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Norwich in a Nutshell: State missed the boat on women’s vote

On Aug. 28, 1920, Miss Katherine Kirby pulled fire alarm box 36 at the corner of Sachem and Uncas streets in Norwich. This was the signal for factory whistles, church bells and school bells to sound out in celebration of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by Tennessee.

The right of women to vote was now established.

The movement for woman suffrage in America had begun in 1848 at the Seneca Falls Convention. A split in 1869 over the 15th Amendment, which extended the vote to African American men, hindered the movement, until rival groups reunited in 1890 to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

Suffrage in Connecticut gained steam in the early 20th century. Norwich, like many other Connecticut cities and towns, had an Equal Franchise League tied to the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association, which in turn was tied to the national group.

Katherine Martha Houghton Hepburn, mother and namesake of actress Katherine Hepburn, became president of CWSA in 1910.

Connecticut was a tough nut to crack. Politically conservative, the state was reluctant to embrace change. Although women were permitted to vote for school officials in 1893, and on library matters in 1909, these were limited concessions, in keeping with the 19th century concept of a “women’s sphere” restricted to domestic matters. Efforts to extend woman suffrage to local municipal elections failed.

Locally, around 1910, branches of the Equal Franchise League were founded on a town-by-town basis. These local units were components of the New London County Equal Franchise League. In Norwich, the movement was led by prominent local women, including two sisters,

Martha Norton, wife of William A. Norton, and Annie B. Austin, wife of Willis Austin. Daughters of one of the owners of the Edward Chappell Coal Co, their husbands were managers in the company. Miss Ada L. Richards, soon to wed hardware store owner Albert H. Chase, was another active member. All three women were in their early 30s, and lived near each other. Miss Ada L. Richards, soon to wed hardware store owner Albert H. Chase, was another active member. All three women were in their early 30s, and lived near each other.

With the help of the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association and their organizer, Miss Emily Pierson, local suffragists brought in state and national speakers to Norwich. At City Hall, the YMCA, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and other venues, the case for women voting was made repeatedly.

Members were recruited at the annual New London County Fair in the East Great Plains section of Norwich. Street speakers addressed factory workers from a soapbox or the tailgate of a wagon. Literature on woman suffrage was distributed widely.

Men supported the movement, too. In 1909, bookseller George A. Davis had a suffrage petition at his store in the Wauregan Hotel, ready for signing. In 1913, Dr. Frederick Sykes, first president of Connecticut College, voiced his support, saying: “the vote, why it’s an inevitable part of women’s advancement.”

In 1914, 125 men and women gathered at the Wauregan Hotel for a fundraising subscription dinner. Donations by men as well as women helped to swell the suffrage war chest.

In response, a vocal anti-suffrage movement emerged to counter the suffragists. Composed of both men and women, the “antis” went to legislative hearings, held meetings and conferences of their own, and lobbied against passage of suffrage legislation. Despite the antis’ efforts, the suffrage movement gained considerable ground in the years before World War I.

As American entry into World War I loomed, most of the suffrage movement decided to support the war. In February 1917, the New London County Equal Franchise League voted “the united service of our full organization of a thousand women and hereby pledge ourselves to be at the call of our country at this time.”

After the declaration of war on Germany and its allies in April 1917, local women responded enthusiastically. Ada Chase served as chair of the Women’s Committee of the Norwich War Bureau.

At the annual meeting of the Norwich Equal Franchise League in June 1917, Annie B. Austin hailed the war work of league members, but warned them not to forget their primary goal of getting the vote for the women of Connecticut.

“Remember,” Austin said, “that this is a war for democracy. Ours is a struggle for democracy.”

American women volunteered as ambulance drivers, telephone operators, and for the Red Cross and Salvation Army. The U.S. Navy became the first service branch to recruit women, the “yeomanettes.”

Women took the place of men in non-traditional roles in factories, and worked on farms to produce the additional food needed to supply the army and famished Europe. Catherine Somers Desmond, wife of the mayor, ran one of the Liberty Loan drives.

Radical suffragists demonstrated in front of the White House, embarrassing President Woodrow Wilson with calls for democracy in America as well as war-torn Europe. On Sept. 30, 1918, Wilson spoke before Congress to plea for the 19th Amendment: “We have made partners of the women in this war… shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?”

Finally, on June 4, 1919, the Senate approved the 19th Amendment, sending it to the states for ratification. When 36 states ratified the amendment, it became part of the U.S. Constitution, and the law of the land.

One bitter and unrepentant foe of the 19th Amendment was U.S. Sen. Frank Brandegee from of New London.

In May 1920, Mayor J.J. Desmond of Norwich presided over a meeting to call for a special session of the General Assembly to ratify the 19th Amendment. Thirty-five states had already done so. If Connecticut acted quickly, it had the opportunity to be the 36th state, a great honor. Similar resolutions were passed all over the state.

Governor Holcomb refused to call a special session. Instead, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment. Connecticut waited until Sept. 14 to become the 37th state.

Norwich suffragists had already celebrated the passage of the amendment by flying flags after the Secretary of the State certified the results.

Now came the task of registering women as voters. Between 500 and 600 were already registered, but only to vote on school-related issues. Women wishing to vote had to file a claim. Oct. 8 was the day on which new voters were made. Out of a total of 9,473 registered to vote in Norwich, 3,675 were women, almost 40%.

An editorial in The Norwich Bulletin hoped that women would vote more conscientiously than men, “who vote only when convenient.”

The Nov. 2 vote demonstrated the commitment of women voters. By 9:30 a.m. at Norwich City Hall, the line of voters doubled back on itself inside the building, then crossed Union Square and went up Church Street.

The wait to vote was about an hour. Voting booth attendants reported that women voted more rapidly and satisfactorily than men. Turnout by women was substantially higher than that for men: precinct by precinct, 93 to 95% of eligible women voters cast ballots.

The next evening, bonfires on Norwichtown Green and elsewhere celebrated the victory of Republican Warren G. Harding. But the bonfires were symbolic of a great change in civil rights: the right of women to vote.

The suffrage organizations faded out, dissolving now that their purpose was met. Their mantle, though, fell on a new organization, the League of Women Voters. Now, a century after American women were empowered to vote through their own efforts, women have a pivotal role in the 2020 election.

Dale Plummer is the Norwich city historian.


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