November 13, 2019
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Bangor club women battled for rights a century ago

| BDN
| BDN
Wayne E. Reilly

Advocates of “woman suffrage” in Maine were feeling optimistic at the beginning of 1915. “Unless there is some big and unlooked for development, the people of Maine will, before the end of the present year, be given a chance to vote on woman suffrage,” predicted the Bangor Daily News on Jan. 20.

The debate over women’s voting rights was definitely getting more space in the press, and many lawmakers seemed to be interested in discussing the issue, even if they were not already supportive. It looked as though a proposed amendment for Maine’s constitution would pass the Legislature and be sent to the people for consideration.

Of course, everyone who has studied Maine history knows it didn’t happen in 1915. A flood of petitions advocating woman suffrage arrived in Augusta just before the judiciary committee held its hearing. Ominously, one of them, which came from Bangor, contained 159 signatures of anti-suffragists including “well known society women,” said the Bangor Daily News on Feb. 11.

Another Bangor woman, Deborah Knox Livingston, chairman of the “franchise committee” for the national Women’s Christian Temperance Union and a speaker of some note, was one of the leaders of the suffrage cause. She pointed out to the judiciary committee that boys and girls had equal educational opportunities, and “graduates are equally competent to have a part in government.” More and more women were working in industries that were affected by government actions, and they should have a voice in determining them, she added.

The Bangor Daily News, a Republican paper sympathetic to the suffrage camp, carried its own pro-suffrage newsletter documenting local and national events. Grace Mutell Jones, its author, bubbled over with optimism. The judiciary hearing had been a success, she said in her Feb. 24 missive. She predicted incorrectly that Maine women would never again have to present their petition for enfranchisement to another legislature.

Jones provided some history. The Maine Woman Suffrage Association had offered lawmakers a variety of bills for the past 25 years, asking for “municipal suffrage” for women and “municipal suffrage for taxpaying women,” among other compromise schemes.

A blanket bill seeking “full suffrage” didn’t appear until 1906, Jones wrote. It had been submitted every year since then with little publicity.

In 1915, the Maine Senate accepted the ought-to-pass report of the judiciary committee by a vote of 26 to 4, reported the Bangor Daily News on March 18.

A few days later, however, the newspaper threw some editorial cold water on the prospects of a referendum going to the people. “To judge by the vote of the senate alone, one would imagine that all Maine legislators were unanimous for woman suffrage. This may be a delusive snare. In fact, it probably is,” signaled the newspaper on March 22.

The vote in the House would be the deciding factor. That’s where a giant fissure developed in the fragile structure constructed by the suffrage advocates. Rep. Charles P. Conners, a Bangor lawyer, as well as other lawmakers, delivered the death blow during the debate.

“[Conners] argued that the whole matter was a question as to whether there was a demand for this constitutional amendment. He averred there was no demand from the voters, the men, and that but a very small portion of the women had asked for the ballot …

“For his part, he had heard no woman in Bangor say she wished him to help her to vote while on the other hand several large women property owners had expressed their opposition to equal suffrage,” according to the newspaper.

It’s probable that Conners, a Democrat, had never met Livingston, wife of the pastor of the Columbia Street Baptist Church.

Lacking the required two-thirds vote for an amendment, the bill was defeated in the House by a vote of 88 to 59, reported the Bangor Daily News on March 24.

Jones on March 31 blamed Democrats, a large majority of whom voted against the bill. She suggested that the next time the subject was raised in the House, a certain Bangor representative would not be able to say that “he doesn’t know of a woman in his district who wants Woman’s Suffrage.”

Meanwhile, in Bangor, a local skirmish over the voice women would have in municipal affairs was going on that year. A delegation of women from the Federated Women’s Clubs of Bangor approached the City Council on March 22 urging the addition of two seats to the school board that would be filled by women, expanding the board from five male members to five male and two female members.

The club women recommended that the council appoint Mrs. Charles H. Wood and Mrs. Oliver H. Hall, representing respectively the west and east sides of the city, to hold these new seats. (This was back when school board members in Bangor were appointed, rather than elected.) Ironically, the women were identified by the names of their socially prominent husbands.

On the night of the meeting, Miss Amanda W. Wilson stated that she represented “four or five hundred club women” of Bangor, a reference to the hundreds of middle and upper class women who participated in the multitude of clubs that raised money for worthy causes such as the arts, good government, the eradication of tuberculosis and others.

“Many Bangor women are graduates of colleges and the high school, are taxpayers and have made a careful study of the problems of health, sanitation and education, as well as the physical, mental and moral condition of the young,” said Miss Wilson. She cited “the trend of the times, modern progress and growing regard for the importance of women in affairs.”

Only one councilman, Cornelius O’Leary, clearly expressed opposition to the resolve introduced by Alderman Fred C. Ridley.

O’Leary said he was happy with the current system. The board got enough assistance from the teachers.

“If the women would stay at home and attend to the children, the school board would see to it that these children get proper attention in the schools,” he said.

A nonbinding, “rising vote” was taken, and the resolve was endorsed 14 to 12. Then the council’s two sections — the aldermen and the common council — split into separate meetings, and, after a “technical objection” was raised that the resolve had not been filed soon enough, it was tabled by the common council until the “next regular meeting.”

Ridley’s “very earnest, but entirely futile” resolve did not reappear for nearly three months, when it was received “with cold disfavor,” according to the Bangor Daily News on June 9.

Only Ridley voted in favor. Other aldermen questioned its legality, the deadline for appointing municipal officers having passed.

Back on March 26, a story in the Bangor Daily News had pointed out that Bangor had been the first municipality in Maine to have a woman on its school board. She was Miss Mary S. Snow, who had been named superintendent of schools. She was appointed to the board by Mayor Edward Blake in 1890 in order to fulfill a requirement that the superintendent also be a member of the board, according to the newspaper.

Ironically, Snow, who left Bangor to distinguish herself in other education jobs in Chicago and New York, returned to the Queen City in late May 1915 to deliver a lecture before about 600 Bangor teachers and other guests on “The Education of Today.” The event was sponsored by the Training School Alumnae Association, a group that Snow had headed before she was named superintendent, according to the Bangor Daily News on May 24.

The very fact of Snow’s triumphal return to Bangor indicated that women would soon be recognized in their quest for the vote.

Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. His latest book, “Hidden History of Bangor: From Lumbering Days to the Progressive Era,” is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at wreilly.bdn@gmail.com.

 



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