Published September 1, 2020

Guest blog: United Women Create Action

By Joanna E. Hahn, central region director – Levi & Catharine Coffin State Historic Site

In 2020, as we reflect and celebrate the role women played in earning the right to vote, it is important to remember how women, united in other social causes, gained valuable skills later used in the fight for suffrage. Many women became involved through advocacy in other movements such as temperance and abolition. The connections between these movements must be remembered, as women felt gaining the vote aided in the progression of other causes.

The temperance movement in Indiana was one of the first active social movements to involve women. By 1830, the Indiana Temperance Society had been formed and over the course of several decades, the group was active in pushing for reforms that limited the access and consumption of alcohol. Local groups took, at times, things into their own hands. Amanda Way and up to 50 other women were part of the “Whisky Riots” of 1854 in Winchester, Indiana. Hatchets and hammers were used to destroy any alcohol in local establishments if store owners refused to sign a pledge agreeing to ban public alcohol sales. And to make the point public, the barrels of alcohol were destroyed in the streets. This public display for prohibition is not unlike many of the future protests women will participate in for the cause of suffrage. Amanda Way was an early figure in the women’s rights debate in Indiana.

The anti-slavery movement was another arena where women used public platforms to learn skills that later proved important in the fight over the vote. Dr. Mary F. Thomas of Richmond, Indiana, grew up in a staunch anti-slavery family and after hearing a public speech made by Lucretia Coffin Mott, a national figure in both the anti-slavery and women’s rights movements, she jumped onto the women’s rights bandwagon. After becoming one of the first women to be awarded a medical degree in the country, Thomas was instrumental in leading early health initiatives in Wayne County. But her heart was always set on helping women get an equal footing with men. So much so, that she was willing to stand in front of the all-male Indiana General Assembly on January 19, 1859 to formally present a petition on women’s rights. Though her speech was made fun of by the press and by the elected officials she hoped would listen, her speech meant a great deal to Hoosier women knowing one of their own spoke for them, just as Thomas had seen Mott speak years earlier.

Women like Way and Thomas would have been seen as radicals of their time. But by the early 20th century, activism became a more accepted activity. By organizing conventions, meetings and member-based groups, the influence of women’s opinions began to gain ground. National organizations with their local chapters had influences in both Washington, D.C. and at the local level. Women became journalists or submitted written commentaries to local newspapers showing how working in these causes would be benefitted by the vote. As our country expanded in population, as factories and the demands for goods increased, and as the Progressive Movement hit its stride, women of all backgrounds began to find platforms they could support. Now platforms expanded to include labor laws and public health initiatives – important subjects that hit home to mothers and their children. Women learned to use forms of non-violence even when they were met by violent anti-suffrage supporters. It is the example of the female generations before that provide the spark today’s women need to make their voices heard. Women remain energized at a time when their voices are heard and represented now more than ever. Women are mobilizing resources and skills to bring attention to police reform, systemic racism, personal health choices and voting issues led by organized groups. In an election year unlike any other, the voices of women will be heard to say the work is not yet done.