Category Archives: Women’s History

Suffragettes on Parade! In 1915, thousands march for right to vote

For once, the biggest news story in America one hundred years ago today was not about the war waging in Europe.

On October 23, 1915, the forces of the women’s suffrage movement mobilized to create the most ambitious gathering to date, a parade of thousands to force the issue into the consciousness of New Yorkers and American at large. 

Here are some clips from newspaper articles of the day, celebrating their efforts, chastising and trivializing in part, but recognizing that a corner had been turned and that the right to vote for American women was now an inevitable (if not immediate) outcome:

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“The latest, biggest and most enthusiastic of suffrage parades, and the one which, according to the leaders of the suffrage forces, will be the last ever needed to plead their cause in New York, marched up Fifth Avenue from Washington Square to Fifth-Ninth Street yesterday afternoon, blazoned the whole city with the yellow of its banners, and brought out what seemed to be the larger part of the population of Manhattan to look at them.”
New York Times, October 24, 1915

“It was a three mile argument for equal rights — a dignified, splendid argument — and every vantage point along the gay colored way was covered with men and women who saw its force.  Through the chill of a windy afternoon, though the sun shone on the mighty host, the great army of women passed, the white costumes of many glittering in the sunlight, defying the cold wind that the onlookers felt to their spines as they stood to see it all.”
New York  Sun, October 24, 1915

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“Some whose names are to be found all through the Social Register marched side by side with working mothers with babies in their arms.  A large proportion of the marchers were young girls who would not be old enough to vote were they enfranchised.  They made up in beauty what they lacked in years and were cheered all along the crowded Fifth Avenue sidewalks.”
New York Evening World, Late Edition, October 23

“Old women, as old as suffrage, marched. Often beside them were little girls barely in their teens. And there were even tiny babies in carts, making their appeal for their mothers’ votes.

There was little applause all along the route for the women marchers.  But this was not strange, for it could be seen that the spirit of the parade had made itself felt on the sidewalks. It was no laughing matter, this parade.  The women in it did not smile or giggle.  They were serious and determined. And this mental characteristic was contagious.”
New York Tribune, October 24

 

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Above: Four women carrying ballot boxes on a stretcher 

“Is Dame Nature a suffragist? At any rate, she was kind yesterday. In golden sunlight and keen air the great parade went its triumphal way, to the satisfaction of participants and spectators. With no disrespect to the men in it, the female marchers and riders, as always, showed the hopeless feminine superiority in grace, decorative effect, art of representation.”
editorial, New York Times, October 24

“The spectators laughed in good natured sympathy with the struggles which the wind caused the marchers.  Unruly skirts demanded attention from those who bore the militantly inscribed banners.  Nearly all the flag carriers had to call for help upon heir companions and sometimes four or five women struggled with brave laughter with a single standard to keep it from being swept to the street.”  — NY Evening World

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“[S]igns were a cardinal feature of the parade. One which attracted attention everywhere and appealed significantly to the male onlookers was, “We talk with you, we eat with you, we dance with you, we marry you, why can’t we vote with you?” Another read: “Oh, men, please do give us the vote.” — NY Tribune

“King Albert of Belgium favors votes for women,” “Australian women have the ballot,” “Queensland women vote,” “Bohemia was the first in the world to pass a law for women’s suffrage in 1861,” “Oestreichischer Komite fur Frauenstremrecht” were some of the inscriptions on the banners. In all the languages of the earth they proclaimed the advance women have made in the various countries in gaining the vote, and scattered through the division were banners asking: “Women vote in Australia, why not in New York?” and “Women vote in twelve Western States, why not in New York?” — NY Sun

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“It was a long parade — begun in mid-afternoon and finished by moonlight. And while thousands had drifted away, the avenue was still packed with onlookers when the men’s brigade — some thousands this time in place of the valorous ninety-two who were jeered in the first parade only four years ago — came along just in front of the army of automobiles that ended the procession.” – NYT

“The parade ended with a concert of thirty bands and a giant chorus singing patriotic songs at the Central Park Plaza.  There were several battalions of men in sympathy with the cause which were noisily greeted by the people along the curb.” — Evening World

Graphic from the New York Times, October 24

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Margaret Vale, niece of President Woodrow Wilson, at the Suffrage parade. Alaska had granted women the right to vote in 1913.

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The appearance of Mayor John Purroy Mitchel (‘the boy mayor of New York‘) was considered a big boost for the marchers although it certainly would have been a major snub if the mayor has skipped such a major parade!

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Absent from all of the news coverage (at least the articles I reviewed) was the participation of African-American suffrage advocates.  They played an active role in the movement but were most likely absent from the parade.

Despite this grand parade, New Yorkers defeated a referendum on suffrage the following month.  A little over two years later — on November 6, 1917 — the women of New York state would win the right to vote.   The Nineteenth Amendment, ensuring the vote for all American women, was ratified on August 18, 1920.

All photographs on this page courtesy Library of Congress

The 25 Most Influential Women in New York City history


ABOVE: These are the ladies who lunch in Prospect Park 1935

We talk about a lot of white men on the Bowery Boys podcast. When discussing the mainstream history of the city, it’s pretty unavoidable. Men had the money, the power, the influence. Not to mention most of the corruption, the crime, the scandal.

So as Women’s History Month draws to a close (okay, I’m one day late), I thought I’d make a very opinionated list of the 25 women who made the biggest impact to the city of New York, at least as seen by this humble blogger and podcaster.

There have obviously been many, many New York-based women whose contributions changed the country and the world. There are your feminists (Elizabeth Cady Stanton), your activists (Ella Baker), your entrepreneurs (Estee Lauder), your tastemakers (Diana Vreeland) and your entertainers (Madonna).

But these 25 helped shape the actual city itself. The neighborhoods, populations and culture, to be sure. But most importantly, they each effected perceptions of the city, both to its residents and outward to the world. (Thus, for instance, you’ll note my heavy emphasis on preservationists.)

This is not an ultimate list. I obviously do not know the impact of every woman who ever lived in New York City. Many women communicated power through wealth and property; I don’t have the social register from every season and cannot gauge the influence of every bold-faced name. These are just 25 that have crossed my path since we started the Bowery Boys that I just wanted to celebrate today.

I’ve obviously missed out on a few, so if you have a particular favorite that’s missing, please put them in the comment section. At the bottom I have a list of ladies that made my personal honorable mention. So here we go!

Brooke Astor (1902-2007)
Philanthropist

She was the last of the socialites, as they say. The queen of old American money, for 105 years Astor ruled as the last official vestige of one of Manhattan’s wealthiest families, setting a standard for philanthropy and sadly leaving an uncertain legacy amid scandals involving her heirs.

Power is the ability to do good things for others. — Brooke Astor

Alice Austen (1866-1952)
Photographer

Few saw the Gilded Age city quite as Austen did, a Staten Island native who captured the beauties of New York, the horrors of Ellis Island’s quarantine station, and the wonders of the world, but probably took her best shots from her own backyard at Clear Comfort, in Rosebank, SI.

Below: a girl newsie in 1896, as captured by Austen

Nellie Bly (1864-1922)
Journalist
Her bravery, curiosity and outright nerve made her a writer of international fame, one of the first investigative journalists in the age of sensational journalism. But the story that put her on the map was her undercover expose at Blackwell’s Island, ripping open the abuses of New York’s island of untouchables, changing how the city thought about both the infirm and the incarcerated.

Could I pass a week in the insane ward at Blackwell’s Island? I said I could and I would. And I did. — Nellie Bly

Margaret Corbin (1751-1800)
Revolutionary
Things were so precarious in the fall of 1776, the dawn of the Revolution, that anyone who lived in New York might have turned the tide of war. Many women did their part to battle the British, from Mary Lindlay Murray the to the mysterious Agent 355, a shrouded spy among the British. But Corbin is notable not just for particular bravery but for sacrifice; she continued to lob cannon fire at the British from Fort Washington in today’s Washington Heights well after her husband was killed. Corbin herself was later imprisoned by the British. Today the street along Fort Tryon is named for her.

Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005)
Trailblazer
The pride of Bedford-Stuyvesant maneuvering through the precarious world of New York politics, Chisholm won a seat in the state legislature in 1964 but always dreamed to represent Brooklyn on a national level, in the U.S House of Representatives. She finally got her wish to represent her neighborhood when redistricting lines were finally redrawn — finally allowing a black candidate to run (and win) in a largely black community — and won her seat in Congress in 1968. Shirley never disguised her ties to her beloved Brooklyn neighborhood, even as a candidate for president of the United States.

That I am a national figure because I was the first person in 192 years to be at once a congressman, black and a woman proves, I think, that our society is not yet either just or free. — Shirley Chisholm


Margot Gayle (1908-2008)
Community leader

Gayle, who died last year at age 100, loved her Victorian architecture and in particular cast-iron, the antiquated style of downtown New York warehouses. Seeing destruction imminent, she decided to save what she considered one of the city’s most neglected treasures. Forming her first community group in the 1950s to save castle-like Jefferson Market Courthouse, Gayle galvanized a grassroots architecture movement.

There might be no SoHo without Gayle; as a campaigner, her work in saving and preserving this heretofore disregarded part of downtown led to one of Manhattan’s great neighborhood success stories. The SoHo Cast Iron Historic District exists due to her efforts. And, more importantly, her work became a template for how future neighborhoods could be revitalized. (Read her Times obituary here).


Emma Goldman (1869-1940)
Agitator

Probably the most influential anarchist in American history, Goldman promoted the rights of workers and upended the role of women in New York politics. The Russian-born activist made her name on the streets of Manhattan, stirring Bohemia and workers alike, butting heads with most of New York’s leading industrialists in the process.

Her views are controversial, often horrifying by today’s standards. (She once ordered the assassination of Henry Clay Frick, for instance.) But her powers as an orator and rabble-rouser are unquestioned; her stirring words in Union Square (pictured above) during the panic of 1893 gave voice to the outrage of the city.

If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal. — Emma Goldman


Leona Helmsley (1920-2007)
Magnate

Leona and her husband Harry reigned over a vast Manhattan empire of highrises and hotels, permanently changing Park and Madison avenues, helping transform New York into a city of condominiums. Her status as the Queen of Mean also formed the modern caricature of overbearing and out of touch wealthy elite. Later convicted of tax evasion, Leona died in 2007 a laughing-stock. (That Suzanne Pleshette film didn’t help either.) But her reach extends through many of the city’s great iconic buildings, including the Empire State Building, which she and her husband once managed.

Billie Holiday (1915-1959)
Chanteuse
Of all the thousands of entertainers that have left their imprint on the city, Holiday’s is the one that makes the deepest impact. Her entire story — her birth, her rise to fame, her indiscretions and her tragic death — takes place in New York. Her greatest performances electrified and reshaped race assumptions in 1930s and 40s nightlife; legendary nights at places like Cafe Society ensured entertainment would no longer be strictly a black and white affair. Her performance style is emulated nightly in cabarets and clubs throughout the city.

Ada Louise Huxtable (1921-)
Critic
She is the best known woman in twentieth century architecture, and she isn’t even an architect. It’s hard to analyze the history of any building without first checking in with Ada to see what she has to say on the matter. Her writing is elegant, persnickety, direct and affectionate to architectural aesthetic as a whole, and New York City in specific. As a writer for the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, Huxtable directed New York’s architecture scene from behind her desk, excoriating designers for excess or dullness, praising beauty when it improved the city’s legendary skyline.

I like old buildings that are intriguing and quite wonderful but don’t make the history books. What you discover is there’s a little group of people that have been admiring them quietly by themselves all along. — Ada Louise Huxtable

Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643)
Dissident

Escaping persecution in both Puritan Massachusetts and Rhode Island, religious revolutionary Hutchinson and her followers settled in today’s area of the North Bronx in the 1640s, one of two significant female leaders in the early New York area. Although she was later murdered — Lenapes wiped out the settlement in 1643, a victim of New Amsterdam’s persistent conflicts with native tribes — she still leaves her mark today. The Hutchinson River and Parkway both carry her name.


Jane Jacobs (1916-2006)
Community defender

Her theories on urban life have benefited many North American cities, but it was her struggles to save neighborhoods from Robert Moses and the rise of car culture in the 1950s and 60s that make her most influential today. The entirely of downtown Manhattan has her to thank for fighting back — and ultimately defeating — Moses’ destructive Lower Manhattan Expressway proposal. The theories described in her classic “Death and Life of Great American Cities” were shaped from observing life from her window at 555 Hudson Street in the West Village.

Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody. — Jane Jacobs

Lady Deborah Moody (1586 – 1659)
Founder
The British-born Moody, like Hutchinson, took to the unknown when persecuted for her religious beliefs. With the permission of William Kieft, the “dangerous” Moody set up the colony of Gravesend in 1645, becoming the first female founder of an American colony. Gravesend was one of the original towns of Brooklyn and is still the name of a south Brooklyn neighborhood today.


Jackie Kennedy Onassis (1929-1994)
Icon

Settling in New York after the deaths of two husbands, Onassis was the biggest bold-faced name in the city, famously suffering the intrusive effects of paparazzi. However she used her headline grabbing name wisely as a member of the Municipal Art Society, helping defend Grand Central Station, Columbus Circle and Staten Island’s Snug Harbor from modification or outright destruction. The Central Parks reservoir is named in her honor, and MAS gives out a yearly Jackie Kennedy Onassis Medal to noteworthy New Yorkers. (Margot Gayle received it in 1997.)

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)
Wit

As doyenne of the Algonquin Round Table, Parker had the sharpest friends in town in the 1920s. Her droll charm helped create the archetype of New York caustic intellectualism, something Woody Allen, Fran Lebowitz and an entire culture of New Yorker readers can well recognize.

I’d rather have a bottle in front of me, than a frontal lobotomy. — Dorothy Parker

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (1874-1948)
Collector

She could very well have stayed in the sidelines with the other spouses of multi-millionares. But Abby’s tastes and passions for modern art led her to an astonishing collection she kept on an upper floor of her townhouse, away from her husband J.D. Rockefeller Jr., who didn’t much care for those odd little pictures. Years later, that townhouse would give way to Abby’s pet project, the Museum of Modern Art, one of the most influential galleries for 20th Century art. Her memory is kept alive at the museum with the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden.

Emily Warren Roebling (1843-1903)
Bridge Builder

Construction on the Brooklyn Bridge had barely begun when her husband and master engineer Washington Roebling came down with crippling symptoms of the Bends. Emily at first operated only as his eyes and ears, but soon grew into the role of leading the completion of New York’s first great bridge. Ceremonially, she was the first person to cross it.


Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)
World Leader

One of the most powerful American women to have ever lived was a New Yorker through and through. Her aristocratic name may have opened doors for her early on, but her compassion and ingenuity would soon set her apart, first as a social worker in Manhattan slums, then as the spouse of a governor and president. She returned to New York after FDR’s death to become a U.S. delegate to the United Nations. (Above: Eleanor with New York City society women.)

Beautiful young people are accidents of nature, but beautiful old people are works of art. — Eleanor Roosevelt

Margaret Sanger (1879-1966)
Rebel

Her influence in the fields of reproduction and birth control would eventually go global, but all nurse Sanger really wanted to do at first was help out women in the Lower East Side. From her work in the slums, Sanger believed radical action was neccessary to control the rising tide of pregnancies, leading to larger families and greater poverty. In 1917 she opened New York’s first birth control clinic in Brooklyn and was promptly thrown in jail. Ten years later, her innovations as an educator in birth control — she’s the mother of Planned Parenthood! — would catch on worldwide.

During these years in New York more and more my calls began to come from the Lower East Side, as though I were being magnetically drawn there by some force outside my control. — Margaret Sanger

Verna Small (1916-2008)
Preservationist
Small is the queen of Greenwich Village, a fiesty, often poetic community leader who provoked residents into lobbying for historic preservation. She organized or led one group after another, all in an effort to preserve the remainder of the Village before developers could sweep it away. She succeeded. Today it seem impossible that the Village was ever in that much danger at all. Her many years with the Landmarks Committee in the 1980s assured the rest of the city would benefit from her tender loving care.

The attitude of the Village was ‘We’ve got to catch up with Brooklyn Heights!’ — Verna Small


Dorothy Schiff (1903-1989)
Publisher
Native New Yorker Schiff owned the New York Post from 1939 to the 1970s and eventually shaped its editorial policy as publisher, the first New York woman to do so. Her stinging, left-leaning views and saavy tastes for great writers turned the once tame newspaper into the city’s most successful tabloid. Her sudden decision to sell it to Rupert Murdoch in 1976 led to the decidedly different, far more sensational Post we’re familiar with today.

Lillian Wald (1867–1940)
Social Worker

The patron saint of the Lower East Side, devoted nurse Wald helped found both the Henry Street Settlement and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Her desire to help New York’s poorest consumed her life. Her altruism helped save thousands of lives and set the standard modern social work and nursing. If that isn’t enough, her innovations from everything to playgrounds and school lunch programs redefined New York education and reverberated throughout America. Um, what have you done today to help your fellow man?

Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919)
Tycoon

Walker, a self-made entrepreneur and hair product queen, was the richest and most powerful woman in Harlem, during the neighborhood’s pivotal years of growth in the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance. (Some sources say she was America’s first female millionaire.) She shattered color and gender barriers, employing hundreds of other black women and eventually leaving most of her wealth to notable African-American organizations. Walker’s daughter A’Lelia was a patron of many great writers of the Renaissance era.

And her name? She was once married to a man named Charles Joseph Walker; he left in 1910, but the C.J. — and the Madam — stayed.

Edith Wharton (1862-1937)
Observer

Wharton was a woman of ultimate privledge in Gilded Age New York but had an uncanny ability to describe it. Our notions of what upper-crust New York was at this time are shaped in part by her novels and short stories. Her creations Lily Bart and the Countess Ellen Olenska are still the best evidence we have of the absurdities and restraints upper-class New York.

A New York divorce is in itself a diploma of virtue. — Edith Wharton

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875-1942)
Patron

Gertrude, the daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt, turned her powerful name, untold wealth and fascinations with art into an endeavor that would benefit the general public, eventually founding the Whitney Museum in 1931. But unlike Abby Rockefeller, Whitney actually was an artist herself, a sculptrress and a habitue of turn-of-the-century Greenwich Village bohemia. Gertrude’s daughter Flora Payne Whitney would go on to head her mother’s museum for decades.

And 25 more that I didn’t get to write about this time around:

Society ruler Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor, aka THE Mrs. Astor, civil rights organizer Ella Baker, photographer Margaret Bourke-White, journalism pioneer Jane Cunningham Croly, interior decorator and culture hound Elsie de Wolfe, feminist march organizer Betty Friedan, Brooklyn community activist Rosetta “Mother” Gaston, dance icon Martha Graham, New Yorker co-founder Jane Grant, art aficionado Peggy Guggenheim, speakeasy queen Texas Guinan, Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston, daring socialite Eliza Jumel, film critic Pauline Kael, restauranteur Elaine Kaufman, survivor Tricia Meili, mayoral candidate Ruth Messinger, superstar and parks lover Bette Midler, 19th Century philanthropist Anna Ottendorfer, politician Francis Perkins, abortionist Madame Restell, Central Park maven Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, presidential mom Sara Delano Roosevelt, wealthy suffragette Alva Vanderbilt, Village defender Ruth Wittenberg and grand rebel-rouser Victoria Woodhull

Shirley Chisholm: Brooklyn’s best dressed pioneer

Between Obama’s inauguration and Martin Luther King’s birthday, it’s hard not to look back with appreciation at prior figures in African-American history who got us to this moment. Of all of them, the one I’d like to have dinner with the most, on this eve of American history, would have to be the very first black female U.S. Representative, the belle of Bed-Stuy, and the most energetically attired Congresswoman, perhaps ever — Shirley Chisholm.

For much of her childhood, Chisholm called Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn home, a restless neighborhood that for most of the last century was considered second only to Harlem as a cultural center for the city’s black population.

Chisholm won a seat in the New York state legislature in 1964 but always dreamed to represent Brooklyn on a national level, in the U.S House of Representatives. She finally got her wish to represent her neighborhood when redistricting lines were finally redrawn — finally allowing a black candidate to run (and win) in a largely black community — and won her seat in Congress in 1968. Interestingly, one of her opponents was state senator William C. Thompson, father of our current city comptroller.

Politically saavy while remaining outspoken, she announced her candidacy for presidency in 1972: “I stand before you today as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency of the United States. I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman, and I am equally proud of that. I am not the candidate of any political bosses or special interests. I am the candidate of the people.”

She didn’t stand a chance. Not in 1972. But back then, even that the gesture was taken seriously by some people — she received 152 delegate votes at the Democratic National Convention — is something to marvel at today. The days when somebody can be a symbolic ‘black candidate’ or ‘woman candidate’ on the national stage are most likely past us. It’s impossible to observe Obama and the near-success of his closest Democratic competitor Hillary Clinton and not see the path she carefully tread before them.

One of my favorite Chisholm quotes: “I was the first American citizen to be elected to Congress in spite of the double drawbacks of being female and having skin darkened by melanin. When you put it that way, it sounds like a foolish reason for fame. In a just and free society it would be foolish. That I am a national figure because I was the first person in 192 years to be at once a congressman, black and a woman proves, I think, that our society is not yet either just or free.”

You can find a few thorough bios on Chisholm all over the internet, but you should first check out the fabulous 2005 documentary on her, named for one of her books — Unbought and Unbossed.