Welcome to Staatsburgh State Historic Site's blog! Learn more about the Gilded Age home of Ruth and Ogden Mills!

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Suffragists, Socialists & Socialites: Women's History Month

March is Women's History Month - a month-long celebration of history-making women and their accomplishments! Here at Staatsburgh, there are plenty of stories of remarkable women, groundbreaking achievements, and their contributions to local, national and international history.

François Flameng. Ruth Livingston Mills.
1909. Oil on Canvas. 
Of course we have to start off Women's History Month with our very own Ruth Livingston Mills. 

As a woman born into New York's high society, Mrs. Mills attended many charity events and contributed money to a variety of causes. Charity was one avenue for these ambitious society women to focus their energies, since many were not allowed careers in the era. According to newspapers, one of those causes was the fight for female suffrage - the right to vote! Activists and reformers such as Ida B. Wells, Dr. Mary Walker, and Jane Addams campaigned across the county for the right to vote during the Gilded Age.

In February of 1913, Ruth Mills loaned her own portrait (left), painted by famed portraitist François Flameng, to the Glaenzer Galleries in New York, displayed alongside 56 other society women's portraits, to raise funds for suffrage. Tickets sporting the iconic purple, green and white colors were sold for $2 to the general public. 

Two years later, Ruth personally called New York City mayor, John P. Mitchel, to ask his opinion on the right for women to vote. That day, "Women's Telephone Day," suffragists across the city were "expected to telephone to five persons" asking for their support in the November election season. The New York Times (below) assured the men of that city "it will not be a trying ordeal" and the callers will simply greet them with "Votes for Women" and ask the men if "they are on the side of the women" - quote "this will not take a minute"!

 As you can see in the New York Times story, it appears Ruth made the highest-level call to the mayor!

"Women Will Seek Votes by 'Phone."
New York Times. July 29, 1915.

Through the efforts of women like Ruth and countless others, the 19th Amendment was ratified - granting White women the right to vote - in 1920. For minority and Indigenous women voters, the fight continued well into the 20th Century.[1] 

The Gilded Age overlapped with the "Progressive Era" in American society - a time of widespread calls for social and political reforms in all aspects of modern-life; from the workplace to the ballot box. As we have already seen, the Gilded Age saw a great push for greater equality among the sexes. 

In fact, on February 28, 1909, the Socialist Party of America organized the first national "Woman's Day" event in New York City. Working-class women demonstrated for safer working conditions and better pay in factories, as well as the right to vote. Author and social reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman argued to the crowd "It is true that a woman's duty is centered in her home and motherhood but home should mean the whole country and not be confined to three or four rooms of a city or a state." 

Charlotte Perkins Gilman addressing a crowd, 1916.
Courtesy of History.com

The 1910 "International Conference of Working Women" in Copenhagen agreed that an international "Women's Day" should be celebrated, as a greater show of worker solidarity for rights and protections. On March 19, 1911 (commemorating the March 1848 revolutions across Europe) the first "International Women's Day" was celebrated by millions in Europe and the US. Socialist reformers and working-class women alike demonstrated from Moscow to New York demanding better pay and fairer treatment.

The date of each successive International Women's Day changed, often to fall on a Sunday so working woman would have the day off to gather and march. 

Posters for International Women's Day from Germany (1914) and England (1975).

1975 was "International Women's Year" with the United Nations soon proclaiming March 8 as International Women's Day - celebrating the continuing fight of women worldwide for greater recognition and respect.

Fittingly, March sees the anniversary of an important date in both women's and labor history - the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.

In a 1911 editorial cartoon,
a figure of Death rises from the smoke
of the burning Asch building.
Courtesy of the Kheel Center, Cornell University.
What began as any other Saturday shift for the young women - mostly recent European immigrants between the ages of 16 and 23 - in Manhattan's Garment District turned to chaos. In just under 20 minutes, a fire had spread to the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the Asch building. Sweatshop floor clutter and unsafe working conditions, including locked doors to prevent theft, and a faulty fire escape, trapped countless garment workers. Before the eyes of the horrified crowds on the streets below, scores of women jumped to their deaths from the top floors of the building. 

The disaster opened many Americans’ eyes to the inhuman working conditions that existed before the labor reforms of the Progressive Era. The public outcry was strong: protests for action - safer conditions, union protections, justice - echoed through New York and nationwide. Within a year following the tragedy, New York State had created more than 30 laws focused on protecting the health, safety, and working conditions of workers. 

One witness to the disaster was Frances Perkins. Perkins was enjoying afternoon tea at the townhome of suffrage activist Margaret Lewis Norrie (the great-granddaughter of Staatsburgh's Margaret Lewis Livingston and namesake of the nearby Norrie State Park), both women rushed across Washington Square to the scene of the fire. Perkins would later devote herself to workers’ rights, becoming Franklin Roosevelt's Secretary of Labor – the first female cabinet secretary - and the architect of the New Deal. She later said "The New Deal began on March 25, 1911. The day that the Triangle Factory burned."

Until the attacks on 9/11, the Triangle Factory fire was the deadliest workplace tragedy in New York City for over 90 years.

No comments:

Post a Comment