Western New York Heritage

Women’s “Banner County”: Chautauqua County and the Suffrage Movement

View Print Version PDF


In 1914, the New York City-based Woman's Political Union took its suffrage campaign upstate and sponsored open-air meetings in towns along the Erie Railroad.  Meetings began in the Dunkirk-Fredonia area on June 8.  As pictured here, a tent was set up near the Woman's Union Building in Dunkirk as a headquarters for the union and its volunteers.  Dunkirk suffragist Elnora Babcock can be seen standing in profile, third from the right.

Dunkirk Historical Museum


Jamestown attorney, C.R. Lockwood was a founding member of the Jamestown Political Equality Club and a longtime supporter of women's suffrage.

From The Centennial History of Chautauqua County

Near the end of May 1889, a notice appeared in The Fredonia Censor inviting “all societies, and people generally” to come to Bemus Point, NY, on Saturday, June 1, for a “basket picnic” featuring “short addresses” and “good music.” With such edifying entertainment, participants could look forward to a “rare literary treat.” To facilitate travel from out of town, the hosts had arranged for a special train to leave Jamestown (about ten miles to the southeast), as well as reduced rates on the Chautauqua Lake Railway. But those looking for a carefree Victorian outing along the shore of Chautauqua Lake might have thought twice, for there was more to this otherwise quaint event. The organizers were members of the new Chautauqua County Political Equality Club, a grassroots association of local women and men advocating for women’s equal rights, particularly their right to vote — at a time when many other women and men still considered women’s suffrage a dangerous proposition.

When the afternoon arrived, “unpleasant weather” necessitated moving the day’s activities inside a local chapel. Still, according to The Jamestown Evening Journal, “representatives were present from all parts of the county, and an unusual degree of interest was manifested.” Prominent Jamestown attorney C.R. Lockwood spoke at length, comparing the cause of women’s suffrage to the pre-Civil War abolition movement: “The slavery we now battle is in every household and every family.” No American can possess true liberty unless he or she has “an actual share in the appointment of those who frame the laws,” he said.


After the First Political Equity Club formed in Jamestown (indicated in orange) in 1887, eleven more clubs formed the following year in Kennedy and Mayville (pink) in July; Frewsburg, Ellington and Fredonia (yellow) in August; Sinclairville and South Stockton (blue) in October; and Gerry, Westfield, Harmony and Kiantone (green) in November

1881 Map Courtesy Chautauqua County Archives


Kate O. Peate of Jamestown also spoke, as did Rev. Henry Frank, who used the occasion to proclaim his allegiance to the cause and “enthused the people with his brilliant argument.” Before leaving, participants passed a resolution demanding full voting rights for women. They also agreed to advocate for several other reforms, including government pensions for women who served as nurses during the Civil War, equal child custody rights for mothers and equal pay for female teachers. In this last resolution, the group noted that women teachers in New York State then received “less than 60 percent of the salaries paid to men teachers for similar work.”

Considering the era and the fact that the 19th Amendment enfranchising women would not be ratified until 1920, today’s students of history might wonder what these picnicking activists really hoped to achieve out of their list of goals. From their perspective, however, things looked much different in 1889; their new club capitalized on what appeared to be a groundswell of support in their towns and villages. Contrary to what some might expect, the radical cause of women’s suffrage drew some of its strongest support in the late 19th century from rural, farming communities like those in Western New York and points westward. Chautauqua County proved a particularly robust breeding ground for pro-suffrage sentiment. Within two years of the event in Bemus Point, more than 1,000 residents (including men as well as women) were active members of the Chautauqua County Political Equality Club. By 1891, the club was the largest such county suffrage organization in the country, touted by state and national leaders alike. At the annual convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1891, delegates designated New York as the “banner state” and Chautauqua as the “banner county,” based on the county’s membership rolls. In her history of the local movement, Elnora Monroe Babcock, a Dunkirk woman who served as the county club’s president in the early 1890s, said Chautauqua County held this status for “several years.”

Feeding into the county organization was a network of local clubs operating in nearly all the area’s towns and villages. In her 1891 annual report, Jean Brooks Greenleaf, president of the state suffrage association, said 24 of Chautauqua County’s 27 townships boasted political equality clubs. Many other such clubs dotted the Western New York countryside by mid-decade. Taken together, the rise of these local associations marked the climax of what might be called the middle phase of the American women’s suffrage movement, unfolding in between the women’s rights conventions of the mid-1800s and the militant demonstrations of the 1910s. The prevalence of these grassroots clubs regionally owes to a confluence of factors, not the least of which was Western New York’s predisposition for social and political reform in the 19th century.

Putting Things in Context

The Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 first identified Western New York as a seat of women’s activism. In the years after that first women’s rights convention, New York’s native daughters, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, built the foundation for a campaign whose victory lay beyond their lifetimes. Early on, Anthony recognized the value of mobilizing supporters at the local level. In her diary, she recalled traveling to Mayville to preside over a “Chataque County Woman’s Rights Convention” on Tuesday, December 26, 1854, in the county courthouse. “Though the meeting was small, there seemed an earnest seeking after the new Truth,” she wrote. “By invitation,” she also made the nine-mile journey to Sherman, to speak to a “large audience” the following day. “Never saw more enthusiasm on the subject,” she said of her visit there. “Even the Orthodox Churches vied with each other, who should open their doors.” At the time, her primary purpose was to gather signatures for two petitions she planned to present to the state legislature, asking for laws granting married women equal rights to property, wages and custody of their children.

Susan B. Anthony convened a Chautauqua County "Women's Rights Convention" on December 26, 1854, at this county courthouse building in Mayville.  Constructed in 1834, this was the second courthouse to stand on the site.

Chautauqua County Archives


After the Civil War, given Congress’ failure to grant women suffrage alongside African-American men, Anthony and her peers rededicated themselves to the fight by developing a highly organized network of agitators, who kept the cause in the public eye in between conventions. Two national associations formed in 1869 to press for women’s voting rights. In the same year, Anthony, Stanton and friends also founded the New York State Woman Suffrage Association at a convention in Saratoga Springs. From that point forward, the state association kept suffrage on the agenda of state lawmakers with regular lobbying efforts in Albany.

In 1880, New York women gained a small victory that gave them hope of the larger prize. Following similar action in a handful of other states and with the encouragement of a liberal new governor, Alonzo B. Cornell, lawmakers in Albany passed a bill giving women the right to serve in elected school positions and vote at annual school meetings. That meant New York women were free to vote for and serve on local boards of education and could even serve as county school commissioners (elected officers who, at that time, oversaw all schools in their respective county districts). There was one catch: Under the School Act, women could not actually vote for county school commissioners, since these individuals were elected at general and not school elections. The inconsistency would not go unnoticed for long, and soon, boosted by the apparent change in Albany, pro-suffrage representatives proposed legislation that would have prohibited the disfranchisement of New York women in general elections. Although the bill was defeated multiple times in the first half of the 1880s, the votes were very close. Organizers from the state suffrage association worked diligently to capitalize on the opportunity and marshal support in the state’s various legislative districts. And so it was that Lillie Devereux Blake, then president of the state association, appeared at the opera house in Jamestown on July 24, 1885. Her lecture, titled “The True Republic,” planted the seed that blossomed into Chautauqua County’s political equality crusade.




Two years later, 13 women founded the First Political Equality Club of Jamestown on November 12, 1887, following a talk given the night before in Jamestown’s Institute Hall by Mary Seymour Howell of the state association. The “First” designation reflects the novelty of the name. Although other local suffrage clubs were in existence elsewhere in the nation — including a “Women’s Political Club” founded about one year prior in Rochester by Susan B.’s sister, Mary Anthony — they only later adopted the moniker “political equality.” The newspaper article announcing the new club said the name “fully explains its objects and purposes” and noted that the club was open to men. Meetings would be held twice a month, with “every alternate meeting being for business purposes.” They selected as their president Mrs. D. H. [Louisa W.] Grandin, the wife of a prominent local mill owner, who once opened her home to escaped slaves. Mrs. N. R. [Kate S.] Thompson was elected secretary, and Mrs. C. W. [Anna B.] Schofield, treasurer. (As unconventional as they were in their beliefs, these early female leaders rarely used their given names publicly, challenging researchers to sleuth them out today.)


Mrs. Louisa Grandin was elected president of the First Political Equality Club of Jamestown at its organizational meeting in 1887.  A longtime proponent of social reform, she was active in the local anti-slavery movement before the Civil War.

Chautauqua County Historical Society


Jamestown’s suffragists were not alone for long: Eleven more clubs formed in the area the following year. Women in Kennedy and Mayville organized in July; Frewsburg, Ellington and Fredonia in August; Sinclairville and South Stockton in October; and Gerry, Westfield, Harmony and Kiantone mobilized in November. Ellen A. Martin wrote to the national Woman’s Tribune in October 1888 to share the flurry of activity. A former area resident, she visited that autumn to find Chautauqua County buzzing with talk of “political equality.” “I … have been much impressed by the vigorous condition of the suffrage cause there,” she wrote. “The Political Equality Club organized scarcely a year ago has already extended its influence over much of Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties and caused the organization of several other clubs.” Although some of the outgrowth owed to Jamestown’s influential position in the region, she also attributed the growing enthusiasm to “the possession through school suffrage of some measure of power in public matters,” combined with the “growing conviction” that full suffrage was on the horizon. The combination of these factors, she said, was “having a salutary effect in making women assert themselves — ‘feel their oats,’ so to speak.”

The wave of interest emboldened Jamestowners to spearhead the formation of the first county suffrage association in New York State. Recognizing their inexperience in political organizing, they sought guidance from none other than Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Accepting the invitation, these two giants spoke together at Allen’s Opera House in Jamestown on August 10, 1888. Those in attendance included the aforementioned Ellen Martin, as well as Kate Stoneman, a native of Busti, NY, who in 1886 became the first woman admitted to the bar in New York State. [For her story, see “Kate Stoneman: New York’s First Woman Lawyer” in Spring 2010; copies still available.] For her part, Anthony stressed the need for “thorough organization of women into local societies” as a means of effecting the election of sympathetic congressmen, who could work to build support in Washington for a national suffrage amendment. A short report of their appearance in The New York Times made a point to mention the local clubs, as well as the social status of their members. “Political equality clubs are being organized in every town in the county by women of the highest social standing engaging in the movement,” the article related.


This past October, on the 125th anniversary of the formation of the Chautauqua County Political Equity Club, a historic marker was dedicated by the Jamestown Historical Marker Committee. The first countywide club, “with over 1,000 members, it was the largest county suffrage organization in the nation by 1891,” the marker declares.

Author's photograph, 2013


A little more than two months later, on October 31, 1888, the Jamestown club hosted a formal convention for the purpose of forming a Western New York Political Equality Club. When the day came, they dialed back their original vision to encompass just Chautauqua County, so that eager supporters in Cattaraugus County could form their own county club as well.

As seen in the resolutions passed at the meeting in Bemus Point, club activities reached beyond advocating for the vote — although suffrage was seen as the ultimate key to unlocking many other reforms. Meetings followed Robert’s Rules of Order and routinely included time for the study of civil government and parliamentary procedure. Members discussed proposed legislation in other states and around the world, as chronicled in national periodicals such as The Woman’s Tribune and The Woman’s Journal. In 1889, future county president and state organizer Evaline R. Clarke began her own suffrage periodical with the assistance of publisher Archie McLean in Sinclairville. Though short-lived, Equality magazine produced lengthy written appeals for “the truths of equity and equality,” while reporting on local activities and calling on the state’s other counties to mobilize for the cause. “There are sixty counties in the State of New York,” Clarke wrote. “If each of these was organized, there is not one that would fall short of the membership that Chautauqua County has.” Local fundraising projects collected money for the printing of suffrage literature and suffrage campaigns in the western territories.


This quilt was created by the South Stockton Political Equality Club, probably in the early to mid-1890s as a fundraiser for its pro-suffrage campaigns.

Fenton History Center

Fanning the Embers


Out of all the club activities, it was school affairs that seemed to elicit the greatest excitement early on. Years later, former county president Elnora Babcock said members were interested in “two lines of work,” with the second being the business of suffrage advocacy and the first being “spirited school board elections, for which women put up their own candidates.” Here, the women of Jamestown scored an inspiring early victory. In 1889, they secured the election of Kate S. Thompson and Martha T. Griswold as the first two women to serve on the Jamestown school board. Their candidacy generated unprecedented interest in the race. As the editor of the Jamestown Evening Journal wrote, “Usually a school election in Jamestown is a tame and spiritless affair. … But Wednesday there was a small cyclone around the voting precincts. … Instead of a vote of 80 to 100, the total vote amounted to 1,065, and the women beat the men two to one.” The editor added: “There was no personal feeling against the male candidates. It was simply that the women were determined to have a representation on the school board and they carried their point as women usually do when they make up their minds.”


Elnora M. Babcock penned this presidential address for the annual convention of the county political equality club, held in October 1892 in Mayville.  Later, as national press superintendent, she wrote and distributed thousands of suffrage articles to periodicals across the country.

Courtesy Bill Parks

Equally inspiring were the “conventions” the county club orchestrated twice a year at changing venues. Soon, mass meetings like the one planned in Bemus Point brought acclaimed speakers to the area, including Rev. Anna Howard Shaw and Carrie Chapman Catt, both future presidents of the national suffrage association. Heavily publicized, these gatherings fanned the embers with impassioned words, while nourishing supportive friendships among soldiers in the cause. “I think [the conventions’] influence can hardly be over stated,” Jean Brooks Greenleaf, state association president, said in 1892 at the national suffrage convention. “The inspiration derived from coming in touch with minds alive with the same bright vision of liberty, clears the brain and strengthens the heart.” She went on to highlight the “memorable woman’s day” held that summer at the Cassadaga Lake Assembly in Lily Dale, featuring Shaw and Susan B. Anthony.

Susan B. Anthony is pictured in this gathering of suffrage supporters at the Lily Dale Assembly, possibly in the summer of 1894.  She is seated on the right, between the women numbered 26 and 30.  The two stars on the flag represent the states of Wyoming and Colorado, the only two states where women could then vote in general elections.

Chautauqua County Historical Society


Held August 15, 1891, the Lily Dale event was remembered particularly fondly by Anthony. “Fully 3,000 were assembled in that beautiful amphitheater decorated with the yellow and the red, white and blue,” she wrote. “Every cottage in the camp was festooned with yellow, and when at night the Chinese lanterns on the piazzas were lighted, Lily Dale was as gorgeous as any Fourth of July, all in honor of Woman’s Day and her coming freedom and equality.” The celebration was not the first in Lily Dale, nor would it be the last. Previously, under the leadership of Marion T. Skidmore, suffragists there had hosted a Fourth of July picnic in 1889 to promote women’s rights. After the success of the 1891 gathering, “Woman’s Day” became an annual event.


Born in 1826 in Otsego County, NY, Marion Skidmore was president of the Woman’s Suffrage Club at Cassadaga and a delegate to the National Suffrage Association. She was a key part of the creation of the annual Woman’s Day event at Lily Dale.

From the Centennial History of Chautauqua County

Also in 1891, the county club hosted the first-ever “Political Equality Day” on the grounds of the Chautauqua Assembly (now Institution) on July 25. Chautauqua’s event also became an annual pilgrimage for the region’s “equalityites,” regularly featuring Anthony, Shaw and Catt, among other headliners. While similar to the Lily Dale tradition, however, the regular discussion at Chautauqua of women’s political rights gave particular satisfaction to local and national leaders alike. Chautauqua’s co-founder, Bishop John Heyl Vincent, had made no secret of his opposition to women voting. Prior to the big day in 1891, Anthony wrote in her diary: “I do hope Bishop Vincent will be present and there learn from [the presentations].” She added, “I am hoping the gate receipts on that day will be greater than those of any other during the summer. Wouldn’t that tell the story of the interest in this question?” Whether it was realistic to convert Vincent, Anthony and others recognized the power of this nationally known platform to publicize pro-suffrage arguments and demonstrate the movement’s growing numbers. When “several thousand” reportedly attended the first Political Equality Day, the local women who organized the event were well on their way toward achieving the desired visibility.

This photo shows the platform of the Lily Dale auditorium decorated for one of the first Woman's Day events.  The single star on the flag represents Wyoming, the only state where women enjoyed full voting rights before Colorado granted women suffrage in November 1893.

Lily Dale Assembly Museum

A Perfect Storm


The existence in Chautauqua County of two highly attended suffrage events clearly served to ignite local support for the cause. But these celebrated summer gatherings were not the only stimuli to action: Two other important factors must be considered in fueling the county’s political equality crusade, both of which have their roots in Fredonia in the years before the suffrage clubs sprang forth.


On December 15, 1873, 208 crusading women met at the Fredonia Baptist Church and formed the country's first chapter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.

Author's collection


The first is the close relationship between the suffrage and temperance movements, and the popularity of the temperance cause in Chautauqua County. In fact, women in Fredonia are credited with forming the first chapter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in the nation in December 1873, when they visited all the saloons in town and implored their proprietors to stop selling alcohol. Evaline Clarke suggested in an Equality editorial in 1889 that suffragists could learn from the WCTU’s use of grassroots organizing. If suffrage clubs were formed in communities across the country, similar to the WCTU’s local chapters, she believed suffrage could be enacted more quickly than prohibition. At the very least, the support in her rural area for both enterprises suggests their mutual benefits to each other’s causes.

The WCTU was not the only national organization with special ties to Fredonia. In 1868, the first chapter of the national Grange, or Patrons of Husbandry, also formed there. By the early 1890s, when the political equality clubs were at their height, Chautauqua County led the state in Grange membership. The correlation was not coincidental: Elnora Babcock, whose presidency of the county political equality club spanned this active period, later reflected, “Much of the suffrage sentiment in Chautauqua County is undoubtedly the outgrowth of the teachings of the Grange, which has always stood for equal rights.” Likely, many local farmers and their wives were members of both their local Grange and political equality club. Walter C. and Eliza C. Gifford of Busti, each prominent in both organizations, stand out as prime examples. Local women could easily move between the two organizations since the Grange granted women the same membership rights as men, including the right to hold office. Not surprisingly, representatives from the county Grange were present at the formation of the county suffrage club and regularly attended its mass meetings thereafter.


The Fredonia Grange No. 1 building was dedicated in January 1916 before a large crowd of people; it cost just $14,000 for both the lot and construction. Many locals were members of suffrage organizations and the Grange, “which has always stood for equal rights,” according to Babcock.

Author's collection


The support of both the WCTU and the Grange for women’s suffrage were fully manifested in 1894, when 168 delegates from across New York met in the state capital for a highly anticipated convention to revise the state constitution. Suffragists mobilized months in advance to raise funds and recruit workers for an unprecedented petition campaign. A notice appearing in The Fredonia Censor in March 1893 called on every political equality club member to donate $1 toward the effort. “If the point is not gained at this convention it may be twenty years before we have another opportunity, as the constitution provides for conventions only once in twenty years,” the author stressed. By the time of the proceedings in Albany, more than 600,000 signatures had been collected statewide in support of an amendment striking the word “male” from the state’s voting qualifications. More than 15,000 were canvassed in Chautauqua County, including 13,993 collected by the political equality clubs and about 1,500 collected by the WCTU. Meanwhile, the Patrons of Husbandry did their part by passing resolutions at their state convention in Utica, not only supporting the amendment but also “making it the duty of every subordinate Grange in the State” to hold a public meeting about suffrage and circulate the suffrage petitions. Notably, Walter C. Gifford of Busti was then serving as master of the state Grange. Also, one of the representatives sent by the state Grange to speak at the hearings in Albany was Caroline Skinner Twing of Westfield.

For their part, Chautauqua County’s delegates to the constitutional convention, Benjamin S. Dean of Jamestown and Louis McKinstry of Fredonia, both spoke passionately in support of women’s suffrage. Whether male voters in the county would have shared their sentiments will never be known; they did not get the chance to decide. The constitutional revisions put before voters in an 1895 referendum bore no evidence whatsoever of the massive petition drive that suffragists had coordinated. After hearing presentations by women from across the state — including Martha Almy of Jamestown, then vice president of the state suffrage association — the majority of delegates to the 1894 convention voted against the inclusion of the amendment enfranchising women. As Elnora Babcock described it, “The arbitrary vote of 97 men overruled the desire expressed by six hundred thousand petitioners.” She concluded: “No more pathetic stories are told of the struggle for liberty in the days of the Revolution than could be told of the women of this state and this county during this campaign.”

Rather than dampening local women’s spirits, Babcock claimed the defeat “seemed to arouse their indignation just enough to make them enter the work with all the more zeal and determination.” Still, the crescendo of activity could not be sustained. Not surprisingly, membership in the county political equality club started to decline by the late 1890s. In 1897, at the tenth annual county convention held in Fredonia, “reports from the local clubs were discouraging.” The following year, fourteen members met at Babcock’s house in Dunkirk, seemingly to regroup. In 1899, the state suffrage association held its convention in Dunkirk at the brand new Women’s Educational and Industrial Union Building on Central Avenue. Writing in 1904, Babcock remained hopeful and predicted, “The sentiment is all there ready to burst into activity whenever needed.”


Designed by Fredonia architect Capt. Enoch A. Curtis, the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union Building was completed in 1891. The progressive Women’s Union used the Queen Anne-style structure for its many educational and assistance programs, before selling it in 1923. Captured here in 1892, the building was demolished in the 1930s. 

Dunkirk Historical Museum


Later events show she was right to remain optimistic; the next generation of local women remained active in the movement. By 1915, at least two new suffrage clubs were operating in the city of Jamestown, including the Campaign Club, chaired by May Gellstrom, and the City Committee, chaired by Marion Patterson. They worked in concert with the stalwarts from the old county Political Equality Club, now reorganized according to their assembly districts at the recommendation of state leaders. Meanwhile, a representative from the Woman’s Political Union opened a headquarters in Jamestown. This supposedly “radical” organization had its roots in the efforts of Harriet Stanton Blatch (daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton) to bring the movement from the formal assembly hall to the street. Inspired by English suffragists, Blatch used rallies and parades to generate publicity and court working class support. In 1914, the Woman’s Political Union launched a campaign of open-air meetings in upstate towns within the service area of the Erie Railroad, including Fredonia, Dunkirk and Jamestown.

The burst of activity came in anticipation of a statewide referendum on women’s suffrage in 1915. In November of that year, voters in Chautauqua County approved the measure by the widest margin in the state. Although it would take another two years to pass statewide, the editor of the Jamestown Evening Journal noted that local women could take comfort “in this showing for their own city and county.” He continued, “It shows that they not only represented but helped to mould public sentiment on the suffrage question, and Chautauqua County will go down into history as a leader in the suffrage movement.” In 1917, New York became the first eastern state to grant women full suffrage, in no small part through the influence of Chautauqua County women.


The full content is available in the Winter 2014 Issue.