Maine Governor Carl E. Milliken signs a legislative resolution to hold a special election on September 10, 1917, on a state constitutional amendment to grant women the right to vote in Maine (Seated from left: Mrs. Henry Cobb, Mrs. Carl E. Milliken, Governor Carl E. Milliken, Deborah Knox Livingstone. Standing from left: Florence Brooks Whitehouse, Charles Milliken, Mrs. Guy P. Gannett, Mrs. Arthur T. Balentine and Mrs. William R. Pattangall) (Photo Courtesy of Maine Historical Society)
Maine Governor Carl E. Milliken signs a legislative resolution to hold a special election on September 10, 1917, on a state constitutional amendment to grant women the right to vote in Maine (Seated from left: Mrs. Henry Cobb, Mrs. Carl E. Milliken, Governor Carl E. Milliken, Deborah Knox Livingstone. Standing from left: Florence Brooks Whitehouse, Charles Milliken, Mrs. Guy P. Gannett, Mrs. Arthur T. Balentine and Mrs. William R. Pattangall) (Photo Courtesy of Maine Historical Society)
" “As is often the case, persistence and information have brought this measure from its standing  as a joke to a very serious question  which we now must face.” — Rep. Percival Baxter, future governor of Maine, in 1917 "
As the 19th century drew to a close, Maine suffragists continued to push for the right of women to vote, but it wasn’t easy dealing with an intractable state Legislature full of men who were either indifferent or downright hostile to the cause. Throughout the 1880s, Lucy and Lavinia Snow of Rockland, who were some of the first active suffragists in the state, continued to present petitions to the Legislature and Congress. But as they grew older, the Snows gradually disappeared from any mention in the Maine Woman Suffrage Association (MWSA) notes, and they submitted their last suffrage petition in 1887. By that time the Snow sisters had been at it for 20 years and it was time to pass the baton to the younger generation.

The movement got a huge boost in 1890 when the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association finally buried the hatchet over the acrimonious 15th Amendment debates of the late 1860s. They united under the banner of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone as its top officers. The “gay ’90s” were a remarkably successful decade for the movement, as Wyoming, Colorado and Idaho became the first three states to enfranchise women.

And back in the rock-solid Republican state of Maine, GOP leaders began to come around to the idea that enfranchsing women might actually help the party. After all, when women were allowed to vote in school board elections in Boston in 1893, all of the members nominated by Republicans won by a comfortable margin even as Democrats won by an equally large majority in the rest of the elections that women weren’t allowed to vote in. But even with overwhelming Republican majorities in the Legislature, the suffrage amendment still didn’t have enough votes to meet the two-thirds vote threshold to pass over the objections of Democrats and their allies in the liquor lobby.

Nevertheless, every February, women wearing white ribbons continued to descend on the State House to once again plead for equal suffrage. After one such occasion in February 1895, the Republican Journal doubted that Augusta had “ever entertained before in a single day so many bright and earnest women.” Supporters of a bill to allow women to vote in municipal elections overflowed from the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee and into the halls that day.

“The ladies were given the freedom of the State House, and talk of suffrage and new bonnets mingled with the arguments and tobacco smoke of the lobbies and rotunda,” wrote one witness.

Belfast socialite Charlotte Thorndike Sibley — who was known throughout the Northeast for her famous lectures about her travels to Europe, Africa and the Far East — gave the address, and a designated representative from every county in the state delivered testimony in support of the bill. Representing Knox County, Mrs. R. C. Hall said that the ballot represented physical strength to a woman, while Miss Emily F. Miller of Searsmont argued that “taxation without representation is tyranny.” S. F. Winslow of Waldoborough strove to assure the men on the committee that equal suffrage “would not lessen the esteem for men, for power engenders respect.”

Female professionals also became leading lights in the movement. In 1899, Helen Knowlton of Rockland became the second woman lawyer in the state after Clara Nash of Cherryfield. Maine Supreme Judicial Court Justice Lucilius Emery, who opposed equal suffrage, said that Knowlton’s law exam was the best he had ever seen. While the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union was the first organization to really get behind suffrage, the Federation of Women’s Clubs, which was founded in 1892, had also become a strong advocate for the cause. At the federation’s annual meeting in Rockland in 1900, members discussed several political issues, including curfew laws and getting women elected to school boards and boards of selectmen.

The Grange, which was extremely popular with farmers in rural Maine, was one of the only fraternal groups that allowed women members, and as early as 1893, the Knox and Lincoln Pomona Grangers discussed women’s suffrage as an inevitability. In 1902, the Maine State Grange joined the call for the right of women to vote in municipal elections.

“There can be no consistent democracy with a half of the people sovereign and half subject, and I do not know any influence so far reaching and effective in uplifting humanity as a good woman,” said State Grange Master Obidiah Gardner of Rockland, a Democrat who served one term as a U.S. Senator from 1911 to 1913. “I used to be an anti of the strongest type, but I travelled through the western states and became a convert to suffrage. The influence of women in the Grange has held the organizations together.”

Suffragists rejoiced that such a powerful rural Maine organization had joined them, but the measure was nevertheless voted down that year.  The Grange was generally more of a social club than an activist group, and sometimes its influence in shaping politics was overstated.

“There can be no question, in consideration of the great influence of the Grange, that we shall get our two-thirds majority in the House next winter,” announced Helen Bates, president of the MWSA, to Woman’s Journal in 1913.

But the bill was also voted down in 1914. That same year, the Men’s Equal Suffrage League of Maine held its first meeting in Portland with Robert Treat Whitehouse, a former U.S. district attorney and husband of suffragist Florence Brooks Whitehouse, as its first president, and several prominent Republicans and Democrats serving as officers.

The Radical Rural Women of the Midcoast

As the movement grew, MWSA also became much more urban-centered, with most of its officers from Portland and southern Maine, unlike in the 1870s when several midcoast residents served in leading roles in the organization. But back in the midcoast, women were still engaged in the women’s rights debate, and some of them took a much more radical approach than their bourgeoisie counterparts. In response to the massive concentration of wealth in the hands of a few plutocrats, the Socialist Party of Maine was founded in Rockland with the goal of overthrowing capitalism and putting the means of production in the hands of working people. Socialists founded three party locals in Rockland, along with others in Belfast, Searsport, Lincolnville and Camden. The party’s platform called for political, social and economic equality for women, but “the reality of socialist behavior often belied their noble declarations,” writes labor historian Charlie Scontras.

In his book “The Socialist Alternative: Utopian Experiments and the Socialist Party of Maine, 1895 –1914,” Scontras cites party propaganda to suggest that women were not treated as equals under the common male perception that they lacked organizational talent and were “useful only to make cakes for tea parties” or “fancy things to sell at fairs for raising funds.” Sometimes women were even used as “attractions” to entice men to join the organization. Not surprisingly, there were just 2,000 dues-paying women out of 50,000 Socialists in 1909. But after women in the national party began speaking out about the way they were treated, the party formed the National Woman’s Committee in 1907 to recruit more women.

Georgie J. Whitten of Searsport, who hailed from the Nickerson clan, became Maine’s National Woman’s Committee correspondent in 1913, and she quickly began recruiting members, most of whom were Nickersons. Henrietta Nickerson, Vera Nickerson and Kate Nickerson would run the Searsport, West Searsport, and East Belfast locals. Down the coast, other Socialist women also started locals, including Susie M. Flye of Thomaston and Comrade Waterman of Camden. For these radical women, it was about combatting both class and gender oppression.

“The women made it clear that they were not only asking for economic rights, but for political rights as well,” writes Dr. Mazie Hough, a history professor at University of Maine. “All women, the analysis went, are dependent on men for their economic survival. If they don’t marry, and need therefore to earn for themselves, their low wages may quickly drive them into prostitution (another form of dependence on men). Under the present economic system, the socialist women argued, there is no distinction between women wage earners and housewives — except that the housewife does not receive a salary.”

What is particularly intriguing about this seldom explored local movement is how these geographically isolated Maine women became attracted to such radical ideas that are so often associated with big urban centers. Through interviews with their descendants, Hough found that most of them were native Mainers, were married, had more than six children and were the daughters or wives of farmers. Many of them were also members of the Grange. Whitten’s niece, Margaret Clements, described her aunt as “very outspoken and told men that they were to blame for all the sorrows of the world and that they couldn’t put them off onto Eve. She was a wonderful talker.” Her father was a farmer who was mortally wounded in the Civil War and she had five children, but two died at a young age. When her husband, Henry, fell ill, Whitten was forced to support her family as a seamstress.

“But later,” Clements told Hough, “all she did was write. She thought that was her work. She wrote letters to officials, friends and fellow Socialists, promoting the issues that most concerned her. She also wrote poetry.”

Women’s suffrage was a major topic of conversation at meetings, but they also discussed child labor and the need for parcel post, which would allow farmers to more cheaply order and send products. The local also gathered signatures for suffrage petitions, took up collections for various progressive causes, organized lectures and sent letters of support for Mother Jones, who was organizing mine workers in West Virginia. But Socialist meetings were not just about politics. It was also a chance for farm wives and their families to get out of the house and socialize. Clements recalled reciting poems at the West Searsport local’s meetings while her cousins played the violin and sang.

“This was a social thing as much as anything,” Hough told The Free Press. “It didn’t mean that they didn’t believe in what they were gathering to talk about, but there wasn’t much going on for smart women in the rural areas that they could be part of, which was a lot of the draw.”

Ethel Twombly and Eliza T. Clements were two Socialists in Monroe whose husbands ran the Grange’s cooperative store. Ethel’s daughter, Helen McAleny, told Hough that her parents were avid readers and the house was filled with books and magazines, including Balzac, Voltaire, The Nation and the New Republic. She said that her parents used to ride the electric cars to Knox County where “there was a hotbed of socialism.” Around that time, two Thomaston women Socialists, Clara Theresa Sawyer and Mary A. Rogers, founded the Progressive Social Club of Knox County to spread the word. But their spouses were not so progressive, and Sawyer’s husband, William O. Rogers, even served in the Legislature as a Republican from Rockland.

After the 19th Amendment passed, Ethel Twombly was the first woman in Monroe to vote and hold elected office. Georgie J. Whitten continued to champion various progressive causes, but she was reportedly saddened that she no longer had an outlet in the party, which ended up folding during World War I. Whitten continued to campaign for the government to pay mothers for their household labor and she also advocated for a law allowing women to vote through the mail from home, which she called the “universal written referendum suffrage.” In a 1918 letter to national party executive secretary Adolph Germer, she argued that Socialists can’t recruit members unless they organize women, “for the mothers are all the organizers there are in the world, and that is why you have no democracy, and never will have till you unite with home-tied mothers by universal written referendum suffrage.”

Opponents of suffrage would often argue that giving women the right to vote would lead to socialism. While in hindsight the argument doesn’t exactly hold up, mainstream suffragists also recognized the important role radical women played in the movement. In a 1912 Woman’s Day address, MWSA President Helen N. Bates expressed her indebtedness to the Socialist Party “as the only party that advocates for the right of women to vote.”

The Anti-Suffragists

As the momentum for reform grew, a backlash also began to emerge. Anti-suffragists sent their own remonstrances to the Legislature in 1887, 1889 and 1897. And at one of the annual Suffrage Days at Ocean Park in Old Orchard Beach in 1909, one of the speakers, E. L. Lowell, reported to Woman’s Journal about a loud group of disorderly young men who disrupted the meeting. At one point one of them asked the group how conditions would improve if women got the right to vote since women supported prohibition laws, which “were not and could not be enforced.” Lowell said she showed her “mother instinct” to command the attention of the young men.

“You can reckon I laid that objection out in about two minutes,” she wrote, “for which I got great applause when I thanked him for admitting the weakness of his own sex, and told him that the men of Maine had better call out the reserves, the women adding that they would enforce some of the laws, if they had to call out the militia.”

Then in 1911, the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage (NAOWS) was founded, followed by the Maine Association Opposed to Suffrage for Women (MAOSW) two years later. According to the Maine Historical Society, the Maine chapter gained nearly 2,000 female members between 1913 and 1917.

“These women were most often from an elite class and often believed in a Victorian ‘cult of womanhood,’ including separate spheres for men and women and the sanctity of the home,” the Historical Society writes on its website. “A number of suffrage supporters also were from the elite class and similarly believed in separate spheres for men and women, but still thought that within that sphere, women should vote.”

In 1915, Lucy Cobb, wife of Republican Governor William T. Cobb, signed up 18 Rockland women on a petition to oppose a bill that would have given them the right to vote.

The Momentum Grows

It was clear by that time that the suffragists were finally considered a threat to traditional values as they spoke out in community halls, tabled at fairs and department stores, passed out leaflets and took to the streets, with 2,000 demonstrating in Portland’s Congress Square in 1915. Between 1911 and 1915, California, Nevada and Montana all passed suffrage amendments, and Jeannette Rankin of Montana became the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. On the national level, Alice Paul, head of the National Woman’s Party, began picketing the White House and committing acts of nonviolent civil disobedience in an effort to demand that President Wilson support the Susan B. Anthony Amendment. For their part in the struggle, Paul and her fellow “suffragettes” were beaten, harassed and eventually arrested for obstructing sidewalk traffic. Paul was even put in solitary confinement in the mental ward and force fed after holding a hunger strike to protest poor living conditions at District Jail in Virginia.

On the local level, new suffrage leagues started up in Belfast and Rockland in 1916 after several years of dormancy. Louise Johnson Pratt, wife of Navy Admiral William V. Pratt, was founding president of the Belfast Suffrage League. A neighbor on Northport Avenue described her as an “aristocratic woman, who impressed me with awe when she took her vigorous mile-long walks down Northport Avenue, dressed for an English countryside, carrying a cane, leading a dog on a leash,” according to the Belfast Historical Society. “Sometimes she would be accompanied by a nanny wheeling the carriage of her son.” The League held its first meeting in August 1916 at Memorial Hall and the guest speaker was Mrs. Augusta Hughston of New York, representative of the National Woman’s Suffrage Association.

The Great Disappointment of 1917

Although President Woodrow Wilson won the election of 1916, it was still a very good year for the Maine Republican Party, as members easily won over two-thirds of the seats in the Legislature. With the Republican Party and GOP Gov. Carl Milliken behind the amendment, Democrats could no longer block its passage.

“Republicans will welcome the vote of Maine women, for the belief is common that they will be practically united for the retention of the prohibitionary law,” wrote the Boston Herald after the election in September 1916.

On February 1, 1917, more than 1,000 women from across the state crowded into the State House for the suffrage hearing in the Judiciary Committee, which was so densely packed that women had to be boosted up to sit on the window sills.

“We don’t need to picket the State House,” Portland suffragist Florence Brooks Whitehouse told a reporter, “because Governor Milliken is with us, as he shows in his message. We have carefully checked up both the Senate and the House and I can see no reason why the measure should not pass. Besides the great number of Republicans who will stand with us, we have many loyal Democrats who still support the measure, and I believe the people have at last begun to regard woman suffrage as expedient.”

The suffragists with their white roses amassed on one side of the chairman while the opponents, adorned with crimson roses, stood on the other. Supporters placed a pile of 5,000 cards tied up in a yellow ribbon and on each card was the inscription, “Believing in the ballot for women, I hereby express my desire for the right to vote upon equal terms with me.” Leading the anti-suffragist side was Mrs. John F. A. Morrill of Portland, granddaughter of the late Gov. Anson P. Morrill, who ironically was an earlier supporter of the suffrage cause.

“The women on the anti side of the hall gave most respectful attention to all speakers in favor of the suffrage amendment,” wrote the Republican Journal, “but when they had the floor the suffragists yawned, whistled and otherwise made it difficult for the speakers to be heard,” requiring the chair to demand order.

On the day of the vote in the House on February 22, the hall was decorated with the white and red colors of both sides of the debate. The RJ noted that “every nook and corner of the great hall and the gallery was crowded to the hilt with interested spectators” and the House business was transacted “amid the buzzing and chatter of the unaccustomed audience.”

“The group on the right of the Speaker included the opponents of the resolve and that on the left the proponents,” the reporter observed, “the colors of each being prominently displayed with flowers, ribbons, articles of apparel and even canes decorated with the properly colored ribbon.” Rep. Percival Baxter (R-Portland), future governor of the state, presented the amendment to send to the voters.

“For many years it was the joke of the Maine Legislature,” said Baxter. “It was sometimes passed by the committee to which it was referred. It was often passed by the House only to be defeated in the Senate. Sometimes it was passed by the Senate only to be defeated in the House. But, as is often the case, persistence and information have brought this measure from its standing as a joke to a very serious question which we now must face.”

Baxter insisted that suffrage was a not a partisan issue even though it was part of the state and national Republican Party platforms. He pointed out that the national Democratic Party strongly endorsed suffrage, even though Maine Democrats were “a little behind and are not quite ready to follow the able leadership of those in Washington.”

Speaking for the opponents, Rep. Sherman Berry (D-Waterville) said it was his duty to the “grand and noble womanhood of Maine in all the houses over the hills and through the valleys” to protest a measure that would “lower that grand standing to which womanhood has attained hand in hand with civilization along down through the years.”

Looking out at the sea of red and white in the hall, Berry observed that there was a “divided womanhood” on the issue, and he speculated that no more than 10 percent of women in the state actually supported it. Rather, he argued, it was only “a few women’s clubs” who got together to “make a great stir.” He noted that no one wearing red was heckling members of the House out in the hall and questioned whether it was the “proper time” to make such a “radical change” with the nation on the verge of war.

“I also find on my desk this morning a little pamphlet, entitled ‘This Little Book Contains Every Reason Why Women Should Not Vote,’” complained Berry. “We open the book and find blank pages within. It is only another sample of what many of you have seen, and, I might almost say, of the detestable and cheap politics practiced in this State. Gentlemen, that little book carries no more weight with it than does the picketing of the White House in this time of crisis and peril to this nation and the heckling of our President....”

Rep. Edward Larrabee (D-Bath) said he was “too democratic … to let a handful of wealthy women that you can count on your finger tips, traveling up and down our State of Maine in their wild frenzy, foist legislation upon our statute books that represents but 15 percent of the women voters of our State.” He argued that granting women the right to vote hadn’t solved the crime problem in Colorado, stopped people from drinking “rum by the barrel” in Wyoming, or halted the “Sunday carousals” in California.

“I would ask you gentlemen to remember your grey-haired mother, your wife and your daughter,” said Rep. John Meserve (D-Naples). “Do you want them to go into the slums of politics and political strife? As I once heard an eminent divine say, ‘the rays in politics arc deep, dark, devious, and sometimes devilish,’ which undoubtedly is true in many instances. Gentlemen, do you want your mothers, your wives or your daughters to participate in anything like that? I hope not.… Remember the home — the father’s kingdom, the children’s paradise, and the mother’s world.”

Ralph Owen Brewster (R-Portland), who would go on to win the gubernatorial election with the support of the Ku Klux Klan in 1924, pointed out that it was also a “small and militant minority” that forced America to revolt against the British crown. Lincoln, he noted, was a “minority president” who issued the Emancipation Proclamation despite widespread “indifference and hostility” toward freeing the slaves. If politicians were “guided by the indifference of the masses,” Brewster reasoned, “there would never have been any steps of progress in all history.”

The amendment passed in a landslide, 113-35, to the “greatest outburst of applause of the day.” Ninety-seven Republicans and 16 Democrats voted yes and 8 Republicans and 27 Democrats voted no. Of the midcoast delegation, seven Democrats and the five Republicans voted yes, while Rep. George Grant (D-Hope) and Fred S. Packard (D-Rockland) voted against it. A month later, the suffrage amendment referendum committee — which included the Maine Equal Suffrage Association, Maine Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the Maine State Federation of Women’s Clubs, the State Grange, the Christian Civil League and the Federation of Labor — opened its campaign headquarters in Bangor. A month after that, Congress voted to enter World War I and organizing support for the ballot measure proved to be difficult amidst all of the war fever. In addition, infighting between the National Women’s Party and National American Woman Suffrage Association hampered get-out-the-vote efforts. In the end, Maine’s all-male electorate rejected the amendment by a two-to-one margin. Rockland was one the few towns in the state that voted to give women the right to vote.

But suffragists didn’t stop agitating and finally the President himself endorsed the Susan B. Anthony Amendment in 1918. When the war was finally over, a federal amendment to enfranchise women passed the U.S. House and Senate and was sent to the states for ratification. Sen. Guy Gannett (R-Augusta) — the media mogul who owned several newspapers and radio and TV stations — introduced the amendment. However, after the suffrage opponents got enough signatures to send it to a referendum, the pro-suffrage side feared a repeat of 1917. To prevent male voters from killing the amendment before it could be ratified, Gov. Milliken called a special session of the Legislature in November 1919 to pass the measure. On September 3, 1920, Maine voters defeated the anti-suffrage referendum and approved the Susan B. Anthony Amendment by a margin of 88,000 to 30,462. They had circulated petitions, organized lectures, leafleted, marched, protested, lobbied, and some even went to jail for the cause. And finally, on November 2, 1920, they voted.

The Spirit of Resistance Lives On

Most of the women who stood up and fought for equal suffrage never lived to see the dream become a reality. But their spirit of resistance and determination lived on, as Maine women gradually gained power and influence on Maine’s political scene.

Republican Rep. Dora Pinkham of New Limerick became the first woman elected to the Maine Legislature in 1922 and would later serve in the Senate. In 1940, Republican Margaret Chase Smith became the first woman to represent Maine in the U.S. House, and, when elected to the U.S. Senate in 1948, became the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress. She was also the first woman to be placed in nomination for the presidency at a major party’s convention. Democrat Libby Mitchell of Vassalboro was the first woman in U.S. history to lead both chambers of the state’s Legislature. And like the suffragists and the women textile workers who led the first strikes to protest low wages, sexual harassment and poor working conditions, some of their descendants were likely among the tens of thousands of Mainers who took to the streets on a frigid January day for the Women’s March in 2017. Just a year later, the most women ever were elected to Maine’s Legislature, and the first female governor of Maine stepped up to take the oath of office. While Governor Janet Mills likes to downplay the historical significance of her victory with her typical dry sense of humor, the 2018 election struck a major chord with women and girls across the state.

“In recent weeks I have received many letters,” said Governor Mills in her inaugural speech on January 2. “Eight-year-old Lucy wrote, ‘Now I feel like I could become governor someday!’ The morning after the election, one mother left a note in her daughter’s lunchbox —‘Janet Mills won last night!’ it said. ‘She is the FIRST woman to be the governor in Maine EVER! Think about all the things you can do! Love, Mom.’ — I do think about all the things they can do, along with their brilliant brothers, uncles and fathers. But truly, this year’s milestone will one day be commonplace, like drinking milk or eating toast. When future generations read of this day, they will wonder what the fuss was about.”