During the decade prior to the 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, the National American Woman Suffrage Association pushed arguments for equal suffrage in modern print media and noisy street spectacles. And, when in 1914 the national organization declared May 2nd as National Suffrage Day, the Grand Rapids Equal Franchise Club rose to the challenge.
They negotiated with the Grand Rapids press to take over content and editing of its May 2nd edition and were tutored for months on the inner workings of a newspaper. A volunteer editor worked with nine section editors and three reporters to turn every section of the newspaper toward the promotion of equal coting rights- including the weather (“a fine day for suffrage!”) and automotive sections (“women make the decisions”).
The suffrage edition features testimonials from the Michigan governor, a banker, baseball players, and preachers, and pokes fun at anti-suffragists. One cartoon uses a fence to illustrate the positions of prominent local men. Stalwarts stand squarely in front of it. One benighted fellow is behind, and the rest are sitting on it.
Sports editor Mary E. Remington went all out with articles featuring a young woman who set a record at Rose’s Beach for the longest continuous swim, a local woman playing basketball at Oberlin College, and twelve young girls in a gymnastics and calisthenics contest in Akron, Ohio. The most fun, however, is a tongue-in-cheek article about a suffragist going three rounds with a well-known Michigan boxer. He asks that she “go light on this suffrage business.” She does not. In the first round, he concedes that property owners and taxpaying women should vote. in the second, he takes a jab but yields to her argument. In the third, he tries to duck a wallop, but fails and goes down. The suffragist, in three!
Some headlines were not subtle: “What Local Women Have Actually Done” enumerates efforts to improve housing, oversee honest weights and measures, ensure safe food laws, clean milk from clean dairies, and trained meat inspectors. The newspaper’s city section notes other social reforms achieved by women and includes the photo of a young boy who would have been thrown into jail with adults if women hadn’t repurposed an old roadhouse as a juvenile home. And the school section reports on a new desk designed by a woman- and illustrated an image populated only by girls using the new desks!
The Equal Franchise Club’s plans for National Suffrage Day in grand Rapids went far beyond the publication and distribution of their special edition. The Furniture City Band performed from a decorated streetcar, young women gave out flowers from festooned automobiles, and teenaged boys ran a “Votes for Women” banner through downtown, ending at Veterans Park, where a rousing rally featured choirs, orators, and the reading by suffragist leader Clara Comstock Rusell of a declaration for woman suffrage to be sent by the Equal Franchise Club to Congress.
Grand Rapids area women made the biggest splash in the state on May 2nd, 1914. They would not be ignored.
This article can also be found in the September 2020 issue of the Grand Rapids Women’s LifeStyle magazine.