Women’s Suffrage And The Importance of Voting

Because we are on the eve of a national election, I think it is important to remind ourselves, as women, of the sacrifices made by earlier women who worked and sacrificed to secure this basic right for women–the right to vote.

My grandmother, Mary Lewis, was an early feminist and suffragist.  My grandfather, Frank Mesle, being a wise man, wooed her by respecting her beliefs and making them his own.  One of his early letters to her in 1910 included the following quote from an unknown source:  “When the husband gets ready to regard his wife as an equal partner…when he will grant her the same privileges he demands for himself; when he is willing to allow his wife to liver her own life in her own way without trying to ‘boss’ her, we shall have more true marriages, happier homes and higher civilizations.”

It was ten years later, when my own mother was one years old, that women gained the right to vote.  I was born a mere 26 years later.  Not a very long period of time in the history of this country.  But worlds apart in our understanding and expectations of women’s role in society.

Until the  mid to late 1900’s, women were, in many significant respects, under the legal control of husbands and fathers from birth to death, without the right to own property, vote or participate meaningfully in business or government.  The obstacles to equality for women are nowhere better illustrated than in the Supreme Court’s 1873 decision in Bradwell v. Illinois. [1]

Born in 1831, Myra  Bradwell’s husband was a successful lawyer, judge and member of the Illinois General Assembly.  Myra was a teacher, respected citizen and active in the community.  She founded a legal newspaper and supported women’s suffrage reforms, in addition to  engaging in a wide variety of other activities of no small import. She undertook legal training with the hope of being admitted to the Bar of Illinois.  Her application for a license to practice law was rejected by the Illinois State Supreme Court because, as a married woman, she could not enter into any legal contracts–a basic requirement of practicing law [2].  Ultimately Bradwell appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court claiming a violation of the 14th Amendment.  In writing the decision adopted by the  Supreme Court, in language feminists can quote to this day, Justice Joseph Bradley wrote: “The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many occupations of civil life…[T]he paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the creator.”

Undeterred by the Supreme Court’s ruling, and presumably rejecting the notion that  God believed women should be so limited, feminists continued to press for Constitutional protections, primarily focused on the right to vote.  Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others, dedicated their lives to the struggle for women’s rights: woman’s suffrage, the right of women to own property, retain their own earnings, and to have access to academic opportunities.  From as early as the 1850’s, Anthony and Stanton traveled throughout the United States and Europe in support of women’s rights.  On July 4, 1876, in Philadelphia, Anthony presented on behalf of the National Woman Suffrage Association the  Declaration of  Rights of Women of the United States [3]. Her lengthy speech, while compelling, [4] is particularly powerful concerning the denial of a woman’s right to vote:  “ Universal manhood suffrage, by establishing an aristocracy of sex, imposes upon the women of this nation a more absolute and cruel depotism than monarch; in that, woman finds a political master in her father, husband, brother, son….”  Stanton died in 1906, 14 years before her vision of universal women’s suffrage became a reality.  In 1979, in honor of her role in the struggle for women’s rights, the U.S. Mint issued a dollar coin with her image.

The final struggles and success of the so-called suffrage movement is well described in the powerful movie, Iron Jawed Angels[5].  This movie focuses on the period immediately leading up to the passage of the 19th Amendment. It tells the story of the relentlessness of women leaders like Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, who through the early years of World War I fought tirelessly to persuade President Woodrow Wilson to endorse their right to vote.

As the U.S. was entering World War I, some 35 years after the Bradwell decision, suffragists began to picket of the White House.  Their theme was questioning why we should be fighting a war abroad in defense of Democracy when women at home did not experience Democracy.

Despite romantic descriptions of women’s delicacy and timidity, women engaged in the feminist movement behaved, and were treated, without regard to any such perceptions. Their leaders were fined and then imprisoned for 60 days for “obstructing traffic”. They continued to picket.  Alice was sentenced to 7 months in prison.  She was ultimately placed in a solitary confinement and began a hunger strike. Attempts were made to have Alice declared insane. [6] Ultimately she was  force fed by her jailers, who repeatedly fed her through a tube down her throat.  Denied access to the public, their families and even lawyers, it was the husband of one of the leaders of the movement who ultimately advised the press of the treatment of these women.

Learning of the treatment of the suffragists, on January 9, 1918, President Wilson reversed his opposition to women’s right to vote. He urged  Congress to vote in favor of a Constitutional Amendment guaranteeing women’s right, stating:  “we have made partners of the women in this war…Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?”

On June 4, 1919, the U.S. Senate passed the Nineteenth Amendment, guaranteeing the right to vote, by one vote.  On August 26, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment.  The Amendment became law.

The sacrifices of women like Alice Paul were life changing. Without her bull-headed resistance to the status quo, women’s suffrage may well have been delayed for years.  Her sacrifices and the sacrifices of women before her, secured the beginnings of real change for women’s status as full members of society.

It is important that all women honor and acknowledge the sacrifices from the past.  Please vote on November 6, and every election.  Vote for the candidates of your choice, but vote.

[1] Bradwell v. Illinois, 83 U.S. (16 Wall.) 130 (1873).

[2] It is not to be ignored that she was denied a license because legislatures controlled by men denied her, and all women, basic rights to own property, enters contracts, keep their own earnings and otherwise control their own destinies.

[3] The original Declaration of the Rights of woman and the Female Citizen was written by Olympe de Gouges a French patriot, in 1791.  It is modeled on the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, adopted in 1789 by the National Constituent Assembly during the French Revolution.

[4]  This speech also includes a quote from Abigail Adams, who said: “We will not hold ourselves bound to obey laws in which we have no voice or representation”.

[5]  Released in 2004, the movie starred Hillary Swank.

[6]  Historically,  male doctor, refused to find her insane, stating that bravery in women has sometimes been mistaken for insanity.

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The views presented in our blog do not represent the positions of our families, our friends or our employers.

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Living In the Midst of a Utopian Community

My grandfather, Frank Carl Mesle was born in Buffalo, NY on March 18, 1884 and died in Sherrill, NY on August 24, 1964.  His parents left Germany three years before his birth.  His father, Franz Mesle, died when Frank was 9 years old.  His mother, Kate Kirsch Mesle raised 4 children alone.

He had only a limited education when, at age 13, in 1997, he was hired to be an errand boy by Oneida Community, Ltd.  It changed his life forever.  By age 16 he was a plant foreman.  In 1914, when the company moved its headquarters from Niagara Falls to Sherrill, NY, Frank was one of many employees making that move.  In 1915, my grandparents moved into their house, just up the hill from the plant, where they lived until their deaths.

Because our “cousins trip” to New York was focused on family history, Sherrill was one of our primary destinations.  All the cousins remember happy visits to Sherrill, wandering the streets in and around their home at 166 Willow.  We visited again in July, 2012.  The house looked the same as it looked  on my last visit 50 years ago.

Frank was a pioneer in electroplating processes that revolutionized the production (and quality) of silver-plating.  Ultimately, he rose to the position of Superintendent of the Plating Department.  He directed silver plating of artillery shells in World War I and the silver plating of aircraft bearings in World War II.  He served as Editor of The Monthly Review and in 1926 became President of the American Electroplaters’ Society.  He received the Society’s Founder’s Gold Medal in 1929, 1938, 1940 and 1943. He received the key to the city of Toronto, Canada, during an international conference of electroplaters.

For many years Oneida, Ltd. was a major producer of high quality silver plate flat ware.  Ultimately, it became unable to compete with foreign products. My grandfather had a significant role in the company’s successes and would have grieved the company’s losses.

The company was good to granddad and he was good for the company.  When Sherrill became a self-governing city in 1916, he was elected to Sherrill’s original governing Commission.  In 1917 he was elected a member of the Board of Education of Sherrill’s public schools.  He was President of the PTA, Superintendent of Schools, Counselor to Boy Scouts and a member of the Library Board.  He was a charter member of Sherrill’s chapter of the Masonic Order and an ordained minister.  He was recognized in the American Men of Science and Who’s Who in American.  He was given the key to the city of Toronto, Canada and was featured in the “Leader’s in the Industry” edition of the Journal of the American Electroplaters’ Society.  He never spoke of these accomplishments.

The above is really just statistical information about a man.  What matters more to me are the factors that shaped the family we are today.  My visit to Sherrill gave me some insight.  When we toured the Community’s Mansion House, the Curator of the Mansion House, described the values of the Oneida Community in words I remember vividly as the morality lessons and beliefs I learned as a childhood.   Granddad joined Oneida, Ltd. just 16 years after the end of the utopian experiment.  By then the radical ideas of the community were in the past. The commitment to working toward perfection on earth continued.  The company–and my granddad–tried to create an environment that provided a high quality of life for the Sherrill community.  If unable to achieve perfection, perhaps, however briefly, they created their own “Camelot”.

Oneida Ltd’s values, and my grandparents’ values, focused on religion, academic achievement, commitment to healthy living, love of music and the arts, hard work and the equality of the sexes. My grandparents’ early letters evidenced their belief in the equality of the sexes. Granddad’s commitment to education resulted in his educating himself as an adult so that he became widely recognized as a scientist and chemical engineer.

The utopian community emphasized that members of the community, and the company, should share the successes and failures of the community.  Oneida, Ltd. embraced this concept by insisting that top management share financial successes and hardships with laborers; taking pay cuts during economic downturns and receiving salary increases only when workers received them as well.  My father still advocates that during economic downturns companies should share available work so all employees will keep a portion of their income.

In supporting the community, Oneida, Ltd. contributed significant resources to develop a park, school, tennis courts, and recreational activities.  The company even created a “swimming hole” in the stream so kids would have a place to swim.  It is still there today, less than a block from our family home.

The values of the community formed the essential elements of my father’s and my grandparents lives.  They dedicated their lives to community, God, and family.  Granddad served on the boards that provided for Sherrill  what the Utopian community believed were essential prerequisites of a “perfect” life.  My grandmother, Mary Lewis Mesle, was also active in the community, was a prolific writer and correspondent and was, like her father before her, active in temperance organizations.  My dad shares all those goals and traits.

The Oneida Community’s utopian experiment ended just 16 years before my grandparents joined the company established by its former members.  As we drove through Sherrill I was overwhelmed with the understanding that the best values established by a utopian community in the mid-1800’s continue to influence the lives and personalities of the people of Sherrill and my own family.   I am grateful for it.

Oneida Community: From Utopian Community to Silverware Manufacturer

Founded by John Humphrey Noyes in 1848, the Oneida Community was based on the premise that individuals can be free of sin and perfect on earth, not just in Heaven.  The community practiced what has been described as “Bible communism”, in the sense that it practiced a form of communal property based on a belief that freedom from possessions facilitated achieving perfection.  At its peak, shortly before it dissolved in 1881, it had a membership of 306.  While the community has been disbanded well in excess of 100 years, descendants of the members continue to live in apparent harmony and grace in the shadow of the Mansion House, which was at the center of community life.

The Mansion House consists of a cluster of buildings sitting in a campus like environment where members of the community lived and prospered.

None of the members of my family were members of the Oneida Community, but it is, nonetheless, a part of what shaped our family values.  Because my  grandfather worked for the Oneida Silver Company, he and my father, aunt and uncle were surrounded by former members of the community and were constantly influenced by the best of its values: equality of the sexes, cultural advancement, education and hard work.

To facilitate the complete integration of women into the life of the community, women rejected the heavy petticoats and restrictive clothing of outside society and wore short, but modest, dresses over long pantaloons. Women were included among the leadership of the community. Men and women shared work duties, rotating among those duties so that each person shared in more routine and more specialized tasks, as well as sharing traditionally male and female tasks.

Criticism of members of the community was considered a significant aspect of the goal of achieving perfection.  Primary reasons for criticism were what was considered inappropriate “special love” such as love of a mother for her birth child that exceeded her love of the children of other women.  I am told that the unwillingness of the community to recognize the inevitability of close ties between a mother and her own child was one of the reasons for the downfall of the commune.  Victorian values in the outside world may have been another. Squabbling among members surely also took a toll.

Pride, vanity were often the subject of criticism.  Individuals called for criticism by leaders of the community were expected to remain silent, accept the criticism and use the criticism as a means of furthering their efforts to obtain perfection. This lovely hall served as a center for cultural events, concerts, meetings but also the location for individual criticism.

For many years the community prospered due to its farming, silk and canning operations, but more important as a primary producer of animal traps.  After the commune disbanded the founders and their descendants remained closely connected financially and geographically.  By about 1899, the former members of the commune, under the leadership of P.B. Noyes, son of the founder, acquired a failing silver ware company. Oneida and its employees, including my grandfather, Frank C. Mesle, moved the company from Niagara Falls to Oneida where the company prospered through hard work and innovation.

Many utopian values were incorporated into the life of the company, particularly the concept of sharing wealth and sharing economic challenges.  Executives of the company were given raises only when raises were given to line workers. In periods of recession and depression, all employees shared the available work such that while their hours and their incomes were reduced, no one bore the overwhelming burden of difficult times.

The company reached the height of its financial success in the 1980’s but its revenues declined, and the company essentially disappeared, due to its inability to compete with foreign flatware.  But many of the best the values of the community continue to this day.  Literature, culture, music and hard work resonate throughout the community.  Beautification projects can be seen in Oneida and neighboring Sherrill, NY. even today.