1918 memoir opens window to suffrage movement views
HARTFORD — Cheryl Dunson knew she had found something special when she saw the small black notebook, covered in a plastic sleeve, inside a cardboard box of old memorabilia at the Connecticut League of Women Voters.
Recorded inside, in meticulous blue script, were the memoirs of a suffrage leader who interviewed members of the all-male Connecticut General Assembly more than 90 years ago on whether women should be granted the right to vote.
Dunson, the league’s president, and her fellow members had no idea the book existed until she discovered it a year ago in their Hamden offices when she was searching for items to help mark the state league’s 90th anniversary. The notebook, dated July 1, 1918, offers a rare glimpse into the views of Connecticut’s state legislators two years before the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, granting men and women equal voting rights.
“I think it is an incredible time capsule showing the debate regarding one of the most basic rights of our democracy and it’s a right that many women in particular take for granted today,’’ Dunson said.
“I don’t think they have the knowledge to know what these women did, how they struggled, how they worked, how they kind of weathered the kind of personal attacks against their integrity and their intelligence,’’ she said. “To me, it’s an incredibly inspiring story and I think it’s one that all women should be aware of.’’
The Connecticut League of Women Voters, which traces its own roots to a suffrage organization, is donating the book to the Connecticut State Archives for safekeeping. A reception is planned Wednesday at the State Library in Hartford.
The ringed book, which is only slightly worn, has lettered tabs that the author, who identified herself as (Mrs. R.) Gladys Bragdon, used to organize the interviews.
In one entry, she describes how World War I influenced men’s thinking about allowing women to vote. Some suffrage activists compared the fight for democracy abroad to theirs back at home.
“After a long but pleasant interview, he admitted that he had seen the light since the war and wished to be recorded as favorable, though not a crusader. Formerly an anti,’’ Bragdon wrote of one lawmaker.
In another entry, she writes: “He’s always been opposed but he’s open minded now. Try again. By all means, be considerate because he’s fearfully busy with war orders.’’
Bragdon also references that some women did not support the suffrage movement.
“Anti just now but may change his mind. Has rabid anti wife,’’ she wrote. “Poor man.’’
While it appears the legislators were courteous to Bragdon, many were unwilling to take a position on suffrage. In one instance she writes: “Indifferent. Will do as wife says but doubts if wife knows or cares anything about public affairs or politics.’’
Bragdon then writes in parenthesis, “People say his wife is afraid to say (her) soul’s her own.’’
The interviews came at a time when suffragist activists across the country were pursuing a two-pronged approach to win the vote. While continuing their long-running efforts to pass women’s suffrage laws state by state, they were also seeking support for a federal constitutional amendment that needed ratification by at least 36 states.
“I think she was trying to gauge the General Assembly’s attitude toward it just in case Congress approved it and the legislators of the states had to approve it,’’ said Mark Jones, the state archivist.
Between March and August 1920, two years after Bragdon submitted her report, the Connecticut Women’s Suffrage Association heavily lobbied state lawmakers to ratify the federal amendment but Governor Marcus H. Holcomb, a Republican who opposed women’s suffrage, refused to call a special session of the legislature, arguing the state constitution required there to be an emergency.
The State Archives has numerous letters that were sent to Holcomb at the time, some from across the country, either urging him to stand his ground or to call legislators in for a vote.
“This book will just add to that,’’ said Jones, who said Bragdon’s writings will be kept in an acid-free box and stored in a vault at the state archives for researchers to review.
After the 36th state ratified the 19th Amendment, Holcomb called a special session. Connecticut first voted to ratify the amendment on Sept. 14, 1920, and later reaffirmed its support. In 1921, five women were elected to the Connecticut House of Representatives.