2017 marks the 100th anniversary of woman’s suffrage in New York State. In November of that year, the state’s men voted to give women the right to vote. The 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which extended suffrage to all eligible women in the country, was not adopted until 1920.
The Woman’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, NY in 1848 is often marked as the start of the woman suffrage movement. A group of like-minded women issued their “Declaration of Sentiments”, a listing of their goals, at that event. It was authored by one of the best-known leaders of the movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, of Johnstown. Of course the other leader of the movement was Susan B. Anthony, who spent her formative years near Greenwich. Women were prompted to begin working for their own rights after participating in two other reform movements of the 1800’s: for the abolition of slavery and for temperance.
The Civil War derailed the woman suffrage movement, and when the war was over, the abolitionists, who had been partners with the suffragists, abandoned the women to call only for black men to get the vote, which occurred with the passage of the 15th amendment in 1870. This was the first time the word “male” appeared in the U.S. Constitution. Suffragists were very bitter at this development. They had worked hard for abolition, but the men must not have truly supported their wish for women to get the vote.
There was some national progress: the territory of Wyoming adopted woman suffrage in 1869, Utah in 1870, Colorado in 1893, and Idaho in 1896. New York adopted a measure to allow women to vote in school elections in 1892. There were a couple of national organizations working for woman suffrage, but not much progress was made. The movement was divided. Some women concentrated only on getting the vote, while others advocated for the vote plus other woman’s rights, such as equal pay for equal work.
After 1890, the various organizations joined into the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were still among the leaders, though by this time getting to be quite elderly.
the elderly superstars of woman’s suffrage, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton
At the same time, people in the U.S. started to have more and more free time, as there was increasing mechanization of work. Both men and women responded by forming and joining clubs and organizations of all kinds. Many organizations were formed within churches; men also had both the Masons and the Odd Fellows; men and women began card playing clubs, etc. etc.
The national woman suffrage organization encouraged women to form Political Equality clubs. There were at least thirty around New York State by 1906. The earliest area club was in Easton, formed in 1891. Susan B. Anthony’s sister Mary influenced the formation of the club and encouraged it over the years. One of the members of the club was Blanche Stover Clum of Schaghticoke and Valley Falls. She was active in Easton until 1902, when an article in the Schuylerville “Standard” reported her giving the prayer at a meeting.
Who knows what the spark was, but Blanche and other women in the Valley Falls/Schaghticoke area formed their own club on May 13, 1903. The first President was Lucy Thompson, followed by Blanche. Lucy Allen, the main force behind the Easton club, described them as a “large and influential group of women.”
Let me tell you a bit about the first President of the Political Equality Club and about its guiding light.
Lucy Larkin Thompson
Lucy was the second wife of mill owner James Thompson, Sr. James came to the U.S. from Ireland as a grown man, experienced in textile manufacturing. He began the Thompson Mill in the village of Valley Falls about 1875. This was the biggest employer of local residents for many years. James’ first wife, Isabel, had died in 1879.
According to the marriage certificate, Lucy was born in Joliet, Illinois in 1853, the daughter of Benjamin and Ruth Larkin. She lived in Jonesville, Michigan when they were married in 1882. I have no idea how they would have met. They had one son, Leslie. James died in 1899, aged 66. As of the 1905 census, Lucy, age 51, and son Leslie, 21, lived in the village of Valley Falls. Her stepson, James, who took over the mill from his father, lived next door with his wife Carrie, and five children.
I can only imagine that Blanche Stover Clum would have asked Lucy to become involved with the new Political Equality Club as she was one of the most prominent women in the village and might inspire others to join. Lucy was the first President of the group, from 1903 to 1906. She was also one of the first trustees of the Valley Falls Library Association, formed in 1905. The first village library was in a room at the Thompson Mill.
Lucy moved to New York City about 1910. Thereafter she made frequent visits to Valley Falls, and traveled to Europe. Lucy died in 1934, age 81. I believe she was interred in Elmwood Cemetery with her husband, though her death date was not added to the stone.
Now let me move on to the real force behind the Valley Falls Political Equality Club, Blanche Stover Clum.
She was the daughter of farmers Daniel and Anna Bryan Stover of Pittstown. Her sisters Edith Stover Gifford and Lois Stover Bassett were also involved in the club as was her sister-in-law Lora, wife of her brother Peter Stover. Lora was President for many years.
Blanche was born in 1867. The first thing I ever heard about Blanche was that when the new bridge across the Hoosic River at Valley Falls was completed in 1891, she rode her horse across the bridge first, by-passing the assembled dignitaries. I have not found any written account of this; the Troy paper notes that farmer Charles Sherman, who had provided much of the wood used in the construction, was by chance the first to drive his horse and wagon across the bridge; but the story is a very important one to Blanche’s descendants, and it marks her as a woman meaning to stand apart from the crowd.
Blanche married farmer Frank Clum in 1893. He was also born in 1867, the son of Ira and Susan Clum of Brunswick. By 1880 he lived with his grandparents, farmers in Pittstown, following the death of his mother. Blanche and Frank had two children, Paul, born in 1896, and Daniel, born in 1898. They farmed on Master Street in the town of Schaghticoke. Neighbors included Ella Fort and Jennie and Hattie Stark, who would become charter members of the Political Equality Club.
As I said earlier, at some point, Blanche became involved in the Easton Political Equality Club, and in May 1903 she was the moving force behind the formation of the new Political Equality Club in Valley Falls. She was the second President, and always held some sort of office in the club. She also represented the group at county and state conventions of suffrage organizations and of the State Federation of Women’s Clubs. She was very active in the Methodist Church in Valley Falls, a founder of its Women’s Home Missionary Society. In addition, she was very involved with the construction of the Valley Falls Library from about 1906-1913. It is widely acknowledged that without Blanche, there would have been no club. A further measure of her importance is that the four volumes of “A History of Woman’s Suffrage” by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Matilda Josyln Gage, were presented by Susan B. Anthony to Blanche in 1905, inscribed to her by name. Susan intended the books to be used as sources of information and education at meetings of the Political Equality Club.
Blanche wrote this poem, first read at the 15th anniversary meeting of the club in May 1918, which is still included in the program booklet of the Woman’s Club:
Poem: “Our Voyage” by B. Clum
Listen my friends and you shall hear
Of a Suffrage Club we hold so dear.
It was on May 13, 1903
When we organized for Equality.
Many are here who remember that date,
When we sailed off in our ship of state.
Rev. Anna Shaw gave us the lead,
And Rev. R.A. Dearstyne bid us God speed.
Our sailing, my friends, was not all fair.
We met with obstacles everywhere.
The antis tried our ship to wreck,
But we cleverly swept them from the deck.
They followed us in every zone.
To tell us “Woman’s place is home.”
But this is past, I’m glad to relate,
And we’ll all make good in the Empire State.
We soon joined the Federation fleet,
Which made our journey more complete,
To be a part of this great crew,
Gave us courage and life anew.
For 15 years we weathered the blast,
13 charter members held fast.
15 youngsters, we’re proud to say
Came to cheer us on our way.
On November 6, 1917,
Our longed for pact was plainly seen.
We landed our ship “Democracy,”
In the land of the brave and the home of the free.
Our aim accomplished, we now change our name,
But to work for humanity just the same.
Ready to do our bit when duty calls,
Long live the “Woman’s Club”
Of Valley Falls and Vicinity.
Returning to Blanche’s biography, in February 1911, she and husband Frank Clum had an auction. In March, Blanche’s sister Lois and her husband Clarence Bassett, newlyweds, moved onto the farm. Blanche and Frank moved into the village of Valley Falls where he ran a garage. They may have moved closer to school for their growing boys; Frank may have been ready to quit farming; or perhaps the move was to put Blanche closer to the action. At the same time, the Clums joined Blanche’s sister Edith and her husband Frank Gifford in Orlando, Florida for the winters. The Giffords had a hotel there. I think that Blanche was increasingly unwell, but the newspapers are full of her activities with various organizations in Valley Falls. Once the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, she was active in war work as well.
Blanche died of heart disease in August 1919 at her sister Edith’s home. Her obituary called her “a woman of exceptional ability.” While she saw New York State adopt suffrage in 1917, sadly, she did not survive to see the passage of the national amendment in 1920.
Returning to the club itself, the idea of a Political Equality Club raises a number of questions for us today. Who were these women? What were their goals? Did their husbands support them? What did they do? What were their meetings like?
I have already spoken about the first two Presidents of the group. I found in general, that the founding members either lived near each other- on Masters Street in Schaghticoke, or in the village of Valley Falls; or were related to each other- sisters, sisters-in-law, cousins; or shared membership in the Methodist Church, in Valley Falls or Melrose. A number were among the early members of the lineage organization, the Daughters of the American Revolution. Most were married, but a few were spinsters. A few were exceptionally wealthy, like Lucy Thompson, most were comfortable, like the Stovers, a few were wives of laborers. I have written brief biographies of all of the charter members and those listed in the first surviving program, from 1906-1907. It is a bit difficult to find out lots of information about some of the women, as they are hidden by their married names.
So what were their goals? Lucy Allen of Easton said, “Let no man or woman be mistaken as to what this movement for woman’s suffrage really means. We, none of us, want to turn the world upside down or to convert women into men. We desire women, on the contrary, to continue womanly in the highest and best sense…and to bring their true women’s influence on behalf of whatsoever things are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, and of good report, to bear upon the conduct of public affairs.” She added, “the elevating of women means the elevating of humanity.” “The majority of us farmers’ wives here in Easton and our husbands are perfect…our tendency is to forget that Easton isn’t the whole world, and there are other women not as we are.” “We want to get rid of this fallacy that marriage is a state of being supported…he begins and she completes the making of their joint wealth. Their dependence is mutual. “I would think that women in Easton and Valley Falls would have the same thoughts.
The Troy “Times” reported extensively on the Second Annual Meeting of the Rensselaer County Political Equality Club, which was held at the Melrose Methodist Church in May 1907. Apparently there were attendees from just Troy and Valley Falls/Schaghticoke. The speaker was Reverend Anna Howard Shaw, M.D. Having Rev. Shaw speak was like having Governor Cuomo come to a Pittstown Town Board meeting. She was the President of the National Woman’s Suffrage Association. This was certainly a measure of the importance of the group in the area. In her remarks, Rev. Shaw stated, “When we women are going out into the world with the men, what we want is justice, and we will let the hand-kissing chivalry go.”
Mrs. Anna Snyder of Melrose delivered the address of welcome at this event. She declared “it would not be long before a Declaration of Independence would be adopted which would include women as well as men.” She thought it unfair for women to be compelled to pay taxes and not be given the privilege of voting. “Under the present laws, women have no more rights than children.”
The archive of the Political Equality Club, located in the Valley Falls Library, includes notes on the resolutions adopted by that convention:
- Women workers need the ballot to work for better working conditions for themselves and their children, also working
- There should be equal pay for equal work for women and men
- Taxation without representation is tyranny
- Congress needs to pass an amendment to the constitution enfranchising women
The following October, there was a convention of the Political Equality Clubs of Rensselaer and Washington Counties at the Methodist Church in Valley Falls. Lucy Allen, founder of the Easton club, stated, “the old saying, ‘Man works from sun to sun, but woman’s work is never done’, is literally true. The farmer pays his man $30 a month …How is it with the woman this farmer employs, if he employs any? He pays her $15 per month, just half…..You all remember the picture of an ideally happy home circulated by our opponents (the anti-suffragists) It showed the father and husband reclining at ease in a chair with feet elevated, reading the evening paper; the older children clustered around the piano, enjoying their music, while the mother and wife jogged the cradle wherein lay the sleeping baby with her foot, while her hands were busy darning her husband’s socks. This picture was intended to illustrate the general beatified state that ensued when woman stayed at home where she belonged…but our opponents…showed plainly the subjection of woman in the household.“ Of course her point was that the woman was still doing two jobs at once while everyone else relaxed.
And Mary Holliday, of the Valley Falls club, described the progress that women had made over the past half century, gaining entrance to colleges and some professions, and gaining more rights as married women among other items. She summed up what seemed to be the goals of the club: to get the vote and to defend other women less fortunate than themselves, with a goal for general equality of men and women in education and pay. I have to say that the speeches sound very modern to my ears.
And what about the husbands? Most of the women in the club were married, some with children. A few were very wealthy and had servants. Some of the others had a hired girl. So there would be some access to child care. But most were middle class. The ones with children would need support to attend meetings during the day. And all would need to have their membership in the club supported by their spouses to be happy in their marriages. The fact that they did attend ..and stay married…is proof of that to me. But I also found reports in the newspaper of some evening meetings of the group where attendance was reported at fifty or sixty, many more than the usual numbers of members. One of the reports, from October 1914, reported on an evening “banquet” at the home of Mr and Mrs George Lohnes. Members and their husbands were entertained, a total of sixty people. This was not just an evening of entertainment. There was a full meeting of the club, with a report on the recent convention of women’s clubs, readings on suffrage, an outline of the work for suffrage in the state, plus singing by several women and “parlor pastimes.” Mary Lohnes and Mrs. Schuyler Hayner prepared the food. I want to know what they prepared and how they managed to seat sixty people for dinner.
The club’s program for 1912-13 included a “social” at the new Valley Falls library in December with “gentlemen invited.” One particularly interesting- sounding event was a “birthday evening.” There were tables for each month of the year, and members and their husbands were seated at the table decorated for the month of their birthdays. What a great way to socialize with different people than usual! This was so popular that it was repeated. I think that a birthday club grew out of it, which existed just to celebrate the birthdays of the members. But my point is that these events show that the husbands were clearly partners in the effort for suffrage.
So what did the women do? Well, they met at least monthly on the second Wednesday of each month, sometimes at members’ homes, sometimes at the Valley Falls Methodist Church. They elected officers yearly, with a lot of change from year to year. The “order of exercises” at club meetings given in the programs was singing, prayer, reports of committees, and business. They often had a roll call of members, which was answered in a different way each month: from giving a quote of a famous person, like Susan B. Anthony, or a poet, like Longfellow, to reporting a current event or suffrage fact. This was followed by suffrage news, a bit of entertainment, for example a recitation of a poem or a song or piano solo, and some sort of speech, designed to educate the members on something- for example, “Historic Lake George,” “How Christmas is Celebrated in Different Countries,” “Prison Reform,” etc.
It’s hard to tell what actual suffrage work they did from the programs. We know from newspaper articles that some members attended county, state, and national conventions of women’s clubs and suffrage organizations, or even a convention for peace- this just before the U.S. entrance into World War I. Programs sometimes included reports on legislative work, which implies that members might have been lobbying in Albany. The Easton club members subscribed to the national suffrage newspaper, made items for a National Suffrage Bazaar in New York City, and briefly opened a little shop in Easton which sold ice cream and items the women had made- all to make money to donate to the national suffrage organization for its work. I imagine the Valley Falls women raised money in some of the same ways. Many of them were doing similar things for the Methodist Church, raising money for home and foreign missions, or working against overuse of alcohol as members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
In addition, only a year after its founding, the Political Equality Club voted to use some of the money it had in the bank to begin a library in Valley Falls. There had been some work towards a library for a couple of years, but the club was really the catalyst. In 1906, a small library was begun in Thompson’s Mill. Many members of the club participated in all of the following activities which resulted in the purchase of the lot by the community and the funding of the building by the Gaffney family. It was dedicated in 1915.
The Political Equality Club changed its name as soon as New York State adopted suffrage in 1917, to the Woman’s Club of Valley Falls and Vicinity. It had been associated with the State Federation of Woman’s Clubs since 1906 and the General Federation since 1926. It became independent in 1996. With the fight for suffrage over, the club moved on to develop a scholarship fund in 1930, and a child welfare program in 1932. It has been involved in fighting TB and working with public health, the Salvation Army, disaster relief, local churches, missionary work, camps, and the USO in the World War II.
I am the current president of the Woman’s Club of Valley Falls and Vicinity. I can report that it still meets during the day on the second Wednesday of the month, though not every month. The program still features a prayer, a song- though it is always “God Bless America, plus the pledge of allegiance. We always pray for community members who need it. And we have a program designed to educate us. We do not report on current politics, though we have had a number of local office holders speak to us. We do raise money for charity, focusing on the local food pantry, Military Mom in Action, and Ronald McDonald House, and give a small scholarship to a Hoosic Valley student. Our members are mostly married, mostly elderly-though any age woman would be welcome- and of varied backgrounds and experiences. There are still some relatives, some Methodists, and some women who are neighbors, but women live from Melrose to Easton to Johnsonville and Stillwater, a larger area than at the start. It really is a remarkable survival.