An artist’s rendering of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the National American Woman Suffrage Association
An artist’s rendering of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the National American Woman Suffrage Association
When Lavinia Snow sent for a reporter from the Courier-Gazette to write her obituary in the fall of 1916, she knew there was a good chance that she might not see the spring. But at 90 years old she had lived a long, extraordinary life and was ready to tell her story. Known as “Aunt Lavinia” to her friends and family, she was the second oldest of eight siblings in the famous Snow clan, a wealthy Rockland family of old Maine pioneer stock. After settling South Thomaston in the late 18th century, the Snow men quickly made a name for themselves as sea captains and shipbuilders.

Her father Captain Israel Snow and brother Israel Larkin Snow got the deal of a lifetime when they purchased what would become Snow Marine Shipyard over on Mechanic Street in Rockland’s South End at the height of the Civil War in 1862. It was a remarkably successful business, becoming the state’s busiest shipyard manufacturing the finest schooners, fishing boats, freighters, yachts and Navy ships. Captain Israel Snow famously towed the Red Jacket, one of the fastest clipper ships ever built, out of Rockland Harbor to New York in 1853. He also oversaw the transporting of the 4th Maine Regiment by steamer to Washington, D.C., as 10,000 well-wishers lined the streets from Talbot Avenue to the wharf at the start on the Civil War on June 17, 1861. Lavinia saw the little seaport town transform into an industrial powerhouse with trains moving in and out, gangs of men toiling in the quarries, lime kilns burning all night and a harbor chock full of masted vessels.

But while the Snow men received constant recognition and accolades for their business acumen, Lavinia and her sisters never garnered the same attention, except when Lavinia had a famous schooner named after her. Although Lavinia never married or had children, she lived a rather adventurous life that most Mainers at the time could only dream of. While meeting with that reporter in 1916 in the family’s large, pillared home at 9 Water Street (where the Friends of Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge is today), she recounted her voyages around the world with her father as a young girl. She was the first American woman to climb into the ball of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and she remembered when pigs roamed the streets of Manhattan in the 1840s. She sailed in a barque piloted by her brother Israel to San Francisco in 1851 and passed the Panama Isthmus on a mule with her sister, each woman holding a child. She saw a mid-19th-century China that few Western eyes would ever see and stopped on the way for fruit at the Mariana Islands.

And although the only education she received was in the “somewhat primitive country schools” of her childhood, the Courier noted that Lavinia was a “woman of broad education and literary refinement” due to the “natural qualities which she refined upon by ceaseless association with the best writers and poets.” She loved to recite poetry, was a keen reader of current news and politics and she was reportedly “a highly interesting companion in circles where conversation was regarded as a valuable art.” She was never shy about expressing her opinions and was a “staunch supporter of the things that make for individual and natural righteousness.” Yet despite her immense privilege, Lavinia was deprived of the most coveted expression of her values — the right to vote. And she fought her entire life to secure it.

“I was an early advocate of woman’s suffrage and am glad to see today the bright light dawning,” she told the Courier. “From early girlhood I felt the injustice that women have suffered in this connection, and I well recall the feeling of degradation that seized upon me when my younger brother arrived at the age of 21. That he, my junior in years, should have a voice and a ballot, while I, at least his intellectual equal, should be condemned to silence and political inaction, was a deep injustice that I never have been reconciled to.”

Lavinia’s “ideal American” was Abraham Lincoln, and in 1857 she was even able to see him speak while she was visiting her Aunt Nancy Stackpole in Illinois.

“I had heard a good deal of Honest Old Abe and he had become impressed upon my mind,” said Lavinia. “I heard Stephen A. Douglas speak and the next day, Lincoln replying to him. I went to the courthouse grounds, in company with a Boston school teacher, to listen to him. I felt myself wrapped up in the eloquence and logic of what he said. I was in full sympathy with him. Never had any man made such an impression upon me, and when later, at the time of the 1860 Republican convention, my brother George came to me crying out, ‘Your man is nominated!,’ I was sad that I could not vote for him.”

But Lavinia and her sister Lucy would not take this injustice lying down, and in August of 1868 a letter from Rockland, Maine, arrived in the New York office of The Revolution, a newspaper founded by famed women’s rights leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

“Dear Revolution:” the letter began. “A society has just been organized here called the Equal Rights Association of Rockland. It bids fair to live, although it requires all the courage of heroic souls to contend against the darkness that envelopes the people. But the foundation is laid, and many noble women are catching the inspiration of the hour. When we are fully under way, we shall send you a copy of our preamble and resolutions.”

With that, Lavinia, along with her sisters Elvira and Lucy, had founded the first organization in the state of Maine solely dedicated “to secure Equal Rights to all American citizens, especially the right of suffrage, irrespective of race, color or sex.”

19th-Century Maine Women Get Organized

The 19th-century women’s suffrage movement was shaped by the American Revolutionary War and the ideal of rights for all citizens, says Dr. Shannon Risk, a history professor at Niagara University. In her 2009 dissertation, Risk notes that many of these women were part of the legacy of “Republican Motherhood,” which encouraged women to become educated and politically aware so that they could instill a sense of morality and civic virtue in their husbands and children. It was also a time when the “Cult of Domesticity” encouraged white middle- and upper-class women to be the “light of the home,” possessing the cardinal values of piety, purity, domesticity and submissiveness.

But while the first generation of American women may have largely accepted these values without question, writes Risk, their daughters had different ideas about their political role in society. Many women in post-war America began petitioning the government for pensions, relief from bad marriages, child custody, the settling of property disputes and other rights not provided to them. But the most galvanizing cause was Temperance.

“There was really palpable anger among women,” Risk said. “They were expected to be the domestic goddess. They were supposed to be good republican mothers raising dutiful sons and daughters. They were to be the hearts of the home, and the family unit was meant to be the organizing structure that would make the United States a successful country. But if women are to do their supposed role well, the man coming home drunk and spending all of the money on alcohol was an affront to that. Temperance was an important movement because it drew women from all backgrounds. Women who might be considered radical, moderate, conservative or ‘traditional.’”

It’s not clear if the Snow sisters were involved in the Temperance movement, but in 1808 their great grandfather Elder Elisha Snow co-founded the “Temperate Society,” a group devoted to “the double purpose of promoting social intercourse and moderation in the use of ardent spirits — the more safe and effectual remedy of letting them entirely alone, being at the time unthought of,” wrote 19th-century historian Cyrus Eaton. Later in 1823, the Temperance Society, one of the earliest groups in the state dedicated to total abstinence from drinking, was founded in Shore Village, present-day Rockland.

Elisha Snow was also known for spreading the “greatest revival ever experienced” in South Thomaston in the midst of the “Second Great Awakening,” an early-19th-century Protestant religious revival. During the early 1800s, membership in Baptist and Methodist congregations skyrocketed, which Risk says led to the earliest indication of women’s professional networking in church groups. Like the women who organized the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, many Maine suffragists also first became politically active in the anti-slavery movement, particularly after Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. Inspired by the burgeoning national women’s rights movement, businesswoman Ann Francis Greely and her sister Sarah Jarvis of Ellsworth became some of the first Maine women to agitate for the right to vote in the 1850s. Like the Snows, the Jarvis sisters were women of privilege, hailing from a prominent lumbering family, in a booming coastal shipping town.

“Ellsworth had successful, active sawmills and a growing shipbuilding industry, and the town became the logical center of commerce and social reform in Hancock County,” writes Risk. “Ellsworth women absorbed the debates born in this raucous political climate. They had access to education, middle-class values, and print culture, which kept them engaged as citizens. Because of these factors, women like suffragist Ann Greely came of age in the 1850s unafraid to challenge social conventions.”

At the invitation of local reformers, Susan B. Anthony, founder of the National Woman’s Suffrage Association (NWSA), spoke in Bangor in 1854 and in Ellsworth in 1857, and Lucy Stone gave speeches in Augusta and Cornish a year later for the suffrage cause. Then in 1857, Bangor women launched the first petition to the Maine Legislature requesting a Constitutional Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote. The Bangor suffragists received the suffrage petition from a committee appointed by the National Woman’s Rights Convention at its Annual Session held in New York in November 1856 to memorialize the Legislatures of several states. Citing the US Constitution, the petition argued that every law is in a sense oppressive to women because “All laws to which women are amendable, even the criminal code, are framed and administered solely by men, neither the intellect nor the moral sense of women being in any degree consulted. This is mental and moral taxation without representation.”

But the Legislature never brought the proposal to a vote. Committee chairman Rep. Seth L. Milliken, a Camden Republican who would later serve in Congress, requested that the petition be withdrawn, stating, “Under the belief that the prayer of the memorialists is not joined in by a sufficient number of women to warrant the Legislature in making this most important change and being satisfied that a large majority of the women of this State and the United States believe that the laws, except as regards some rights to property, now subserve as nearly as possible, the happiness and best interests of both sexes.”

There was no doubt that the early suffragists knew that they had a long, hard fight ahead of them to change the prevailing cultural attitudes of the day. While the Rockland newspapers at the time generally ignored the suffrage question, the Rockland Gazette laid out a common view of women’s rights in a Christmas Day editorial in 1868. The editor wrote that if enough women demand the right to vote, they should get it, but he questioned the suffragists’ belief that women are “denied her just rights and kept in disgraceful subordination to the stronger sex.” On the contrary, he argued, “There is is no country in the world where woman holds so high a place — where she is regarded with so much true deference, courtesy and respect — as in ours.”

“And lastly, we wish to say that there is a great deal of foolish talk about the equality of the sexes, which … should be left out of the question altogether,” he concluded. “It is folly to talk about the equality of the sexes. Man and woman are not the equals, but the complements of each other. Generally speaking, neither sex is the ‘superior’ of the other, while the reference to many positions and duties, one cannot in the nature of things, equal the other. Generally speaking, woman is not so well suited for legislative and judicial functions as man. She is more impulsive and emotional — less deliberative and cautious.”

Working-Class Women Stand Up

Although the early Maine suffragists were primarily women of relative privilege who had access to education and leisure time, labor historian Charlie Scontras notes that young women textile workers could also be found at suffrage events.

“Indeed, a symptom of the embryonic assertiveness of women was reflected in an unsuccessful strike of the textile operatives in Lincoln Mill and the Bates Mill No.1 in Lewiston in 1854,” writes Scontras. “The strike featured women in leading roles as they addressed strikers. Accompanied by the Lewiston Brass Band, the ‘sister factory girls’ paraded through the city streets. An earlier strike by female textile workers in Saco in 1841 also failed. The action of the strikers was described as behavior ‘so incompatible with the retiring delicacy of the female character.’”

When Lewiston celebrated Independence Day in 1865, Scontras notes that young female factory workers marched in the parade with a banner inscribed with “Freedom with all its antecedents” on one side and “July 4th 1865, Right of Suffrage to Every American Citizen” on the other. Many of the women wore “bloomer” costumes, a loose-fitting outfit that became a symbol of the women’s rights movement, that were meant to “protest against the prevailing forms of dress which proved to be inhibiting, uncomfortable, and impracticable for working women,” , wrote Scontras. In 1869, working women in Auburn would organize a chapter of the Daughters of St. Crispin, the first national women’s union in the U.S., to fight for equal pay for equal work.

The Battle Over the 15th Amendment

The women’s rights movement took a hiatus during the Civil War, but roared back to life in the late 1860s during the debate over the 14th Amendment, which granted black men citizenship and equal protection, and the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed black men the right to vote.

Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone and Elizabeth Cady Stanton circulated a letter in 1865 opposing any amendment language that excluded women, and a year later both abolitionists and women’s rights leaders came together in the founding of the American Equal Rights Association (AERA), which made universal suffrage its main platform. Nevertheless, Congress rejected using the word “person” in the 14th Amendment and inserted the word “male” three times in the final drafting of the document, which was adopted on July 9, 1868. One month later, the Snow sisters founded their own AERA chapter.

In 1867, AERA devoted considerable resources to a major referendum campaign in Kansas that would have enfranchised both women and blacks, but it ultimately failed at the ballot box. The crushing defeat opened up divisions between the Republicans and abolitionists, who believed focusing on securing the right to vote for blacks would be more politically expedient, and women’s rights activists, who were adamantly opposed to compromising on universal suffrage. Anthony and Stanton refused to support the 15th Amendment because it did not include voting rights for women, and, in May, 1868 The Revolution announced the formation of Woman Suffrage Association of America, which was dedicated to universal suffrage. The same year, Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe founded the New England Suffrage Association to support the 15th Amendment even though it excluded women.

While the cause was noble, at times the rhetoric of the WSAA leaders was both racist and classist. The great fear of The Revolution editors was that the Reconstruction Amendments would create an “aristocracy of sex” as the mass of newly enfranchised male voters, who were perceived to be less enlightened and intelligent than their white counterparts, would never allow women the right to vote. As Stanton wrote a month before the 1869 AERA Convention, “American women of wealth, education, virtue and refinement, if you do not wish the lower orders of Chinese, Africans, Germans and Irish, with their low ideas of womanhood to make laws for you and your daughters, to be your rulers, judges, jurors — to dictate not only the civil, but moral codes by which you shall be governed, awake to the danger of your present position, and demand that woman, too, shall be represented in the government!”

AERA was on the verge of descending into infighting and disarray when Lucy Snow took an Eastern Steam Ship from Rockland to its convention in New York in May of 1869. According to her 1912 obituary, Lucy was an accomplished business woman of “pronounced views on many subjects,” especially women’s suffrage. Her husband, Capt. George Snow, a lime manufacturer, also supported the suffrage cause, “was a man of strong convictions and of broad and elevated views” and his ideas “took him far in advance of conventional opinions, and he was very much of a radical,” according to the family’s history. The Snows were also well-respected in the national movement and, in the six-volume “History of Women’s Suffrage,” Stanton and Anthony note that the Snow sisters “never failed to send good words of cheer and liberal contributions to all our National conventions.”

As Lucy Snow witnessed the historic events unfold, it’s unclear if she took sides during the explosive debates that played out over those three days at Steinway Hall in New York City. At the time, Congress had already rejected the insertion of universal suffrage language in the 15th Amendment three months earlier and the measure was then headed for a difficult ratification battle. At the AERA Convention the lines were drawn. Right off the bat, radical abolitionist Stephen Symonds Foster, who was once nearly beaten to death by pro-slavery supporters outside a meeting house in Portland in 1842, objected to the renomination of Stanton and Anthony as officers. Foster blasted the two leaders for promoting only suffrage for the educated and for associating with the eccentric entrepreneur George Francis Train — the chief financier of The Revolution whom the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison once described as a “crack-brained harlequin and semi-lunatic” — for disparaging blacks.

Lucy Stone’s husband Henry Blackwell defended the two women’s rights icons, pointing out that “Miss Anthony and Mrs. Stanton believe in the right of the negro to vote. We are united on that point.” However, a long-simmering feud between renowned abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass and The Revolution group was about to ignite. Although Douglass had been a longtime women’s rights advocate and had been one of the only men to attend the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, he also knew that the states would never ratify the 15th Amendment if it included women. But as the rhetoric heated up on both sides, Douglass didn’t make many friends on the women’s rights side when he wrote things like white “husbands, fathers, and brothers” already had the right to vote so they could protect white women.

During the AERA debate, Douglass stood up to express his dismay with Stanton’s use of the epithet “Sambo” to describe black men in an article in The Revolution.

“I must say that I do not see how any one can pretend that there is the same urgency in giving the ballot to woman as to the negro,” said Douglass. “With us, the matter is a question of life and death, at least, in fifteen States of the Union. When women, because they are women, are hunted down through the cities of New York and New Orleans; when they are dragged from their houses and hung upon lamp-posts; when their children are torn from their arms, and their brains dashed out upon the pavement; when they are objects of insult and outrage at every turn; when they are in danger of having their homes burnt down over their heads; when their children are not allowed to enter schools; then they will have an urgency to obtain the ballot equal to our own.”

To which a voice in the audience asked, “Is that not all true about black women?”

“Yes, yes, yes; it is true of the black woman, but not because she is a woman, but because she is black,” replied Douglass to applause.

Anthony chided the “old anti-slavery school” for telling women to “stand back and wait until the negroes shall be recognized.” If they will not give the whole loaf of suffrage to the entire people, she reasoned, “give it to the most intelligent first.”

“When Mr. Douglass mentioned the black man first and the woman last, if he had noticed he would have seen that it was the men that clapped and not the women,” said Anthony. “There is not the woman born who desires to eat the bread of dependence, no matter whether it be from the hand of father, husband, or brother; for any one who does so eat her bread places herself in the power of the person from whom she takes it. Mr. Douglass talks about the wrongs of the negro; but with all the outrages that he today suffers, he would not exchange his sex and take the place of Elizabeth Cady Stanton.” (Laughter and applause.)

Lucy Stone argued that while blacks were terrorized by the “Ku-Kluxes” all over the South, “the Ku-Kluxes here in the North in the shape of men, take away the children from the mother, and separate them as completely as if done on the block of the auctioneer.” Nevertheless, she had come around to recognizing how important it was to back the 15th Amendment.

“Woman has an ocean of wrongs too deep for any plummet, and the negro, too, has an ocean of wrongs that can not be fathomed,” said Stone. “There are two great oceans; in the one is the black man, and in the other is the woman. But I thank God for that [15th] Amendment, and hope that it will be adopted in every State. I will be thankful in my soul if any body can get out of the terrible pit. But I believe that the safety of the government would be more promoted by the admission of woman as an element of restoration and harmony than the negro. I believe that the influence of woman will save the country before every other power.”

In the end, the two sides could not reconcile their differences and it soon split up into two rival organizations; one based in Boston and the other in New York. Days after the dramatic 1869 AERA Convention, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton founded the National Women’s Rights Association to continue the fight for a national universal suffrage amendment. The New York-based organization allowed men to be members, but not to serve in leadership positions.

“There had been so much trouble with men in the Equal Rights Society, that it was thought best to keep the absolute control henceforth in the hands of women,” wrote Stanton, Anthony, et al. in “History of Women’s Suffrage.” “Sad experience had taught them that in trying emergencies they would be left to fight their own battles, and therefore it was best to fit themselves for their responsibilities by filling the positions of trust exclusively with women.”

Later that year, Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe and others in the Massachusetts group formed the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), which focused its efforts on passing women’s suffrage laws in state legislatures. Not long after, AWSA launched Woman’s Journal, its own newspaper to rival The Revolution. It would take two decades before the second generation of suffragists successfully pushed the NWSA and AWSA to join forces as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).

But Anthony remained bitter with Douglass, and their relationship never fully recovered, according to historian David Blight. While some of the rhetoric on both sides was inexcusable, especially by today’s standards, Anthony and Douglass had been close friends since the days when they met in anti-slavery circles around Rochester, New York. She and her family had risked their lives and livelihoods by working with Harriet Tubman to secure the freedom of ex-slaves on the Underground Rail Road. And Douglass certainly had his women’s rights credentials. On his last day of life on February 20, 1895, he had spoken at a pro-women’s suffrage meeting in Washington. As the New York Times reported, Anthony generally had “wonderful control over her feelings,” but she could “not conceal her emotion” at the news of Douglass’ death. She later gave the eulogy at his funeral.

Meanwhile, up in Maine, the Snows and other women’s rights activists were not about to give up on the fight for the right to vote. And they wouldn’t let the national rivalries hinder their efforts as they pressed for suffrage at the state and national level. Lucy and Lavinia would serve as officers in the National Woman’s Suffrage Association in later years, petition the Legislature with the New England Suffrage Association and host suffrage speakers in little towns up and down the coast of Maine, from Damariscotta, Rockland and Camden to Belfast, Montville, Liberty, Freedom and beyond. And as the 19th century drew to a close, the momentum of the suffrage movement became unstoppable.