August 26, 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment’s ratification, which granted white women the inalienable right to vote in local and federal elections. However, New York state was ahead of the curve, largely thanks to unwavering pressure from a devoted roster of suffragists, guaranteeing voting rights for ALL women in 1917. Since fighting for and winning the vote, East End women continue to reach new heights in elected office, shattering once-impenetrable glass ceilings, and we have the suffragists to thank for making that first crack in the glass. In honor of this momentous anniversary, we look to the stories of some of the many East End women who made today’s reality possible.
The most well-known East Hampton suffragist is May Groot Manson, chairman of the Executive Committee of the Woman Suffrage League of East Hampton and the Women’s Political Union of Suffolk County. She held frequent suffragist meetings at her East Hampton home, and in August 1913, she helped organize a suffrage march of nearly 150 people who walked from her Main Street home to the East Hampton Village Green. In 2017, a historical marker was posted outside her house to honor her contributions and legacy.
In Sag Harbor, there was Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage, second wife of millionaire Russell Sage, who began sponsoring suffrage meetings in 1894, despite her husband’s anti-suffrage stance. When he died in 1906, he left her a her his entire fortune to spend however she liked, so she devoted herself to philanthropy and became very influential in the suffrage movement.
“Interestingly enough, there was a very strong anti-suffrage movement on the East End,” says historian and author of Long Island and the Woman Suffrage Movement Antonia Petrash. “Many people were influenced by the liquor industry, which was afraid that if women got to vote, they would pass Prohibition. So they instigated a lot of women to work against suffrage saying their lives would change, that they’d no longer have the upper hand in the family, all sorts of horrible things that would happen to them and that they’d no longer be able to get alcohol. The irony in that is that Prohibition was passed in 1918 before women got to vote, so they didn’t have anything to do with it.”
Known for headline-grabbing suffrage demonstrations, such as attempting to burn an effigy of President Woodrow Wilson outside of the White House, Louisine Havemeyer didn’t join the cause until after her husband, Henry “Sugar King” Havemeyer of the American Sugar Refining Company passed away in 1907 when she was 52. Before then, the Havemeyers were some of the most avid art collectors in America, amassing countless works of Manet, El Greco, Rembrandt and others in their three-story Fifth Avenue mansion. Upon shifting her focus to women’s suffrage, she twice lent her collection to Knoedler’s Gallery in NYC to fund-raise for the cause.
Havemeyer co-founded the National Woman’s Party with feminist suffragist Alice Paul in 1913, and together they organized the National Suffrage Parade, the first organized political march on Washington, D.C. In 1915, she worked with the Women’s Political Union in New Jersey to create an event that would get widespread media attention on the suffrage referendum campaign in New York and New Jersey. Beginning at the Montauk Lighthouse, May Groot Manson carried the wooden Torch of Liberty across half of Long Island before passing it off to Havemeyer to complete the other half, each of them stopping at demonstrations and fundraisers on the way. When Havemeyer reached the Hudson River, she boarded a tugboat to pass the symbolic torch to Mina Winkle in New Jersey. After New York gave women the right to vote, Havemeyer joined 25 other National Women’s Party members, all of whom had been previously jailed for protesting, on the Prison Special tour around the country to speak about their experiences as political prisoners and to push for the ratification of the nationwide 19th Amendment.
“When I was in law school, my mother gave me a necklace commemorating Alice Paul, the courageous suffragist who participated in the suffragists’ hunger strike in Lorton Reformatory prison,” says Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming. “Growing up, we had a clear understanding that we owed a lot to the suffragists and that there was more work to do to honor and further their legacy.”
Upon gaining their right to vote, two women—Republican Ida Sammis and Democrat Mary Lilly—wasted no time before announcing their campaigns for the New York State Assembly, both winning and taking their seat on the 142nd NY State Legislature in 1919. Despite this, Sammis, who represented Suffolk County, was blocked from entering the state capitol building on her first day until she could prove her credentials, because the state assembly was quite literally a boys-only club at the time. She spent much of her term focused on elevator conductor legislation, while her liberal counterpart introduced legislature establishing paternity for children born out of wedlock and worked toward abolishing the death penalty.
Many years passed before the East End (or anywhere else on Long Island) elected its first woman into local government, then came Judith Hope. Elected East Hampton Town Supervisor in 1973, she served three non-consecutive terms through 1986. She became the first woman Appointments Officer to a New York Governor, under Hugh Carey, and tripled the number of women serving in high level and cabinet positions during her term. Continuing to trailblaze, she was elected chair of the New York State Democratic Committee in 1995, making her the first woman to head a major political party in the state, and she was even the first person to suggest to Hillary Clinton that she run for U.S. Senate. Then in 2000, she founded the Eleanor Roosevelt Legacy Committee as a project to encourage pro-choice Democratic women to run for state and local office.
Today, the East End has a greatly increased number of women in local government—such as Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming, Sag Harbor Village Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy, Riverhead Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar, East Hampton Town Deputy Supervisor Sylvia Overby and East Hampton Town Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, to name just a few.
“When we moved here full-time in 2001, there was a female mayor, and I ran against another woman, who had been mayor for four years,” Mulcahy says. “Locally, I think women have always been respected for their ability to make decisions, keep boards and governments running smoothly and, perhaps, be more willing to talk issues through and compromise for the greater good.”
While the East End has made great strides toward equality on both sides of the ballot, we still have a long way to go locally and on the national level. “What are we—several hundred years old? And our government still only has 26% women in the Senate. I’m a firm believer that your representation should reflect how the country looks, and there aren’t enough women or ethnic groups involved,” Petrash asserts. “Women everywhere—on the East End and Long Island, on the North Shore and South Shore—worked very hard on the suffrage movement and sacrificed a lot for it…including the wealthy women. Yes, they had the time and the money, but that doesn’t mean they had the approval of their families.”
To learn more about the rich history of the suffrage movement on the East End, tune in to the League of Women Voters of the Hampton, Shelter Island and North Fork’s 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment Zoom lectures led by Petrash on Monday, August 3 (on the Shelter Island and Southold Library websites) and Wednesday, August 12 (on the East Hampton and Westhampton Library websites). The league is also co-sponsoring Valerie diLorenzo’s “Ladies of Liberty” virtual musical revue with Rogers Memorial Library on Monday, August 17 and a lecture on the fight for the 19th Amendment taught by league member Martha Potter on Wednesday, August 19.