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Sisters Did It For Themselves
In April 1916, Nell Richardson and Alice Burke (pictured above) crossed the United States in their Saxon Golden Flyer. They hoped to gain support for national woman suffrage (For more on the pair, click Smithsonian Institution America on the Move Exhibit.).
In 1846, a woman named Ernestine Rose spoke before the Michigan legislature, arguing that women needed the right to vote. This was two years before the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York. In 1849, a Michigan state Senate committee proposed a “universal suffrage” amendment to the Michigan constitution. This would have granted voting rights to both women and African Americans, but no action was taken on the proposal. A woman suffrage bill did not come before the state legislature again until 1866. It was defeated by only one vote. The following year, however, the legislature did pass a law allowing female taxpayers to vote in school elections.
It was time to get organized! In 1870, the Michigan State Suffrage Association (MSSA) formed in Battle Creek. They regularly spoke before the state legislature and actively campaigned for their cause. They convinced the legislature to consider a woman suffrage amendment in 1874, but the male legislators ultimately rejected it. A disillusioned MSSA then disbanded.
It took nine years for a true replacement organization to emerge. On May 21, 1884, the Michigan Equal Suffrage Association (MESA) formed in Flint. The group focused its energies, campaigning specifically for the right to vote in Michigan municipal elections. The state legislature rejected two such proposals in subsequent years, before finally passing one in 1893. This seemed a major victory for suffragists, but it didn’t last. The Michigan Supreme Court struck down the law, claiming that it violated the state constitution by creating “a new class of voters.”
Following this decision, MESA membership declined. The remaining members, however, refused to give up. The group continued to address the state legislature. MESA members circulated literature, organized speeches, sponsored high school essay contests and erected tents at state and county fairs.
Finally, in 1907, the Michigan legislature called for a constitutional convention. A new state constitution represented a new opportunity. A woman suffrage hearing convened in the state capitol in January 1908. MESA and other pro-suffrage groups presented their arguments before constitutional convention delegates. Their well-organized presentation impressed many of the delegates. Nonetheless, the majority voted not to grant Michigan women the vote. Many feared that male voters would reject the proposed 1908 constitution if woman suffrage became part of the package.
Nonetheless, woman suffrage soon became a chief subject of popular discussion. Michigan voters considered woman suffrage amendments in both 1912 and 1913, but both were defeated. It was believed that liquor interests played a large role in the defeats. Many Prohibition supporters were women, and alcohol producers, distributors and salesmen were well aware of it. Voter fraud by liquor interests was alleged in the 1912 election, whereas the 1913 proposal may have simply suffered from a lower voter turnout (There was a Presidential election in 1912, and that brought many more voters to the polls.). For more on Michigan women and the Prohibition movement, click “Saving Their Husbands One Saloon At a Time” by Robert Garrett
Opposition by liquor interests became moot in 1916, when Michigan voted for statewide Prohibition (National Prohibition would follow in 1920.). In 1917, the United States entered World War I. Subsequent work by women in support of the war effort garnered further male endorsement for woman suffrage. Finally, a woman state suffrage law appeared on the November 1918 ballot – and was passed by Michigan’s voters.
National woman suffrage would follow in 1920, with the adoption of the nineteenth amendment to the U.S. constitution. Michigan became one of the first three states to ratify this amendment (Wisconsin and Illinois were the other two.), having done so on June 10, 1919.
The road to American woman suffrage had been a long one, but it had finally come to an end. Throughout the journey, Michigan women had been among those leading the way!
Sources for the article above include:
Dunbar, Willis F., and George S. May. Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State. Third Revised Edition. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995, pp. 471-473.
McHaney, Sharon. “Securing the Sacred Right to Vote.” Michigan History Magazine, vol. 75, no. 2 (March/April 1991), pp. 38-45.
Sause, Louise. “How the Suffragists Changed Michigan.” In Elizabeth Homer Giese (Editor), Michigan Women’s Suffrage: A Political History. Lansing, Michigan: The Michigan Political History Society and the Michigan Women’s Studies Association, Inc., 1995, pp. 2-5.
In the Archives of Michigan:
The Florence Belle Brotherton collection (MS 77-119) contains primary sources related to the woman suffrage movement in the early twentieth century. Among other things, they document Brotherton’s activities in the woman suffrage campaigns of 1912 and 1913.
For a list of other women’s history collections in the Archives of Michigan, click Archives of Michigan: Records Relating to Women.