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Prior to passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, women had no share and no say in our nation’s democracy. Nevertheless women had been striving for voting rights for decades. Their tenacity and intelligence almost defies belief. In Pittsburgh we owe legions of women our gratitude.

These are just a few of our City’s most dedicated suffragists, our goal is to encourage further exploration of the remarkable women upon whose shoulders we stand.

Miss Emma Writt(1), Miss Mary Writt(2).

She was acknowledged as a leader in the 1700s, by both her people, the Seneca, and by Europeans in our region. In the following century, suffragists in Seneca Falls, NY learned about enfranchisement and governing from the female members of the Seneca. In the Seneca culture, women voted and made decisions on tribal matters. This inspired & informed the suffragists

Writ family home.
Jane Grey Swisshelm

Pittsburgh had several early proponents of women’s suffrage in the mid1800s, most notably Jane Grey Swisshelm, however the movement was still several decades away from picking up steam.

Daisy Elizabeth Adams Photo
Pittsburgh’s Suffragist Squad

The story of the Pittsburgh suffragists has the makings of a Hollywood hit. It has it all: seemingly unconquerable odds, racing against near impossible deadlines, fierce loyalty to the cause, and Jennie Roessing, a heroic woman who tirelessly urged the women through it all.

By the early 1900s the dam had burst. Thousands of women across Pennsylvania began to demand the right to vote. But, the suffrage leaders was repeatedly met with challenges.

Consider that these women were operating without benefit of the internet, and without safe and fast means of transportation. While many of the suffragists were wealthy, the era’s strict social rules applied to them too, Women from every tier of society were limited in their access to the world, to money, to self-determination. Wealthy or poor, educated or ignorant, women weren’t mentored into leadership positions, nor were they given the opportunity to address multitudes from podiums.

How did they keep their state wide network engaged and on board, over the course of months and years? How did they create “buzz” 100 years ago? How did they surmount difficulties including tight finances, internal disagreements, inexperience with leadership positions, and dispersing vast quantities of money?

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Because women couldn’t vote in this era, they had to ensure that their message appealed to voting men, who could in turn elect pro-suffrage politicians who had the power to change the law. They needed the political support of Black men. The women of the Lucy Stone and Anna Shaw leagues were better positioned than their white counterparts to use their influence and savvy to reach Pittsburgh’s black male audience. The leagues organized meetings in churches and other public spaces and invited men in the community to attend. They also arranged for guest speakers to champion the importance of suffrage for the black community as a whole.

On occasion, the Loendi Club, an exclusive men’s establishment in the Hill District, would invite pro women’s suffrage speakers.

The original Pittsburgh Courier post.

Jennie decided the PWSA could make Pennsylvania the only state with full suffrage east of the Mississippi. Passing suffrage in PA was a harrowing process. The all male legislature would have to make an amendment to the state constitution. A resolution then had to pass in two successive sessions, by a majority vote in both houses, and be ratified by voters at the following general election.

To realize this goal Jeannie Bradley Roessing, Mrs. Jennie Eliza Kennedy and Mary Bakewell crafted the Pittsburgh Plan, a “careful combination of educating women and designing methods of lobbying for the vote”. The strategy proved so successful that the Pittsburgh Plan was adopted all across the nation.

Photo of the Urban League
The suffragists’ outreach efforts were amplified by their clever and innovative attention-getting activities.

One of their major successes was the parade on May 2, 1914. Mrs. Kennedy led the massive rally, followed by Roessing and Bakewell. It was part of a nation-wide observance of Woman Suffrage Day and commenced at the Monongahela Wharf, led by six motorcycle policemen. Unlike that of other U.S. cities, the Pittsburgh Suffrage Parade was integrated. African American women served on the Planning Committee and marched in the center of the line up. The rally wound its way through Downtown to Schenley Park and then into town again, reaching the Jenkins Arcade Building.”

Pittsburgh Suffragists raised 100,000 dollars for the 1915 campaign to get Women Suffrage to pass in the Pennsylvania house and senate. Their fundraising efforts evidenced their dedication. If it would raise money, the women tried it: publishing a suffrage cookbook, creating suffrage stamps and one woman even made, sold, and delivered 500 quarts of cottage cheese to make 50 dollars.

Jennie, Hannah Patterson, and a few others created the Justice Bell- aka the women’s liberty bell- and took to the road, shouting the rally cry of, “Father, Brother, Husband, Son, Vote for Amendment Number One!”

The Justice Bell tour was a wild success, spreading enthusiastic support for Pennsylvanian suffrage and generating a lot of media coverage. Unfortunately, due to political machinery and a concern about liquor politics, Amendment Number One failed to pass by a narrow margin. After the apparent defeat, Jennie celebrated all the Pittsburgh Suffragette’s accomplishments and renewed their efforts to pass women’s suffrage, saying, “Woman Suffrage is more alive in Pennsylvania than it ever has been.”

Pittsburgh Courier, December 20, 1912 Post
Pittsburgh Courier, December 20, 1912

Jennie worked with women of renown on the nat’l scene and with women from every sector in our Commonwealth. The 50,000 anti suffrage votes cast in 1915 came mostly from eastern Pennsylvania, a testament to western PA suffragists’ remarkable outreach and organizing abilities.

Photo of the parade line up scaled model.
Pittsburgh Suffrage Cookbook

The Gazette Times, October 31, 1915

In addition to getting their message out locally, suffragists needed to communicate across great distances. Suffrage Cookbooks became a popular tool, including a stellar example, created right here in Pittsburgh.

Compiled by Mrs. Laura Kleber, (11) and published in 1915, the book contained recipes from 22 contributors that ranged from soups and stews to meats, sandwiches, puddings and pies.

Pittsburgh Courier, February 17, 1912 post.

The books sprinkled notes about the suffrage movement and the need for the vote in between recipes; they also served as an argument against critics who claimed suffragists were bad mothers and wives.

Pittsburgh Courier, February 17, 1912 post.
In Living Color

In an age without television and internet, suffragists needed low cost means to keep their message in front of voters. Long before “branding” was invented, they turned yellow into the color of the suffrage movement, and used it at every opportunity. One of the cleverest ways suffragists distributed their message was by distributing yellow flower seeds across the Pennsylvania.

Their supporters planted the seeds, filling gardens in every county with bursts of suffrage sunshine.

Pittsburgh Courier, February 17, 1912 post.

Regardless of the constraints they faced, Pittsburgh’s suffragists persisted in finding innovative ways to build support and get their message out to the world.