Breaking the Ballot | How Two Women Dedicated Their Lives to the Suffrage Movement

“Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?”
These dying words of Inez Milholland Boissevain, martyr for women’s rights, served as a reminder for early 20th century women to keep fighting for suffrage.

(DoNorth/from the Library of Congress)

“Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?”

These dying words of Inez Milholland Boissevain, a well-known advocate for women’s rights, served as a reminder for early 20th century women to keep fighting for suffrage.

Hannah Straight Lansing and Anna Elizabeth Dickinson, both from small towns and humble beginnings, are among the many suffragists whose stories remained forgotten until now.

While Lansing stayed local, using her writing as a tool for the cause, Dickinson traveled around the country, using her oratory skills and fierce stage presence to speak on women’s rights and denunciate anyone who spoke out against her views.

Despite their varying methods to promote change, Lansing and Dickinson devoted every moment of their adult lives to the women’s suffrage movement.

Hannah Straight Lansing

Hannah Straight Lansing was just 18 years old when she met Susan B. Anthony and Rev. Antoinette Brown, both prominent speakers on women’s rights, in Plattsburgh, 1855 — this being her first encounter with the women’s suffrage movement.

Under the pen name Nell Clifford, Lansing began her writing career in the 1860s and continued for about 40 years. Like many women of this time, she chose a pseudonym to publish without prejudice in a male-dominated field and to experiment with the freedom of anonymity.

Lansing was considered a “normal woman” because she married and had children, unlike Anthony and Dickinson, who were viewed as lesbians for never having a spouse.

In 1866, she married into a family of radicals. Her husband was the son of abolitionist Wendell Lansing. The Lansing family, many of whom were writers and editors, owned two newspapers — the Essex County Republican and the Plattsburgh Sentinel; she used both to publish stories on breaking news and current events within the ongoing movements.

She became an officer for two clubs dedicated to suffrage: the Political Equality Club and the George Williams Curtis Club. Lansing served as secretary of the Political Equality Club in 1894. During her term, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet May Mills and Mary Seymour Howell attended one of its meetings.

According to various articles from the Plattsburgh Sentinel, the George Williams Curtis Club held regular meetings at the homes of its members. The members would meet, read literature, enjoy some musical entertainment and discuss women’s suffrage.

In 1869, Wyoming is the first state to grant suffrage for women. Lansing and many other suffragists looked to this state as a model for voting rights.

During the 19th century, it took weeks to send a letter and get a response, but that didn’t stop Lansing from writing a letter to John Osborne, governor of Wyoming. She received a response from the governor, who boasted that “Wyoming is proud of her state constitutional provision, which grants equal rights to all.”

On Oct. 18, 1915, the Plattsburgh Daily Press summarized Lansing’s activities during the biggest local rally recorded in the county for that year.  At the rally, she advocated for women’s rights and spoke along with John Milholland, Inez Milholland’s father, Emma Smith Devoe from Washington State and New York State Lieutenant Governor Thomas Conway.

The pre-event press recognized Lansing as the Mother of Clinton County Suffrage.

Lansing died less than a year later on May 8, 1916. Like many suffragists of her generation, she died before receiving the right to vote.

Anna Elizabeth Dickinson

When Anna Elizabeth Dickinson entered Palmer Hall one evening in January, her dark brown hair was described as short with a slight curl. Standing at 5 foot 2 inches, she wore a brown silk dress,

with diamond earrings on her ears, around her neck and on her fingers. Her large grey eyes stared into the audience as she began to bellow words about women’s rights.

Dickinson was born in 1842 and grew up in poverty. After her abolitionist father died from a heart attack shortly after giving an anti-slavery speech, her mother was left a widow and single mother.

To help support her family, Dickinson worked as a teacher, published her writings and gave speeches, just as her father did. At the age of about 14, she published an emotional anti-slavery essay in The Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper founded by William Lloyd Garrison.

Impressed by her passion and brilliance, Garrison offered to help launch her oratory career by booking a variety of speaking engagements in Boston, Massachusetts and throughout the New England states. She also became good friends with Lucretia Mott, another Quaker, abolitionist and women’s rights advocate, who arranged a lecture tour for the then 19-year-old Dickinson.

As a gifted speaker and prodigy, Dickinson began her oratory career giving speeches on black and women’s suffrage. With the help of Mott, about 800 Philadelphians purchased tickets for her first major speech, “The Rights and Wrongs of Women.” By 1863, her reputation as an orator grew, and her name continually appeared in local newspapers.

Dickinson was known for her fiery character, which she displayed at her famous speech on women’s suffrage in Palmer Hall, then located at 60 Margaret Street in downtown Plattsburgh.

“She came to town in 1874, walked on stage in a gown, with jewels on, and just ripped into everybody,” Helen Nerska, director of the Clinton County Historical Association, says. “She made more money than Mark Twain did in one of those years.”

Her stage presence was never that of a petite woman; she was a dramatic actress with a message. The title of her speech was “What’s to Hinder? What’s to Hinder Women from Helping Themselves?”

Dickinson’s Palmer Hall speech became one of her last notable presentations on women’s rights. Within the next few years, her reputation slowly crumbled. As her popularity and income dwindled, she turned to other fields, such as acting.

Dickinson began her acting career under actress Fanny Morant. She wrote and starred in several plays, but she and her productions were constantly ridiculed and dismissed by critics. After her 1882 appearance in “Hamlet,” she retired from the spotlight.

In 1888, Dickinson returned to public view at the invitation of the Republican National Committee,

whom she supported, but was immediately let go because her talent for denunciation was seen as an embarrassment. By 1886, her health and life were in ruins. Her sister, Susan Dickinson, arranged for her incarceration at the Danville State Hospital for the Insane.

“Within days, Dickinson had gone from the feisty, combative, sometimes brilliant, often arrogant, always interesting public figure she had been for nearly 30 years, to an object of speculation, pity and charity,” author J. Matthew Gallman writes in his “America’s Joan of Arc: The Life of Anna Elizabeth Dickinson” novel.

After spending about five weeks in the asylum, she won her freedom and sued those responsible for locking her away. Dickinson won her court case and two of three libel suits against journalists who called her insane, but she lost many friends, supporters and the relationship she had with her sister as a result.

From 1895 to her death in 1932, Dickinson lived quietly, writing letters for the cause; she never spoke before a crowd again.

Dickinson’s final words are etched in stone on her Slate Hill Cemetery grave: “My head and heart, soul and brain, were all on fire with the words I must speak.”

Issue 10: Winter/Spring 2018

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