You’d be forgiven for wondering if you’d passed through a portal to a century ago if you wandered down East Hampton’s Main Street on the afternoon of Aug. 24.
More than a hundred and fifty women and men, mostly dressed in white and wearing yellow sashes that read “Votes for Women,” gathered on the sidewalk on a breezy, sun-dappled late summer afternoon along a stretch of historic homes and buildings, including one that had once belonged to one of East Hampton’s staunchest suffragists, recreating a rally that had taken place on the very same spot back in 1913.
This year is the 100th Anniversary of women receiving the right to vote in New York State, three years before the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave that right to women nationwide, but the quest for the ballot began 70 years before that, in 1848, when a few brave women and even fewer brave men drew up their Declaration of Sentiments in Seneca Falls, NY.
Many Long Island women were active in the suffragist movement, and the year 1913 was a hotbed of parades and rallies, including one right on East Hampton’s Main Street that was well-documented by the East Hampton Star, whose offices stand along the route of the rally, from suffragist May Groot Manson’s house at 117 Main Street to the East Hampton Library.
Marchers this week were in a celebratory mood — some were dressed in period garb with modern touches such as sashes that read “Black Lives Matter,” while today’s civic leaders held up signs representing local civic leaders of 1913 who had marched in the original rally. Even the village police got into the spirit — officer Jennifer Dunn briefly donned a sash and posed for photographs with East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell before directing traffic and ensuring the safety of the marchers on the sidewalk.
The march, organized by the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons and lead by the group’s publicity chair, Arlene Hinkemeyer, was a rare festive public display of democracy-in-action in a year that has been filled with bitter protest throughout America.
After posing for pictures on the front lawn of Ms. Manson’s home and receiving a greeting from its current owner, Mary Jane Brock, the group marched down the sidewalk to the East Hampton Historical Society’s Clinton Academy, lead by drummer Bruce Beyer of the Sag Harbor Community Band.
“We need more of this,” said Mr. Beyer, smiling, as the crowd lined up, with League of Women Voters co-chairs Estelle Gellman and Susan Wilson carrying flags and leading the way.
At the Clinton Academy, East Hampton Star editor David Rattray reminded the crowd of the relevance of the march to current-day affairs.
“Never forget that the struggle for equal rights at the polls continues today,” he said.
Richard Barons of the East Hampton Historical Society read aloud an 1898 editorial by the East Hampton Star’s founder, George Burling, who had admired female leaders in the community, especially those who tended to soldiers returning from the Spanish-American War who were quarantined at Camp Wikoff in Montauk.
“I have seen women as the greatest organizers, and I hope to see them have the power they deserve,” Mr. Burling had written.
Ms. Hinkemeyer said the rally recreation wouldn’t have been possible without the Star’s two detailed articles written before and after the 1913 rally, at which 1848 Seneca Falls Conference co-chair Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s daughter, Harriot Stanton Blatch, spoke.
Ms. Cady Stanton’s family has deep roots on Eastern Long Island, where they maintained a summer home in Shoreham, and two more of their family’s descendants, who now live in Connecticut, made the trip to East Hampton for this week’s rally.
At the library, Ms. Blatch’s great-granddaughter, Coline Jenkins, and Ms. Jenkins’ daughter, Elizabeth Jenkins-Sahlin, told of their family’s history, which was steeped in the law.
Ms. Jenkins wore a black robe that had once belonged to Harriot Stanton Blatch over her suffragist whites and a mortarboard on her head to remind attendees of the importance of education to the suffrage movement.
“Elizabeth Cady Stanton grew up in a soup of law,” she said. “Her father was a judge and he had a law practice in their house. Women would come in distraught and her father would say ‘this is the law. I can’t help that.’”
Ms. Stanton, then a child, hatched a plan to cut up offending passages in her father’s law books, but when he caught on, he told her that his law books weren’t the only ones she’d need to cut up. She’d have to go to Albany to appeal to the state legislature if she really wanted the laws changed. She devoted her life to just that cause.
“Elizabeth connected women and the law. The right to vote is a legal issue,” said Ms. Jenkins. “It starts with drops. The women of East Hampton flow into a stream, and the stream becomes a river and an ocean. You have to have an abundance of people to change the U.S. Constitution.”
New York’s Lieutenant Governor, Kathy Hochul, who chairs the state’s Woman’s Suffrage Commission to celebrate the centennial, also spoke at the East Hampton rally.
Ms. Hochul said that newspaper editors like George Burling who were sympathetic to the woman’s suffrage cause were rare in the 19th Century. She quoted from news articles of the time, including one from a Oneida newspaper that called the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments “the most shocking event ever recorded in the history of womanity,” adding that “if our women insist on voting, where, gentlemen, will be our dinners?,” along with several editorials musing about who will darn socks if women are given the vote.
“In 2017, do we have the same courage, fortitude and honor to march on?” she asked. “Women today are not equal. Our governor knows that. This commission is a look back, but it’s also a look forward. Are we calling out injustice wherever we see it?”