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March 14, 2016

Women’s Suffrage in Hamilton County

Mary LivermoreWomen’s Suffrage in Hamilton County

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

I’m going farther out in the county for this post on Women’s History.  Women’s rights got a fairly early start in the county.  Westfield women were involved in the Abolition movement and, after the end of slavery, moved on to other issues.  Their efforts can be followed in a series of articles and notices that appeared in the Hamilton County Register newspaper between July of 1869 and July of 1870. (These are available on microfilm in the Indiana Room.)

The first Women’s Rights Society was formed at a meeting at the Masonic Lodge in Westfield on July 14, 1869.   Clara Kenyon was elected president and a constitution was adopted.  This kicked off an exchange of letters to the newspaper from different sides of the controversy, all of them written in florid Victorian language.  However, like many modern bloggers, the writers usually used a cover name to keep some degree of anonymity.  The first back-and-forth was between “S.”, who asked where women’s rights were mentioned in the bible, and “Hic Jacet”, who answered citing several different passages.

The newspaper encouraged the women to do a weekly column and apparently printed everything that was given to them.  (They obviously considered the controversy to be good for circulation.)  Letters followed from “Marion” who was in favor of suffrage and brought up the issue of equal pay for equal work, while “Darius” encouraged the women to find the best possible representatives.

A September article reprinted from the Boston News titled “Women’s Work” stated that while women could do some small jobs like bookkeeping, they should also be happy to do work like housekeeping.  This is ironic in that Hamilton County would soon have women running the railroad stations in Fishers and Noblesville.    In 1880, the station agent at Fishers was Miss Ollie McChesney.

While the Register newspaper was complimentary towards the Society, they reprinted articles from all angles.  Some questioned the political angle – would this weaken or strengthen the Republican Party?  Other said that the women should do Temperance work instead and that women were too refined for political activity.  A reprinted New York Times article stated that women were not actually oppressed.  It was a lively conversation.

The movement reached a high point on October 14 with a convention that hosted Mary Livermore and organized a county-wide organization.  Ella George was elected president.  While the paper heavily promoted the convention and gave it good coverage, they also printed a letter from “Mum” who opposed it.  “Mum” remarked that Mrs. Livermore spoke to a “slim but attentive audience”, but was unconvincing.   “Mum” stated her take on the matter by saying, “We never wanted to vote, even if we do only receive half the wages as the gentleman engaged in the same occupation, but we will try and live, (if the women will promise not to wear so many ruffles and flowers)…”

The newspaper eagerly asked for more columns and, in February of 1870, tried to establish a regular column called “The Woman Question”.  By spring, however, the movement was losing steam.  “S.” weighed in again saying that women were too noble to be involved in politics.  The article become more sporadic until July, when the Women’s Suffrage Association merged with the Temperance society.