N.Y. Suffragists Took the 14th to Polling Booths

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(WOMENSENEWS)–Victoria Woodhull and her sister, Tennie Clafin, truly maverick spiritualists, stockbrokers, publishers and political activists, always commanded public attention. When they called the press to their apartment on Election Day, 1871, reporters responded and listened as the sisters and 10 other women announced that they were about to become the first women to vote in the city of New York.

“Unterrified, indomitable,”one reporter wrote, “each determined female unsheathed her parasol and swore to vote.”

At the crowded polling place, the inspectors refused the women’s ballots. Woodhull demanded to know if it was “a crime to be a woman” and began reading aloud from the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, to no avail. The group left to begin work on a lawsuit that they hoped would become a test case against the government for preventing legitimate citizens from casting ballots.

The action was neither spontaneous, nor unique to the flamboyant Woodhull. Confronting election officials was part of a new national strategy. Since the first convention for women’s rights in 1848, an organized and growing movement had tried petitions and speeches, legal arguments, lobbying and withholding tax revenues, without success.

Now they leaped on the language of the post-Civil War constitutional amendments, particularly these words from the 14th Amendment, adopted in 1868: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States, and of the State wherein they reside.” The new tactic was to announce that women were citizens and already entitled to the vote.

In April 1871, women in Washington, D.C., including Belva Lockwood–the first female attorney to argue before the Supreme Court and, in 1884, a candidate for the presidency herself–had attempted to register and tried to cast ballots. After being barred, they filed cases at the District of Columbia Supreme Court against the Board of Registration and the election judges. While Woodhull was marching to the New York City polls, Matilda Joslyn Gage was confronting local registrars in upstate New York.

And in Rochester, N.Y., Susan B. Anthony was organizing for another assault, which would take place a year later. In 1872, while Victoria Woodhull was audaciously campaigning for the office of president, Anthony also read out the words of the 14th Amendment at her local polling place. She and 14 other women were rejected, but Anthony would stand trial for trying to vote. Hers would become, while not exactly the test case the women with Woodhull and Lockwood hoped for, a media and legal spectacle that brought women’s citizenship claims even more intensely to the nation’s attention.

Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.” She can be reached at louise@womensenews.org.

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