The readers of the weekly Geauga Republican may have been surprised when they opened their November 13, 1872, edition and saw the above headlines in bold print. This was one of the opening local salvos in what became a national campaign for women’s right to vote. It was a battle fought over several centuries, not only in Congress and state capitols, but also on our main streets and in our backyards here in Northeastern Ohio. These grassroots initiatives were just as vital as national efforts to ensure the 1920 ratification of our 19th Amendment granting women suffrage.
Union Chapel in South Newbury, Geauga County, Ohio, bears silent witness to the struggle and commitment of local women to gain this most basic of our rights. The structure, also known locally as the “freedom of speech chapel” and “cradle of women’s rights” chapel, is now on the National Register of Historic Places because of considerable research and bureaucratic navigational efforts by Rachael Toth during her years as a graduate student in Ursuline’s Historic Preservation program.
Ursuline’s Historic Preservation students Rachael Toth, Heather Fisher, and Mary Ogle collect acorns from the Centennial Oak in South Newbury.
Ursuline Historic Preservation students Heather Fisher, Rachael Toth, and Mary Ogle visited Union Chapel when Rachael decided to adopt the structure for her National Register nomination project and her M.A. thesis.
Built ca. 1858 and dedicated to free speech by local community members, Union Chapel became the home of the Newbury Woman Suffrage Political Club, an organization that reached across Northeastern Ohio for membership and message.
Mother/daughter team activists Ruth and Ellen Munn as well as Dr. Julia Green met with others in theNortheastern Ohio Health and Dress Reform Association to discuss the “knotty problem” of suffrage, as the Geauga Democrat referred to it on October 18, 1871. And they had attempted to vote, an incident the Geauga Democrat had recorded in its 18 October 1871 edition, saying:
Election in this place passed off quietly, although there was a
considerable excitement in consequence of nine ladies having
the independence and moral courage to present themselves at
the polls, and demand their right to vote.
This may have been the first time women attempted to vote in Newbury, but it was not the last and the local newspapers recorded each attempt, especially when the intrepid suffragists braved Geauga’s slush and snow.
On November 13, 1872, the Geauga Republican noted that
Notwithstanding the inclemency of the weather, fourteen women
citizens presented themselves at the polls in this town yesterday,
and asked the privilege of exercising their right of suffrage.
And on April 16, 1873, the editor of the Geauga Republican reported,
At the recent election … notwithstanding the almost impassable
condition of the roads, fourteen women were present to indicate
their desire to exercise their natural and inalienable right to
franchise [vote]…. many more, who were unable to attend manifested
their interest in the cause by signing and sending in, by friends,
ballots to be deposited in the box. The judges were courteous
and gentlemanly…. declining to receive the proffered votes.
After all, women had not been granted the right to vote in the original Constitution or any of the subsequent amendments. So how could the judges accept those votes?
Can you imagine the conversations at afternoon tea and after church and perhaps even over the back fences as the women hung their wash out to dry in the summer sun? Something more must be done. But what?
The Newbury Woman Suffrage Political Club was the result and on January 21, 1874, the Geauga Republican published an article on the clubs’ January 12 founding at Union Chapel, complete with a constitution that called for the members to use newspaper articles, tracts, lectures, discussions, and “all legitimate instrumentalities, to aid in placing woman on a pecuniary, social, and political equality with a man.”
These women had learned from earlier generations and other social reform movements about the power of marshalling forces and spreading the word. On July 15, the Geauga Republican reported that the suffragists held their first Suffrage Convention with inspirational and educational elements supplied by Sarah B. Chase, M.D., of Cleveland and General Alvin C. Voris of Akron as well as rousing celebration music provided by the Newbury Glee Club and the Mantua Cornet Band.
In celebration of our nation’s 100 year birthday, on July 4, 1876, the club members planted a white oak, today known as the Centennial Oak, across from the chapel, burying under its roots a time capsule with copies of their constitution, list of founding members, and initial minutes.
These suffragists continued to publish articles and minutes in the newspapers, to send members to other organizations to promote collaborations, and to host speakers, even such national figures as Susan B. Anthony. On March 14, 1879, the Geauga Leader reported
We were highly entertained recently by a lecture of Susan B. Anthony
on woman suffrage…. Union Hall [Chapel] was crowded both evenings by
intelligent audiences, who listened for two hours each evening with
close attention. The work she has done here must make a lasting
impression, and we fondly hope will awaken many to serious action
in the reforms which are so needed.
The work of the Newbury Woman Suffrage Political Club must, indeed, have made an impression. On November 8, 1917, the Geauga County Record cited that 1320 had voted in favor of suffrage with only 908 against in an article entitled “County Declares in Favor of Suffrage.”
A few years later, on August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment, prohibiting any U.S. citizen from being denied the right to vote on the basis of sex, was ratified. And in 1971, the U.S. Congress designated August 26 as “Women’s Equality Day” to commemorate that achievement and build awareness of continuing efforts for full equality for women.
Those awareness initiatives must continue, even though women will celebrate a century of voting privileges in 2020. (Not so far away, is it? And won’t it lend itself to all sorts of phrases along the lines of “hindsight being 20-20….?”).
Historic preservation efforts will help, on both national and local fronts. The Women’s Rights National Historic Park, operated by the National Park Service in Seneca Falls, New York, preserves the story and place of the first Women’s Rights Convention, held in Seneca Falls in 1848. And here at home, the Geauga Park District is building on the work provided by our own Rachael Toth to preserve and interpret the efforts of the reformers who headquartered in South Newbury’s Union Chapel.
And so Election Day looms before us. We now have the ability to influence our communities by actively using our voting privileges. But this first Tuesday in November should also be recognized as an opportune moment to reflect on the importance of our right to vote and to remember those who fought to achieve and guarantee that all citizens could participate in this way in their own self-government.
Ellen Munn (1833-1908)
Daughter of local reformer Ruth Munn, Ellen Munn was a founding member and recording secretary of both the Newbury Woman Suffrage Political Club and the Northern Ohio Women’s Dress Reform Movement. A well-known Bloomer girl, she is reputed to have regularly worn bloomers under her dress, protesting against the confinement of women’s fashions.
Dr. Julia Green (8 May 1847 – 26 March 1925)
Julia moved to Newbury, Ohio, at the age of 14, having been born in nearby Mantua. After graduating from the Cleveland Homeopathic College, she practiced medicine and married Apollos D. Green. She was a founding member and corresponding secretary of the Newbury Woman Suffrage Political Club. Dr. Green died in 1925 and is buried in Welton Cemetery in Burton, Ohio.
Bari Oyler Stith, Ph.D., is the Director of Historic Preservation at Ursuline College.