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Over a Century Ago: Women and Party Politics in New York City

by Jo Freeman

"In the approaching municipal campaign in New York", the New York Herald observed in 1897, "women politicians are to play an important part. About 1,000 of them, representing the Women's Republican organizations of New York, are already sharpening their scalping knives and preparing to work havoc in the ranks of the Tammanyites."

Even though New York women did not win the right to vote until 1917, by century's end many were experienced political workers. While a few women had been active in politics for decades, in the 1890s the chance to make a difference drew thousands of women out of their homes to make and listen to speeches, write and distribute literature, and traipse from house to house and tenement to tenement to urge men to vote, and women to make sure they voted right.

The 1890s was a decade of sharp political change and great political hope. The Presidential election of 1896 pitted Democrat William Jennings Bryan against Republican William McKinley in a contest of ideas and values. More women were active in this campaign than any previous Presidential election.

The Women's National Republican Association, started by J. Ellen Foster in 1888, organized women throughout the decade to campaign for Republicans all over the country, not just in the four states where women had full suffrage. In August of 1896, New York Republican women opened their own campaign headquarters. Within a week, 1,500 women were working their assigned precincts, passing out pamphlets in several languages and talking to voters and their wives.

This was not New York women's first campaign. In 1893 the Brooklyn Woman's Health Protective Association helped elect Charles Schieren Mayor of that city and in 1894 the Women's Municipal League helped to trounce (temporarily) Tammany Hall. Although these were nonpartisan reform organizations, they were substantially aided by Foster's WNRA.

Indeed, the prospect of taming the Tammany tiger prompted many women to become active Republicans. Explained Kate Bostwick, a self described "rabid Republican": "The fever of reform was coursing through the veins of these women, and they formed the first regular Republican club ... of college women and others of ability and executive knowledge."

That club was the West End Women's Republican Association, founded by Helen Varick Boswell in 1894. Soon she was employed by the Republican County Committee to organize women.

Boswell organized clubs throughout New York, including a Colored Woman's Republican Association, a Business Women's Republican Club, one for working women, and a variety of "neighborhood influence clubs" of 12 to 20 women. By 1895 there were a dozen women's Republican clubs in New York City and another dozen upstate.

These were permanent clubs; not just temporary campaign clubs. Out of campaign season they held regular meetings to instruct women on how to mark ballots and to get men to vote, as well as to discuss the issues of the day. In season, club members provided a core of experienced workers to work for Republican candidates.

During campaigns Republican women expanded their outreach. Boswell hired women speakers to talk to "the girls in the factories, shops and large stores, holding meetings among them during the noon hour, to enlist their interest as rapidly as possible."

Women's loyalty was tested in the 1897 race for the first Mayor of Greater New York City, because reformers and the regular Republicans ran competing candidates (and both lost). But more candidates created greater opportunities for political work, and women's presence increased as well.

Women were so active on behalf of reformer Seth Low, former Mayor of Brooklyn and current President of Columbia University, that he was dubbed "the Ladies' Mayor". The Brooklyn Women's Health Protective Association brought 3,000 women to hear him speak. At another meeting both pro- and anti-suffrage women sat side by side on the stage. When asked what they were doing at a political rally, the antis replied "Oh, but this is for Mr. Low."

The regular Republicans ran a hack, but most of the Republican women's clubs still worked for him. They believed Republican Party Leader Thomas Platt who assured them that he "favors any plan tending to widen their opportunities and add to their influence."

As for the Democrats, well Tammany Hall still hadn't figured out that women could be a political force and wouldn't for several years. The New York Times reported an 1897 meeting of a Women's Tammany Club: "[O]f the four hundred persons present, only about fifteen were women."

The tiger wasn't beaten in 1897, but was (again temporarily) in 1901 when the New York Tribune headlined: "Municipal League Working Hard to Secure Campaign Fund -- Two Hundred Thousand Leaflets Distributed by Republican Women".

By then woman's place among New York City political workers was secure, even lauded. When the Tribune wrote at the start of the 1900 Presidential campaign that "The West End Woman's Republican Club is the most widely known political club in the State," it didn't mean widely known for a women's club.

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