Tomorrow is the 2020 Presidential Election. We have newly installed an exhibit on women's suffrage in the windows of the CVS Pharmacy on Massachusetts Avenue in Lexington center. The national suffrage movement spanned 70+ years and women in Lexington were involved for as long. We honor and appreciate their long fight and reaffirm our commitment to equitable history.
The following is an excerpt from Dr. Emily Murphy's white paper on Lexington suffrage. This excerpt covers some important events in the early years of the movement. If you would like to read Dr. Murphy's full paper, it is available here or on the "Something Must Be Done: Bold Women of Lexington" exhibit page.
Lexington’s iconic place in American history has always made it a touchstone for any number of movements and the same can be said of the women’s suffrage movement. The battle of Lexington and Concord often featured in suffrage speeches, particularly as speakers pointed out that women were paying their fair share of taxes, but could not vote for representation.
However, when it comes to participation in the suffrage movement, Lexington does not feature as a critical point in the Massachusetts story. Suffrage in Lexington can be described as typical; neither more nor less active than any number of small rural towns in the greater Boston area. And as such, its activity ebbs and flows as the greater tide of suffrage enthusiasm did in Massachusetts. There are not a lot of records of suffrage activities in Lexington, but this is a chronological list of what has been found in newspaper articles and other papers.
1875: Centennial Celebrations
The first time that Lexington really gets mentioned in relation to women’s suffrage after the Civil War is at the 1875 Centennial Celebrations that happened in Lexington and Concord. In The Women’s Journal, Lucy Stone and her husband Henry Browne Blackwell both wrote scathing reviews about the lack of participation or even mention of women, let alone women’s suffrage in either of the celebrations, even though many of the speakers were in favor of suffrage. “It will be seen how small a share women received of the thought and attention of the celebration. It would seem a small return to the women of Concord and Lexington, whose taxes next fall will be over $3000—one fifth of the whole sum voted by the men at the town-meetings from which these women were excluded.”
One bright spot that Blackwell found was “the one man who did not forget to recognize the rights of American women at the Lexington Centennial,” African-American caterer J. B. Smith, who managed the supper for the Lexington event. In response to a letter from nineteen young women from Arlington offering to help with table service for the event, Mr. Smith wrote: “. . . for myself I thank you, and for the sentiment that prompted the act I thank God. It will quicken the pulsation of the patriotic heart of the world, it will hasten the day when all persons will be born free and equal . . .” Blackwell then goes on to point out that there were no women speakers, very few women in the audience or at the supper, and “the fact remains, that it was a celebration of men, by men, for men, and not in any true or complete sense a celebration of the people.”
1877-1887: Lectures, but no League
The next mention of women’s suffrage we find is two lectures being held in Lexington on the subject, both mentioned in The Woman’s Journal:
MEETINGS AT ARLINGTON AND LEXINGTON
On Monday and Tuesday evenings of this week [December 10 and 11, 1877], Suffrage meetings in the above-named places were addressed by Lucy Stone. Mrs. Nancy C. Gilman, who is more than three score and ten years of age, had secured a hall in Arlington, and Rev. Mr. Elder’s Church in Lexington [The Follen Church in East Lexington], and in part, attended to the arrangements. Mrs. Gilman was the inspiring cause of the meetings being held. Younger persons may take a lesson from the courage and perseverance of this venerable woman.
Owing to insufficient notice and the first snow-fall of the season, both meetings were small, but those who were present gave close attention. Tracts were distributed, and it is hoped that some, at least, will be induced to take a more active part hereafter.
Lucy Stone came back to Lexington to speak that same week, on Sunday, December 16,
WOMAN SUFFRAGE IN LEXINGTON
Last Sunday evening, the birth place of American liberty held a meeting in the Town-Hall, which was given without charge for the purpose, to consider the “moral and religious bearings of Woman Suffrage.” We had been told that there was “little sympathy felt in Woman Suffrage in Lexington,” but the large hall was filled by an intelligent and interested audience numbering several hundreds, and it was evident that this was a mistake, or at least that the people were willing to consider the question. Lucy Stone and Henry B. Blackwell were the speakers. After the meeting, several citizens of Lexington waited to express their sympathy and to offer their co-operation in circulating a Woman Suffrage petition.
This successful meeting was due to the effort of Mrs. Nancy C. Gilman, of Arlington, aided by the co-operation of those tried and true friends of reform, the Wellingtons of East Lexington.
From these two items, it seems that what women’s suffrage interest there was in Lexington at the time was still centered in East Lexington, in the Wellington/Simonds/Stone/Robbins families who were interconnected by marriage and who were the mainstay of the pre-Civil War abolitionist programming in Lexington. Mrs. Nancy C. Gilman, who was from Northfield, New Hampshire, was born in 1806, making her about seventy-one at the time of these lectures and she was a former teacher and a female physician who studied at the Boston Female School of Medicine, graduating in the early 1850s. She lived in Arlington, then in Lexington, between 1868 and 1890, before returning to Northfield, and it seems she was an active member of the MWSA.
Further proof that the impetus for reform was still coming from East Lexington is found in the October 2, 1880 Woman’s Journal in a letter from Ellen A. Stone. It’s not apparent which Ellen A. Stone it was, as there is no title attached to the name, and both mother and daughter were very active at this time. It is more likely that it was Miss Stone, as she was the more interested in education:
MISS EASTMAN IN LEXINGTON
Editor Journal: The friends of educational Suffrage in Lexington, held a somewhat informal meeting at the Selectmen’s room in the Town Hall the afternoon of Monday last (13th). Miss Mary F. Eastman was present and spoke at some length upon our present school system, its aims, its defects, and its needs. The direct and earnest manner of Miss Eastman commanded the closest attention on the part of those present, and her remarks were the more forcible as it became evident that she spoke from practical knowledge of her subject. The meeting was very interesting as well as instructive. Very truly yours, Ellen A. Stone, Lexington, September 25, 1880
Mary F. Eastman was one of the best speakers in the MWSA roster. Born in Lowell, she became a teacher and worked under Horace Mann at Antioch College. She had a distinguished career in both public and private schools, and became a women’s suffrage advocate along with an education reformer, and was known for her logical, persuasive style of speaking. She was in Lexington about a year after women gained the school committee vote, so school reform was a hot topic among women’s groups.
In the 1870s and 1880s, the suffrage movement annually presented petitions to the legislature for a women’s suffrage amendment to the constitution. In 1882, Sarah Morell Millet, a widow who had been involved for many years in both abolitionist and women’s suffrage activities (she had been one of the founding members of the Lexington Female Charitable Association), reported her success at getting signatures on that year’s petition:
WELL DONE LEXINGTON!
The town of Lexington, in which the first gun was fired for American independence, is still true to the principle of the consent of the governed. A Woman Suffrage petition signed by seventy-eight citizens, all residing in the eastern part of the town, was received last week, accompanied by the following interesting letter:
East Lexington, Jan 17, 1882
Mrs. Lucy Stone: The names on the enclosed paper are from East Lexington only. Every person to whom I presented the petition, with the exception of two, seemed pleased to give me their names, I rejoice that the auguries for the future of our cause are today so encouraging. The addresses of the late meeting in this week’s Woman’s Journal, and also the notices in the [Cambridge] Transcript are very inspiring to those interested in the great work.
Truly Yours, Sarah Millet.
This was not the first time that Sarah Millet had worked a petition drive; in 1879, she was one of the petitioners who started the bill for school committee suffrage.
Because of its proximity to Boston, Lexington was an easy trip for Boston-based speakers, and so the town was host to many lectures from well-known speakers like Mary Eastman, and some who when they appeared in Lexington were not well known, but later became extremely important. In May of 1885, the Woman’s Journal narrated a week in the MWSA speaker’s rounds:
SUFFRAGE MEETING AT LEXINGTON
April 30—We were entertained by Mrs. E. J. Cogswell, within a stone’s throw of the spot where the first gun was fired for “No taxation without representation.” The Town Hall was opened to us, as to any political party. Here was the largest meeting of the week.
Rev. Mr. Staples [First Congregational Church] presided. He advised that the School Committee be enlarged to five, two of them to be women. Professor Emerson, of the Monroe School of Oratory, Boston, was there. He attended our Salem Convention, and heard Miss Shaw speak. He said he thought it worth while to hear her again, so pleased was he before. A league will be formed in Lexington. The next day the old scenes were reviewed by Mrs. Cogswell, who made it very interesting for us.
In the Library, Mrs. Stone, of Lexington, has placed Judge Samuel E. Sewell’s bust with Hancock and Adams, with an appropriate tablet telling all who read that he is doing to-day for women what they did for men in ’76.
“Miss Shaw” was, in fact, Anna Howard Shaw, who at that time had only recently been ordained as the first female Methodist Protestant Minister. A product of the Boston University Theological School (1878) she was at the time she spoke at Lexington just finishing up another degree in medicine from the Boston University School of Medicine (1886). However, although she was often referred to as Rev. Shaw, shortly after getting her medical degree she decided to use her significant oratorical powers to fight for women’s rights. She eventually moved to work with Susan B. Anthony, whose niece became Shaw’s lifelong partner, and by 1892 she was Vice President of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association, then in 1904 became president of the organization.
Judge Samuel E. Sewall was a major figure in both abolitionism and woman’s rights. As a lawyer, he defended fugitive slaves and women, and worked to change the divorce laws to be more favorable towards women.
Mrs. E. J. Cogswell is an interesting person. Emily Johnson was born in Lexington in 1818,
and both her mother and sister were members of the Lexington Female Charitable Association, which indicates a familial interest in doing good work. She was an early graduate of the Lexington Normal School, and is known to have taught in Vermont in the early 1840s. Emily married William Cogswell in 1850, but after losing an infant son in 1853, her husband in 1859, and her mother in 1862, she turned to Unitarian missionary work, moving to North Platte, Nebraska in 1868 to start a Sunday School and Unitarian congregation. As can be seen from this news item, she returned to Lexington before 1885, and became active in the suffrage movement for a few years. She died in 1897.
-Dr. Emily Murphy, National Park Service curator and "Something Must Be Done" exhibit research consultant
 (H. B. Blackwell, Only Half a Celebration 1875) (L. Stone 1875);  (Meetings at Arlington and Lexington 1877);  (H. B. Blackwell, Woman Suffrage in Lexington 1877);  (Hurd 1885, 545);  (E. A. Stone 1880);  (Howe, et al. 1904, 484-489);  (Well Done Lexington 1882);  (Massachusetts General Court House of Representatives 1879, 225);  (Suffrage Meeting at Lexington 1885);  (Gordon 2000);  (Mann 1845, 73);  (Paoletti 2016)
Featuring the voices of Lexington Historical Society permanent staff and occasional guest authors.