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Catch the Suffragists' Spirit: The Millers' Suffrage Scrapbooks

Transcript of a video presentation by Rosemary Fry Plakas

Scrapbook making is an ever popular means of personal expression that captures the interests of the creator, records memories, and often reveals contemporary culture. Most scrapbooks that were created in years past preserve a fascinating array of ephemera that otherwise would not have survived. These elusive scraps of yesterday's "stuff" can speak to us of the concerns and conditions of everyday living experienced by past generations of ordinary people. Let’s explore the scrapbooks created by two women who lived in Geneva, New York, at the turn of the twentieth century.

Elizabeth Smith Miller, the wealthy daughter of abolitionist Gerrit Smith, was, like her cousin Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a pioneer in the women’s suffrage movement and a warm supporter of the temperance and antislavery causes. Her daughter, Anne Fitzhugh Miller, became a leader of local and state suffrage efforts, as well as a founding trustee of William Smith College for women. Between 1897 and 1911 the Millers filled the pages of seven large scrapbooks with programs, press clippings, letters, pins, and ribbons that document the activities of the Geneva Political Equality Club and the persistent efforts of women and men working for women’s suffrage at the state and national levels.

The Miller scrapbooks are now part of the National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress. Carrie Chapman Catt, the Association’s last president, donated this collection to the Library in 1938. The Miller scrapbooks add a new dimension to our understanding of the suffrage movement. They provide us with the unique opportunity to share in some of the endless networking, meager victories, and personal frustrations of a cause in progress.

An organized women’s suffrage movement had its beginnings in the United States in July of 1848. It was then that the first women's rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York, just a few miles east of Geneva.

For decades, suffrage leaders tirelessly organized meetings, circulated petitions, arranged speaking tours, and distributed literature in support of women’s suffrage. But by 1896, after nearly fifty years of struggle, there still were only four "stars" on the woman suffrage flag. Women could vote in four western states--Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, and Utah. The fifth "star," Washington, was not secured until 1910. These intervening years in the suffrage movement have sometimes been called "the doldrums." Suffrage referenda in Oregon, Washington, South Dakota and New Hampshire all failed. Annual attempts to pass a state suffrage amendment were blocked in legislative committees. U. S. Congressmen repeatedly ignored suffragists’ pleas for a federal constitutional amendment. The traditional tactics of petitioning and letter writing seemed to be ineffective. Older suffrage leaders were growing weary and dying--Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1902, Susan B. Anthony in 1906, Julia Ward Howe in 1910. And anti-suffragists were becoming more vocal.

Yet during these years positive changes were taking place that would strengthen the suffrage movement. More women were becoming wage earners. College-educated women were generating new energy and ideas. New organizations began experimenting with more aggressive tactics such as outdoor meetings and parades. The involvement of wealthy socialites brought greater press coverage and sorely needed funds. More men became visible supporters. Speaking tours across the United States by English suffragists deepened the bonds between "sisters" fighting for a common cause.

Most of the dominant themes of these intervening years can be traced in the Miller scrapbooks. Anne Fitzhugh Miller and her mother Elizabeth Smith Miller hosted the twenty-ninth annual New York state suffrage convention in Geneva, New York, in early November 1897. An editorial about the convention urged suffrage leaders to focus their efforts on winning over "indifferent" and "objecting" women to their cause rather than worrying about "obstinate" men. It stated that this was "really a woman’s battle among women for women."

The success of this state convention led the Millers to found the Geneva Political Equality Club later that November. The purpose of the club was to "secure to women the unrestricted exercise of all the rights of citizenship and equal constitutional rights with men, and equal protection of the law."

Anne Fitzhugh Miller had great faith in the power of gender cooperation and applied it in the Geneva Political Equality Club. A flier announcing the charter meeting of this club on November the 30th, 1897, showed an equal number of men and women on its organizing committee. Anne explained that such a club would give those who believed in political equality an opportunity to work for the cause and to acquire a better understanding of public affairs and the responsibilities of citizenship.

By March 1898, Anne had agreed to serve as president of the club. Elizabeth Smith Miller was named honorary president. The Millers’ connections, through their cousin Harriot Stanton Blatch and their intimate friends Susan and Mary Anthony, enabled them to engage eminent speakers who would broaden awareness of the positive benefits of women’s suffrage. Speakers included national suffrage leaders Carrie Chapman Catt, Alice Stone Blackwell, Henry Blackwell, Anna Howard Shaw, and Florence Kelley; writer and social reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman; educators Max Eastman and Nathaniel Schmidt; Cornell’s champion debater Elizabeth Ellsworth Cook; and the militant British suffragists Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst. Geneva municipal leaders and Hobart College professors participated as club officers and speakers. Drills in parliamentary procedures and civics classes were offered and a young people’s study group was organized. The club encouraged women property owners to vote in special municipal tax elections. It also helped elect a woman to the Geneva school board.

Each spring the Geneva Political Equality Club featured an elegant fundraising piazza party at Lochland, the Millers’ Geneva estate overlooking Seneca Lake. This event was held in late May when the wisteria bloomed in clusters of green, white, and violet--colors also meant to convey the slogan "Give Women Votes."  Reading the description of the 1905 party in the New York Suffrage Newsletter is almost like being there: "They begin coming early in the afternoon and the carriages in a long line pass through the grounds for hours ... Few homes could accommodate such a number as Lochland, with its great rooms and its broad piazzas surrounding three sides of the house. Rain fell gently but nobody minded that or remembered it when once in the radiant presence of the hostesses" and enjoying "the happy way that suffrage arguments are combined with the social and musical features."  Susan B. Anthony was the honored guest at this eighth annual event, where principal speaker Alice Stone Blackwell, editor of the Woman’s Journal, encouraged the two hundred fifty participants to redouble their diligence in making converts to the suffrage cause.

The Millers attended most of the New York state and National American Woman Suffrage Association conventions during the first decade of the twentieth century, often serving on committees and making generous monetary gifts. They traveled to Washington, D.C., in 1900 for Susan B. Anthony’s farewell address as national president.  They were in the Capitol again in 1902 when Elizabeth Smith Miller was honored as a "Pioneer Worker" and an international conference was held. At the 1903 national convention in New Orleans, the Millers participated in a memorial tribute to Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In 1906 Anne spoke at the national convention in Baltimore and at the U.S. Senate hearings in Washington the following week.

In October 1907 the Millers again hosted the New York State Woman Suffrage Convention in Geneva, New York. In her remarks of welcome, Anne Fitzhugh Miller noted: "Of all factors in the success that Geneva has achieved, I count as chief, the fact that the men of this place are with us. Our so-called woman’s movement is for the benefit of the people--men, women, and children. It seems to me as unwise and one sided to have political equality clubs without men as to have a city or state government without women . . . Neither men nor women alone are wise enough to determine the conditions under which we shall live; that demands a consensus of the best feeling, thought, and action of which both men and women are capable--working together." Anne remembered the past support of great men--Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison--and praised the current local support of the mayor, the Hobart College president, and newspaper editors.

Most men were not so supportive. As a member of the legislative committee of the state suffrage association, Anne Fitzhugh Miller organized letter-writing campaigns to state legislators and met with the governor and key state officials in attempt to secure a suffrage amendment to the New York state constitution. In a February 14, 1908, reply to one of Anne’s letters, the Speaker of the New York State Legislature, James W. Wadsworth, Jr., expressed his concerns this way: "Frankly, I don’t think the bill which seeks to amend the Constitution by providing for women suffrage, will pass the Legislature, and I confess that I am not enthusiastic on the proposition myself. ... The great mass of women throughout the State and country view the proposition with absolute indifference and if the suffrage were extended to them they would not take advantage of it. The few good women who earnestly desire suffrage now, of course, would vote and would vote intelligently. Every bad woman, practically, would vote and they would outnumber the few good ones ... The use of money in elections would in my judgment be enormously increased, because hordes of women of the lowest class, who have no ideas or convictions as to political economy or National policies, would jump to the opportunity of selling their votes. Until the great middle class of women are aroused to a desire for taking part in public affairs (and they are not as yet aroused) suffrage in my judgment would be a calamity."

Undeterred, Anne Fitzhugh Miller spoke the following week at the New York legislative committee hearings on a state suffrage amendment and in March 1908 at the United States Senate hearings on the proposed federal suffrage amendment. In Something for Something she argued that women were forced to pay taxes, but had no say in how these public funds were used. Declaring that she would rather suffer an injustice than be responsible for that injustice, she urged legislators to do right: "Treat us as well as you treat yourselves, Gentlemen, and you, as well as we, shall be the better for it."

In May 1908, Harriot Stanton Blatch organized the sixtieth anniversary celebration of the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, where her mother, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, had presented the Declaration of Sentiments in 1848. The pioneers, Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Martha Wright, and Frederick Douglass, were honored in speeches and a roll of honor plaque was dedicated to the 68 women and 32 men who signed the Declaration. One of the signers, Rhoda Palmer, sent a letter that relayed her impressions of that first suffrage convention, where, she said, "seed fell on good ground." Tucked in the envelope with her letter is an extremely rare first edition of the Report of the Woman’s Rights Convention. It was published in 1848 by John Dick at the North Star Office of Frederick Douglass’s newspaper in Rochester, New York. This tiny, fragile pamphlet documents the birth of the American suffrage movement. Although Palmer at 92 felt too frail to attend the 1908 festivities, she outlived both the Millers. At 102, she was able to vote in the 1918 New York state election.

Harriot Stanton Blatch also experimented with more aggressive tactics to bring awareness of the suffrage cause. On Election Day, November the 3rd, 1908, her Equality League of Self- Supporting Women organized activities that included distributing suffrage literature at the polls and conducting mock elections. Voting instructions were given to nearly 2,000 women at seven theaters in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Blatch commented on the rationale of this initiative: "Our ancient movement, gently agitated in quiet meetings of its friends, had become respectable and unknown. More wide-awake methods brought it to notice, and made the movement itself appear ‘brand new.’ This more vigorous agitation not only brings information to the man on the street, not only brings our cause to public notice, but makes the strongest possible appeal to a dominating characteristic of women--their spirit of self-sacrifice."

While aggressive methods increased the suffragist ranks, some women, mostly from the upper classes, still adamantly opposed the suffrage movement. The Millers documented this opposition and even attended several anti-suffrage meetings. In an article in the Boston Globe, Katherine E. Conway, a well-known newspaper writer of the time, cited one woman’s objection to suffrage: "Let us not delude ourselves here. We cannot eat our cake and keep it. The moment we descend into the ranks of seekers for elective office--and thither we should go the day after our attainment of unrestricted suffrage--we should lose the chivalrous consideration which men in general give to women as women. For we should be contending against men, and the commoner masculine element, which will always be the majority, would see us not only as rivals, but as rivals who had no business on the ground."

And in addressing the Joint Judiciary Committee of the state legislature in Albany, New York, in February 1909, Mrs. William Forse Scott of Yonkers stated, "In the development of the race, woman has become functionally better fitted for occupations and modes of thought which are non-political than for those which are political. . . . The family is held together by the love and sympathy and partisanship of the wife and mother. The traits are characteristic of the sex, as are the traits of rapid intuition, of imagination, of emotion. The characteristics which most insure woman’s fitness for her vocation, most positively bar her from any promise of fitness to deal with broad and high questions of statesmanship."

President Theodore Roosevelt had stated that he believed in women’s suffrage, but described himself as a lukewarm advocate because he believed that most women were lukewarm. As a member of the legislative committee for the New York State Woman Suffrage Association, Anne Fitzhugh Miller asked Roosevelt for a stronger statement supporting suffrage. The scrapbooks include Roosevelt’s reply, begging no time to comply, and Anne’s February 26, 1909, draft response to Roosevelt. She repeated her request for a strong "undiluted" statement and chided Roosevelt: "What I ask would require about half a minute of your time, and would be a real service to half your people--to all of them, I believe."

In 1910, Anne’s friends Max Eastman and Nathaniel Schmidt helped organize the Men’s League for Woman Suffrage of the State of New York. They sponsored mass meetings, raised funds and sent a strong representation to the Albany hearings that year. They distributed a card that urged: "Men, who love the Freedom which your Fathers won for You, Pay your Debt by Winning Freedom for your Daughters."

As Elizabeth Smith Miller’s health declined and Anne devoted more time to her mother’s care, their social activities naturally were curtailed. They still occasionally hosted quiet suffrage luncheons and legislative planning sessions or offered the hospitality of their Lochland estate as a refuge for weary suffragists. One of the last major suffrage events that Anne participated in was the suffrage parade in New York City on May 6, 1911, sponsored by the Women’s Political Union. The Geneva Political Equality Club crafted two new banners. One honored Elizabeth Smith Miller as a suffrage pioneer. Just two weeks before her mother’s death, Anne Fitzhugh Miller carried this banner down Fifth Avenue. She was among 3,000 participants who marched the five-mile route to the Union Square Mass Meeting, led by the successful organizer Harriot Stanton Blatch, supported by a contingent of men, and cheered on by large crowds of spectators.

Although the scrapbooks don’t reveal Anne’s feelings about this parade experience, they must have been positive. The Geneva Daily Times reported that she planned to carry a green parrot in the 1912 New York City suffrage parade and was having it trained to screech, "Votes for Women." But this was not to be, for Anne died quite unexpectedly in Boston, Massachusetts, in March 1912, just four days shy of fifty-six years old and only nine months after her mother.

The Millers did not live to see the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1920 that extended the suffrage to all American women. However, the yellowing, often brittle pages of their scrapbooks capture the spirit of the suffrage struggle and give us a glimpse into the lives and legacies of two devoted and determined suffragists. We thank the Millers for their spirit and their sense of history.

We invite you to further explore the seven Miller scrapbooks online at "Miller NAWSA Suffrage Scrapbooks" in the Women’s History section of the Library’s American Memory collection at By preserving meaningful mementos of lives past, these scrapbooks capture a slice of social history that expands our understanding and enriches our lives.

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  March 18, 2011
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