As Maine voters face one of the most consequential elections in recent history, it’s hard to fathom that, just over 100 years ago, half of the state’s population would not have been allowed to vote — simply because they were born female.
The 19th Amendment, which was ratified 100 years ago this month, granted women the right to vote at all levels of government. It was a hard-fought victory, the result of decades of carving away at public opinion, and countless legislative battles all across the nation — including in Maine, where some of the earliest activism to secure women’s suffrage occurred.
Most historians agree it was the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention in New York that “kicked off” the women’s right’s movement in the U.S. Within just a few years, the movement had spread throughout the eastern states — and in Maine, there were several notable women (and men) who took up the cause.
One of the first women’s suffrage events to take place in Maine happened in 1857, when Susan B. Anthony, one of the national leaders of the movement, spoke in Bangor and Ellsworth on a tour organized by Ellsworth suffragist Ann Greely, also an ardent abolitionist who brought many other civil rights speakers to eastern Maine.
That same year, women’s rights activists based in Bangor submitted a petition to the Maine Legislature for a state constitutional amendment enfranchising women. The Legislature ignored the petition. Over the course of the next six decades, the Legislature shot down many similar petitions, though with less and less of a majority opposed with each turn.
“To win suffrage women had to overcome centuries of misogyny embedded in law, religion, and social custom,” said Anne Gass, a Portland-based historian and author of “Voting Down the Rose: Florence Brooks Whitehouse and Maine’s Fight for Woman Suffrage,” published in 2014. “You don’t change that overnight.”
Though the people fighting for suffrage were mostly women, as the years went on, more and more men joined the cause. Eventually, some legislators came around — notably Ira Hersey, a Republican legislator from Houlton who brought several suffrage bills before the Maine legislature — and the Men’s Equal Rights League of Maine was formed in 1914.
By the 1880s, the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) had become the leading national organization advocating for women’s suffrage, and there were multiple chapters in counties and cities around Maine. But by the turn of the 20th century, many of the women who had led the fight for suffrage in Maine in the latter half of the 19th century were getting older, and were looking for new leaders to step in and continue the battle.
Some of those new leaders included people such as Isabel Greenwood, who led the Franklin County chapter of NAWSA and was married to Chester Greenwood, the famed earmuff inventor. In Bangor, Deborah Knox Livingston, a Scottish immigrant married to the pastor of the Columbia Street Baptist Church, built up the Bangor NAWSA chapter between 1912 and 1915 into one of the largest in the state, and helped lead a failed 1915 state referendum to give women the vote.
One of the most notable and outspoken members of the suffrage movement in Maine in that era was Florence Brooks Whitehouse, a wealthy Portland woman well connected in Maine’s elite social circles.
“Up until 1917, Maine hadn’t really been a leader on the national stage as far as suffrage went,” said Gass, Whitehouse’s great-granddaughter. “That changed when people like Florence got involved.”
Whitehouse joined a competing suffrage organization, the Congressional Union for Women’s Suffrage (CUWS, later to be renamed the National Women’s Party), which took a more radical approach in its methods, organizing protests and pickets all over the country. There was a split between factions in the suffrage movement — those who favored a more even-handed, less confrontational approach, and those who preferred to take direct action, like Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, the famed suffragists who went on hunger strikes while imprisoned for picketing the White House.
In 1917, a referendum was put to Maine voters on allowing women to vote. Given that everyone who could vote in Maine at that time was male, and despite the hard work of suffrage organizers, the measure lost at the polls.
Undaunted, in 1918, Whitehouse and her allies at the Maine chapter of NAWSA decided to work on passing a measure in the Maine Legislature to enfranchise women. Carrie Chapman Catt, national president of NAWSA, opposed the measure, however, saying Maine didn’t have the votes needed to pass it and that it would be a waste of time and resources, possibly setting the movement back in Maine. But the possibility of Maine being the first state east of the Mississippi to pass women’s suffrage was a prize too exciting to pass up.
“The eyes of the world were definitely on Maine at that time, because if Maine could pull it off, that would have been a major victory,” said Gass.
The group managed to get the votes needed to pass the House, but the Maine Senate voted it down. Luckily, the next time a measure to allow women the vote would appear before the Maine Legislature would be the last time.
In June 1919, after months of work to persuade members of Congress, both the U.S. House and Senate passed a bill to ratify the 19th Amendment, allowing women the right to vote. On Nov. 5, 1919, Maine became the 19th state to ratify the amendment. When Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify it on Aug. 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment was added to the Constitution. Election Day in 1920 was the first time women nationwide were allowed to vote.
Though the battle for women’s suffrage was won, extending voting rights to all women regardless of race or economic status was a war that continued for decades. In 1920, it was estimated that 75 percent of Black women were prohibited from voting in many southern states because of poll taxes, voter intimidation and other reasons. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 made such efforts illegal.
In Maine, it wasn’t until 1955 that Native Americans of any gender were allowed full voting rights. Famed Penobscot musician and activist Lucy Nicolar Poolaw was the first Penobscot woman to cast her ballot that year.
And while Maine was one of 33 states in 1975 to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, that measure fell short of the 38 states needed to add it to the Constitution. While federal and state civil rights laws prohibit sex-based discrimination, and the Equal Protection clause of the 14th amendment also has been extended to apply to women, there’s no explicit constitutional prohibition on discrimination based on sex.
Anne Gass will join other Maine lawyers and activists in a virtual panel led by Leigh Saufley, dean of the University of Maine School of Law and former chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, titled “Hard Won Not Done. Winning, Extending and Defending Voting Rights,” set for 3 p.m. Aug. 26.