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The Suffragettes and Rabbi Stephen Wise
Abigail Adams encouraged her husband to “remember the ladies” (and their rights) as he worked on the Declaration of Independence in 1776 but the Cult of Domesticity in the first half of the 19th century gave rise to stereotypical ideas of women’s roles as the nurturers of men but also needing their protection when it came to personal property, education and politics. The right to vote remained the exclusive privilege of the white male in America. The women’s rights movements in the 1800s made universal suffrage and women’s enfranchisement their main goal. Other issues embraced by the movement were, anti-slavery, temperance, birth control and property ownership for women. These later issues often drew opposition from varied segments of society including other women. Their peers often saw the female proponents of these causes as less than ladylike.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony formed the American Equal Rights Association in 1866 to work for universal suffrage. The passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 identified citizens and voters as “male”. Disagreements over the amendment within the Women’s Movement led to the founding of two organizations one in New York and one in Boston to work for universal suffrage. By 1870, black men had received the vote under the Fifteenth Amendment of the Constitution. The last quarter of the 19th century saw peaceful action take a more radical turn as women attempted to obtain ballots and vote by any means possible including marches, protests and hunger strikes.
It was impossible for Simsbury to be untouched by such an important national issue and it had supporters for and against universal suffrage. One of the strongest of the Simsbury proponents of women’s rights was Antoinette Eno Wood, daughter of Amos Richards Eno, the Simsbury farm boy who made his fortune in the mercantile and real estate markets of New York City. It does not appear that the men of the Eno family shared her sentiments as evidenced by a letter written to her in Simsbury by her brother, Amos Frederick Eno, on October 20, 1915 from his home on Fifth Avenue in New York City prior to a large suffragette parade on that street.
“My dear Sister: On Saturday I will go out of town and do not understand how a Russian lady can care to see the Suffragette. However there are defferent (sic) kinds of people some good and some misled. Let your friend come to the house, Mrs. Desperins [his housekeeper] will take care of her – and at the time will see that there are no suffragette symbols hung out from the house I do not want to have the house have a bad name. Hope the weather will be so good that I can make you a short visit. With much love –Your affectionate Brother, Amos F. Eno.”
In the archives of the Simsbury Historical Society rests the records of the Simsbury Equal Suffrage League. In them are recorded the founding and minutes of the League. Begun on November 29, 1915 at 3:30 PM at the home of Mrs. Wood, the organization had three speakers at its first meeting including Mrs. Thomas Hepburn, President of the Connecticut Woman’s’ Suffrage League. (The wife of Dr. Thomas Hepburn of Hartford Hospital and mother of four at the time including actress Katherine Hepburn.) She “urged the necessity of energy & persistence & gave many interesting & helpful hints as to how to meet and cope with the different types of people. She spoke also of the vicious interests in opposition to Equal Suffrage.”
A constitution comprised of six articles including “The object of this association shall be to secure the enfranchisement of the women of Connecticut.” It also gave two levels of dues: one dollar for any man or woman who believed in woman suffrage and fifty cents for “study members”. Among the officers elected that day were: President, Mrs. Josiah Bridge; Vice-President, Mrs. Jonathan E. Eno; Treasurer, Miss Mary H. Humphrey; Secretary, Miss Julia E. Pattison. They elected nine women and three men as directors. Mrs. Wood was elected Honorary President “as an appreciation of the fact that we have one of the strongest equal suffrage leaders with us.” Forty-two Simsbury residents including two doctors and the Congregational minister signed on as members that day. The meetings were often held at Mrs. Wood’s “cottage” at the corner of Hopmeadow Street and Library Lane, a building that she often allowed community groups to use for meetings.
The next two months were spent preparing for their first “mass meeting” to be held on January 31, 1916 at The Casino (a community building torn down to build the Eno Memorial Hall) with “Miss Helen Todd of California” to speak. Described by fellow suffragettes as “a striking-looking artist” she spoke in the room decorated with the banners of the Equal Suffrage states. One hundred and fifty people attended and nine “signed at once for membership.” Six young women from the high school served as ushers. Her talk attempted to rebut the arguments against women’s suffrage showing that women took very little time away from their household chores when they voted and that the “effect of voting upon a woman is no more coarsening than upon a man.”
Other business discussed in the minutes were the delegates to the Connecticut State Convention November 16-17, 1916. Ten members were sent including Mrs. Wood, Mary Morgan, Rev. Croft, Mrs. Farren Fenton, Mrs. Josiah Bridges, Mrs. Jesse Farren, Elma Farren, Mr. and Mrs. C. B. Rowe, Isabel St. John and Julia Pattison. Alternates included Mr. and Mrs. R. P. Barry, Mrs. Willis Chidsey and Mary Winslow.
World War I encouraged suffragettes. Women saw their vote as being crucial to keeping the United States out of future wars. Asked to part with their husbands and sons they felt more strongly that they should have a right to elect those candidates who would prevent future occurrences. The Simsbury League began to help out the Red Cross and other organizations with the war effort and decided to call on a powerful national speaker to their public meeting in May 1917 at the Casino. It not know what the expenses were to bring him to Simsbury since Mrs. Wood covered them herself or even where he would stay that night but Rabbi Stephen Wise was coming to Simsbury.
Stephen S. Wise was born in Hungary in 1874 and immigrated to New York as a child. He attended the Jewish Theological Seminary and became a reform rabbi. He worked in 1914 with Louis Brandeis in the American Zionist movement and towards the creation of a Jewish homeland. As Hitler rose to power he attempted to turn public opinion against the Nazis. He was active in establishing the World Jewish Congress in the 1920s. As the Zionist Movement became more militant after World War II he moved away from it and died in 1949. His gifts as a speaker were legendary and for many years he had a Sunday radio program broadcast from Carnegie Hall where he spoke on issues of national and world importance.
On May 7, 1917 he came to Simsbury and delivered an address on “The World War for the Liberation of Humanity” to a standing room only crowd. So many people turned out to hear him that his lecture was delayed as chairs were sent for to accommodate the standing crowd at the rear of the hall. “It was the most successful mass meeting held in Simsbury”, wrote Julia E. Pattison, League Secretary. No other records have been found of his stay in town.
There is a story attributed to Rabbi Wise that upon meeting a rather aloof New England gentleman with ancestors that he wore on his sleeve the man announced that his antecedent had signed the Declaration of Independence. Rabbi Wise paused and replied that his ancestors had signed the Ten Commandments.
The records of the League end on December 10, 1919. The issue of women’s suffrage was winding down and the Nineteenth Amendment extending the vote to women would be ratified August 26, 1920. The national suffragette organization forms the base for the League of Women Voters, an organization that continues today.