I always tell my students that history is not necessarily linear: movements and ideas move forward and then fall back and “progress”, however you choose to define it, is always a result of struggle. The struggle for women’s suffrage is a case in point, played out on a national stage as well as a local one. I’ve had to piece together the history of the Salem Suffrage movement from a variety of sources, as the records for its main organization have disappeared, but I think I have it down now, and it was definitely characterized by fits and starts. The connection between the abolition and suffrage movements before the Civil War is very clear: while a petition calling for universal suffrage was submitted to the Massachusetts legislature in 1850 by a group of active Salem reformers, both women and men, abolition was the higher priority during the following decade and the suffrage initiative remained on hold during the Civil War and its aftermath. The debate over the 15th Amendment caused a schism in the national suffrage movement, with some leaders (Susan Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton) opposing the enfranchisement of black men before women had achieved the vote and others (Julia Ward Howe, Lucy Stone) favoring a more incremental approach to suffrage with the enfranchisement of black men as a first step. This split resulted in the formation of two associations, the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) of Anthony and Stanton, and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), led by Lucy Stone, as well as a cascade of regional, state, and local associations. Supporters of suffrage in Salem, both women and men, were firmly in the Stone camp, and we can follow their efforts through Stone’s weekly newspaper, the Woman’s Journal. Even though the 1870s started with division, there was also an air of optimism in the air: women in Wyoming and Utah won the vote in 1869 and 1870, so why couldn’t reformist Massachusetts be next?
Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum’s Phillips Library.
The Woman’s Journal reports that yearly conventions were held in Salem, generally at the Lyceum, along with regular meetings of the Salem Woman Suffrage Club, which included woman and men and were clearly as much social occasions as strategy sessions. The editors of the Journal seem to have favored an approach that was not only incremental but “pleasant”, as the account of the 1874 convention (below) illustrates: much praise for the food and flowers, and an observation that “other clubs may take a lesson from this of Salem, which draws members by pleasant means—clergymen, lawyers, judges, editors and not least in influence, women. What remains to do now is the steady and continuous circulation of tracts as a means of enlightenment, and with the light will come the end”. Yet there were several women in Salem who made it clear that tea parties and the dissemination of pamphlets was not enough, writing letters to the editor that expressed the general opinion that while the Salem club was popular, it wasn’t actually doing anything: such expressions seem to be coming from those women who were also involved in other causes like temperance, settlement, and the “moral education” of “fallen women”. As was the case before the Civil War, suffrage was interwoven with other calls for reform.
But maybe the “pleasant” approach was working. In 1879 the Massachusetts legislature passed a “school suffrage” bill, enabling Massachusetts women the right to vote in school committee elections. This definitely seems like a big step forward, but apparently it was an action that represented the traditional belief that education matters were within the realm of female expertise more than any desire to move towards universal suffrage on the part of Massachusetts legislators. Nevertheless, Salem women offered up four female candidates and really turned out at the polls in December of 1879, with the result that all four women were elected to the Salem School Board, the highest number in Massachusetts. The Boston Globe reported that there was “great activity at the polls” with “undertain” results on Election night (December 9), but on the next day the election of the four women was confirmed.
Boston Globe headline, December 9, 1879; Library of Congress.
And suddenly there was a brand new School Committee in Salem! The four women elected were Mrs. Mary G. Ward of Federal Street, a noted activist for suffrage and temperance in the city, Dr. Sarah E. Sherman, who I believe was Salem’s first female physician, Emma B. Lowd, very active in veterans’ affairs as an officer in the National Woman’s Relief Corps Committee, and Mrs. Lurana N. Almy, the wife (and partner, really) of James. F. Almy, the founder of Salem’s famed Almy’s, Bigelow and Washburn store. Unfortunately Mrs. Almy died before she could take up her seat on the committee, but the other three women served for several years, paving the way for more women members. The ground-breaking year of 1879 was capped off by the submission of a suffrage amendment petition to the U.S. Congress by the Salem Woman Suffrage Committee, signed by the men who could vote in one column and the women who could not in another.
Salem School Committee Annual Report, 1880; Official Souvenir Program of the 24th National Encampment, Boston, MA, 1890……also the Eighth Annual Convention of the Woman’s Relief Corps;“Petition from the Citizens of Massachusetts in Support of Women’s Suffrage,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed February 21, 2020, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1683.
But two (or three or four or five) steps forward were followed by several steps back. In typical contrary Massachusetts fashion, the multi-layered suffrage movement provoked a counter-movement in the form of the Massachusetts Association Opposed to the Further Extension of Suffrage to Women, established in 1895 and with a Salem branch headed by Miss Anna L. Warner and Miss Ellen B. Laight. Two Massachusetts suffrage referendums were soundly defeated—in 1895 and 1915—before the Commonwealth ratified the 19th Amendment on June 25, 1919.