Original Rhode Island Suffrage Memes

During the first two decades of the 20th century, proponents and opponents of the 19th Amendment vigorously advocated for their cause. Along with parades and other public demonstrations, there was a brisk market for suffrage and anti-suffrage trinkets and souvenirs including postcards. These postcards used photographs of suffrage events, images of the movement's leaders, and illustrations, combined with slogans and strongly worded messages. Purchased at gift shops, sent through the mail, and collected in albums, suffrage postcards “went viral” nearly a century before social media, though their spread was not as rapid and their reach not as wide as modern memes.

 

Inspired by these suffrage postcards, students have created original memes commenting on the history of suffrage in Rhode Island and the United States, and on the current state of democracy and voting rights. 

 

We encourage you to download these memes and share them on your own social media.

At the turn of the 20th century, the growing advocacy for women’s right to vote was accompanied by an equally fervent anti-suffrage counter-movement. Women across the country, including Rhode Island, objected to the 19th Amendment, opposing what they believed to be the corrupting effects of political mire on women’s superior moral compasses. Anti-suffragists, also known simply as “antis,” often actively participated in public life, despite their objections to women’s suffrage. Antis practiced philanthropy and championed conservative causes and values: providing aid to poor mothers, offering support to orphaned children, and even recalibrating the moral compasses of repentant prostitutes. Many antis also concerned themselves with institutions of cultural heritage, war relief efforts, and church groups. Female anti-suffragists’ involvement in public life aligned with prevailing notions of separate “spheres” for men and women and with the preservation of order within the home. 

 

The women who fought against suffrage typically hailed from the middle and upper social classes. In families like the Lippitts, which relied upon the labor of female domestic servants within their household and upon women, mainly recent immigrants, working in family-owned textile mills, the potential enfranchisement of working-class women incited fear of a shift in social political power and demands for new labor laws. In the South, the anti-suffrage movement incorporated race more overtly than in the North. Southerners from the planter class and from throughout the political spectrum feared that expanded suffrage would further dismantle the racial order. 

 

Wealthy, educated, civically engaged, and conservative, Mary Lippitt Steedman and her sister-in-law Margaret Barbara Farnum Lippitt (pictured in this 1893 photograph) fit the typical anti-suffrage profile. They joined anti-suffrage organizations, contributed their signatures to anti-suffrage petitions, and testified before the Rhode Island General Assembly in opposition to suffrage proposals. ​--Mia Freund

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After the adoption of the 19th Amendment in 1920, National Woman’s Party founder Alice Paul and American lawyer Crystal Eastman wrote the first draft of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Paul and Eastman hoped that the proposed amendment would provide lasting legal protection for women’s rights. In 1923, Paul presented the ERA at the 75th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention, arguing, “We shall not be safe until the principle of equal rights is written into the framework of our government.” Not all suffragists embraced the ERA, viewing it as overly radical and a threat to female labor rights, and it did not address voting barriers still in place for women of color.

        

Mary Balch Lippitt Steedman, daughter of governor (1875-77) Henry Lippitt, campaigned against suffrage in the 1910s but supported the ERA. Steedman was politically active before and after the passage of the 19th Amendment. She was a member of the Rhode Island Republican State Central Committee and Women’s Republican Club, and she was the first female Rhode Island representative to the Republican National Committee.

 

The ERA made little progress toward ratification until the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, when Congresswoman Martha Griffiths reintroduced the ERA to the US House of Representatives.

Both chambers of Congress finally passed the ERA, but conservative activists such as Phyllis Schlafly campaigned to prevent state ratification. Opponents feared diminishment of women’s domestic role as well as more abortions, same-sex marriage, and women’s eligibility for the military draft. Congress extended the deadline for state ratification until 1982, but the required majority did not pass it in time. Activists argue that there is still a chance for the ERA to be ratified. ERA advocates point out that the 27th Amendment regulating congressional compensation was passed in 1992 even though it was introduced 203 years earlier. Likewise, activists challenged the legality of five states revoking their ratification of the ERA. Although women have more rights now than they did in 1923, those who push for the ERA assert that it would establish stronger legal protection for women’s rights and prevent removal of existing legislation such as Title IX, the Violence Against Women Act, and the Fair Pensions Act. --Kristen Marchetti

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Testifying at the Rhode Island state house in 1914, Margaret Barbara Farnum Lippitt said, “I know as well as you, that the ballot is not a right.” She added that women are not truly interested in the vote, referring to it as a “toy,” and claimed that a majority of women would agree with her. Margaret, wife of Rhode Island governor (1895-97) Charles Warren Lippitt, then attempted to stoke fear among the legislators. She said, “It is [the] foreign element wherein lies one great objection to this bill before you. I ask you gentlemen to walk up Constitution Hill, out over Charles street, over Federal Hill and Atwell’s avenue, through Fox Point or to the city dock, and watch the passengers from a Fabre Line steamer, and then ask yourselves if you believe the addition of these ‘women citizens’ will tend to reform and elevate the electorate of the State, or register the intelligent will of the people. Every one of these women is a possible voter, to be reckoned with in some part of the United States, and very many of them right now in Providence.”

 

Margaret Lippitt’s anti-immigrant statement comes partially from fear that extending suffrage to women could threaten the Lippitt family’s economic power, derived in large part from the labor of immigrant women in the Lippitts’ Rhode Island textile mills. Newly enfranchised immigrant women might elect legislators to serve their interests and pass laws favoring the working class.

Historians have argued anti-suffrage arguments based upon self-interest, rather than ideology, were common. For instance, Corrine McConnaughy points out that anti-suffragists “were generally women of wealth, privilege, social status and even political power… In short, they were women who were doing, comparatively, quite well under the existing system, with incentives to hang onto a system that privileged them.” Ellen Carol DuBois argues that anti-suffragists feared that suffrage would “increase the power of the working classes.” Margaret Lippitt, by campaigning against suffrage, was arguing not just for the maintenance of traditional gender roles, but also for the maintenance of a social order in which the Lippitts were at the top. --Nat Hardy

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Unless you were a wealthy white man, at some point in Rhode Island’s history you would not have been able to vote. Rhode Island’s long and complicated history of suffrage continues to affect voting rights today. Until 1843, only white men who owned property had the right to vote. Although Rhode Island’s population in 1840 was 108,830, only 8,621  people voted in the presidential election that year. The new 1842 Rhode Island constitution imposed a $1 poll tax and maintained the property requirement for some elections. The poll tax served as a barrier to voting for working class citizens. This poll tax remained in effect until 1951, and the ratification of the 24th Amendment to the federal constitution in 1965 eliminated the practice entirely. The 1842 constitution also explicitly denied Native Americans the right to vote, and they were not guaranteed suffrage until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.


In 1887, Rhode Island nearly approved an amendment to its constitution that would have given women the right to vote.

However, after the General Assembly passed it, the male electorate in the state rejected it in a public referendum. Rhode Island women finally gained the right to vote in presidential elections thirty years later. 

 

Rhode Island’s more recent voting rights record continues to be complicated. While government recently has made voting more accessible by allowing mail-in ballots and restored voting rights to parolees and probationers through a ballot initiative, in 2011 Rhode Island became one of the only Democrat-controlled states to pass a Voter ID law. Although touted as a means to protect the integrity of the vote, Voter ID laws disproportionately discriminate against lower-income and rural residents, primarily people of color, who are less likely to have the required identification. Rhode Island also denies the right to vote to incarcerated people who were convicted of felonies. --Nat Hardy

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Front and center in this crowd of whiskered men stands Rhode Island Governor Charles Warren Lippitt, accompanied by members of his staff. Lippitt, the son of Governor Henry Lippitt and the husband of anti-suffragist Margaret Barbara Farnum Lippitt, served as Rhode Island’s 44th governor from 1895 and 1897. During his administration, Lippitt signed legislation allowing married women to enter into legal contracts, a right that previously had been denied. 

 

The lack of diversity depicted in this 1897 photograph of Lippitt and his cabinet is not surprising given the cultural context of time in which it was taken.  However, placed next to this 2020 photograph of President Donald Trump surrounded by a strikingly similar, equally homogeneous, assembly of his advisors, the photo takes on new dimensions of meaning, questioning the extent to which substantial progress has been made in the inclusivity of American politics over the past 120 years. --Mia Freund

Of the fourteen Lippitt House residents in 1875, only three were eligible to vote: Henry Lippitt, who was serving as governor at the time; his 27-year-old son, Charles; and the employed waiter, William Mason. Governor Lippitt’s wife, Mary Ann Balch Lippitt; their 18-year-old son, Henry; and their three daughters, Jeanie, Mary, and Abby could not vote. Six additional members of the household, all live-in servants, were ineligible to vote because they were female, like maid Annie Devine, or were born outside of the United States, like English butler Edward W. Bennet. Four of the six servants living in the Lippitt House in 1875 were immigrants.

 

The 1663 King Charles Charter, which united several settlements into a unified colony, permitted only property-owning men like Henry Lippitt to vote. In 1798, Rhode Island established $134 as the minimum value of that property.Voting rights remained unchanged until 1842, when Rhode Island approved a new constitution in the aftermath of the Dorr Rebellion. The 1842 constitution abolished slavery and granted suffrage to males of at least twenty-one years of age, including Black citizens. However, the constitution required voters to pay a $1 poll tax and still required $134 of property for some elections. In 1888, an amendment to this constitution permitted foreign-born men to vote.


Women like Mary Ann Balch Lippitt, her three daughters, and the female family servants could not vote in state elections until 1920, although they could serve as elected school committee members. Throughout the latter half of the 19th century and the early 20th century, suffragists challenged women’s traditional role and campaigned for women’s right to vote. In 1917, an amendment to the Rhode Island Constitution permitted women to vote in presidential elections, though not in local and statewide elections. The 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, finally preventing voter discrimination on the basis of sex. --Kristen Marchetti

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