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Voting for a Change

The impact of the 19th Amendment on our community

By Jane Lang, Executive Director of Neenah Historical Society, and Steven T. Sheehan, Associate Professor of History at UW-Fox Valley

Images courtesy of the Neenah Historical Society

If less than half of the adult population were allowed to vote, would you still call the United States a democracy? Probably not. Yet fewer than 100 years ago, most American women were still relegated to the sidelines as men determined the outcome of elections. In 1920, Americans ratified the 19th Amendment, providing a constitutional guarantee for women’s right to vote.  

In May of 2019, the Neenah Historical Society will open an exhibit titled “Voting for a Change: The Impact of the 19th Amendment on our Community” to mark the 100th anniversary of this pivotal moment in American democracy. The exhibit will highlight the role played by local women and men in the women’s suffrage campaign and the impact their achievement had on the community.  

American women started to campaign for voting rights in the middle of the 1800s. Earlier in the century, nearly all white men gained the right to vote as most states lifted the requirement that voters own property. Elections became hard-fought affairs and gained new importance. Women saw their lack of voting rights as a glaring exception to the principle of American democracy.  

Many women had already stepped outside the confines of private homes to carve out public roles for themselves. They voiced their opinions on alcohol abuse and slavery, and they organized and led movements for temperance and abolition. For women pushing for social change through voluntary organizations, voting rights seemed like both a logical next step in their own development and an essential tool for achieving reform. 

Emma Jaeck

The first demand for women’s suffrage came out of a women’s rights convention held in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. In the convention’s Declaration of Sentiments, a document principally authored by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and modeled on the American Declaration of Independence, women laid out their case for the “sacred right of the elective franchise.” Sadly, only one of the 68 women who signed the Declaration lived to see the ratification of the 19th Amendment 70 years later.

While the suffrage movement sought a nationwide guarantee of women’s voting rights, leaders cultivated support in small communities like those in the Fox Cities and depended on the work of thousands of local community activists. Three prominent national leaders of the women’s suffrage movement visited Neenah between 1870 and 1900. Elizabeth Cady Stanton spoke at the request of the Good Templars organization at Pettibone Hall in 1870. In 1886, a reporter for the Neenah Daily Times noted, “A good audience listened to Susan B. Anthony in Schuetzen Hall last evening. She stated that when any class is disenfranchised, whether white, black, male or female, there resulted not only political but moral, industrial, and nearly every other kind of degradation.” 

Theda Clark Peters portrait. From a collection titled “Theda Clark Photos.”

In January of 1900, progressive activist and suffrage leader Jane Addams—arguably the most prominent American woman of her generation—visited the Fox Cities. Neenah’s Theda Clark, herself a well-respected philanthropist and community builder whose tragic death following childbirth led to the founding of the city’s first hospital, described the visit. “Yes, indeed, our day with Miss Addams was one not soon to be forgotten,” Clark rhapsodized. “I felt that I had breathed a breath of true nobility…Her English was so pure; she used good, round, mouth-filling Saxon words that expressed much and revealed the pleasant uplifting channels along which her busy mind travels. Between 30 and 40 ladies and some gentlemen gathered at the Menasha Library to hear her, and it fell to your humble servant to introduce Miss Addams…I entertained the lady until she departed at 5:40 and, as you may imagine, I walked in the clouds!” 

Fox Cities women, inspired by those suffrage leaders, advocated on the local, state and national levels. Emma Jaeck was one of the most notable homegrown suffrage activists. A Neenah High School graduate who held a Ph.D. in languages from the University of Illinois, Jaeck worked with Alice Paul, the founder of the National Women’s Party, to lobby Congress. Neenah’s Helen Kimberly Stuart advocated for suffrage in her home town and at the state level. Following the ratification of the 19th Amendment, Stuart went on to chair the Wisconsin League of Women Voters and to serve as Neenah’s first female alderman. 

Visitors to the Neenah Historical Society’s “Voting for a Change” exhibit can learn much more about

Helen Kimberly Stuart circa 1950.

Helen Kimberly Stuart, Dr. Emma Jaeck and other leading women who have shaped our area’s history. Visitors will also learn about the daily lives of that first generation of women voters, viewing the interior of a typical early 20th Century home and exploring the era’s clothing fashions. They can cast a ballot for their candidate of choice from the 1920 presidential election from inside an original Douglas voting booth used during the time period. Ironically, the Douglas booth was invented by a woman, Elizabeth Robb Douglas from Crete, Nebraska, over 10 years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Patrons can also join the debate over women’s suffrage as it played out in the political cartoons of the era or engage with dozens of other artifacts and activities related to the topic of women’s rights and suffrage.

The exhibit is part of a year-long commemoration of the 19th Amendment. The Historical Society will also host several public presentations and forums related to voting rights and assist the City of Neenah in the distribution of voter education materials. The exhibit will be located at the Neenah Historical Society’s Hiram Smith Octagon House in Neenah.  

“Voting for a Change” will open to the public on Sunday, May 19 at 12 p.m. It will be open Sundays 12 to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and by appointment through May and June. It will remain open by appointment through November of 2020. Financial support for “Voting for a Change” was graciously provided by two grants from the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region (the Bright Idea Fund and the William and Helen Burger Memorial Fund), and the Wisconsin Humanities Council.

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