September 2, 2020

Princeton’s Role in Women’s Suffrage Is Explored in New Virtual Exhibit

LEADING THE SUFFRAGE DEBATE: Catherine Warren, seen in front of her home at 133 Library Place, was treasurer of the New Jersey branch of the Congressional Union, a radical arm of the women’s suffrage movement, and president of the New Jersey State Federation of Women’s Clubs. She is among those featured in a new online exhibit by the Historical Society of Princeton.

By Anne Levin

Despite its small size, Princeton played a significant role in the fight for women’s right to vote. The town was closely watched in the years leading up to passage of the 19th amendment on August 26,1920, because it was home to the sitting president and a former first lady.

“All eyes are on President Woodrow Wilson — who has avoided the contentious suffrage question up to this point — as he travels to his home polling place in Princeton to cast his own vote in the [1915] New Jersey referendum,” reads a digital exhibit by the Historical Society of Princeton and co-sponsored by Princeton Public Library, now on view at “All eyes were on Princeton.”

“Princeton and Women’s Suffrage: The Greatest Question of the Day” takes viewers from the early efforts in 2010 through to passage of the amendment a decade later. While many in Princeton were in favor of suffrage, many were not. The latter group argued that women did not need the vote because their husbands represented them at the ballot box.

“On the question of necessity, in Princeton, as nationally, anti-suffragist women advanced social reform issues through their personal connections with politicians,” the exhibit reads. “To them, this ‘indirect influence’ was a more respectable, non-partisan means to an end for women, but suffragists argued it was an avenue for action that was open to a privileged few.”

The differences of opinion, and how they were resolved, were revealing to those who put the show together.

“Something that surprised me was how closely connected — by friendship and family — the advocates on both sides of the suffrage campaign were,” said Izzy Kasdin, executive director of the Historical Society, in an email. “For example, the Present Day Club leadership oscillated back and forth between pro-suffragists and anti-suffragists throughout the 19-teens, and all these women continued to be active and socialize together in the club. It shows that, in Princeton, the suffrage issue was hotly debated, but not divisive.”

Stephanie Schwartz, curator of collections and research, had a similar reaction. “Reading the back-and-forth discourse in the ‘Princeton Press’ column dedicated to the women’s suffrage question introduced me to the many passionate community members who also acted on a state and national stage,” she said. “Because of the focus right now on 1920, people may not be aware of how important the 1915 referendum was in New Jersey and in Princeton as an area of national attention. This exhibition strives to emphasize the length and intricacies of the suffrage fight, which included many small battles. The big win in 1920 was significant, but it was one of many important milestones in an ongoing effort.”

While Wilson supported the 1915 New Jersey referendum for suffrage, it was defeated in the town, home district, and the state. The exhibit explores the way black voters were blamed for this, “suggesting that they were not informed and were easily swayed by private interests. There was significant challenge to this by prominent black citizens in Princeton and Trenton. ‘Scapegoating’ black voters, as one writer called it at the time, revealed the racism embedded in the suffrage movement,” the exhibit reads. “Though the mainstream suffrage organizations sidelined them, black suffragists, and many black voters, recognized that black women’s suffrage was a critical tool in their fight for racial justice.”

The exhibit weaves in historic photographs, letters, documents, and press clippings. In one shot from the 1910 P-rade down Nassau Street, members of Princeton University’s all-male Class of 1900 mocked the movement wearing white dresses and bearing signs. (The University came out in favor of the referendum in 1915). Another photo shows Alexander Hall, where numerous lectures and debates on the issue took place prior to the 1915 referendum.

The fact that the exhibit is digital rather than hanging on the walls of the Historical Society’s Quaker Road headquarters is not expected to be a deterrent.

“The public’s response to our online programming has been a bright spot in this difficult time,” said Eve Mandel, director of programs and visitor services. “We’ve been able to reach a wider audience and dive into a wider variety of topics than ever before particularly on our social media channels. We’ve been able to share dozens of local history stories there, and have gotten a lot of comments like, ‘I never knew that!’ Our Historical Fiction Book Group is as popular as ever and for a lecture this Thursday on Princeton in 1783, we already have more registrants than we would have been able to accommodate in person.”

Visit to view the digital exhibition.