Monday, September 22, 2014

Scorpions in a Bottle: Suffragette City

Any history of the United States of America is going to devote at least some attention, and possibly an entire chapter, to the women's suffrage movement. Oddly, Robert Sobel's history of the C.N.A. and the U.S.M. makes no mention of any analogous movement in either country. In the case of the U.S.M., this could be due to the fact that women never gained the vote there -- a comparison of population figures with voter turnout suggests that the franchise was restricted to men as late as 1920, and Sobel never does mention Mexican women gaining the franchise.

But we know that women in the C.N.A. did gain the vote in 1908 (twelve years before passage of the 19th Amendment in our history). However, we don't know the circumstances, or any of the details, since Sobel gives us nothing more than a passing mention in a footnote on page 85.

Why doesn't Sobel go into more detail? It could be because he finds the matter embarrassing, and prefers to avoid mentioning it. I suggested as much in one of my For All Nails vignettes, and in Scorpions in a Bottle, I get to make it official:

* * *

Fourteen of the sixty-eight delegates to the original Norfolk Convention of October 1869 were women, and a majority of the delegates supported woman suffrage. However, the delegates decided to focus their initial efforts on the economic concerns of small farmers, so the Norfolk Resolves issued by the convention were confined to the promotion of agriculture and the regulation of big business. [1] At the Michigan City Convention, seven months later, when the confederation-level branches of the People’s Party united to form the People’s Coalition, the delegates agreed to support a broader agenda, and universal suffrage, for both men and women, was part of it. [2]

At the confederation level, woman suffrage proved particularly popular in the frontier confederations of Manitoba and Northern Vandalia, due largely to the desire of political leaders there to attract woman settlers. The Manitoba Council passed the Suffrage Expansion Act of 1890, granting universal adult suffrage in local and confederation elections, and the Northern Vandalia Council followed suit in 1893. However, an attempt by Manitoba to extend woman suffrage to Grand Council races in 1895 was overturned by the High Court. [3]

When Gallivan and Ruggles gained control of the Coalition at the 1883 nominating convention, they sought to moderate the insurgent party’s stances, and Gallivan in particular was determined to remove all references to woman suffrage from the party’s manifesto. At the time, he insisted that he was simply seeking to win over moderate voters from the older parties who were opposed to woman sufferage. It was only with the publication of Bernard Gallivan’s Letters from My Father in 1920 that the world learned of what has become Gallivan’s most notorious statement: “I would sooner give the vote to Man’s Best Friend than to Man’s Worst Enemy.” [4]

Gallivan succeeded in removing woman suffrage from the Coalition manifesto, but the party’s radical wing continued to support it, and the cause was taken up by Thomas Kronmiller, a radical labor organizer who was elected to the Grand Council from the Michigan City South riding in the landslide Coalition victory in 1893. Gallivan was a more astute politician than Kronmiller, and he succeeded in associating woman suffrage with the Moral Imperative, which had little support among the rank-and-file of the People’s Coalition, although it was popular among the Kronmiller faction.

Kronmiller himself chose to shift his emphasis from electoral reform to foreign policy in the 1898 elections, which were dominated by fears of growing Mexican influence in Russian Alaska as a prospecting team from Kramer Associates made the largest discovery there of gold deposits since the California gold strike of 1838. Other members of the radical wing of the Coalition, notably Councilman Roscoe Breckman of Manitoba, continued to support woman suffrage. For ten years, Breckman repeatedly introduced bills amending the Design to expand the franchise to women, but these invariably failed to make it out of committee. [5]

During the Starkist Terror of 1899-1901, Kronmiller became fixated with removing Gallivan from office. Although he succeeded in ousting Gallivan, Kronmiller was unable to gain sufficient support to become governor-general himself. Gallivan continued to exert influence on the Coalition, gaining the party leadership for his protégé Christopher Hemingway in 1903. Hemingway, whether through conviction or merely out of respect for his mentor, continued to oppose woman suffrage during his term in power.

Hemingway, successor, Albert Merriman, also owed his rise to power to Gallivan’s influence. Despite this, he did not share the other man’s determination to exclude women from the franchise. When Breckman introduced his latest woman suffrage bill on 7 March 1908, he encountered no opposition from Merriman. Even though Gallivan himself rose to speak against the Reform Bill of 1908, condemning it as “an unwise attempt to extend the franchise to those who are, by their very nature, incapable of making rational, informed decisions,” a sizeable majority of Breckman’s fellow Coalitionists voted in favor, as did the Liberal delegations from Manitoba and Northern Vandalia. In this way, women in the C.N.A. were at last able to join in the civic life of the nation. [6]

1. Barbara Montez. A History of the People’s Coalition (London, 1960), pp. 31-38.

2. Ibid. pp. 44-46.

3. Candace Evans. The Struggle for Woman Suffrage (New York, 1956), pp. 390-96.

4. Bernard Gallivan. Letters from My Father (New York, 1920), p. 171. The younger Gallivan was perplexed by the uproar provoked by the remark. He later said, “If I had known that people would be so judgmental about my father, I would never have published the book.” Morton Pettigrew. “The Uncensored Gallivan,” New York Tribune, October 11, 1921.

5. Edward J. Baker. The Unkept Promise: The People’s Coalition and Woman Suffrage (New York, 1967), p. 226.

6. Evans. The Struggle for Woman Suffrage, pp. 624-28.

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