The Woman’s Suffrage Centennial

Voices of the Marginalized

Working Class Suffragists in Connecticut

The leaders of the women’s suffrage movement were frequently college graduates who came from upper-class and upper-middle-class families. Their lifestyles allowed them to dedicate a considerable amount of time to getting the vote. In the early years of the 20th century, these upper-class leaders of the movement began making a concerted effort to win the support of working-class women. Their efforts paid off when in 1918 the Connecticut Federation of Labor endorsed the 19th Amendment with only one dissenting vote.

Working women supported suffrage, but their need to work prevented them from actively participating in rallies, parades and meetings. Many simply could not afford to travel to Washington, D.C., to protest or to pay the fine they might incur if they were arrested. Their experiences as part of the suffrage movement differed greatly from those of wealthier women. 

Working Woman Delegation to See President Wilson, early 20th century
RG 101, State Archives, Connecticut State Library

Female Munition Workers of Bridgeport

The female munitions workers of Bridgeport provide an excellent example. During WWI, Bridgeport’s munitions factories helped outfit American soldiers in Europe. Facing a shortage of workers due to the war, women quickly took their place in the factories. During the war thousands of female munitions workers went on strike, demanding an eight-hour workday. Having succeeded with this demand, some female workers joined the militant wing of the National Woman’s Party. Five munitions workers are known to have picketed at the White House and participated in the watch fires where President Wilson’s speeches were burned. All five were arrested and sentenced to five days in jail, with three being fired from their jobs. 

Advertisement: “The Minute Women of Bridgeport,” 1917-1918
Courtesy of Connecticut Digital Newspaper Project
“26,000 Women Workers Will Have Better Conditions in Bridgeport,” August 20, 1915
Courtesy of the Bridgeport History Center, Bridgeport Public Library
Bridgeport Munitions Worker, 1915
Courtesy of New England Historical Society

African American Suffragists

African American women were active from the start of the women’s suffrage movement. Two years after the Seneca Falls Convention, Sojourner Truth, a former slave who was a vocal advocate for the rights of African American women, attended the first women’s suffrage meeting in New England. 

The relationship between white and African American suffragists was not an easy one. When the 14th and 15th amendments gave African American men the vote before women, dissention among white suffragists caused a split in the in the national movement. Although the sides reunified by the end of the 19th century, well into the 20th century white suffragists often actively barred Black women from participating in the movement.

Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) was born enslaved in Ulster County, New York. In 1826 she ran away with her infant daughter. Two years later she sued her former enslaver for custody of her son and won, becoming the first African American woman to win such a suit against a white man. She challenged abolitionists and suffragists by insisting that all people deserved freedom and equality.

Sojourner Truth, 1864
Library of Congress

Suffrage organizations in Connecticut were segregated. Because they were not welcome in the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association, in 1918 five hundred African American women met in New Haven to organize a “colored” suffrage league. For these women, who were frequent victims of both racism and sexism, gaining the vote was a means to ensure a better future for their children and to improve the situation for Black Americans in general. 

Like their white counterparts, the African American women who were the most active in suffrage organization came from a high standing in society and were often well-educated. Women such as Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911) provided strong leadership for African American women, while also warning the white leaders of the suffrage movement to avoid the slippery slope of white supremacy.

Mary Townsend Seymour

Mary Townsend Seymour (1873-1957) was an African American civil rights activist in Connecticut who in 1917 helped form Hartford’s chapter of the NAACP. As a suffragist she worked to ensure equal rights and suffrage for everyone, no matter their race or gender.

Mary Townsend Seymour
Mary Townsend Seymour

Business Card for New York Colored Mission

The New York Colored Mission, a Quaker organization, offered social and professional services to the African American community including classes in sewing, cooking, carpentry and bible instruction. The Mission’s Employment Agency facilitated the placement of African American men and women in jobs chiefly in domestic service. 

Constant Holley MacRae utilized the agency to find domestic workers to help run her family’s boarding house in Cos Cob, now the Bush-Holley House.

Business Card: N.Y. Colored Mission Employment Office, early 20th century
Greenwich Historical Society, Holley/MacRae Papers

African Americans in Greenwich

Members of Household Domestic Staff at the Bush-Holley House, early 20th century
Greenwich Historical Society, Holley/MacRae Papers
Members of Household Domestic Staff at the Bush-Holley House, early 20th century
Greenwich Historical Society, Holley/MacRae Papers

Photographs and other records indicate that the Holley-MacRae family relied on women of color to work as domestic staff to help run their boardinghouse, now the Bush-Holley House.

While many African American men and women made Greenwich their home in the 19th and early 20th centuries, their life stories were very rarely recorded in the same manner as wealthy, prominent white citizens.

Although the Greenwich Historical Society’s archives do contain photographs, manuscripts and other information about Black citizens of Greenwich, these items are often hidden in collections that were compiled and donated by white families, such as the tintype photograph of a Black woman known only as “Aunt Nanny,” seen below. This image was found in an album in the Brush-Lockwood Family Papers. This woman’s identity is currently unknown. Further research could help us learn more about her life in Greenwich  in the late 19th century.

Photograph of “Aunt Nanny,” a woman employed as a maid in the household of Mary Angeline Brush Lockwood of Greenwich, ca. 1870 Tintype with hand coloration.
Greenwich Historical Society, Brush-Lockwood Family Papers