The Early Years: To 1894
Cornell’s founders supported women’s education from the beginnings of the university, and early supporters of women’s rights cheered them on. Susan B. Anthony spoke in Ithaca in 1869, advocating for equal education and woman suffrage. In the early years, however, woman suffrage seems to have been primarily a topic of discussion rather than a call to action.
Matilda Joslyn Gage (whose daughter Maud was a student) spoke on “Woman’s Suffrage” in February 1881. Later that year Lillie Devereaux Blake, President of the New York State Woman Suffrage Association, spoke on the “Rights and Duties of Women Citizens.” Student Jessie Mary Boulton wrote in a letter home: “There is a lecture on women’s rights in town tomorrow night but it is too near examinations to attend and aside from that I should be most afraid to go for fear the students will make some fuss.”
There were few women on campus, and most of the male students opposed the suffrage movement. The Class Statistics of the Class of 1880 (71 men and 9 women graduating) reported on “Woman’s Suffrage, For or Against: For, 20; Against, 46; No objections, 2; Undecided, 1; Neutral, 1; Both, 1; and Very seldom, 1.” Only six of the nine women voted in favor. Throughout the nineteenth century, the Cornell Congress (a male student group that debated national issues) regularly discussed—and voted against—woman suffrage. Campus temperance groups did espouse the cause; in 1889 the Prohibition Club, meeting jointly with the local WCTU, “resolved that the platform of the Prohibition party should contain a woman suffrage plank.”
Despite some obstacles facing women students, Cornell was seen as a progressive institution, and suffrage activists came to Ithaca so their children could benefit from the university. Local and state activists also apparently felt comfortable with having their children attend Cornell. List of Suffrage Mothers.
In 1894, New York State held a Constitutional Convention. Although a clause for equal suffrage in the state constitution was one of the issues, both parties refused to allow women representatives. The New York State Woman Suffrage Association organized a campaign, raising over $10,000, and holding mass meetings, organized by Harriet May Mills and Mary G. Hay, in every New York county. “The suffrage forces circulated 5,000 petitions and secured 332,148 individual signatures, about half of them from women (including 36,000 collected by the W.C.T.U.) and memorials from labor organizations and Granges, bringing the total, in round numbers to 600,000.”
In Tompkins County, local activist Carrie E. Bouton reported that she had gathered 4,000 signatures on the petition from throughout the county and “nearly three hundred names were obtained from the students and faculty of Cornell University.” “Had the canvass been undertaken earlier in the season [when the roads might have been better!], doubtless many more names would have been obtained.” But despite the suffragists’ efforts, the petitions were unsuccessful; the Constitutional Convention rejected striking the word “male” from references to the representatives by 98 to 58.
In November, the 26th Annual Convention of the New York State Woman Suffrage Association (NYSWSA) was held in Ithaca; Ithaca Mayor Clinton D. Bouton and Cornell President Jacob Gould Schurman welcomed participants. Speakers included Susan B. Anthony, Lillie Devereux Blake, Anna Howard Shaw, Mary Seymour Howell, Annie E. P. Searing, Elizabeth Burrill Curtis, and Annis Ford Eastman. Carrie E. Bouton led an active suffrage group in Tompkins County. An article in the Cornell Era noted: “These women are the leaders of the woman suffrage movement in this country, and whatever may be thought concerning the justice of their cause, they should not be condemned unheard.” Students, both men and women, assisted and participated in the meetings. Ribbons made from the yellow ribbon that tied the petition were sold for twenty-five cents.