With the election coming up it might be easy to forget that women were barred from the vote until just a century ago. And while politics roils around us throughout the country, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum is giving us a chance to see how women’s suffrage played out on the local level in its upcoming exhibition “Votes for Women: An Island Perspective.” While there was never any active party for or against women’s suffrage here on the Island, the debate played out on a smaller scale in Vineyard newspapers, literary clubs, and parlors. While plans for the show, which began pre-COVID-19, had to change a bit once the pandemic set in, the exhibit is still able to tell the story of 70 years of activism.
Divided into three topics, the first centers around the Edgartown Lyceum debate society, which took up the issue in the 1830s and 1840s. Interestingly, in 1852, they also had a female lecturer come, Elizabeth Oaks Smith, who was one of the women to speak on the Lyceum circuit around New England and New York. The men were so impressed with her that they published an article in praise of her lecture on womanhood in The Gazette, writing about “high toned, logical method, eloquence, and rhetorical beauty” and her “highly dignified and truly lady-like bearing.”
Exhibition assistant Kate Logue is curating the show and says, “Later in the century as the women’s rights movement got going, female societies began emerging here on the Island — the Triad Club, the Want to Know Club, the Edgartown Women’s Club — that would also have discussions about whether they thought it was a good idea or not.” The women’s clubs differed somewhat from the Lyceum. “The Lyceum was debating among the members and lectures, usually by invited guests,” Logue explains, “while in the women’s clubs it was more about the women researching topics and presenting about them to each other.
“Another story we touch on,” explains Logue, “is the Blackwells, who were the first regular summer residents of Chilmark. They are a remarkable family, especially the women — Elizabeth and Emily were the first and third female physicians in the United States and founded the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. Antoinette Brown Blackwell was the first ordained female minister in the country and Lucy Stone was a prominent suffragist. She and her husband Henry founded ‘Women’s Journal,’ which was a leading publication on women’s rights from the era.”
Stone helped arrange the first National Convention for Women’s Rights and assisted in founding the American Woman Suffrage Association, which worked towards a constitutional amendment by first gaining women voting rights at the state and local level.
That whole family came here every summer; it was a respite from giving tours and lectures and doing all their activist work. However, it wasn’t long before one of the clan became politically active. Antoinette daughter’s Florence moved to the Island and married E. Elliot Mayhew, who was the Chilmark postmaster. She went to town meetings before women could vote and as soon as women got municipal suffrage, she ran for school committee and got elected. She helped found the Chilmark library with her aunt.
While the exhibit will be image heavy, there will also be some unusual items. Logue explains, “In 1915, Massachusetts held a referendum on trying to get the word ‘male’ removed from the requirements to be able to vote in the state. It didn’t end up passing, but in promoting that referendum they had suffrage bluebird day where they had thousands and thousands of these tin bluebirds.” They plastered the state with these small metal symbols urging the vote for the referendum, which unfortunately, despite the avian presence didn’t pass.
The final section will be about getting the amendment passed in 1920 giving women the right to vote, though there were plenty who were still disenfranchised because of their race. “It is really acknowledging the fact that it was a victory for white women,” reflects Logue. Not until 1965 were adult citizens of all races and genders formally granted the foundational right — and profound responsibility — of the vote.
“Votes for Women: An Island Perspective” will be on view at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum from Oct. 27 through Jan. 3, 2021.