The old always seems to have a familiar ring to it.

About a hundred years ago — Sept. 10, 1917 — Maine voters cast their votes against the Maine Women’s Suffrage Referendum which would have granted women equal suffrage with men.

Against the background of National Women’s Rights conventions, celebrated national feminist Lucy Stone carried her blistering indictment of “the established order of things” to Maine in 1850, 1854 and again in 1857 “and probably made the ladies present think they were greatly abused and neglected in matters of which they never thought before.”

Local feminists, such as Elizabeth Oaks Smith, were also in the field challenging the prevailing social and cultural patterns of beliefs, values and attitudes regarding women. Textile operatives from Lewiston could be found among their listeners.

In 1854, Susan B. Anthony, one of the founders of the National Woman’s Suffrage Association, carried her equal rights message to Bangor.

Indeed, a symptom of the embryonic assertiveness of women was reflected in an unsuccessful strike of the textile operatives in Lincoln Mill and the Bates Mill No.1 in Lewiston in 1854. The strike featured women in leading roles as they addressed strikers. Accompanied by the Lewiston Brass Band, the “sister factory girls” paraded through the city streets.


An earlier strike by female textile workers in Saco in 1841 also failed.

At the time, the action of the strikers was described as behavior “incompatible with the retiring delicacy of the female character.”

In 1857, the increased interest in and discussion of women’s rights was demonstrated, in part, when the state Legislature enacted legislation that provided that: “Any married woman may demand and receive wages of her personal labor performed other than for her own family, and may hold the same in her own right against her husband or any other person and may maintain an action therefore in her own name.”

A year later, in January 1858, the Maine Legislature received what appeared to be the first petition “praying that the right of suffrage may be exercised by women” by one of Maine’s early feminists, Ann F. Greeley of Ellsworth.

The movement for women’s rights was fueled by the greater number of women who entered the workforce during the Civil War. In 1865, the Lewiston Falls Journal noted “the tendency to an enlarged sphere of labor for females is now unmistakable. A great change has been inaugurated by the necessities of the war. …”

The feminist reform movement in the Lewiston-Auburn area, however, gave rise to The River Side Echo—South Auburn Reporter which targeted the advocates of reform who challenged established orthodoxy regarding women’s place in society.


That fleeting newspaper, edited by George W. Vicery and Mary H. Lunt, was first published on Feb. 13, 1868 and was dedicated to the traditional women’s “sphere” of life and work. That sphere, however, was clearly not the “public sphere” for “no women should go forth as a public speaker or preacher, for had that been the design of the Creator, the Savior while choosing his disciples would have chosen a woman also; but while none were called to perform public duties, He permitted them to administer to His temporal wants.”

The local guardian and custodian of traditional values offered a generic theme when it noted that while a woman’s sphere was limited, “her station is a high and holy one . . . to guide the young . . . the great object of her life.” She must cultivate her mind for this purpose The River Side Echo wrote, but there was little doubt “it is woman who must abide by the circle of the home, ready with love and sympathy, to cheer the husband, father, brother, when returning from the toils of life, exhausted and weary.”

The local journal of conventional values was clear and certain in its mind that the role of woman was to “minister to the sick and distressed, and by her gentle in?uence dispel that utter churlishness which would otherwise exist.” The journalistic voice of resistance insisted “a woman with a finely cultivated mind” was “not only an ornament to society, but still greater to her own husband.”

The authors of the short-lived sheet witnessed their traditional stance on the role of women continuously challenged, evaded or ignored, as increasing numbers of women made their way through the doors and gates of the shoe shops and textile mills. Undoubtedly many did so out of necessity to earn their livelihood rather than a commitment to feminist ideology. That distinction, however, was not made by The River Side Echo.

Some observers of the new challenges to traditional expectations regarding the role of women in society made a distinction between “male women and female women.”

Female women were “contented to be man’s helpmate and companion, his friend in the hour of trouble and distress, and are satisfied to minister to the wants and comforts of the men they love. They are of the same mold as our great grandmothers.” But, male women  were considered “a modern invention and love only themselves; they seek out every trade or profession in which men have made their living, considering the drudgery of house work and home beneath their notice, preferring a boarding house to one of their own, or as a servant under a female woman, but the trade requiring the greatest exertion of great strength, or entailing the enormity of soiling their hands, is passed by as only suited for the inferior animal, man.”


While the women’s movement might differ over strategy and program, some seeking suffrage as the major goal, others viewed suffrage as a necessary tool to achieve a broader social revolution. The former appeared to dominate the efforts in Maine.

Nevertheless, the efforts to secure the suffrage were regarded by many as the most “damnable heresy of this generation.”

The Portland Labor Reform Association, a worker organization formed in 1865, endorsed women’s suffrage. In the same year, reformers such as Ezra A. Haywood, president of the Labor Reform League of Massachusetts, reinforced the reform goals of the Portland disciples of change when he told audiences in the textile center of Biddeford that the suffrage must be impartial and not denied because of “race, sex or past condition.” A strong exponent of women’s rights, he asked his listeners to “think of the gallantry that pays a woman one fourth what a man gets for the same work, and then has the impudence to look into her eyes and ask her to marry him.”

When Lewiston celebrated July 4th, 1865, observers witnessed the textile mills decorated with ?ags, and young female operatives of the Androscoggin Mills “tastefully attired in white with crowns on their heads” parading through the city streets. A special bevy of the delegation, dressed in the national colors in bloomer costumes, carried a banner which expressed their aspirations. One side of the banner revealed an eagle bearing a scroll which contained the following inscription: “Freedom with all its antecedents”; the reverse side proclaimed: “July 4th 1865, Right of Suffrage to every American Citizen.”

The bloomer costume, a loose-fitting garment, was worn in large measure as a protest against the prevailing forms of dress which proved to be inhibiting, uncomfortable and impractical for working women.

The “bloomer” girls of Lewiston, who were unorthodox in their dress, proved to be unorthodox in their political ideas as well for the “bloomers” were symbols of the women’s rights movement.


A colorful and dramatic and illustration of the feminist reform impulse was the activity of Lydia Cushman. Wearing the “bloomer costume” she attended legislative session on a regular basis and presented petitions in an effort to secure legislation which would guarantee “widows their rights” and the “widows . . . right to plead their own cases in Court,” etc.

In 1865, the Lewiston Evening Journal found it relatively easy, if not necessary, (in the interest of the textile and shoe industries), to make a case for female employment: “Why should ladies refuse to prepare themselves for those duties to which they are peculiarly adapted? Why should we not outgrow the smallest approach to the absurd idea that a lady must be an idle toy in the parlor rather than an enthusiastic worker in the family, in the shop, anywhere where honest work, suitable to her strength and taste is to be done? It is high time that young ladies were more generally taught the theory and practice of getting a living for themselves rather than the theory of winning somebody else to earn it for them.  …”

As if to verify the dawn of something new, in 1869 the women shoe workers of Auburn organized a local chapter of the Daughters of St. Crispin and sought to eliminate differentiation in pay based solely on sex. The Auburn Daughters were represented in the founding convention of the national organization. Auburn was also represented on the Executive Committee of the National Labor Union, the nation’s first large scale labor federation in the nation which called for equal pay for equal work (but not women’s suffrage).

In 1872, the NLU transformed itself into the National Labor Reform Party, and Auburn could be counted among the participants of the new political party.

Promoting their vision and searching for relief from negative legislative responses to their cause, more than 1,000 supporters of the women’s suffrage (including men in positions of leadership) attended the formation of the Suffrage Association in Augusta on Jan. 29, 1873. Resolutions were adopted claiming the right of suffrage for the women of Maine “and the power to exercise that right upon the same terms by which it is exercised by men.” They appealed to lawmakers for an amendment to the Constitution which would secure the right of suffrage to citizens respective of sex and declared: That this society pledges itself here and now, member to member, to pursue the work we have today undertaken, with unabated and undeviating fidelity, until women of the State of Maine shall have the ballot, in as sure possession as do the men of this State.

Politically oriented labor union members who joined the independent Union Labor Party in Maine in 1886 supported its goal of equal suffrage. The Knights of Labor, which blanketed the state in the 1880s, however, brought the issue into sharp relief by calling for equal suffrage and equal pay for equal work for women. The Easter Argus (Portland) captured the link between the Knights and the crusade for women’s rights:


The Knights of Labor were the first secret organization to place women on a perfect equality with men. One of the very first platforms adopted was “We demand for both sexes equal pay for equal work.” In all local assemblies women are put on an equal with men in speaking, voting, holding office and all other things. Indeed, a large part of the offices are filled and well filled, by women. They make the best of members — earnest, faithful and enthusiastic. Rainy, muddy nights when the men stay at home the women turn out in full force, good-natured and earnest.

The Knights, whose headquarters were in Auburn, and whose newspaper, the Labor Advocate, was published in Lewiston, counted 16 locals in the Twin Cities, the epicenter of the cotton and shoe industries, where it became a stronghold.

The coalition of labor-related organizations calling for reform of established political order included Maine’s Populist Party, organized in 1891, which attracted labor union advocates and included equal suffrage among its goals. In 1902, the Maine Socialist Party, while crusading for a new economic order to supplant the capitalist mode of production which it believed to be beyond redemption, included equal suffrage and equal pay for equal work among its demands. The same year, the Maine State Grange. which represented the agrarian interest of the state, also joined the current of reform sweeping across the state.

The birth of the initiative and referendum in 1908 in Maine provided labor and suffrage insurgents a political means of “returning power to the people” by circumventing the Legislature, its committee structure, and the corporate wealth and political machines which they alleged dominated both. In one sweep the purification and extension of democracy would be realized.

In 1917, on the eve of a state referendum on the question of women’s suffrage, the state labor organization labor again endorsed the movement for equality in voting for women. It was not surprising, however, that such a contentious issue would reveal fissures within the ranks of organized labor as it did throughout the society.

By the time of the contentious referendum of 1917, which would have granted women equal political voice with men, the partisans for the political emancipation of women collided with a portfolio of fine-tuned arguments against the expansion of suffrage and revealed a profile of social thought that challenged reformers in scaling the fortress of tradition. They included the argument that the vote was not a natural right or inalienable right and that the declaration “woman suffrage” in its final analyses is a proposal to change what has always been regarded as the natural social order,” that “men and women were created different and designed to work in different spheres for the common good — to cooperate with and supplement each other and not to compete.”


The foes of women’s suffrage shouted “it means diverting woman from her natural duties.”

The anti-suffragists were quick to cite Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, the nation’s leading labor organization, who was critical of efforts to link equal pay for equal work and suffrage: “The vote doesn’t mean a job, and equal suffrage doesn’t necessarily mean equal pay for equal work.”

But, the referendum was defeated by a margin of 38,836 to 20,000.

There was something about the arguments of the anti-suffragists that violated reality when any observer of life could see Maine women parading through the gates of mills, factories and shops producing the wealth of the state. Nor could one escape observing that women were called upon as a labor reserve army during World War I to make munitions and other items of war to defeat the Kaiser, and who were celebrated for doing so.

Women at work in war and peace were shattering traditional images of what women can do, ought to do, or must do, i.e., exhibit “piety, purity, submission, and domesticity.”

The struggle of women for independence and equality forcefully makes clear that opponents utilized the “laws’” of nature to fence women into “natural” social, economic and political structures.


Utilizing “natural laws” has a way of weakening human will to alter the world they live in and is too readily used as a justification for exploitation and preserving the unequal distribution of power and wealth. It becomes an easier task when the victims believe in the explanations offered for their plight.

In 1919, the political climate changed dramatically when the Maine Legislature enacted a measure permitting women to vote in presidential elections (anti-suffragettes, resisting to the end, gathered signatures for a referendum on such action) and the U.S. Congress voted approval of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution which was ratified by Maine in November 1919.

On Sept. 13 that year, Maine voters approved women’s suffrage by a margin of 88,000 to 30,462 while simultaneously defeating the anti-suffrage referendum.

The struggle for women’s rights with its many variants continued and continues.

Charles A. Scontras is an historian and research assistant to the Bureau of Labor Education at the University of Maine in Orono.

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