The struggle for women’s suffrage, which culminated with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on August 26, 1920, involved many different kinds of women and many different tactics. Laura Ellsworth Seiler, interviewed by historian Sherna Gluck in 1973, came from a prosperous New York state family and started a suffrage club while a student at Cornell. In this excerpt from Gluck’s interview, Seiler recalled campaigning for suffrage after college on an automobile tour, with her mother in tow as chaperon. In contrast to some historical accounts that emphasized the narrowing of the campaign in the 20th century, Seiler remembered arguing for the vote along with other reforms, and emphasizing the importance of suffrage as a way to improve social conditions.Listen to Audio:
Laura Ellsworth Seiler: When I graduated, they decided that it would be a very good thing for me to go and organize, as they then called it, the two counties of Chautauqua and Cattaraugus in New York State. And my mother, who was not a confirmed suffragist but a very charming Victorian, went along to chaperone me. And I was supposed— I had a little list given to me of people that were thought to be sympathizers, and I was supposed to go in and organize them and leave a unit behind to go on working and also take up collections and make street speeches. And ahead of time, I had to send them a little publicity telling them what it was going to be all about. When I got there, I had to contact all these women and get them organized. And then I had to make a street speech, and that was in the days when you could still rent cars where the back went down.
So we would rent a car and put an enormous banner across the back of it, letting it down, and I would stand up on the back seat and make the speech. And, of course, the most difficult moment for a street speaker is getting the crowd. And, as in all small towns, the most sought-after corner of a street was the one which held the bar. So I always directed the chauffeur to stop just outside the bar. And my mother, who, as I said, was small and charming and utterly Victorian, and convinced that all good things started with the favor of the male, would go through the swinging doors and say, “Gentlemen, my daughter is about to talk about suffrage outside, and I think you would be interested. I hope you’ll come out.” And just like the Pied Piper, they would all dump their drinks on the bar and come out and make the nucleus of the crowd, you see, and then we would be going.
And then I was always embarrassed at having to take up a collection. I was convinced they thought we put it in our own pockets. And mother had no such qualms. She would circulate about, giving out the pamphlets and holding out this thing, saying, “I’m sure you want to help the cause,” and the folding money would come in. She was invaluable.
Sherna Gluck: Did she become a believer, or was. . .
Seiler: Oh, well, as long as her daughters believed in it, but she never did any work for suffrage that I recall. She did a lot for the Red Cross, but I don’t recall her working for suffrage.
Gluck: What was usually the argument that you would give in your speeches?
Seiler: Well, that varied a little according to the type of town. But in general, it was the injustice of it and the fact also that the injustice affected men indirectly, that it held down the wages of all of them that women were underpaid.
And once in a small town, I had a very amusing experience. We were the guests in the house of a man who owned a factory, a very charming young man and his wife, delightful people. And I made the speech, and in the course of it I reminded them that the only way that men had been able really to affect their wages and conditions and so forth was getting together in the unions and bringing pressure to bear, upon which a ripple of laughter swept over the crowd, and I couldn’t imagine why. When I got back to my host’s home, they told me that he had spent all last year fighting their efforts to form a union. So here I was under his auspices advising them to go—Well, things like that happened. There were still dreadful conditions in factories in those days, and we bore down on things of that sort. Child labor was by no means unheard of any more than it is today.
Gluck: But, actually, it was a broader position than the suffrage position then. And many of the suffragists would focus only on the votes and the injustice of the votes. And wouldn’t deal with. . .
Seiler: Oh, no. At least my feeling is that most of us focused on the importance of the vote to change social conditions.
Source: Oral history courtesy of Sherna Gluck, Feminist History Project.
See Also:Jailed for Freedom: A Women's Suffragist Remembers Prison
Starving for Women's Suffrage: "I Am Not Strong after These Weeks"