Suffragettes in Newburgh

By Mary McTamaney.

Newburgh was selected in 1895 to be the site of the Women’s Suffrage Convention, an annual event that gathered people who carried on the work to secure voting rights for women since they first met up in Seneca Falls, NY in 1848. 1895 was the year that the old guard in the suffrage movement gave way to the new. The founders like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had mentored their younger sisters and this convention was the time they passed the torch and made headlines they hoped would invigorate the movement. They selected Newburgh as the venue. Newburgh – because it was known as a progressive city, because its beauty and easy transportation choices attracted visitors, and Newburgh because it had great facilities and amenities to accommodate guests, all conveniently located in walking distance for convention participants.

If we had a time machine, this Women’s History Year would be the ideal time to set it to November 8-12, 1895 and step out to watch what was happening in Newburgh.

On Grand Street at the corner of Third, the doorman at the Palatine Hotel would have been welcoming and directing scores of guests to locations up and down Grand Street. Carriages would have been bringing well-dressed women from all over the state of New York who had reached Newburgh by train and by steamboat. These women moved with purposeful gaits. They greeted each other fondly and excitedly introduced new colleagues to each other. As they emerged from the Palatine Hotel, they sported yellow ribbons and carried portfolios of papers. Today, we recognize this kind of gathering as the opening stages of a convention and think nothing of seeing women as much as men engaged in professional activities like this. But in 1895, women did not commonly host conferences and had little professional affiliation, let alone professional work to engage in. Women were wives and mothers. If they worked outside their homes, it was as shopgirls, mill and clothing factory workers and, for a few, teachers or nurses.

Palatine Hotel and City Club, Newburgh

Palatine Hotel and City Club, Newburgh

Women gathering for self-improvement were usually considered everything from odd to uppity. They were thought noteworthy only inasmuch as they could be reported on as misguided. It was fine for women to gather for community improvement as followers of our own Ellen Applegate did when they formed the Ladies Aid Society that later became St. Luke’s Hospital. In such cases, they were aiding the poor and sick and being the gentle angels of mercy that was within the traditional profile of the American woman. But to gather for the purpose of aiding themselves and their own status was disdained. No one in political power thought of women as unfortunate, rather as protected like a delicate species of flower.

In 1848, a group of women gathered in Seneca Falls, New York and held the first Women’s Rights Convention. Led by Lucretia Mott, the convention attracted 300 participants to the little mid-state community. Men attended as well as women and 32 of the men signed their declaration of rights document written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Civil and human rights issues at the time were many, still including abolition of slavery, despite New York having passed manumission in 1827. But for women, the primary concerns were property and maternal rights, living wages and alcoholism. Without a legal claim on their homes, women who were orphaned or widowed could be turned out to the care of local alms commissioners. If a husband divorced his wife, courts listened to his decision on where the couple’s children should be placed. Wages for women working in factory jobs were a fraction of wages for men and were not enough to live independently. Sewing a dozen shirts, for example, netted just a few cents, since factories paid employees piecework wages. Alcoholism was a huge social scourge in the 19th century and there were no laws of child support meaning wives and mothers had no recourse when their husband spent all his pay at the saloon. That is why the temperance movement yielded many of the first feminist soldiers for the larger women’s rights movement.

The cause of women’s rights grew and spread around the country after that Seneca Falls Convention but it did not bear much fruit for many agonizing decades. Too many Americans continued to carry the feelings expressed that 1848 summer by the Oneida Whig newspaper that covered the Seneca Falls convention. They said Elizabeth Stanton’s Declaration of Rights was “the most shocking and unnatural event ever recorded in the history of womanity.”

Here in Newburgh in the mid-nineteenth century, we had a debate society called the Newburgh Lyceum, part of a national movement of Lyceums – forums for public discussions on matters of universal interest and edification. We have one of the essays prepared for one of those Newburgh debates arguing against franchise for women. We don’t know its author, but know he could not have been the only person in town to share these feelings in the 1850’s.

Sweeping through the constant wake of these sentiments, came over 100 delegates to the 1895 State Convention. The leadership of the movement, people like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, were aging. Their dream of having full women’s suffrage was little closer than when they began. Media still used the same old criticisms although tempered a bit out of respect for their fortitude and many of their compelling arguments.

The night they arrived, the Newburgh Telegraph newspaper published a letter sent by the Bishop of Albany, NY condemning the women’s movement. His argument against women’s suffrage was stunning to me, but I wonder how it sat with readers of the 1890’s. He warned against women’s suffrage because of the large number of “fallen women” who, since they sold their purity, would surely sell their vote!

The Poughkeepsie Eagle covered the convention and joked about not seeing delegates arriving on bicycles in bloomers “Hence, we are forced to conclude that the woman suffragists are somewhat behind the times.”

In looking through the local papers for the week of the convention, I also noticed how many advertisements were targeted at women – more, it seemed, than in other seasons. But they were ads for products to heal or cure female disturbances. Their taglines interested me for the way they lured a reader to the text. Like this one headed “KNOWLEDGE Brings comfort and improvement…” actually in the last sentence of the paragraph it turned out to be a call to buy syrup of figs.

Yet one Newburgh paper, the Daily Register, applauded the convention delegates as “the highest type of American womanhood with the culture, the intellectual power and the eloquence of the so-called modern woman.”

The Palatine Hotel (built just 7 years before and splendidly appointed) was the residence for convention delegates except for those with connections to local residents. Newspapers name local families like the Delanos who hosted some convention members at their homes. The Palatine was also the place for organizing agendas, collating paperwork and preparing platforms. But lots of foot traffic took the women of 1895 up and down this Grand Street corridor. Other homes hosted them for accommodations or for a breakfast or dinner. And the convention hall itself was the spacious Academy of Music Hall, also constructed in 1888. Its spacious auditorium and massive stage made an impressive setting for a convention determined to make some changes in the American justice system.

Academy of Music, Newburgh

Academy of Music, Newburgh

On that stage, convention organizers set an alternative American flag across from the one with stars for the 44 states of the union in 1895. The suffragists’ flag had but four stars: two fully embroidered and two stitched in outline form only. The solid stars represented Colorado and Wyoming, states that allowed women to vote in all elections. The outlined stars represented Utah and Idaho where women could vote in only some elections. The fact that the East Coast, the traditional birthplace of reform and the home of the first suffrage convention, still struggled to bring about voting reform spoke shamefully about the movement’s progress.

Why so slow? What forces held the concept of universal suffrage from being embraced?
After all, Newburgh had celebrated as enthusiastically as any city in 1877 when the 14th amendment gave African American men the right to vote. Frederick Douglass who came to Seneca Falls in 1848 and stood in solidarity with those early women’s rights advocates, spoke then and often on a woman’s right to vote. One answer was a split in the movement and the formation of two organizations, similar but apart in some goals. By 1895 there was an American Woman’s Suffrage Association and a National Woman’s Suffrage Association. The American group decided to pursue the ballot state by state and the National group insisted on a national constitutional amendment giving universal suffrage to all women everywhere.

The larger drag on the movement was the pull of other movements in America in the late 19th century, especially the Nativism movement. Nativists were those who felt the country was being overwhelmed by immigrants and that emphasis must be placed on securing rights for natives (white people born here – never mind blacks nor Indians) before giving rights to newcomers. Sound familiar? Newburgh was an industrial city in 1895 and it was always a gateway city in the Hudson Valley where immigrant groups starting with the German Lutherans and continuing today with other cultures, could find shelter. How appropriate it should have been to work on a political reform platform in a hotel named for the Palatine refugees. Yet, the younger generation of suffrage delegates had many among their ranks who sympathized with the nativism arguments.

So, just as the “old guard” was tiring, the second line of defense was often found to embrace a different set of values. This is the drama in women’s suffrage that was playing out along our Grand Street in the late Fall of 1895.

What made the difference in holding the movement together that November week may have been two things: the 80th birthday of founding mother Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the choice of supportive speakers called to the stage.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony

Mrs. Stanton, who boldly wrote the Declaration of Sentiments in 1848 and marched in countless parades and sat in countless legislative offices as a lobbyist for the cause now had a grandmotherly visage. Eighty was older then than now, and delegates and guests could not help but pay homage to her efforts. Indeed, Stanton’s birthday was devised as a grand affair, beginning with words of esteem in Newburgh but continuing in a show of love and solidarity in New York City the day after the convention at the Metropolitan Opera House. Luminaries came to pay their respects as Mrs. Stanton sat in a true throne on the stage of the Opera House surrounded by dignitaries. It was a spectacle that emphasized that the torch was being passed and, with the party’s pomp and circumstance, emphasized also that it was a weighty and precious torch.

The second clever choice to keep the New York Women’s Suffrage movement not only together but recharged was the choice of local cleric, Dr. Edward McGlynn, to give a speech on the closing night of the convention. Rev. McGlynn was the pastor of Saint Mary’s Catholic Church but was additionally respected in churches all around the city and in New York City especially where he had pastored for years before coming to us. His biography is worthy of a program in itself. He was excommunicated and reinstated in the Catholic Church and Newburgh was his rehabilitation assignment after his reinstatement to his full duties as a priest. His offense in the eyes of his bishop and superiors had been his advocacy for the poor and particularly for the teachings of Henry George, the British economist who decried property taxes (sound familiar again?). Dr. McGlynn was a progressive man who could sympathize with the all the platform planks in the 1895 women’s convention especially the one on property rights. He was a particularly eloquent speaker with a wide following no matter what his topic. In the 1895 convention finale, Dr. McGlynn professed his longstanding faith in the rights of mankind which have no distinction among the sexes. His oratorical skill was the fitting climax of a week meant to regenerate the movement and he sent the delegates off to the trains taking them to Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s birthday party with renewed fervor.

How much more the movement used the beautiful setting of Newburgh, NY that week and used its story of inclusiveness and rebirth we do not know, but our time machine might tell us if we step out and stroll from the doorway of the vanished Palatine down to the doorway of the vanished Academy of Music listening for the whispers of those women of 1895.

Mary McTamaney is the City of Newburgh Historian and a trustee of the Historical Society. Copyright 2017 Mary McTamaney.