Friday, March 3, 2017

"Advanced Ideas": The Early Fight for Equal Suffrage in Indiana

During the spring of 1878 Indianapolis society crackled with “mysterious whisperings” concerning a proposed meeting involving women in the community with “advanced ideas” about their proper place in society. A secret call drew ten people—nine women and one man—to a gathering at Circle Hall.

Although the issue of improved rights for women had been seriously debated in Indiana as far back as the 1850s—and Indiana had been one of the first states in the country to form a woman’s suffrage organization—most respectable citizens considered the idea radical at best.

“Had we convened consciously to plot the ruin of our domestic life,” noted one participant, “which opponents predict as the result of woman’s enfranchisement, we could not have looked more guilty or have moved about with more unnatural stealth.” The conservative atmosphere that dominated Indianapolis could be seen from the group’s taking more than two hours to discuss whether or not the new society should take a name for itself that would clearly advertise its goal, or one that would hide it from the outside world.

About a month after this initial meeting, twenty-six people attended a second gathering and formed the Indianapolis Equal Suffrage Society. The society consisted of men and women “willing to labor for the attainment of equal rights at the ballot-box for all citizens on the same conditions.”

The Society followed a path blazed by such early pioneers in the fight for women’s rights as New Harmony’s Frances Wright and Robert Dale Owen, who fought in the Indiana Constitutional Convention of 1850 and 1851 to include in the new state constitution provisions guaranteeing a woman’s right to hold property. Indiana’s early property laws, said one Indiana historian, were based upon an English common law tradition that viewed women as “perpetual juveniles.”

Owen wrote Susan B. Anthony that although he campaigned on behalf of property rights for women while in the legislature, he did nothing in regard to suffrages. “In those days,” he said, “it would have been utterly unavailing.”

Owen had a solid basis for his pessimistic outlook. Many of his fellow delegates at the constitutional convention were appalled by his efforts to enhance property rights for women. One delegate claimed that if the convention adopted Owen’s measure, “it would be to throw a whole population morally and politically into confusion. Is it necessary to explode a volcano under the foundation of the family union?” Another delegate rather piously stated that he opposed Owen’s proposal, “not because I love justice less, but women more.”

Writing about the views of that time, Indiana historian Jacob P. Dunn Jr. said that those women who were brave enough to advocate on behalf of for votes for their sex “were subjects of almost universal condemnation and ridicule, and the great majority of women shrank from anything that savored of political publicity.”

There were some in Indiana, however, bold enough to consider the shocking notion that a woman should be allowed to vote. At an anti-slavery meeting in Greensboro in 1851, Amanda Way, an abolitionist, prohibitionist, and licensed minister, offered a resolution declaring that women were “being oppressed and degraded by the laws and customs of our country, and are in but little better condition than chattel slaves.”

To help remedy the situation, Way, who when asked once why she never married replied, “I never had the time,” called for holding a women’s right convention. In October 1851 at Dublin, Indiana, a group of women met for a “full, free, and candid discussion of the legal and social position of women,” said Way.

A year after the Dublin meeting during a convention in Richmond, the Indiana Woman’s Rights Association was formed. Elected as the organization’s vice president, Way insisted that unless women demanded their political, social, and economic rights—including suffrage—they would continue “in the future, as in the past, to be classed with criminals, insane persons, idiots, and infants.” In 1859 the association presented a petition to the Indiana General Assembly, signed by a thousand men and women, seeking for women not only the same property rights as men, but also asking that the state constitution be amended to extend the right to vote to women. The legislature accepted the petition and passed it along to a committee, which, to no one’s surprise, decided that the time was not yet right to grant Hoosier women such privileges.

After this high-water mark, which included the first woman speaker to appear at the legislature, the women’s rights movement in Indiana came to a standstill because of an overriding national emergency—the Civil War. The Woman’s Rights Association held no meetings from 1859 to 1869, years, association minutes noted, when suffragists were giving their time, labor, money, and even lives to the cause of freedom. The association reconstituted itself after the war as the Indiana Woman’s Suffrage Association and sponsored its first meeting in ten years from June 8 to 9, 1869, at Indianapolis’s Masonic Hall. The gathering received positive notices from the Indianapolis Journal, which noted, somewhat condescendingly, that the assembly “compared favorably with the best that have ever been conducted by our own sex.”

Women still faced a long road to equal rights in the state. In the 1870s Zeralda Wallace, the widow of Governor David Wallace and president of the Woman’s Christian TemperanceUnion’s Indiana chapter, attempted to present to the state legislature a petition supporting temperance signed by thousands of Hoosier women—she faced “open contempt” by the lawmakers. One legislator even went as far as to tell Wallace that since women held not political power, her petition “might as well have been signed by 10,000 mice.”

By the 1880s, however, the tide seemed to shift. In December 1880 the Indianapolis suffrage society issued a letter to each legislator and to leading newspapers in the state indicating that during the next session of the Indiana General Assembly the group would seek action on the suffrage question. Suffragists were determined to make a two-pronged attack on the legislature. One was to seek passage of a bill that would “immediately authorize women to vote for presidential electors.” The second involved approval of an amendment to the state constitution allowing women to vote in all elections.

Although the presidential elector bill, introduced by Marion County representative John W. Furnas, passed two readings in the House, it fell three votes short of making it past a third reading.

Failure in one area, however, did not mean the dashing of all the suffragists’ hopes. The regular legislative session had expired before lawmakers had the opportunity to act on important state matters. Therefore, the legislators had to remain in Indianapolis for a special session from March 8 to April 16. The special session gave Indiana women the opportunity to pursue their second route for winning the right to vote: amending article two, section two of the state constitution to give women the vote in all elections.

On March 15 Furnas introduced a resolution in the House outlining a constitutional amendment giving Hoosier women the right to vote. The resolution passed the House on April 7 and, one day later, the Senate followed suit by approving the resolution.

The battle for woman’s suffrage in Indiana, however, was far from over. According to the terms of Indiana’s constitution, any amendment to it had to be passed by two consecutive legislatures and then sent on to voters for their approval. Recognizing the difficult road ahead, the Indianapolis suffrage group worked feverishly to attract supporters to its cause.

When the Indiana General Assembly opened for business in January 1883, the suffragists faced firm opposition from the Democratic Party, which controlled both houses of the legislature. Instead of risking a direct vote against the suffrage and temperance amendments, Democrats argued that all the proposed constitutional amendments, which seemed to have been approved by the previous legislature, had in fact not been legally adopted because they had not been properly entered in the journals of either the House or Senate. A majority report from the senate judiciary committee claimed that there was no evidence in the journals to indicate that either the houses of the legislature “referred, or intended to refer, a proposition to amend the Constitution to this Assembly.”


Suffragists were disappointed by the legislative defeat, but sought every opportunity over the years to prove that women could be a factor in state politics. They had to wait a long time, however, until the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment on August 18, 1920, to achieve their goal of equal suffrage for their sex. 

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