Suffragette City: The history of Dayton’s League of Women Voters
By Jolene Pohl
Some have said they were “a little un-ladylike” and there were riots in the streets of Washington, D.C. because of them. Despite the uproar, the purple and gold flags waved high with the women who called themselves suffragists.
Imagine stepping up to a room full of men to discuss your rights as a female citizen only to be pelted with food and insults, as suffragists Mrs. O.F. (Jessie) Davisson and Miss Foley were in 1912 in White City.
These were the voices of Dayton women who, in the same year as the fateful Titanic’s sinking, refused to be drowned out. Davisson, who later became vice president of the League of Women Voters, made the bold newspaper statement to the opposition, “Isn’t it about time to admit that most of the dirty work of the world is done by women? Are the washing of foul linens, the scrubbing of floors, the cleansing of dirty dishes tasks which befit a creature too fine, or frail to go to a polling booth and cast a vote?”
Dressed in long skirts and expressive hats, the Dayton suffragists were dangerous rebels of their time because they dared speak out against the status quo. Dayton women wanted the vote and even anti-suffragist women did not deter them, despite being referred to as advocates of “sex, freedom, easy divorce, trial marriage, state care of children, birth control and other destructive theories.” The suffragists spoke to the public, stood their ground and never looked back. This is the story of heroes. This is a story for the ages.
“Now you have the vote, what are you going to do with it?”
Common decency all but disappeared in Dayton’s fight for women’s suffrage. Scribbled largely across a July 25, 1912 letter of request for endorsement of the Woman’s Suffrage Party of Montgomery County is, “I am positively opposed,” signed F.P. Beaver. It would be nearly a decade before the nation celebrated women’s enfranchisement.
Founded 91 years ago by Carrie Chapman Catt, the League of Women Voters (LWV) was formed. More than 20 million American women were enfranchised despite the bitter fight of over 100 years. Catt challenged those 20 million women to exercise their 19th Amendment right by asking them, “Now you have the vote, what are you going to do with it?”
The League of Women Voters of the Greater Dayton Area was formed in May 1920; “scattered in ashes and from these, rising like a Phoenix, came the League of Women Voters,” quoted the Dayton Daily News that year. Historic Daytonians such as NCR founder John H. Patterson, Charles Kettering, Colonel Deeds and David Rike, supported the Dayton chapter of the LWV. Patterson stated that the hope of political regeneration in this country lay in the work of the LWV.
In Montgomery County, 40,000 women needed to be trained to cast a ballot. Similar to the contention people feel about present-day politics, not all women welcomed the ability to vote. According to a local poll, only two out of 30 women said that they would definitely vote in the upcoming election.
“Ten asserted they don’t give a rap about the ballot (and five) said they are too busy attending to household duties to think about voting,” said a Dayton reporter in 1920. “Say, what have I got a husband for?” said an East Third Street woman to the reporter. “Nothing doing in the voting line — at least yet. I hate to think that the suffragists are forcing an unpleasant duty on me.”
The new Dayton LWV was under the direction of a local suffragist, Minnie Stanley, who understood the responsibility of educating her community. She organized a voter training session at NCR with the help of John Patterson. Classes, meetings and presentations were held locally which produced educational leaflets and schools on citizenship. A monthly newsletter called The Dayton Woman Citizen was published in 1922 with articles about the League and the Dayton city government. The Citizen provided communication between League members about current events and provided a platform about many different topics which were important to the women of Dayton including child welfare, social hygiene, education, women’s legal rights and, during times of economic difficulty, tips on saving money. Aside from social discussion, early women voters influenced a great deal of change to Ohio’s laws. One of the LWV’s first influences to the state was revising the school code in the 1920s under which rural Ohio children finally had a chance to attend school instead of working.
The League members thought they would disband after five years, but pushed forward to create even more change throughout the history of Dayton and the country.
A new voice
“Women brought a different perspective that hadn’t been seen before,” said Susan Hesselgesser, current executive director of the League of Women Voters for the Greater Dayton Area. Dayton was a robust metropolis in the early 1900s, described by Hesselgesser as a “crossroads of states” which had a lot of influence in state affairs.
Although it would be 60 years until American women became significant members of the national voting-block, the LWV established its own voice from the beginning. The membership has always been against war and in favor of peaceful resolutions. The LWV in Dayton has historic roots in the call for peace as early as 1925 when the International Co-operation to Prevent War was established. In 1922 the LWV led a “No More War” demonstration. This is a fact that fits nicely in association with the Dayton Peace Accords of 1995.
LWV women have taken action throughout the 20th century, from the civil rights movement to anti-war protests to protecting women’s rights. LWV encouraged women who were enfranchised to keep fighting to make sure every American was included in democracy. In 1921, the Dayton League of Colored Women Voters was established and Mrs. Berdie Ellis of Homestead Avenue became the first president.
“Our mantra has always been about maintaining women’s history and educating the public about issues that are important to our city, our state and nation,” said Hesselgesser. “Our [women’s] history is not available in high schools or even women’s studies programs but it’s full of empowering stories that are uniquely women’s, about who we are and where we come from.”
War and hardship
Membership in the first years of the foundation of the Dayton LWV was near 800 members. Through the most trying times, the membership continued their work as active citizens.
Cited by a member in a 1930 LWV meeting minutes document, “This depression has not changed the fact that we are voters — it has only made it more significant. Citizens are dealing in these days with issues, the solution of which may affect the direction which government will take for generations to come.” It is this example of a flexibility of approach to Dayton’s needs that kept LWV membership active.
Leading up to World War II, the interest in issues of National Defense was more broadly based, in contrast to the period after Pearl Harbor. In January 1942 the LWV of Dayton and Montgomery County released a statement in the Citizen after the bombing of Pearl Harbor stating the event “…not only shocked us, but it has created an urge to engage in some form of physical action. This is a very natural and noble desire, wanting to do something for the defense of one’s country.”
The LWV encouraged citizen action in various organizations but highlighted their diligence as a protector of rights: “During the duration we are going to yield some of our privileges as citizens, but there are many rights and interests we must not relinquish or in any way surrender.”
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the objective of the Wartime Service program (previously the Defense program) evolved “to spread information as widely as possible on wartime problems of government. Subjects covered by speakers at meetings included: State and Federal Division of Protection of Civil Liberties; Freedom of Speech; and Rationing.”
The LWV membership never stopped striving to broaden their education about world events, especially during World War II. The members advocated for the creation of the United Nations. In 1945, the study of Foreign Policy was increasingly popular among members. A campaign of support for the Dumbarton Oaks proposals began with day and evening schools for members who went back to their communities well informed on the topic. Throughout the history of LWV, members worked diligently in the little spaces they could find, working sometimes out of a shower room at the Miami Hotel but never ceasing to educate the public.
A second wave
Membership in the 1960s was at unprecedented highs in activity. The LWV of the Greater Dayton Area website reviews that time period: “What was stunning about the membership statistics is not so much the sheer number 450-500 throughout the decade, but the activism of those members.”
Indeed the ‘60s reflect a crucial time in American history just by reviewing the names of the members. Women no longer replaced their names with their husbands’, but instead used their own names, with and without the “Mrs.” as a prefix.
Equality, desegregation, higher education, area planning, health care and state education studies were studied by this generation of LWV members in several local areas. The continuation of the tradition of flexibility by the LWV became increasingly important as women liberated themselves once again to ask for greater equal rights. A 1964 member, Evelyn Ferguson is quoted on the local LWV’s website, noting her experience in the League “leads her to think that membership was up in those days because many saw the League as a place for mental stimulation and camaraderie.”
Almost a year ago, an elegant evening was hosted at the Dayton Masonic Center, a location where 90 years prior, women would not have been allowed to enter. The evening was dedicated to the rich history of the Dayton suffragists. Attendees enjoyed the remarkable print and photo archive dating back to the suffrage movement, highlighting brave citizen action. The collective effort of generations of women preserving Dayton’s history brought pride to members.
A skit was performed about the early suffragists, the “Dangerous Dames of Dayton.” Local author Katrina Kittle read the skit aloud, finishing with a tribute to the suffragists: “These then were the ladies who, despite all odds, stepped out of the shadows of their fathers and the ownership of their husbands to demand equal rights.”
Even more poignant was the keynote speaker of the evening, Ellen Goodman, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for her columns, a dream the suffragists 91 years ago could only try to imagine.
It’s your turn
For the past 40 years, Dayton residents have had the advantage of being educated about issues through the distribution of the LWV’s Voter’s Guide (found in this issue of the Dayton City Paper). The League provides this service to the public to encourage their participation in elections so they may make informed decisions about their community’s future.
Because of perseverance and foresight of American women, like those in LWV and the suffrage movement, all citizens enjoy their rights. It is through the spirit of strength of women like Dayton’s own Jessie L. Davisson, Bertie Ellis and others who provided a platform for Dayton women and women throughout the country.
In America, every woman who speaks up, every soldier who hopes for peace, every student who asks for a better future, every citizen who casts a ballot does so as a representative of those who came before them. The League of Women Voters provides a treasured past and a hopeful future so that we may know our heroes to which we owe great thanks. The spirit of Sojourner Truth who spoke in 1853 about inequality will continue and the LWV will be there to make sure its voice is heard: “We have all been thrown down so low that nobody thought we’d ever get up again; but we have been long enough trodden now; we will come up again, and now I am here.”
Election Day is Nov. 8. For more information, please visit the LWVGDA website at www.lwvdayton.org or by calling (937) 228-4041 oe (937) 372-4148.
Reach DCP freelance writer Jolene Pohl at JolenePohl@DaytonCityPaper.com.