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History's Headlines: Suffragette Cities

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Mar 20 2014 03:20:36 PM CDT
Updated On: Mar 24 2014 06:05:59 PM CDT

History's Headlines: Suffragette Cities

It was 1915. Allentown and Bethlehem were booming and bustling places in the heart of the nation’s industrial revolution. But another revolution was also confronting conservative Pennsylvania Dutch country. Across the Lehigh Valley, and the rest of the country the cry, “Votes For Women!” was being heard.

As is the case with some social issues today, the states were lining up behind the issue of political rights for woman. Voters in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Washington, California, Arizona, Kansas, Oklahoma, Montana, Nevada and the territory of Alaska had given women the franchise. How would Pennsylvania go?

There was a small but determined group of local women in Allentown and Bethlehem leading the charge. They included Republicans and Democrats.

Republican Ruth Sayre Frick was the most prominent resident of Bethlehem involved.  Her family was among the founders of Bethlehem Steel and the Lehigh Valley Railroad.

As such, she had lived a privileged life. But it was perhaps because of that that she took to the cause of women’s rights that were denied her but given to the male members of her family.

Allentown’s leading figure was Democrat Mary Constance Erdman, who was from a longtime political family. Her father, Constantine Erdman, had represented Lehigh County in Congress in 1898. During his term Congress passed the Erdman Act, the first piece of federal legislation that recognized the right of workers to organize unions.

Constance Erdman was very independent-minded and operated the branch office of the Pittsburgh Life and Trust Company, which sold insurance to single or widowed women, something that was almost impossible for them to do at the time.

All fired up for the cause, Frick and her friend Hannah Young of Allentown’s prominent Young family began the task of going door-to-door to urge local women to educate themselves in the importance of gaining the vote.

Sometimes they gained acceptance and were welcomed, but not all the time. One story that was passed down in the Frick family for many years had to do with a particular encounter in Allentown. After vigorous knocking at one door, it was flung open. The woman standing in the doorframe was later described as “large and Amazon like,” her hair wrapped tightly in a towel. Startled but resolute, Frick and Young began to speak to the lady, who they had clearly interrupted in mid-house cleaning about the need for women to have the vote.

But they did not get far. “Why don’t you both go home and clean behind your sideboards,” she shouted at them before slamming the door in their faces. A stunned Frick and Young walked away.

Although they did not despair, both woman admitted that if this was the attitude of some local women, how could the possibly convince men- the voters- of giving the vote to women? And in fact they were up against a lot.

99 years ago everyone admitted, at least most men, that allowing women to vote was a really radical step. Why would women even want to have the right to vote? Politics was a dirty business carried on in saloons by cigar smoking politicians, not a suitable place at all for a lady.

Better, it was felt that they should stay home and stick to raising the children and taking part in church work. And had not God himself defined the roles of men and women?
“Sensible and responsible women,” said former Democratic President Grover Cleveland, “do not want to vote. It was clear that the relative positions to be assumed by men and women in the working out of our civilization were assigned long ago by a higher intelligence than ours.”

If normally cautious politicians had this attitude, that of the press was in general no better. The New York Times editorialized that if women got the vote they would “play havoc” with the political system, “if men are not firm and wise enough and---it may as well be said---masculine enough to stop them.”

Magazines featured cartoons of females who wanted the vote as battle-axe wielding harpies who dominated their helpless husbands and boyfriends. One popular wit of the day said suffragettes were women who “had ceased to be a lady and not yet become a gentleman.”

But nothing apparently daunted the local suffragettes. On August 28, 1915 the so-called Woman’s Liberty Bell arrived in the Valley. A recreation of the original created in Philadelphia, it had two significant changes. The words “equal justice” were added to the original inscription, and the clapper of the bell was symbolically tied. It would not be untied, the press stated, until women were given the vote.

There were at least two other events during that 1915 campaign that caused banner headlines. One was on September 25, when a woman claiming to be a supporter of voting rights tried to blackmail David Williams, a local labor leader who had led the 1910 strike at Bethlehem Steel, and one of the few men in the Valley who vocally supported the votes for women movement. A private detective broke in on the woman and Williams, claiming they were having an affair. Williams was later cleared of all charges but both Frick and Erdman tried to counteract it by inviting a leading movement figures to the Valley.

On October 4, Dr. Anna Howard Shaw head of the National Women’s Suffrage Association spoke to local people in Bethlehem and Allentown. Her speech to 150 in Center Square was disrupted by rain. Another national figure labor attorney, Antoinette Funk, spoke on October 8.

But in the end the supporters of equal rights were disappointed. Voters rejected it by 50,000 votes statewide, with Lehigh and Northampton counties among the highest vote totals against it. It would not be until 1920 that the 19thAmendment gave women their right to vote.