Milford begins yearlong tribute to women’s voting rights and its role in history
MILFORD — The city recently kicked off a year of celebration of women’s right to vote with a ceremony at City Hall that drewabout 200 people.
The event featured a choir singing historic songs and presentations detailing the fight to secure passage of the 19th Amendment, which was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920 .
The Suffrage Choir, led by Linda Whittaker, entered by singing Happy Hallelujahs from “The Suffrage Song Handbook” and ended the ceremony singing “The Song of All Ages.”
The songbook was published in 1909 and contained 28 songs set to well-known melodies. Both songs performed by the choir were sung to the tune of “John Brown’s Body.”
The color guard included scouts from the Milford Service Unit, Girl Scouts of Connecticut and Cub Scout Pack 196.
Mayor Benjamin Blake read a proclamation briefly recounting the history of the women’s suffrage movement and the key women involved, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony. He ended the proclamation by declaring 2020 to be a year of celebration of women’s suffrage and encouraged peopled to join the Milford Suffrage Centennial Committee “in all that they do.”
The Board of Aldermen established the committee at its Dec. 2, 2019 meeting. Blake thanked the committee members for their work, “as we recognize Milford’s important role in the history of the women’s rights movement.”
The committee co-chairmen are Board of Education member Cindy Wolfe-Boynton and City Clerk Karen Fortunati. Wolfe-Boynton also serves on the Connecticut Suffrage Centennial Committee, and is president of the Connecticut Chapter of the National Organization of Women.
The committee is involved with planning and developing events during 2020 to celebrate and commemorate Milford’s role in the passage and ratification of the 19th amendment.
In his remarks, Blake praised Secretary of State Denise Merrill for her work as Connecticut’s highest-ranking elections official.
“We fight to protect voting rights for all because voting rights is a fundamental right that helps protect and defend and support all the other rights that we hold dear in a democracy,” said Blake.
A Long Process
Merrill discussed the history of the suffrage movement, saying it was a long process, starting with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, commenting, “It took 75 years to actually get something to happen.”
After reading the text of the 19th amendment, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex,” Merrill said: “Most of the people against this idea were women.”
Recalling her days of working in the state legislature and the challenges of passing legislation, Merrill said, “Nothing is very easy.” She said the amendment had to pass Congress and then be ratified by 36 states.
According to Merrill, women were the first lobbyists in the United States, and used marches and pageantry, wearing white dresses with colorful sashes, to push for the right to vote. However, she said little happened until the 1900s.
She said after World War I, and under Alice Paul, a new more radical generation took up the fight, using non-violent protests, getting arrested for refusing to take down signs for the movement, and going on a hunger strike in prison.
Merrill speculated that it was a combination of those who worked state-by-state and those who took the more radical approach to get the amendment to pass.
She said voting rights for women also were related to race, with Southern states opposed because they were “afraid black women would vote and they would lose the power they had at the time.”
Merrill said the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and related efforts “made these rights real for a lot of women who still could not vote even after the 19th amendment, and a lot of people of color who still could not vote even after the Civil War and the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments.”
The other challenge Merrill sees is getting women to run for office, saying that women shy away from running because “They feel they are not good enough.” She said the General Assembly has reached a plateau having about one-third of women as representatives “and it took us a long time to get that far.”
In celebrating this 100th anniversary, Merrill said people must recognize, “There is no end to this race for justice and voters’ rights because it has been a push and pull through our history.
“Who gets to vote determines who has the power in our society. Women were not the first to recognize that, but they were certainly a powerful voice in getting those rights for all women,” said Merrill.
Wolfe-Boynton recounted the contributions Connecticut suffragists made toward getting women the right to vote, including Katharine Houghton Hepburn of Hartford, mother of the famous actress Katharine Hepburn ; author Charlotte Perkins Gilman; and Helena Weed of Norwalk, who was arrested with Alice Paul and was on a hunger strike.
She thanked David Duffner for reading through reading through old issues of the Milford Citizen in the Connecticut State Library, commenting, “He came back with a treasure trove of information.”
The Milford Citizen had an editorial on Sept. 15, 1920 after Connecticut ratified the 19th amendment, commenting, “Milford women have never shown much of a desire to vote.
However, Wolfe-Boynton said, “They were wrong. Milford women absolutely did have a desire. In fact, so many Milford residents came out to register to vote that the registrar of voters had to hold special sessions in order to get everyone registered in time for Election Day. The city actually had to go out and buy several dozen extra voting machines because there just weren’t going to be enough to make sure that they got everybody’s vote on Election Day.”
Wolfe-Boynton said on Election Day, Nov. 2, 1920 in Milford, 35 percent of voters were men and 63 percent were women. Lillias Tibbals was the first woman to vote. She got there an hour earlier than the polls opened and wanted to be the first to vote that day and 34 women voted in the first hour, said Wolfe-Boynton.
At that time, Milford’s Republican Women’s Committee received a citation from the Connecticut League of Republican Women, naming the local women who worked together. Wolfe-Boynton said it important to remember that it was this league that fought for the right of women to vote.
“Your town (Milford) organization seems to have been the top notch of all organizations,” said Mrs. Joseph W. Alsop, president of the Connecticut league at that time.
From the newspapers, Wolfe-Boynton presented a list of 24 Milford women who were involved with suffrage and voter registration efforts.
She said one of the goals during 2020 is to learn more about the women who were involved with voter rights. She encouraged more people to get involved to research this history.
“We would like to bring as many of these women as possible to life over the course of 2020,” said Wolfe-Boynton.
Legacy for women of color
Lillian Holmes, chairwoman of the Milford Council on Aging, in speaking about the legacy and impact of suffrage women of color, said that while white women sought the vote to gain equal voice in the political process, “black women often sought the vote as a means of racial uplift and as a way to effect change in the post reconstruction era.”
Holmes said in 1866, the Philadelphia Suffrage Association was founded, which was a national movement to support the suffrage of black women. In 1896, she said various women’s organizations converged in Washington under the leadership of Mary Church Terrell, forming the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. Among the members were Harriet Tubman and Ida B. Wells.
On Jan. 13, 1913, on the campus of Howard University, Holmes said, “22 brave young courageous visionary black students founded Delta Sigma Theta sorority.”
Holmes said they marched in the women’s suffrage parade, which took place on March 3, 1913, but were relegated to a separate section at the back of the parade.
“They were marching to make contributions for future generations, the magnitude of which they could not have fathomed,” said Holmes.
She said even with the passage of the 19th amendment, “many women of color found themselves unable to vote, disenfranchised by racist politics,” until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Holmes said the legacy of those 22 women continues in Milford with residents who “engage in political activism, and render public service for the good of all mankind.”
Three local high school students read excerpts from activist Isabella Beecher Hooker’s address at the International Council of Women on March 30, 1883, entitled “The Constitutional Rights of Women.” Readers were Rosalia Navarra from The Academy, Amelia Mower, Jonathan Law High School, and Grace Jordan, Joseph A. Foran High School.
When Holmes concluded her remarks, from the audience Liliana Giordano-Espinal of Milford, who is originally from Venezula, asked about the role of Latina woman in the suffrage movement, Wolfe-Boynton and Fortunati said they did not know and welcomed her to join their efforts with Wolfe-Boynton saying, “That’s a very good research question.”
The entire program may be viewed on the Milford Government Access Channel on YouTube.
The next two events sponsored by the committee are a screening of the movie “Iron-Jawed Angels” about the suffrage movement on Feb. 20 at 7 p.m. at the Fowler Building, adjacent to the Milford Public Library, and participation in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade on March 14.