Intern Patri O'Gan shares a unique story of woman suffrage for Women's History Month.
By the decade leading up to the 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment, woman suffragists had been fighting for the vote for over 60 years, and some felt the movement was languishing. Before television, the Internet, and social media, how could suffragists garner national attention to help revitalize their cause? For Nell Richardson and Alice Burke, the answer involved a five-month cross-country road trip with their cat, Saxon.
In April of 1916, Richardson and Burke set off from New York with Saxon, then a kitten, in the car they called "The Golden Flier." The car was christened in a naming ceremony at the start of their journey when a bottle of gasoline was broken over the radiator instead of champagne (accidentally denting the radiator!).
Sponsored by the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), Richardson and Burke traveled over 10,000 miles with stops in New Orleans, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis, Chicago, Detroit, and countless small towns along the way. This was no small feat in 1916 when only a small minority of women actually drove cars. Additionally, the roads at that time were dirt, or at best graded or "paved" with gravel, making driving a difficult, and sometimes dangerous, endeavor. Cars of the era were also prone to breaking down, which meant that driving required at least a basic knowledge or car mechanics.
Undeterred by these circumstances, Richardson and Burke drove on. Stopping frequently to give speeches from their car, they recruited supporters of women's voting rights as part of an effort to add a suffrage plank to the party platforms in the 1916 presidential election. Although the suffragists were ultimately unsuccessful in getting a suffrage plank, Richardson and Burke's unusual journey caught the attention of people across the country who followed Saxon's growth from town to town and came to see The Golden Flier as a symbol of the woman suffrage movement.
Richardson and Burke weren't the first suffragists to recognize that the journey is perhaps more important than the destination when drumming up publicity for women's voting rights. Three years earlier in the summer of 1913, no doubt exhausted from months of walking for suffrage with suffragist "General" Rosalie Jones (more on this in Part 2!), NAWSA suffragists decided to drive instead. Delegates from all 48 states drove across the country collecting signatures on petitions calling for a national suffrage amendment.
With 75,000 signatures collected, the delegates brought their petitions to Hyattsville, Maryland, where, on July 31, a caravan of almost 80 brightly-decorated cars drove en masse to Washington, D.C., to present the petitions to Congress. The pro-suffrage auto tour drew quite a crowd driving through downtown D.C. Although anti-suffragists called the auto tour "cheap advertising" and an "attempt to cloak defeat under the guise of jubilation," it was apparently somewhat successful, as 23 U.S. Senators voiced their support for a suffrage amendment on the Senate floor later that day.
A few years after the Hyattsville auto tour, suffragists again employed automobiles to drum up support for their cause. In September 1915, the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CU) nominated two envoys, Sara Bard Field and Frances Joliffe, to drive a gigantic suffrage petition across the country from San Francisco to D.C. to deliver it to Congress and the President. The petition, supporting the Susan B. Anthony amendment, was started in January that year at the CU-sponsored "Freedom Booth" at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. By September, the petition included 500,000 signatures and was a staggering 18,000 feet long.
With Maria Kindberg driving and Ingeborg Kinstedt acting as machinist, the envoys carried the petition through parades, autocades, meetings, and rallies, collecting additional signatures along the way and publicizing the cause of votes for women. They were met in D.C. by 1,000 fellow suffragists and formed a suffrage parade to the steps of the Capitol, where they presented their petition to Congress. In the House that day, three separate suffrage amendments were introduced by Republicans, Democrats, and Socialists, although they did not pass.
Although the trip had some success, it was beset with difficulties. Joliffe left the envoy in the middle of the trip (she joined them later on the East Coast), and Bard Field had some difficulty working with Kinstedt and Kindberg. Also, after safely carrying the petition in their car for three months, the envoy lost the petition when they decided to ship it the last stage of their journey from Wilmington, Delaware, to D.C. Luckily, they had a back-up copy, although it was much smaller and lacked the ostentation of the original. And their troubles did not end when they reached their destination. In their meeting with President Wilson, he declined their request to mention woman suffrage in his annual address. He would also not commit to supporting a national amendment for woman suffrage, promising only to "keep an open mind" and confer with Congress when deciding his opinion. Not exactly a ringing endorsement!
Luckily, the suffragists were not deterred. The path to equal suffrage would require multiple journeys and countless travelers from all across the country. Read about them in the upcoming segment, Traveling for Suffrage Part 2: General Jones and Her Army of Suffrage Pilgrims.
Patri O'Gan is the James Lollar Hagan Intern with the Office of Programs and Strategic Initiatives.