The Struggle for Women’s Suffrage in the Catskills
By Kelli Huggins / Visitor Experience Coordinator
In 1894, local women added their voices to a statewide suffragist call to secure women’s right to vote through New York State’s Constitutional Convention system. While they were unsuccessful that year, the meetings and rallies held here over 124 years ago provide insight into the complicated cultural shifts happening across the Catskills as some people fought for increased rights and others clung desperately to the status quo.
As New York headed into 1894, suffragists seized an opportunity to mobilize before the summer Constitutional Convention. High-profile women’s rights activists, like Susan B. Anthony, led a campaign to rally support for the cause across the state. This included conventions held in each of New York’s counties; amazingly, Anthony spoke at every one.
As New York headed into the 1894 Constitutional Convention, high-profile women’s rights activists — including Susan B. Anthony —led a campaign to rally support for the women’s vote across NY state.
The first Catskills rally scheduled on this tour was in Greene County on March 13-14, 1894. Famed national suffrage advocate, Reverend Anna Shaw spoke at the meeting’s first day at the Mott & Gaylord Opera House in Catskill. The next day, Susan B. Anthony gave a speech at the theater, which was filled past capacity. Meeting attendees made plans to canvas door-to-door for petition signatures.
Greene County suffragists were discouraged by the overall response, however. In her report to the New York State Woman Suffrage Association after the meeting, Greene County’s suffrage Secretary, Mary E. Wakeley, wrote that the convention “came at just the time when the roads were in the worst possible condition, a fact which hindered many of the towns from being represented. There are no railroads except the West Shore in winter, so our mountain towns failed to get the benefit of the enthusiasm which the convention aroused in those present. Out of 14 towns, only four or five sent delegates. All the rest when written to made excuses.”
Despite these setbacks and apparent lack of enthusiasm, there were some positive signs in Greene County. Wakeley reported that a Presbyterian minister in the Jewett area had been diligently circulating their petition and literature on his rounds. Still, Wakeley seemed concerned those glimmers of enthusiasm wouldn’t be enough to overcome many of the challenges in the county. For example, she noted that suffragists were relying heavily on printed leaflets to make their arguments, but many people in the county couldn’t read. In places like the Catskills and in small towns across the state, door-to-door canvassing could be a more effective means of promoting the cause than pamphlets and newspaper editorials, but it required more time and volunteers, both of which were in short supply.
Ulster County’s convention happened next, from March 14-15 in Kingston. Again, after the excitement of the meeting passed, local suffragists struggled to gain momentum particularly in getting volunteers to canvas with the petition. Canvassing was hard work. As Ulster County suffrage Chair Mary S. Hoes Burhans and Secretary Ina G.C. Klock reported, “Miles have been ridden for a single signature and houses revisited many times.”
In their report, Burhans and Klock made a powerful economic argument for women’s suffrage. They wrote: “The disenfranchised women of Ulster County pay taxes on real and personal property amounting to a valuation of $4,362,300, being 15 7/10 percent of the entire county valuation.” The New York State Woman Suffrage Association tried to collect taxation data for all female-owned property across the state because they felt that it negated some men’s argument that voting was a privilege only for men in part because they were the property holders. The data they collected, while incomplete due to poor reporting, shows that Catskills women owned millions of dollars worth of property.
The convention made its way to Liberty in Sullivan County on March 19-20 and Delhi in Delaware County on March 21-22. In Delhi, Reverend Shaw gave a speech which was “universally conceded to be one of the best ever delivered in the Opera House, and the best political speech...that has been delivered here in years.” The exact number of people in attendance wasn’t recorded, but the audience was reportedly large. Attendees adopted a resolution afterwards stating “a large and influential body of citizens of Delaware County” supported an equal suffrage amendment at the Constitutional Convention.
Clara Hilsinger, Delaware County Chair wrote of criticisms and challenges local suffragists faced: “We have replied to all articles derogatory to the cause in the local papers near us and have found editors ready to print replies… The difficulties to overcome have been... prejudice, indifference and lack of financial support. The need of the hour was personal work, a hand-to-hand conflict.” Again, local suffragist found that the reality of rallying support after the convention was even more difficult than anticipated.
Unfortunately, widespread rejection of women’s suffrage was not limited to the Catskills. When the Constitutional Convention began, things looked bleak for the success of the suffrage vote. Despite impassioned speeches before the Convention’s suffrage committee, the Convention ultimately voted to defeat the suffrage provision. The Delaware Gazette reported on this failure and opined that few locals would be saddened by the result: “The Constitutional Convention has practically killed Woman Suffrage as far as the Convention is concerned, and the great majority of the sex will care but little about it.”
In the aftermath, the lack of support for suffrage became even a bit of a joke. A poem called “The Girl of 1894” was printed in the Sullivan County Record that October. It read, in part:
She can write a poem aesthetic,
And write it so pathetic,
That you weep.
To the woman suffrage question,
She has given deep reflection.
Can she sweep?
Suffragists regrouped and continued pushing for the vote, but their next best shot didn’t occur until 1915. That year, voters across the state again rejected a suffrage amendment. Voters in all four counties in the Catskill Park- Delaware, Greene, Sullivan, and Ulster- voted against women’s suffrage by significant margins; for example, the nays won by 1,536 votes in Delaware County and 2,418 in Sullivan County.
Suffrage passed statewide two years later in 1917 due to the increased organization and efforts of suffragists. The United States’ entry into World War I also helped the cause because women were taking such a major role in the war effort that many people felt it was undemocratic to continue to deny them voting rights. They were able to finally get the votes they needed, but there was still widespread opposition locally and across the state; Sullivan county suffragists were successful, but only by 250 votes. National suffrage wasn’t won until the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1920.
 Every 20 years, New Yorkers vote on whether to hold a Convention, a chance for special delegates to amend the state Constitution (voters rejected it most recently in 2017).
 “NYS Suffrage Campaign, Western New York Suffragists: Winning the Vote, https://rrlc.org/winningthevote/nys-suffrage-1893/
 Catskill Recorder, March 16, 1894, 3.
 New York State Woman Suffrage Association, Constitutional-Amendment Campaign Year 1894: Report of the New York State Woman Suffrage Association (Rochester, NY: Charles Mann, 1895). All quotes from county-level organizers in this blog post are from this source.
 Delaware Gazette, March 28, 1894, 2.
 Delaware Gazette, July 25, 1894, 2.
 Sullivan County Record, October 5, 1894, 2.
 Catskill Mountain News, November 5, 1915, 1; and Angola Record, November 4, 1915, 1.
 Sullivan County Record, November 8, 1917, 6.
For further reading
Several great books on the suffrage movement were published in the last two years to commemorate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New York State. This list is incomplete but gives a nice overview of recent scholarship published on this topic.
Susan Goodier and Karen Pastorello, Women Will Vote: Winning Suffrage in New York State
Brooke Kroeger, The Suffragents: How Women Used Men to Get the Vote
Jennifer A. Lemak and Ashley Hopkins-Benton, Votes For Women: Celebrating New York’s Suffrage Centennial
Johanna Neuman, Gilded Suffragists: The New York Socialites Who Fought for Women’s Right To Vote
Image: A gelatin silver image of a woman suffrage parade held in New York City in 1915.