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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, martyr for women’s rights, served as a reminder for early 20th century women to keep fighting for suffrage.

Among the many suffragists whose stories remain somewhat lost and forgotten are Hannah Straight Lansing and Anna Elizabeth Dickinson, both from small towns and humble beginnings.

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 against her views.

Despite their varying methods to promote change, Lansing and Dickinson both influenced the women’s suffrage movement in Clinton County.

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. As many women of this time, she chose a male pen name 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 Susan B. Anthony and Anna Elizabeth Dickinson, who were viewed as lesbians for never having a spouse.

In 1866, she married into a family of radicals, her husband 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 when Susan B. Anthony, Harriet May Mills and Mary Seymour Howell attended one of its meetings. According to various clips 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.

During the late 19th century, it would take 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 stating that “Wyoming is proud of her state constitutional provision, which grants equal rights to all.” Wyoming was the first state to grant suffrage for women; Lansing and many other suffragists looked to Wyoming as a model state for voting rights.

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 spoke along with John Milholland, Inez Milholland’s father, Mrs. 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. 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, and she began to speak, her small 5’ 2” stature bellowing words about women’s rights.

From early on, Dickinson was acknowledged as a gifted speaker and prodigy. Despite growing up in poverty, she helped her family survive through her literary career, which began at the age of 14 when she published an article in The Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper founded by William Lloyd Garrison.

Dickinson began her oratory career giving speeches on Black and women’s suffrage. Her first speaking engagement was in 1860, when she addressed the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. By 1863, her reputation as an orator grew as her name continually appeared in local newspapers.

Dickinson was known for her fiery passion, which was seen 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 wasn’t 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?”

After her speech in Palmer Hall, many Plattsburgh organizations continued to host lectures by a number of noted suffrage supporters, including Wendell Phillips and Susan B. Anthony. Despite this, Dickinson’s reputation slowly crumbled.

As her income went as fast as it came, she turned to other fields, such as acting. Dickinson began her acting career under actress Fanny Morant. She wrote and starred in several plays, including “A Crown of Thorns,” but she and her plays were ridiculed and dismissed by critics. After her 1882 appearance in “Hamlet,” she retired from the spotlight. In 1888, she returned to public view at the invitation of the Republican National Committee, but she 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. After a brief time in the hospital, she won her freedom and sued those responsible for her incarceration. Dickinson won her court case and two of three libel suits against journalists who called her insane, but she lost many friends and supporters as a result.

From 1895 to her death in 1932, Dickinson lived a quiet life, writing letters on her cause, but never speaking before a crowd again.

On her grave in Slate Hill Cemetery, her own quote reads: “My head and heart, soul and brain, were all on fire with the words I must speak.”

According to Nerska, “if you were [a woman] in New York State in 1848, you had no right to vote, no right to wages and no right to children.”

That same year, in 1848, the Seneca Falls Convention — the first women’s rights convention held in the United States — sparked the women’s suffrage movement.

Frederick Douglass once said, while attending the convention, that “right is of no sex.” Lansing and Dickinson firmly believed in this, that women deserve equal rights and opportunities.

Their hard work for and contributions to the women’s suffrage movement is honored this year; 2017 marks the centenary for women’s suffrage in New York State.

Issue 10: Winter/Spring 2018

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