A 1912 photo of women at the J. B. Pearson Factory, which manufactured men’s coats, pants and jackets in Thomaston. (Photo courtesy Thomaston Historical Society)
A 1912 photo of women at the J. B. Pearson Factory, which manufactured men’s coats, pants and jackets in Thomaston. (Photo courtesy Thomaston Historical Society)
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When Cynthia H. Crabtree Abbott of Hancock set out to do an errand at the local general store in September of 1869, she had no inkling that she would spend the next several days on the run after making a harrowing escape from an insane asylum. As she made her way down the road, two men suddenly overtook her, put her in handcuffs and forced her into a wagon. One identified himself as an officer from Ellsworth and the other was a man named Moore. Both of them were drunk and carried with them an ample supply of liquor for the 36-mile ride down the lonely road to Bangor as Cynthia trembled with fear.

As soon as Cynthia was seated in the cars she insisted on knowing, and seeing, by what authority this officer had handcuffed and brought her away from her home by force. After some hard words, he condescended to permit the woman to read a certificate from a doctor in a neighboring town who was a stranger to her, wherein it was stated that this woman, Cynthia H. C. Abbott, was to be placed in the insane asylum in Augusta, by her husband, Ransom B. Abbott, until she had sound mind.

After arriving at the asylum, she was placed in a ward “not fit for dogs to live in, among creatures who were, indeed, hopeless maniacs.” She pleaded for a room to herself and permission to keep her clothes, stating that her husband had the resources to pay for comforts for her, but her requests were denied. Cynthia suggested that a doctor or the superintendent should examine her to see for themselves whether she was a sane woman or not. But those requests were also unheeded. Finally, on the fourth day of her involuntary committal, she vowed to make her escape and saw her chance when she noticed an old fence while out for an afternoon stroll near the cemetery at the edge of the grounds. She kicked out a picket and made a dash for it, first over one hill and then up another, with two women from the asylum in hot pursuit. Suddenly, as Cynthia came to the edge of a thick forest, an attendant caught her dress and attempted to persuade her to return or face the consequences.

All she said would not prevail with a woman who loved liberty; a struggle ensued, and Cynthia “straightened her out on the ground,” saying, “If you do not leave me, I will bury you with rocks!” When the attendant found her adversary so determined, she left, no doubt, for assistance.

Cynthia quickly fled into the woods and covered herself with tree branches. She soon heard voices coming closer, shouting, calling and firing what sounded like a pistol. For the next eight hours she concealed herself under the bed of branches until she heard the town bell strike 9 o’clock in the evening and she knew it was time to move on. She followed the same direction she had seen robins take earlier in the day, trekking through the tangled forest until she came upon a cow path illuminated by the moon. She walked the trail for miles, crossing farm fields, climbing over fences and following telegraph wires, growing more and more hungry and weary. She was startled by every little noise out of fear that she would be discovered and imprisoned again. Eventually, a local woman pitied her and let her stay in her home for a few days after Cynthia asked for a drink of water and recounted her tale of woe.

Having walked over twelve miles on that memorable Saturday night, she spent Sunday with the kind stranger, who left her in charge of her household while she went to meeting. On Monday morning she set off again, and was overtaken by a stage coach on the road; begged her way to a friend’s house in Rockland, where she knew she could obtain protection, money and sympathy.

The above tale appeared in the form of a letter in the Nov. 11, 1869, issue of The Revolution, a newspaper run by feminist icons Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. While the author is unknown, the message was clear, “An insane asylum is a place for a man to imprison his wife. Woman will be forced to arise and repeal the barbarous law, that makes a married woman a nonentity, and a mere chattel of her husband!!!”

Two years later, Cynthia and Ransom divorced and, eventually, in 1874, Maine finally required the certification of at least two “respectable” physicians before men and women could be committed to a mental asylum. It was just one of several laws that Maine women would have to fight for on the very long road to liberation that continues to this day. Some of the major landmark victories for Maine women also included the 1844 law that allowed women the right to own their own property and an 1854 law giving married women the rights to their own wages. Still, the most bitterly fought struggle would be in the battle for the right to vote and hold elected office. And it would be another 50 years after Cynthia made her dramatic escape to freedom before that battle was won.

Maine Women’s Rights Advocates Take It to Augusta

After the failure of women’s advocates to secure universal suffrage in the 15th Amendment in 1869, many longtime suffragists felt demoralized. But they weren’t about to give up the fight to have a voice in government. And it was clear that traditional attitudes of a woman’s role in society were changing. A year earlier, the first woman was elected to a Maine school board. In response to a public backlash, Republican Llewellyn A. Wadsworth of Hiram defended his decision to initiate the move to elect a woman to the board because “capability should outweigh the question of sex.”

“I put the question, why should a lady who has taught thirty schools be considered less suitable for the office of school committee than the undersigned, who has taught but two, or scores of men who never taught school at all?” he asked in a letter to the Portland Press Herald. “Females have more and better influence than males, and under their instruction our schools have been improving for some years. There is less kicking and cudgeling, and more attention is given to that best of all rules, ‘The Golden Rule.’ If they are more efficient as teachers is it not fair to presume that they would excel as committees?”

Meanwhile, as suffrage activity heated up on the national level, local women’s suffragists began regrouping in the early 1870s, and for the rest of the century they led petition drives to persuade the Legislature to grant them the right to the ballot. In 1872, Susan B. Anthony and 15 other women decided to take direct action by getting arrested for trying to vote in the 1872 presidential election. Black women’s rights leader Sojourner Truth was also turned away at a polling booth in Michigan after demanding a ballot. But in Maine, suffragists appear to have been a little more conservative in their approach.

In 1870, the renowned Portland author John Neal, a longtime advocate for women’s voting rights, founded a suffrage society in Portland. And in November of 1871, Mary Livermore, future president of the Association for Advancement of Women and the American Woman Suffrage Association, gave a rousing lecture to the “general satisfaction” of 1,000 people gathered to hear her speak there. Months later, women from Rockland and Portland, led by famed underground railroad conductor Lydia Louisa Neal Dennett, sent the first suffrage petition to the Legislature since 1857. Unfortunately, the bill was defeated in the Maine House, 52-41, and the Senate voted it down 15 to 8. It wouldn’t be the first time, as different versions of the bill would be submitted, rejected and resubmitted for several decades to come. Writing to Woman’s Journal in March of 1872, a suffragist with the pen name “Patience Commonsense” vented about the Legislature’s decision to unceremoniously reject the bill.

“I think the smallness of the vote was owing to the indifference of some of the members and the determination of a few to kill the bill,” she wrote. “Day after day, when the session was drawing to a close, women went to the state house expecting to hear the question debated. Wednesday every available place was filled with educated women. The day was spent — if I should say how, my criticism might be too severe. Gentlemen from Thomaston, Biddeford, Burlington and Waldoborough had the floor most of the time during the afternoon. In the evening, while those same women and some of the members of the legislature were attending a concert, the bill was taken up and voted upon, without any discussion whatsoever. Now, I submit to any fair-minded person if this was right.”

She added that one particularly vocal anti-suffragist representative from Calais was said to be running for Congress and she encouraged women to do all they can to see that he was not elected. “There is a throne behind a throne,” Patience added. “Let woman be regal in the background, where she must stand for the present, in Maine.”

Campbell Canvasses the Midcoast

One of the most effective suffrage organizers in Maine was Margaret Campbell, a native of Hancock County who canvassed several towns throughout the state for the New England Suffrage Association. In 1871, Campbell gave lectures in Belfast, Montville Center and before a “large and intelligent audience in the town of Freedom.” One witness from Freedom would write of the event in Woman’s Journal in April, 1871:

“The house was well filled with intelligent men and women from this and the adjoining towns. The lecture was well received. I never saw a more attentive audience. People more desirous of information could not be found. They caught every word, and remained anxious for more, not satisfied to go when the hour of adjournment arrived. All that is wanting here is agitation, and comparatively little effort will do a great work.”

The following year, Campbell lectured up and down the coast from Bath and Damariscotta to Rockland, Camden, Belfast and beyond. In a November 1872 dispatch to Woman’s Journal, Campbell didn’t expect to get “too much sympathy” for the cause in Damariscotta, but an elderly gentleman, who incidentally was opposed to women’s suffrage, entertained her at his house, helped set up a meeting of “orderly, intelligent people” for her and even paid for her use of the hall. He even sent her on her way “with the assurance that I should have a cordial welcome in that place at any time I could come and speak to them,” she wrote. “I think such opponents are very desirable.”

When Campell took the Knox-Lincoln Railroad up to Rockland for her next lecture at the First Universalist Church, she found “many warm friends of the cause” who pledged to work for its advancement. At the time, many women’s rights advocates were Universalists, and the church in Rockland, led by its pastor Albert H. Sweetser, was a hotbed of suffrage activity. Unfortunately, Campbell’s horses came down with a highly contagious strain of horse distemper that was plaguing Rockland at the time, so she was forced to borrow a team from Lucy Snow’s husband George to catch the next leg of her tour at the Methodist Church in Camden.

“There also, I found a few believers; one of them, an old lady, said to me after the meeting — ‘I am glad you had the courage to come to Camden to speak the truth,’” wrote Campbell. “I was assured a cordial welcome, and a fair hearing if I should ever come to their town again.”

Unfortunately, with a sick horse, it took her five hours to make the 18-mile trek to Belfast, followed by a stop at the Methodist Episcopal Church in Searsport. Due to fears of a smallpox outbreak, the crowd was small in Belfast, and Campbell got into a heated exchange with William R. Rust, the editor of the Progressive Age Bulletin, a Republican newspaper that often clashed with the Democratic-leaning Republican Journal. While the RJ strongly supported women’s suffrage, Campbell found that Progressive Age was “not nearly so progressive” as the other paper.

“What disabilities women labored under in Maine, that they should wish to vote?” asked Rust.

“If any man in his position did not know what disabilities women labored under, the first, and most consistent thing he could do was to inform himself,” Campbell replied curtly. She acknowledged that Maine’s laws protecting women were more progressive than other states, but she also pointed out that even Maine had not yet given mothers the same child custody rights as fathers.

Maine Woman Suffrage Association Launches

With interest in equal suffrage growing rapidly in rural Maine, suffragists decided it was time to start a statewide organization. On February 8, 1873, more than a thousand women’s suffragists from around the state gathered at Granite Hall in Augusta for the founding of the Maine Woman Suffrage Association. Speaking to the crowd of activists, Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe encouraged them to continue the fight in Augusta for a suffrage amendment.

“We are engaged in a work that enlists the sympathies of Heaven,” said Howe. “The tree of prejudice must be cut down, and women and men in this country made sovereigns alike.”

Stone told women to never doubt their ability to “do their part” in government.

“We have to wait long and patiently in this matter,” she said, “sow the seed and water the tender plant carefully and often. As the buds that will burst forth in beauty, next May, were formed in the June previous, so the bud of equal justice to women has been formed, and will expand in due course of time.”

Contingents from Belfast and Rockland attended, including Rev. Sweetser, who would serve as a vice president of the state organization, as well as Lucy A. Snow and her husband George Larkin Snow, who served as its secretary. Miss A. Hicks of Belfast served on the organization committee and Mrs. Swan of Rockland was on the committee on resolutions. Eliza A. Dickerson of Belfast, wife of Supreme Court Justice Jonathan G. Dickerson, would also serve as an officer in the association. Thomaston women Jane Watts and Caroline Gould Rice, wife of Thomaston Prison Warden Warren W. Rice and a well-known advocate for the welfare of prison convicts, would later serve on the organization’s executive committee.

It wasn’t long before newspaper editors began to take notice. The Camden Herald, the Republican Journal and the Rockland Gazette all wrote editorials supporting women’s suffrage. In an editorial dated Jan. 30, 1873, the Republican Journal argued that although women could now own property, they were barred from having a voice in the laws that regulate the management and taxation of that property.

“As the law now exists, the classes that are allowed to hold property, and are denied the ballot, are minors, idiots, lunatics, criminals and women!” the editor wrote. “Women as a class are much more economical than men. Their habits of life, and often necessity, teach them to study the art of saving, and of making a little go a long way. Is it not possible that this faculty, brought to bear upon the public expenses, with the hope of reducing taxation, might have a beneficial effect?”

In 1873, several of the small towns that Margaret Campbell visited the previous fall submitted petitions to the Legislature for a suffrage amendment. Over in Belfast, Eliza Dickerson and Mrs. R. A. Banks collected 24 signatures while Lucy Snow gathered 83 signatures from Rockland women and Mrs. Mary E. Bean signed up 50 women from Liberty and Montville. By this time, the demographic of the petitioners had widened to include older women, young female professionals and a few men, notes Niagara University Professor Shannon Risk in her 2009 doctoral thesis on the Maine suffrage movement. And the vote in the Legislature was much closer — the Senate split 14-14 while the House narrowly voted it down 62-69.

Then 1874 saw the founding of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, which became a driving force in the suffrage movement, with chapters all over the state, including Rockland and Belfast. However, the involvement of temperance crusaders made the liquor lobby and its allies in the Democratic Party nervous, and they would begin to work against suffrage as the movement gained momentum.

By 1874, Campbell’s lecture circuit proved to be an extremely effective organizing tool, with over 1,600 people, mostly from the eastern part of the state, signing petitions. The Republican Journal noted the sheer number of influential people who signed the petitions, including three former Belfast mayors, judges, leading lawyers, physicians, shipbuilders and bank presidents as well as the editors of the Republican Journal, the Rockland Free Press and the Rockland Gazette. Several legislators and former Governor Anson P. Morrill, who was first elected in 1854 on the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing ticket, had also come out strongly in support of suffrage.

“It will be seen from these facts,” wrote the Republican Journal, “… that it can no longer be truthfully said that the ballot is demanded for women only by a few restless agitators who busy themselves in advocating it for want of other occupation. The cause has now taken so firm a hold on the masses of the people and so enlisted the interest of persons in all stations, that it cannot be safely ignored or slighted by the most wary politician. With the press of the State almost a unit in its favor and so strong a popular support Maine should be the first State to remove political disabilities from woman.”

But even though the reform-minded elites may have led the charge, lawmakers were not on board with the idea of women getting involved in the dirty business of politics, and the bills became a running joke in the legislature. Eliza Dickerson, who served as a delegate at the national convention, would often express her thoughts on the struggle in the pages of Woman’s Journal throughout the 1870s.

“A hundred generations of prejudice cannot be met and conquered by one generation of enlightenment,” she wrote in one letter dated Feb. 27, 1875. “True as it is, that the daughters of Maine are legally and politically inferior to the sons of Maine, and have fewer opportunities for culture or progress. Still, have we not a hundred fold better than our grandmothers had, and is not that something to be thankful for? Especially with a fair prospect of enfranchisement which, in the estimation of good judges, is merely a question of time. Hic et ubique.”

Dickerson would prove herself to be a pioneer in the local women’s rights movement when she was elected to the Belfast School Committee in 1875 and as chairman a year later.

Professional Women Move Into the Workforce

When Woman’s Journal traveled to Maine in the summer of 1870, what immediately struck the writers was the sheer amount of wasted talent of so many bright women who were locked out of higher pursuits.

“Everywhere in Maine — in Bangor, Augusta, Hallowell, Gardiner, Bath, Brunswick, Waterville, Mechanics’ Falls — everywhere that we went, in large towns and cities, we were impressed with the great numbers of superior, well-educated, executive women we found, who are doing comparatively nothing,” they wrote in the Sept. 3, 1870 issue. “A little piano, a little housework, a good deal of useless fine sewing and needlework, a good deal of miserable, unsatisfactory calling and tea-drinking, a good deal of the details of Sunday school and church work, a good deal of literature, frequently of high order, and a good deal of of sitting in wearisome ennui, wishing there was something more absorbing and satisfying in life.”

But throughout the 1870s, Maine women began breaking glass ceilings left and right. In 1871, Colby and Bates colleges officially opened their doors to women, although Bowdoin wouldn’t follow suit until 100 years later, despite its president, former Governor Joshua Chamberlain, expressing support for admitting women in his 1871 inaugural address. A year later, Clara Hapgood Nash of Columbia Falls, who was the first woman admitted to the bar of New England, was also admitted to the Maine bar. And the year after that, Maine Methodists ordained a female minister, the first woman was commissioned by the governor to solemnize marriages, and another was appointed registrar of deeds, according to the “History of Woman Suffrage.” Searsport became one of the first towns to hire a female superintendent in 1874. In 1872, the conservative Maine Farmer, a popular rural publication, noted the change afoot.

“Only a few years ago woman’s labor was almost exclusively confined to housework and the care of the household, and it was not considered necessary to educate her for any higher sphere of duty,” it wrote. “. . . . How all of this has changed. . . The American girl has left the kitchen and will never go back. . .. The right of suffrage is the only right which is now denied them, and they are clamoring to-day for that.”

Working Women Join the Labor Movement

By the 1880s, many Maine workers realized that capitalists would never share in the fruits of their labor unless they unionized and demanded their fair share. The Knights of Labor rapidly became the largest union in the state, with 28,000 members in 1887. The Knights allowed not only skilled and unskilled workers to join their ranks, but also farmers and even some small businessman as long as they were engaged in “honorable toil,” as opposed to the big bankers and corporations that reigned supreme during the Gilded Age. The Knights’ ultimate goal was to transcend capitalism by replacing it with a system of worker cooperatives, but they were also quite socially progressive for the time, organizing women and blacks as well as supporting equal pay and women’s suffrage. As Portland’s Eastern Argus noted at the time, the Knights were the first secret organization to promote equality for women and men.

“In all local assemblies women are put on an equal footing with men in speaking, voting, holding office and all other things,” it wrote. “Indeed, a large part of the offices are filled and well filled, by women. They make the best of members — earnest, faithful and enthusiastic. Rainy, muddy nights when the men stay at home the women turn out in full force, good-natured and earnest. It is an old proverb that there are black sheep in every flock. But I never heard of a woman traitor in the Knights of Labor, though of course stronger influences are brought to bear than in other secret orders.”

The Knights were very popular among quarry workers in the midcoast, with branches in Rockland, Thomaston, Vinalhaven and Lincolnville during the 1880s. In the election of 1886, the midcoast sent three of the four Knights of Labor members elected to the Legislature that year, including Republican House members Thomas Lyons of Vinalhaven and John H. Eells of Camden and Democratic Senator Stephen J. Gushee of Appleton. In 1887, one of the most important victories of the Knights in Maine was successfully lobbying the Maine Legislature to create the Bureau of Industrial and Labor Statistics, which examined the working conditions of both women and men to inform labor law.

During the1880s the number of women in the workforce steadily increased from 14.5 percent in 1880 to nearly 21 percent 30 years later, with the majority in domestic service and mill work, according to labor historian Carol Toner. Flora Haines, who was hired by Maine Commissioner of Labor to investigate working conditions for female workers, reported a litany of workplace safety complaints, including fire hazards, poor ventilation, toxic chemicals, contaminated water, extreme temperatures and a lack of separate bathrooms for women. And while the state eventually passed a 10-hour workday law in 1887, Toner writes that employers often used loopholes in the law to pressure women to work longer.

But in those accounts Haines collected, there is also evidence that some working women were ready to make a stand for equal pay, better working conditions and fewer hours.

“I like my employer very much but think he could pay better wages for female labor, and if we should organize I believe we could get it,” said one shoe worker in an 1892 report. “Where there are unions the wages are always better, I have noticed that, and I would join a union the first one [even] if I lost my place for it.”

During the same period, labor unrest exploded, with 73 strikes involving 6,826 workers, including 2,000 women. However, Toner notes the Maine Legislature became less responsive to the needs of labor, particularly women workers, after the precipitous decline of the Knights of Labor in the late 1880s. And while women constituted 10 percent of the Knights membership, female workers were largely excluded from the conservative American Federation of Labor, which took in many of the skilled workers who had been members of the Knights.

But the more radical unions like the Industrial Workers of the World were open to women. One of the most notable women in Maine labor history is a sewer named Mamie Bilodeau who was dismissed in January 1907 for organizing a IWW branch at the Marston Worsted Mill in Skowhegan. Soon 225 workers walked off the job in solidarity with Bilodeau and other fired IWW members. The Wobblies demanded that the company reinstate the dismissed workers, abolish fines for imperfect work and fire the foreman Charles North who fired the IWW members. The IWW’s paper the Industrial Bulletin wrote that North used “the vilest, most obscene and insulting epithets in the vocabulary of degeneracy, towards women and girls in his department.” After a 12-week strike, the union eventually won a few of its demands in spite of an effort by the AFL to scab the striking women. But the company refused to set up a grievance committee or get rid of North.

Nevertheless, the lesson was clear that working conditions for women wouldn’t improve substantially unless they got organized. Unfortunately, writes Toner, “It took the late 1960s women’s movement to elevate most unions to the paltry levels achieved by the Knights in the 1880s.”

Next week: The road to victory!