The Suffragists Who Lived Next Door ~ The 19th Amendment in Bedford

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John Gibbons (c) 2020 all rights reserved

Town (and First Parish) Historian Sharon McDonald (front right) joined others to peal the bell in the steeple of Bedford’s Historic Meeting House on the Common in celebration of the Centenary of Women’s Suffrage at 7 pm on Wednesday, August 18, 2020 – Click to view image at full size

 

They were called “Soapbox Suffragists.” They would arrive in a town with a wooden box to stand on, set up on a busy corner, and take turns lecturing the crowd that gathered.  Sometimes they would speak from the town common or the steps of a public building or standing in the back of an open car. Once, when she was warned out of a seaside town as a public nuisance, a speaker went down to the beach and waded out into shallow water — neutral territory — and gave her call to action from there.

A group of suffragists came to Bedford from BESAGG – Boston Equal Suffrage Association for Good Government — one Saturday afternoon in 1909. They wanted some practice before they went on their speaking tour. “Go out to Bedford,” they were advised. “It’s a nice quiet town. They won’t heckle you or give you any trouble.” So the suffragists posted their handbills all around Bedford advertising an open-air meeting. But on the appointed day, there was a hard rainstorm. A little boy and his wet dog were the only listeners. It was sunny the next week. Five women spoke, one by one, standing in the rear of an open car. By the time they had finished, there were 100-150 Bedfordians listening.

This was not the first time the town had heard suffragists hold forth. Just like many Massachusetts towns, Bedford had been a-sizzle with women’s rights activists of the most “persistent and faithful” groups in the state.   I’m here to tell you about it.

The nineteenth century was an era of reform. There were plenty of issues – not only suffrage, but temperance, utopian societies (like Fruitlands and Brook Farm) religion (remember the Great Unitarian Controversy?), and slavery. In the years leading up to the Civil War, there were staunch abolitionists in Bedford. Did you know that the great Black orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass lectured here? (They convened in one of the two churches, so it may have been our sanctuary where he spoke.) The engagement was not received well, he wrote in his diary – but it seems he inspired several individuals. One was a Bedford resident named Lucinda Hosmer. He invited her to his house in Lynn, Mass for dinner, and she was proud to call him her “long remembered friend” She wrote to him in 1863:

I was always anti-slavery since I thought of it at all, but never till I saw you did I feel it in my power to do anything about it.

Hosmer’s great talent was letter writing. After the Civil War, her passion turned to woman suffrage, and her letters did not stop Now she was writing long letters to the Editor of the “Woman’s Journal,” a national weekly newspaper concerned with women’s educational, legal, and voting rights. The Schlesinger Library at Harvard owns a full run of the “Woman’s Journal” – indexed! – so we can glimpse what was happening in Bedford from Ms. Hosmer, the unofficial Bedford correspondent.

Hosmer described a society of Bedford women who would meet in each other’s parlors for an afternoon’s discussion of the issues. Grape juice, not sherry, was the beverage – they were very strong on temperance.

Attendance grew, and threatened to outgrow most ladies’ parlors entirely. The group now included three men – the doctor, the newspaper editor, and Lucinda’s influential cousin, Jerome. The program would be musical entertainment on the violin, or the trumpet, or the piano, and then several would read papers they had written on the subject of suffrage. Sometimes they held programs in the auditorium of Town Hall, hearing guest speakers that included woman’s rights activists from all over Massachusetts.

Soon they were doing more than playing the piano and reading papers. They sent petitions – many petitions – to the Massachusetts Senate, asking that women be granted their right to vote. Bedford’s population was less than 1,000 residents, but they got almost 100 signatures on every petition. That’s 10%. Hosmer herself collected 13 petitions in 10 years.

Hosmer wrote:

I think it is a good idea to flood [the Legislature] with … the reasons women have for desiring the ballot, that they can no longer say ”Women do not want to vote.” When I hear a man say that, I always think he has been associated with over-burdened women or the lovers of fashion, and not with the far-seeing lovers of humanity and equal rights.

In 1869, the Massachusetts Senate granted women the right to serve on school committees. [Women >>  Children. Put them on the school board!] Ironically, women could not vote for school committee members. Still, the Bedford Woman Suffrage Society would pick a candidate from among themselves and send her name to the men at Town Caucus. The first year, Ms. Carrie L. Bacon was their candidate. (Carrie Bacon was the cousin by marriage of Abigail and Charles Bacon of the “Bacon Room,” the room in our church that overlooks the Common.) When the men voted, Ms. Bacon carried the day (pun intended), and served on the school board alongside two male incumbents.

That same year, the Bedford Selectmen were petitioned to put woman suffrage in Bedford elections on the warrant. It was roundly defeated at Town Meeting. It failed in the State Legislature, too. Ms. Hosmer encouraged her readers:

It is said “Truth crushed will rise.” So will Woman and her aids in this great cause, which is for the good of man as well. It is not good for either to be alone in solving this great question.

 It was ten years later, in 1879, that the State Legislature gave women a pittance. They were allowed to vote, but only for their local school committee. To vote, of course, a woman had to go to the Town Meeting. Town meeting must have been a bit rowdy at times. The men stood around, hats on, smoking and spitting. But that first year, Ms Hosmer and ten others did go, and found that the men had cleaned up their acts, were sitting politely in their seats, hats off, and there was no spitting or smoking. (Well, one man tried to smoke, but he was stopped.) . When she passed out the ballots, she joked, it was like she was passing out ice cream.

Hosmer regretted being unable to vote for abolition all those years ago. In her opinion, the Civil War might have been fought and won with ballots instead of bullets if women had had the vote. Now the issue was temperance. At this Town Meeting, the men could have made selling liquor in Bedford illegal, but they let it pass, and the Bedford House, the big hotel in the center of Bedford, continued to cater to drinkers. The suffragists insisted that woman wielding the ballot would have been a force for good, and not just for temperance.

The “Woman’s Journal” quotes Lucinda Hosmer

And we see fraud, so rampant among our lawmakers, sapping the foundation of the morals of the people, making it easy for the big burglars and thieves at Washington to escape.

The common burglar, we can protect ourselves against by bars and bolts; but we are powerless against those in high places. How the good women long for the influence a ballot would give them in helping to right such wrongs.

Their sisters who disagreed were as vehement. The Massachusetts Association Opposed to the Further Extension of Suffrage to Women (the name says it all) rejected the radical women who wanted the vote; associating them with feminism, free love, birth control, socialism, college education, and the labor movement. The Anti-Suffragists wrote to the Legislature about 1913:

Our creed is simply this: the ballot will not – cannot – remedy wrongs. In the names of the women we represent… in the name of the freedom of all women… we ask you not to place this state among the suffrage states.

When women were allowed to vote – but only for school board – Miss Eliza Bacon Webber, a determined eighty-year-old, was the first in line to register. Ms Webber served as president of the Bedford society, and she was famous for never missing an opportunity to lead the conversation around to woman suffrage. It seems possible that even people that agreed with her crossed the street when they saw her coming. But she was a fierce figurehead for the movement in Bedford. “To have strength of mind is not unwomanly,” Hosmer wrote.

I think it must have been at the State Convention of the Suffrage Association in 1883 that the famous Ms Lucy Stone spoke in Bedford. This time the correspondent for the “Woman’s Journal” – not Lucinda Hosmer! – got distracted and described the antique teacups that her hostess brought out for the supper afterward (150 years old!) instead of Stone’s speech. But the Journal printed a postcard that Lucinda Hosmer wrote to Lucy Stone three months later. It reflected her weariness:

Dear Mrs. Stone

So we have got to take up the staff and travel on through another decade, perhaps, before we can help men shoulder the responsibility of governing a great nation, the duties of which seem too hard for them…

Lucinda Hosmer

It was hard travel. First Parish was not always a centerpiece of success. An article appeared in the local newspaper in 1884:

The Old Unitarian Meeting House in Bedford, Mass has been recently repaired and renovated…. Much of the expense of the improvements was provided by the ladies of the society, from funds which they held in reserve for use for church purposes. 

But in the program of services held at the re-dedication of the church we notice that no woman had any part – if we may except the singing where it goes without saying that their voices were heard. If we came from Africa, we should ask “Why is this?” But living in a civilized country, and knowing the customs, we hold our peace.

There were small triumphs, as well. One year the minister of  our First Parish Church, Reverend Fairfield, was away at General Assembly, and left the Parish Committee in charge of filling the pulpit while he was gone. He assumed they would hire a typical supply minister – a male. His parishioners knew better, and delightedly whispered among themselves – it would be Mrs. Eulalia Fairfield, his wife, who would give the sermon. There was a large turnout to hear what she would have to say. The Boston Globe reported afterwards that she presented the sermon with “grace and dignity,” and the congregation agreed that the principles she preached she also lived in her everyday life. “It now appears that Mrs Fairfield was fitted for the ministry,” said the Globe, “and only lacks the formality of ordination, which she will doubtless receive in the future.” (She did not.)

It seems that all of the members of the Bedford Woman’s Suffrage League were officers of the club, including men. Ms Hosmer was clear that the suffragists were not against men. They were against corrupt government, and they were determined to change that with their votes. Suffragists were committed to becoming a man’s equal politically, so that they had the power to bring in a new era, with equal rights for all (white) women and men.

Lucinda Hosmer was confident when she wrote in 1876

I feel there has been a marked change in the feelings of the people generally, in this place since Mrs [Lucy] Stone and Miss [Matilda] Hindman have lectured here. The phase of ridicule, which I believe all reforms have to pass through, is well passed, and many who used to sneer and laugh whenever the subject of Woman Suffrage was introduced, now listen seriously, and, I think, a few more such lectures would quite redeem the town.

As you know, Bedford may have been redeemed, but women had to persist for many more decades before they finally held a ballot in their hand. Most of the women in the Bedford League, including Carrie Bacon, Eliza Webber, and Lucinda Hosmer herself were long dead when the bells finally rang for Women on August 18th, 1920, when the 19th Amendment was ratified. But the long-ago work of these “far-seeing lovers of humanity and human rights” was all part of the struggle, and we bow deep bows to them today.


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