinstedt set out from San Francisco Sept. 21 for what would turn out to be a grueling, six-month odyssey.

Gass first learned about The Suffrage Envoy while conducting research for a book about her grandmother, Florence Brooks Whitehouse of Maine, who worked closely with famed suffragist Alice Paul. She became so intrigued she decided to duplicate the journey, 100 years later — only this time, in air-conditioned comfort and a much speedier vehicle. The Envoy’s Overland Six could muster up to 25 mph on a good day.

In Dayton, the three weary road warriors met with a warmer reception in Cleveland.

In a letter to Alice Paul, Mrs. Cyrus M. Mead wrote about the plan for Dayton: “A large number of motors occupied by representative women will meet the envoys in the suburbs of Dayton, headed by a brass band and joined by women on foot. We will proceed to the Courthouse steps where Mayor Shroyer, on behalf of the city, will welcome the envoys, possibly joined in this welcome by other city officials…From present indications this will be about the biggest thing the Dayton women have ever participated in.”Gass herself received a warm reception when she spoke about The Suffrage Envoy Oct. 23 at The Dayton Woman’s Club. The event was organized by The League of Women Voters of the Greater Dayton Area and also attended by representatives from The Beavercreek Historical Society and Dayton History.

“It was rough going,” Gass told them. “In some areas the so-called highway was more like a cart track. They got stuck in the mud and lost in the desert.”

And that’s only the physical hardships. The women also met with heckling and hostility. When the Overland got stuck in the mud in Kansas late one night, men in a nearby town refused to help them. “You’re suffragists,” they explained. “You should be able to help yourselves.”

As they drove farther east, Gass recounted, “More and more people became impressed by their spunk.”

Mary Oliver, director of collections for Dayton History, couldn’t help being struck by their courage: “Consider what the roads were like and the distance between locations. And if it hadn’t been for the invention of the self-starter by Charles Kettering and Colonel Deeds, right here in Dayton, these women could never have undertaken that type of trip. The self-starter opened all kinds of doors to women.”

What they did in Washington, D.C., required downright chutzpah. Cheered on by thousands of suffragettes, they unfurled rolls of paper purporting to contain 50,000 signatures supporting woman suffrage.

“That was a bluff,” Gass said. “They had nowhere near that number of signatures. Congress and President Wilson had been outbluffed and outmaneuvered. I have no heartburn over that, after all the times the suffrage movement had been lied to and outmaneuvered.”

It was a publicity stunt, no doubt, but one powered by hope and idealism, Gass said: “They were convinced that winning voting rights would improve conditions for women, for families, and for society as a whole. Clearly things have improved considerably for women in the last 100 years, but many barriers remain. And all of the successes have come as the result of lengthy struggle.”

Susan Hesselgesser, executive director of the local LWV, said the audience came away determined to “enlighten the next generation about the suffragist movement and to preserve their history.”

She added, “It’s an empowering and inspiring story that women with no Constitutional rights challenged and changed the Constitution.”

Some of the women are even scheming to go to D.C. for the end of Gass’ road trip, just as many Dayton suffragists did in 1915.

It’s the least they can do, after all, to honor the women who fought so hard for the passage of the 19th Amendment, at long last, in 1920.

“The Suffrage Envoy showed the type of adventurous spirit it took to deliver the vote,” Oliver said. “Think of all the marches, meetings and rallies, all the years of going against the flow of those who believed women to be inferior. They were very brave.”

To follow Anne's Gass' journey, read her blog at www.suffrageroadtrip.com.

In Other News