As Women’s History Month winds down, our thoughts turned to the history of voting in Maine. Women, men, African Americans and Native Americans got the right to vote at different times and by different avenues here in Maine. It’s those historic campaigns that inspire the work of the LWVME. No citizen should be denied the right to vote and we continue to work to ensure that all Americans can exercise the most fundamental of our civil rights.
By Anne Gass
Florence Brooks Whitehouse: Maine Suffrage Leader
One hundred years ago, Maine women were denied the right to vote. Why? Some said politics was too dirty for women; others thought they were too nervous and flighty to handle voting on top of all their other household responsibilities. Still others wondered why it was necessary, since women could always just ask their husbands, brothers or sons to vote in a particular way and they’d be happy to do so, wasn’t that right?
No, that wasn’t right, in both senses of the word. It wasn’t true, and it wasn’t just. Florence Brooks Whitehouse was one of the women leading Maine’s campaign for woman suffrage back in 1915, and she and her supporters had many arguments in favor of women getting the vote. Women were increasingly working outside the home, and though they had to pay taxes on their earnings they had no say on how the money was spent, which was taxation without representation. Women had an inherent right to vote that was based in the Constitution. Men had never had to demonstrate their worthiness for the vote as they expected women to do, and while women proved themselves worthy again and again, men still refused to grant them suffrage. How was that fair?
Whitehouse didn’t become a suffrage activist until 1914, when she was in her early 40s, but her many experiences helped her become Maine’s most effective suffrage leader in the final years of the campaign. An effective communicator, comfortable in the limelight, and connected to many of Maine’s leading families, she was ideally suited to helping lead Maine’s suffrage battles.
There was just one problem; most of her suffrage peers thought Florence was too radical. She had initially joined the Maine Woman Suffrage Association (MWSA) who believed suffrage was best won using a state-by-state approach. But for decades men had been giving suffrage activists the run-around. Legislators who promised to support suffrage changed their minds at the last moment. One year the House would approve and the Senate would reject it, but next time the bill was submitted they would swap their positions. Maine’s legislature had never passed a suffrage referendum bill, and the suffragists tried and failed again in 1915.
This likely influenced Florence’s decision later that year to join the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CU), agreeing to serve as chair of the Maine branch and on the national advisory board. The CU had been founded by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, who sought to win woman suffrage by amending the United States Constitution. A key strategy was to hold the political party in power accountable for failing to advance the measure through Congress. Since the Democrats controlled both the presidency and Congress the CU campaigned against them in national elections. Paul and Burns also led supporters in picketing President Woodrow Wilson outside the White House gates where they were attacked by mobs, arrested, and imprisoned.
Florence picketed the President and campaigned against him during the 1916 election, and although she was never arrested, her conservative MWSA colleagues were appalled that she would do anything so unladylike. Ultimately, they forced her to choose between MWSA and the CU, and she chose the CU.
While Maine had many suffrage leaders, Florence stood out for her willingness to challenge rigid conceptions of womanly behavior and for her stubborn support of the CU pickets. During WW I her two older sons enlisted in the fledgling aviation corps, and she wrote eloquently to the editor of the Portland Evening Express to voice her anger at the country’s continued unwillingness to approve woman suffrage.
…in my heart there is a deep resentment against my Country— that at this time when it is demanding the greatest sacrifices from me—and from hundreds of thousands of mothers the country over—that democratic principles be advanced in Europe, it refuses to recognize women in that democracy at home; a resentment that in all President Wilson’s splendid oratory upon human liberty there is no inclusion of women as human beings; that women who are responding with sons, money, and service to the Government can be mobbed without protest, arrested, and sentenced and placed in prison, by the Government which is taking their sons, and their money, and their service to wage its wars…
Florence continued to battle for the vote and once Congress finally passed the suffrage amendment in 1919 she and Alice Paul successfully countered a sneaky effort to prevent Maine from ratifying. After suffrage was won she continued to work with the National Woman’s Party for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, and she supported many other good government and peace initiatives as well. In recognition of her contributions to women’s social and civic equality she was inducted into the Maine Women’s Hall of Fame in 2008.
Florence’s spirit is perhaps best captured by a poem she wrote and recited to the Judiciary Committee of the Maine legislature in 1917, which ends as follows:
…I have no quarrel with you- but henceforth,
This you must know; the world is mine, as yours,
The pulsing strength and passion and heart of it;
The work I set my hand to, women’s work,
Because I set my hand to it.
To learn more about Florence visit her website at www.florencebrookswhitehouse.com. She is also the subject of the recently released book Voting Down the Rose: Florence Brooks Whitehouse and Maine’s Fight for Woman Suffrage, which can be found on her website or on Amazon.
Anne Gass is a Maine author and member of the League of Women Voters of Maine.