By Amanda Wyatt
Elizabeth Cady-Stanton and Lucretia Mott. Susan B. Anthony and Alice Paul. May Groot Manson and Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage.
While the last two may not be household names around the country, Mrs. Thomas L. Manson and Mrs. Russell Sage — as they were better known in their time — led the fight for women’s suffrage on the East End a century ago.
“The Suffragist Movement: Women Work for the Right to Vote” was a lecture presented by Arlene Hinkemeyer last Friday at Clinton Academy in East Hampton, in honor of March being Women’s History Month.
Donning an old-fashioned suffragist costume for the occasion, Hinkemeyer outlined the history of the suffrage movement in the United States and locally, including “amazing women suffragists right here in East Hampton, Sag Harbor and Southampton.”
While the movement started in the mid-19th century, the 1910s saw a flurry of political activity regarding women’s voting rights. And as rallies, parades and marches were taking place in cities like New York and Washington, D.C., local suffragists were also hard at work.
In Sag Harbor, the first major suffrage meeting took place in July of 1912. Sage, the benefactress of John Jermain Memorial Library and Pierson High School, paved the way in the village for the suffrage movement.
Ironically, The Sag Harbor Express was not particularly progressive when it came to women’s voting rights. Between 1915 and 1917, Hinkemeyer said, “the paper was filled with many anti-suffrage articles.”
Just a few miles away, Manson — a Manhattan socialite who owned a home in East Hampton — was also championing the cause. The chairman of the Women’s Suffrage League of East Hampton, she spearheaded a large outdoor rally in August 1913.
The list of attendees was “a veritable ‘who’s who’ of East Hampton and New York City society,” said Hinkemeyer. There were also 20 representatives from the Sag Harbor branch of the Women’s Political Union (WPU) who joined in the march.
Another major moment on the East End came in June 1915. As The New York Times reported, “relays of women carrying a suffrage torch to enlighten the state of NY upon the needs of its women will ride by automobile from Montauk Point, L.I., to Buffalo.”
“Mrs. Manson motored across Long Island with the torch, holding open air meetings along the way, and then handed over the torch to another woman…who took it New York City, and others in the relay who carried it up to Buffalo,” said Hinkemeyer.
Major suffrage rallies also took place in Southampton between 1913 and 1915, with women like Lizbeth Halsey White, the chair of the town’s branch of the WPU, leading the charge.
At the same time, the anti-suffrage movement was heating up. As Mrs. William A. Putnam, president of the statewide League Opposed to Women Suffrage, said at a 1913 rally in Southampton, the present position of women was “a much higher one as the queen of the home than it could possibly be when dragged from her high estate to the mire of political turmoil and politics.”
Still, suffragists eventually claimed victory in November 1917, when New York State gave women the right to vote. Two years later, the U.S. Congress passed the 19th amendment, which provided suffrage on a national level. The amendment was formally adopted after Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify it in August 1920.
While New York had been the fifth state to ratify the 19th amendment, some states were a bit late to the party. Mississippi, for example, didn’t get around to ratifying it until 1984.
Sadly, Hinkemeyer noted, some leading suffragists never lived to see their dreams realized. Sage died in 1918, before the 19th amendment was ratified, although she did see the passage of women’s suffrage in New York. But Manson, who died at a relatively young age, missed the passage in New York by merely two months.
“We in East Hampton can all be proud of the meaningful life [Manson] led, and of all she accomplished for the good of our community,” said Hinkemeyer. “We owe a great debt to her for working — and now we know how much work it was — to give women the right to vote.”