November 27, 2017
The History of Women’s Suffrage in Maryland and Beyond
Often with history and historic preservation it can be all too easy for the places associated with a particular piece of our history to fall through the cracks. To a degree, that has been the case with the history of Maryland’s Women’s Suffrage Movement. But today we’re joined by historian Kacy Rohn, a native Marylander and the author of a recent historic context report focused on the stories of these women and the places that were important to their stories. Join us for a discussion on the fight for women’s right to vote in the United States, and the power of place to help us remember that fight. This is PreserveCast.
[Nick Redding] Often with history and historic preservation it can be all too easy for the places associated with a particular piece of our history to fall through the cracks. To a degree, that has been the case with the history of Maryland’s Women’s Suffrage Movement. But today, we’re joined by historian Kacy Rohn, a native Marylander and the author of a recent historic context report focused on the stories of these women and the places that were part of those stories. This is PreserveCast.
From Preservation Maryland Studios in the historic podcast district of Baltimore, this is PreserveCast.
[Nick Redding] This is Nick Redding. You’re listening to PreserveCast. We are joined today by Kacy Rohn. Kacy is a Maryland native, who is currently pursuing a dual Master’s in both community planning and historic preservation at the University of Maryland. And she was also the author of a recent historic context report of Maryland’s Women’s Suffrage Movement and the places associated with that movement. It’s a real pleasure to have Kacy with us today to talk about this important, yet often overlooked, aspect of Maryland history. Kacy, thanks for joining us.
[Kacy Rohn] Thanks, Nick. I’m really excited to be here and talk about women’s suffrage!
The Social Impetus for Women’s Suffrage Begins
[NR] Yeah, so before you put this context together, I think a lot of people – particularly within the preservation movement in Maryland – weren’t completely aware of the magnitude and the size and the scale of the story of women’s suffrage. When does the fight to gain women the right to vote begin in Maryland?
[KR] Well, Maryland actually has a pretty big distinctive milestone in the suffrage movement because of our history associated with Margaret Brent in St. Mary’s. Margaret Brent asked for the vote back in 1648 and that is considered by the suffragists of the 19th and 20th-century women’s suffrage movement, as really the place where the American women’s suffrage movement got started. So this history spans centuries. But the official Women’s Suffrage Movement got started with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 and spans 70 years until women finally won the right to vote in 1920.
[NR] So it starts in really in earnest in 1848. Is that when you picked up with the story in Maryland? Do we see a lot of activity that early on? Or did it take a little while here?
[KR] So Maryland actually has one of the first forming, state-specific women’s suffrage groups. There was mostly activity at the national level in their early decades. But Maryland was one of the earliest states to develop its own group, and that was back in 1867. The first local group emerged in Maryland. So we were really out in the forefront.
[NR] And where was that local group? What was their name and what’s their story?
[KR] That was the Maryland Equal Rights Society. So they were just a building called the Douglass Institute, which is on now Lexington Street in Baltimore. And this is a building – obviously, it was named for Frederick Douglass – and so they were working on kind of a broad mission to expand rights for citizens in the country. And the Maryland Equal Rights Society was a group of White and Black men and women that met together there to push for a broad expansion of the vote.
[NR] And so you’re context report begins to try attach place to story because people have told the story of Maryland’s women suffrage before; but we haven’t really connected the places associated with it. So you start, I guess, as early as the 1860s to try and begin connecting the story. How many places in total do you think you’ve identified?
[KR] I think I would count the number at upwards of 50. It gets a little fuzzy because some of these places are not specifically tied to one geographic place. Say, they’re an automobile tour or a hike that the women did to raise publicity. So I would say that at least 50 solid specific sites and then a handful of other associated places around the state. And that number, I would also add, could easily grow. The more I looked into this, the more and more places I found in counties and towns all across Maryland. I think every place that took a look at their history would find some sort of active women’s suffrage group there.
[NR] So going back to the history here for a second, and away from the context report, so you start in the 1860s. It starts to kind of pick up speed. But when does it really take off? I mean, is it sort of the beginning of the twentieth century that we see a lot of movement in Maryland? And what’s that story all about?
[KR] Sure. So the next group that emerged, the first group – you said 1860s – they kind of faded away because there was so much resistance to women suffrage, unfortunately. And then the real strong groups began to emerge towards the end of the nineteenth century and then the very beginning of the twentieth century, in Sandy Spring in Montgomery County and in Baltimore City. And you really started to see the Maryland campaign at that point start to gain membership and kind of expand their tactics a little bit. And they also began to coordinate much more closely with the national campaign, which began to view Maryland as an up-and-coming suffrage state and begin to get more involved in the local movement here.
[NR] Yeah, and as you know, PreserveCast has a sort of a national audience. So we try and talk about a lot of different issues. Not just those here in Maryland, although that’s of course, where we’re located. How does it tie into the national movement? I mean, I guess you were just saying we were perceived as sort of an up-and-coming in the the national story. Would you say we were a hotbed? Or were there other states that were, maybe, further ahead than Maryland?
[KR] Well, I think that Maryland suffrages did a fantastic job. And I would call it a hotbed of suffrage [laughter] just given the sheer amount of activity in this state. But, to be honest, when we think about women’s suffrage we think about the big names coming out of New England, Massachusetts, and New York – Susan B. Anthony and figures like that. And then, of course, in some of the western states, they won suffrage even before the national amendment granted the vote to women across the country. So I wouldn’t say we were out in front, but I do think we were closely connected to what was going on at the national level. We had pretty much one overarching national women’s suffrage group, which was called the National American Woman Suffrage Association. And a lot of state chapters were associated with that and directly coordinated their work with the campaign of the national movement. And also, Maryland is so close to D.C. and the National Capital that all the activity going on to lobby the federal government in support of women suffrage often was channeled through Maryland. So you saw a lot of Maryland women helping out with national activities just because of our proximity there.
[NR] And I guess because of that, did a lot of national leaders stop off in Maryland before they made it to D.C.? Did we get a lot of traction because of that?
[KR] Absolutely. There was one particularly active group in Baltimore that was known as the Just Government League, and they had a dedicated office space on North Charles Street. And this was kind of the [go-to] place for suffrages coming through town. A lot of the national figures on their way to D.C. would stop off at this office of the Just Government League in Baltimore and have tea, or a dinner party, or stand on a street corner and hold a public meeting to rile up support on their way into D.C. And the most prominent example of this, definitely, is the 1906 convention of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association, which took place at the Lyric Theatre in Baltimore. And this was their 38th National Convention and it brought thousands of women from all across the country into Baltimore, and into the Lyric Theatre. And this included national figures like Susan B. Anthony. This was among her very last public appearances before she passed away. And she kind of passed the torch on to the next generation of suffrage activists at this event. So we have a, I think, a very close connection to what was going on in the national movement.
The Divide Between White and Black Women’s Suffrage
[NR] So in terms of the story of women’s suffrage, it also takes place at a time when the United States, and particularly Maryland, is very segregated. How did that play out in women’s suffrage in Maryland? And from your research, around the country? I don’t know if you know what happened elsewhere. But what happened here in Maryland with that?
[KR] So Maryland, as you say, was pretty highly segregated at this point; and that was certainly reflected in the suffrage movement. Even though women – both African-American and White women – were working towards the vote, from the information that I’ve found, they basically worked in completely separate organizations and in separate places. And this was the nature of the times. There was a lot of conflict over racial issues. You saw, to some extent, the White women suffrages using really coded racial language in some cases, to argue for their own right to vote. So this is an element that I knew little about going into the suffrage movement, but I was really glad to discover – not because it’s a good story – but because I think it’s important to remember the nuance of what happened.
[NR] And so was there an entirely separate Black suffrage movement in Maryland?
[KR] There was. And there’s less information that I found out about it because the historical records just reflects less of it. So fewer of the sites that I’ve found are actually specifically tied to the African American Women Suffrage Movement. But I did find a very active chapter in Baltimore. It was often called the Progressive Woman Suffrage Club. And they operated out of a few members’ homes, and then eventually, in some churches and meeting halls along Druid Hall Avenue in West Baltimore. And they were very actively organizing their own community but were very separate from what they did from the White suffragists. And at the same time African-American women were arguing for the vote, they also had to argue against residential segregation, and Jim Crow laws, and all of these other issues that really intersected with the right to vote. And Maryland never passed the types of Jim Crow laws that many – the other southern states – did but [it was] still pretty aggressive in trying to keep African American citizens away from the vote. So this is a really important step for African Americans achieving greater civil rights and equality in our society.
[NR] And, so, was that the case all throughout the south? I mean, is that standard? Because, as you said, that’s a part of the women suffrage movement we don’t hear a lot about. Obviously, your work and research focused on Maryland. But is that sort of a similar story throughout states south of the Mason-Dixon?
[KR] That’s what I discovered as I was going through it. I mean, it seemed like of the southern states, Maryland was pretty much fit in with them. A lot of these states, some of the suffrages were actively using White supremacist language to argue that they should have the vote, and Maryland suffrages did this as well. So I think we were very much in line with what was happening. And a lot of this ties back to the political nature of the time. Because so many African-Americans were Republicans, and the South was such a democratic stronghold at that time, that there was an extra layer of resistance because of that political motivation. Which is really what kept the vote, I think, out of the hands of women in Maryland for so long is that resistance to further potential expansion of votes to the opposing party, very partisan politics.
[NR] Yeah, yeah, you really don’t think about it that way.
[NR] Well, why don’t we take a quick break right here? And then when we come back we can finish the story of Maryland’s Women’s Suffrage. [We can] find out what happened when the vote came for the Nineteenth Amendment to ratify it. And then talk a little bit about preserving these places, why they haven’t been [preserved], how we document them, and why that story matters. And we’ll do that when we return right here on PreserveCast.
Support Preservation Maryland’s Six to Fix
[Nick Redding] Much like there’s Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Museum Shop Sunday, and Cyber Monday, non-profits have organized a special day to support deserving projects and causes called Giving Tuesday. This year for Giving Tuesday on November 28th, 2017, we’re asking for you to pause and think about historic preservation and why it’s important to you. Kacy Rohn’s worked to ensure that the story of Maryland’s women who fought for the right to vote is never forgotten and that their sacrifices are never taken for granted is one example. But there are dozens of other important stories that impact our present and our future that are at risk of being lost.
With the help of our donors and our members, Preservation Maryland is doing it’s best to save our state’s historic resources for future generations to learn from and enjoy. As the first and foremost historic preservation organization in the state, we work to educate the public on the value of historic resources and to bring technical assistance, capacity building, and economic revitalization to communities all across our state. We hope you’ll consider donating online by visiting our website at PresMD.org, where you can find information on how to donate to our organization or to one our specific Six to Fix projects, like our mission to document the history of the Women’s Suffrage Movement right here in Maryland. Thanks.
The Ratification of Women’s Suffrage in Maryland
[Nick Redding] This is Nick Redding, you’re listing to PreserveCast. We are joined today by Kacy Rohn, who is a Maryland native working on a dual Master’s in Community Planning and Historic Preservation at the University of Maryland. And she’s also the author of a recent historic context report on Maryland’s Woman’s Suffrage Movement and the places associated with it. And before we took our break, we were talking with Kacy about the really fascinating history associated with how women struggled to get the right to vote here in Maryland, and across the nation, and the interesting and odd challenges and alliances that were created as a result of that. So catching up with that story, Kacy, bring us to about 100 years or so ago. It’s 1917, 1918, we’re approaching the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment… What happens in Maryland, do we end up ratifying?
[KR] Sadly, no [laughter]. But this was–
[NR] Whomp, whomp…
[KR] – a really exciting… yes, absolutely. This was a really exciting time in the national suffrage movement. It seemed like momentum had really been picking up and there were a couple of interesting and important developments. One being the United States entering World War I in March of 1917. That really had a major impact on the suffrage movement and it kind of split the suffragists both in Maryland and around the country. Some women felt that volunteering for the war effort and showing their support for the country. Putting the suffrage work aside for the time being, was the best way to show that women were good citizens and deserved the right to vote. While others felt that women had tried this tactic before, during the Civil War. They did the same thing and it didn’t work.
So other women began to take a much more militant approach to their suffrage. This involved a lot more aggressive kinds of public demonstrations. This is where we saw women begin to picket the White House. Women suffragists were the first political group, the first group to ever really protest the White House as an act of political opposition. Maryland suffrages played a huge role in this because we were so close, as I mentioned earlier. Maryland women were constantly called out to help out with these pickets outside of the White House. Eventually, a lot of these women were arrested and jailed and treated very poorly in prison. And the public outcry over their treatment and the sympathy for what they had gone through combined with the efforts of the women in World War I really started to push the country as a whole more in favor of women’s suffrage. Finally, in the summer of 1919, the U.S. Congress passed a federal women’s suffrage movement. And that went out to the states to be ratified. And we needed 36 states to ratify it in order for it to become law.
[NR] And we got to those 36. But, unfortunately, we didn’t get Maryland.
[KR] We did not get Maryland. And Maryland women, they did put in an effort at that point. I mean, they’d been frustrated for years by the lack of support from the state legislators for suffrage. But they did embark on a heavy lobbying campaign. They were visiting legislators all around the state. They sent delegations into Annapolis. Just constantly flooding the statehouse and the governor’s office trying to convince the governor to call a special session to ratify the amendment, which he refused to do. Eventually, the Maryland legislature… not only did they reject women’s suffrage, but they passed some kind of motion rebuking the federal government for overreaching by passing it in the first place. And then they also approved some money for a delegation to go to other state legislatures to try and convince them not to vote for it either.
[NR] A proud legislative history here in Maryland we have.
[KR] Yeah. As a native Marylander, that story makes me very sad [laughter].
[NR] And so how long did it take them to ratify… I mean obviously the national amendment ratified so it sort of nullifies whatever Maryland was trying to do. But how long did it take Maryland to actually – when did we actually ratify it?
[KR] So Maryland didn’t ratify it – I won’t quote the year because I can’t quite remember it – but it wasn’t until the late 40s that Maryland actually ratified it. And then all the formal paperwork and etc. wasn’t in until 1955. So it took kind of a while. But we were not last! There were some states that held out until the 80s. So we have some small measure of pride to hold onto I guess on that front.
Documenting Forgotten History of the Women’s Suffragist Movement
[NR] Yeah. Some small, very [laughter] small, measure of pride. So, Kacy, you’ve done this research. You really have delved into this in a really fantastic way. And we’re so appreciative of it. We’ve named women’s suffrage, obviously, one of our Six-to-Fix projects for the year here in Maryland to fix the historical record because a lot of this is missing. Some of these places I know were listed just because they happened to be in historic districts. So the building I guess would be contributing. But in your research, just out of curiosity and sort of ballpark figures here, how many of them did you find were listed because of their association with women’s suffrage?
[KR] Maybe one. One. I think it was a total of one [laughter].
[KR] Yes, which is very sad. Out of this whole list, only one even mentioned women’s suffrage. And what I found – it was a little bit of a frustrating research process because I kept finding sites that were really exciting and really significant only to find that many of them had been demolished, possibly because we have forgotten its history. And then sites that were still standing, and many of which we had recognized as historic sites either individually or in districts, they just made no mention at all of women’s suffrage. Which made the research difficult but also just was very frustrating to see that this really important history had been completely erased from what we know and admire about these historic places.
[NR] Right. And I mean if they’re not documented – and that’s the first beginning process of this – it’s very easy to forget them, to demolish them, to overlook them. Highway project comes through. Redevelopment project comes through and it goes through a standard government review process. If it’s not flagged as such because there’s never been any documentation done, then you lose places like this. I mean, there is a very real consequence. It sounds like a nicety to put things on the national register, but there is a very real consequence that if you don’t document these places you are going to lose them. And obviously, as you mentioned, we’re already lost a number of them. I guess moving forward, beyond documentation, what would your hope and dream be for women suffrage history in Maryland? What would you love to see after having done all this research?
[KR] I would love to see people more aware of the state-wide activism that went on. I think, to me, this was a really exciting story about the changing roles of women in society and women kind of stepping out of the house and into the public sphere, and really starting to engage on issues that they cared about and to start gaining social and political power. And I would like Maryland women – and all Maryland residents, people everywhere – to remember these contributions because I think they really did push the role for women in our state and, obviously, around the country in a really important direction. And I think this history has a lot to tell us about social activism and to remember where we came from so that we can continue doing the things that we need to do to ensure women’s equality in the future.
[NR] Yeah, I couldn’t agree with that more. And also, it strikes me that this wasn’t that long ago. It’s not even yet a hundred years ago that women gained the right to vote in the United States. And all of these fights and battles weren’t even happening, really… I mean, you’re talking about great-grandmothers’ time or grandmothers’ in some cases. The idea that this movement has had a lot of impact… I mean, think about the impact it’s had just in these hundred years. And that’s not just the Maryland story. That’s just a national story and one that’s pretty impressive and pretty exciting when you think about the amount of changes that have been made just in that short period of time. I can’t imagine the Maryland General Assembly sending a delegation to other states to encourage them not to allow women to vote anymore. So I guess there has been some progress made there.
[KR] Some progress, yeah. And I think coming up on a hundredth anniversary of the passage of this amendment like we are, I think it’s just a really important time. People are talking about women’s roles in society right now. More women are getting engaged in running for political office. I think we’re in a really important moment to take this story and to use it as part of a broader conversation about our heritage and our identity and the places that are important to us.
[NR] Well, this has been fantastic. I guess I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you two questions here. One, which came up from before. You said that there was only one building listed on the national register associated with this movement. I forgot to follow-up and ask: what building was that?
[KR] So this is actually the Still Pond Historic District. I think that’s in Kent County.
[NR] In Kent County. Yeah.
[KR] Yes. That’s right. So Still Pond is listed on the National Register [of Historic Places] for a variety of reasons, but one of which is because they were one of the earliest places in Maryland to give women the municipal right to vote. So that means that when the town of Still Pond incorporated and formalized their town documents and operating procedures, that they granted women – possibly just tax-paying, property- owning women, but women – the right to vote in local city elections.
[NR] Do you remember how early that was?
[KR] That was 1906 or 1908.
[NR] Go Kent County!
[KR] Unfortunately, I did find in my research that that was not the first place in Maryland that women voted. From as far as I’ve discovered, I think that was actually in Annapolis in 1900 when women were granted the right to vote on kind of like a bond question, basically. So it was pretty limited in scale. But if we’re going for firsts, that may be it. But Still Pond still has a really important place that is recognized on the National Register for their officially granting women this more broad voting power.
[NR] Right. And then, hopefully moving forward, many more of these places will be identified because of the Six to Fix Project that we’re working on where we’re going to be actively trying to re-write and correct the historic record and put them on there. The second question I have for which is the most difficult we ask for most people who come on PreserveCast is what is your favorite historical building or place? It doesn’t have to be suffrage-related, although it certainly could be. But we like to pick people’s brains and find out what places they love.
[KR] Gosh. Well, I don’t know if I can pick one place, but I’m going to pick the historic district in Annapolis where I live. I’ve lived in Annapolis for a while and I’ve lived in the historic district for a little while. This was before I went into school to get this degree in planning and preservation. And I think living in that historic downtown, and just walking around the cobblestone streets, and seeing the historic buildings, is really what ultimately inspired me to go back to school and to pursue this degree. So have to give a nod to Annapolis for kind of leading me on the path that I’m on now.
[NR] Hard to argue with a National Historic Landmark, so–
[KR] Pretty good one.
[NR] –we’ll let you have that one.
[NR] Well, Kacy, it’s been a real pleasure. Thank you for all the good work that you’ve done to kind of get this whole effort moving. I mean, candidly, it was Kacy’s research that really opened this organization’s eyes to this and let us know that it was an issue that we should get involved and hope to address. And so we owe you a debt of gratitude and, I suppose, the suffrage generation does as well for remembering their story and keeping the light alive. So thanks for all you’re doing and good luck with your schooling. We’re looking forward to seeing all the good work that you do here in the future. Thanks for joining us today.
[KR] Yep. Thank you, Nick.
You don’t need to open a history book to find us and available online from iTunes and their Google Play Store as well as our website: PresMD.org. This is PreserveCast.
This podcast was developed under a grant from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, a unit of the National Park Service. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Preservation Maryland and the Maryland Milestones Heritage Area and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the National Park Service or the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.
This week’s episode was produced and engineered by Ben and Stephen Israel. Our executive producer is Aaron Marcavitch. Our theme music is performed by the band Pretty Gritty. You can learn more about them at their website: PrettyGrittyMusic.com, on Facebook, or on Twitter @PG_PrettyGritty.
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