Anonymous Was a Suffragist, by Pat Williamsen
“Anonymous was a woman.”
We’ve seen this popular phrase over and over. It’s a paraphrase of something Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own: “I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”
During the past few days, the phrase has come to mind again, prompted by grant applications from organizations throughout Ohio seeking to conduct commemorations for the centennial of women’s suffrage. The 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment is upon us—and despite nagging concerns about a global pandemic and the resulting uncertainty of the US economy, communities are still celebrating this milestone in the history of the United States.
A year ago, as Ohio began celebrating this milestone anniversary, it has been easy to recall the big names of women’s history: Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, Alice Paul. Behind their efforts were tens of thousands of women who marched, gathered signatures on petitions, passed out pamphlets, and raised money for the cause.
The work of local historians is lifting up the names of Ohio suffragists. This is just a brief list of the women we’ve learned about this year. A year ago, these Ohio suffragists were almost anonymous, names lost in the pages of dusty books or hard-to-find internet encyclopedias:
Jewellia Higgins who promoted suffrage in Dayton’s Black neighborhoods.
Zell Hart Deming, publisher of the Warren Tribune Chronicle who regularly published suffrage articles written by her friend Harriet Taylor Upton.
And then there’s Harriet herself, who served as treasurer of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). For several years, NAWSA headquarters operated out of her home in Warren.
Pauline Steinem became the first Jewish woman in America to hold elected office when she was elected to the Toledo Board of Education.
Helen Hamilton Gardner, once a school teacher in Sandusky, became a powerful, persuasive lobbyist for the 19th Amendment.
Hallie Quinn Brown, educated at Wilberforce College, advocated for equal suffrage for Black women and became dean of women at Tuskegee Institute.
Phoebe Cary, a Cincinnati poet who wrote satirical verse about anti-suffragists.
Dorothy Mead from Vandalia chaired the Ohio Chapter of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage and testified before the US Senate.
Katherine Ogram Roberts in 1916 won suffrage for women in East Cleveland, the first town to allow women to vote in municipal elections.
Belle Coit Kelton helped organize 5,000 women who paraded to the Ohio State House to demand passage of a suffrage amendment in 1912.
Sarah Williams, Toledo, published The Ballot Box, one of the most powerful suffrage newspapers.
These women helped achieve the vote for all women. These women helped change the balance of power. The change they brought, wrote Anna J. Cooper, was “the supremacy of moral forces of reason and justice and love in the government of the nation.” A prominent African American scholar and suffragist, Anna graduated from Oberlin College in 1887.
A year ago, I didn’t know Anna’s name, either.
Even when these women were anonymous to me, I benefited from their work. There are more women than ever before serving in the Ohio General Assembly and theUnited States Congress. In the past four years, we’ve witnessed a woman run for US president, and now we’ll get to watch the first woman of color campaign for vice president. It is my hope that the next time we commemorate an anniversary for women’s suffrage, we’ll know more about the Ohio women who gave us something to celebrate. Let’s vow to pull these women from anonymity and put them front and center in our history books.