In the summer of 1909, a full decade before women were granted the right to vote, members of the Suffragist movement spilled out of the 215th Street IRT station. As the women stepped onto the elevated subway platform and descended the staircase to Tenth Avenue the mood was excited.
Throughout the afternoon they arrived by subway, trolley and some likely in horse and carriage to discuss a radical concept—voting rights for women.
Over the course of the summer members of the Equality League for Self-Supporting Women held three conferences, members called them “outings,” at the old Seaman mansion on the northern tip of Manhattan.
According to a postal mailing the attendees met up at the Marble arch, a once familiar landmark that served as the entrance to the old Seaman estate. (The arch still stands today on 216th Street and Broadway.)
The gatherings, held in the garden of the of the stately marble mansion with stunning views of the Harlem River, were attended by some of the greatest minds of the women’s equality movement.
Speakers included Mrs. Frederick Nathan, better known as “Maud.” The silver-haired New Yorker, then in her early fifties, came from a prominent Sephardic Jewish family and had married her first cousin, Frederick Nathan, at the age of 17. Maud was known to stuff cash into bundles of suffrage fliers in the hopes of gaining “converts” in search of prizes possibly contained within the movement’s literature.
Elizabeth Ellsworth Cook, the champion “girl debater” from Cornell University spoke as well. A noted pacifist, suffragist and later successful businessperson, Ellsworth was twenty-six when she addressed her compatriots.
Another notable attendee was Leonora O’Reilly, a trade union organizer and daughter of poor Irish immigrants who had come to New York to escape the Potato Famine in their homeland. Lenora, a single woman, adopted a child in 1907. The little girl, Alice, died in 1911.
Also on hand was Josephine Casey, who, like O’Reilly, was the daughter of Irish immigrants. A noted labor leader Casey helped organize the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.
The gatherings began at three in the afternoon, when the midday heat had waned. Each speaker was allotted no more that fifteen minutes. Free lemonade and literature was provided to all.
According to an announcement printed in the newspaper, “Although these ‘Votes for Women Outings,’ as they have been officially named, are designed chiefly for women wage earners who cannot conveniently go to meetings on the other six days of the week, all persons of either sex who believe that women should have the ballot or who are on the verge of conversion or who are sure that they will never be converted will be welcomed.” (New York Call, July 3, 1909)
While it unclear if the movement made any converts that summer, those in attendance witnessed the dawn of a new era. The Nineteenth Amendment, still a decade away, might never have been ratified had that core group of “radical” minds not gathered on an Inwood hilltop more than a century ago.