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Adams County Women Win the Vote


Winning the Vote for Adams County Women

Adams County Debates Woman Suffrage: 1912

By Donna Turcany

Adams County’s First Women Voters

In the November 6, 1920 issue of the Adams Advertiser two small notices in the local news section recorded the fact that women in Adams County voted for the first time in a general election.

Sandwiched between a notice for a “splendid eight room house” for sale and a local family entertaining out-of-town guests readers were informed:

Co. Supt. Mary Breary was the first woman in Adams to cast her vote at the election Tuesday, Mrs. Haughton second and Mrs. Helen Hibbard third

Also noted was:

Mrs. Alice Haughton and Mrs. Mary Breary were ballot clerks at the election Tuesday.  Women acted as clerks in a number of places this year.

Mary Breary’s title of Co. Supt. was superintendent of schools.  Women had been given the right to vote in school elections since 1885 and women routinely held the position of county superintendent in the years prior to 1920.

Shoulder to Shoulder

The struggle for women’s right to vote had been going on for over seventy years when the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified.  There existed, since 1869, two national woman suffrage organizations.  The National Woman Suffrage Association, led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, fought for an amendment to the United States Constitution.  The American Woman Suffrage Association, led by Lucy Stone, believed in fighting state by state to gain equal rights for women.  The two associations merged into the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1896 led initially by Anthony and Stanton.

The state-by-state strategy did have some success.  By 1918 fifteen states had voted to amend their constitution to allow women to vote. In 1912 five states, Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, Oregon and Wisconsin voted on woman suffrage.  On April 27, 1912, the Adams County Press quotes Senator Robert Lafollette “I am glad to say the Wisconsin legislature passed at its last session a suffrage law which will be submitted on referendum next November to the voters of the state.  I shall support and campaign for it”.

With volunteers from women’s clubs, temperance union activists, and sympathetic women from every walk of life, suffragists used the newspapers, magazines, rallies and the lecture circuit to promote their cause.  One specific strategy was to send speakers and arrange for booths at all county fairs in Wisconsin.  Indeed, Belle Lafollette herself spoke at many county fairs in Wisconsin in the fall of 1912.

Activism in Adams County

The local Adams County papers reported little detail of the fair that September, except that the exhibits were exceptional and the weather was poor.  No evidence has been found to suggest that Belle Lafollette or any other speaker lectured at the Fair that year.  But an item appearing in the news shortly after the Fair suggests that the activists did not ignore Adams County.

On October 3, 1912 the Friendship Reporter published the following article under the heading”Woman Suffrage”:

Among those in the village who are in favor of woman suffrage as shown by the list circulated by Mrs. Clara Wolff, a suffragist worker here for the past few days, are the following:  James Stowe, Mrs. M.E. Lawrence, Frank Zika, Mrs. R. A. Wright, Mrs. F. Zika, Miss Lucinda Austin, J. W. Purves, Mrs. B.F. Austin, John B. Keyes, Mrs. F.R. Lawreace, Mrs. John Keyes, Mrs. Vienna Lewis, G.W. Bingham, Mrs. Mary Jones, Mrs. G.W. Bingham, Miss Gertrude Atcherson, F. J. Verdon, Mrs. Atcherson, A.F. Hill, Rev. James Dean, Dr. Hill, Mrs. James Dean, O.R. Thompson, F. McConick, Ben Emerson, H.R. Hierce, John Shober, H.M. McDonald, S.K. Rich, C.H. Gilman, Dr. Treadwell, Mrs. C. H. Gilman, G.W. Waterman, E.W. Pease, H. Wickersham, N.A. Reinertson, John Brozek, J. Vanderpan, Mrs. Katherina Brozek, O.H. White.

It is interesting to note that Rev. James Dean was the pastor of the Friendship Congregational Church and the then newly formed Congregational Church in Adams.  Dr. Treadwell was a family practitioner in Friendship.  Mrs. B. F. Austin, mentioned in the same article, was said to be the “keeper of telephone central” in Friendship for many years.  Frank Zika, A.F. Hill, Frank McConick and John W. Purves were local business men.  George W. Bingham was a state legislator.  John Keyes and Charles H. Gilman were lawyers and, at different times, judges.  And it is likely that H.R. Pierce was the newsman Harry Pierce.  Thus we know that there was support in Friendship for women’s right to vote from the professional and business community and from men as well as women.

On the same day as the above article appeared in the paper, the Friendship Reporter ran a notice that Mrs. Wolff spoke in the high school in support of woman suffrage.

Debates in the Press

On October 5 the Adams County Press ran an article with no indication of its author or origin entitled “The Home Woman”.  This article read in part:

The happy house-mother, surrounded by husband and children provided wit h every comfort and many luxuries, is apt to be difficult to convince that women should be permitted to vote.  She herself is extremely well off.  She is the object of tender care and her children are not only protected and guarded by devotion but they have every opportunity to make of themselves the best and most intelligent men and women of which that are capable.

It seems hard to say, but it is absolutely true, that this woman, sweet and good as she is, is doing what she can to make it harder for other women… She is doing what she can to make women wage-earners work at a disadvantage; to keep their wages down and the conditions surrounding them hard and unsatisfactory.  She is doing what she can to keep poor and wayward and unfortunate children from having a chance to rise in the world. She is abetting the sweatshop, and factory child, and the business of commercialized vice because she is opposing votes for women and votes for women are reliably and invariably opposed to these things.

It must not be hastily imagined that this is an argument for leaving the home and going out in to the world.  It is only an argument that the home-woman open her mind and realize that however well she and her children may be situated, there are other women and other children to be considered.  These things may not come near the woman we are considering.  Does that fact excuse her, in these days of newspapers and books and platform speakers, from knowing and caring about their existence?

This article does not seem particularly relevant to life in Adams County.  Women and Children in Adams worked long hard hours on family farms and businesses.  Exploitation of women and children by wealthy industrialists in sweatshops was happening in Milwaukee and Chicago, but not in Adams County.  It might be speculated that the “suffragist worker” mentioned in the Friendship Reporter of only a few days earlier made this article available to the suffragists here and to the local press.  This worker and her local sympathizers may have felt that there were such “home women” in Adams County whose minds needed to be opened.  It also could be speculated that some citizens of Adams County expressed concern with the influence of outsiders on the vote in 1912.

In November, following the 1912 vote, an exchange occurred in the Adams County Press between two residents of Barnum, a communi8ty in the Town of Rome.  This exchange gives additional insight into the debate.

The first correspondence appeared on November 16, 1912.  This letter was unsigned.  It read in part:

We are glad to announce that we have 29 gallant gentlemen as against only 33 of the other kind as shown by the vote on Woman Suffrage.  Also, a considerable number of unclassified specimens, who were content to remain at home and let their neighbors have their own way on elections day.

The bulk of opposition in this town came from the Dutch and Bohemians, who want their women at home to work.  These women do a large percent of the farm work.  Sometimes clad in men’s clothes they dig potatoes and keep right up with their “lord and masters” doing their housework evenings and early mornings, besides rearing large families.  These women are better workers that slaves of olden times and for some reason they are willing workers.  It has been foretold that even as the ballot has been granted to those sable toilers of the south, so it will soon be granted to this other large class of unpaid toilers in Wisconsin.[1]

A response to this letter appeared in the November 23, 1912 issue of the Adams County Press headed “An Answer to our Barnum Correspondent” and was signed “A Bohemian”.  It read in part:

My attention was attracted in the last issue of the Press by an item from a Barnum correspondent assailing in his ignorance and narrow mindedness the Dutch and the Bohemians of that town for opposing the Woman Suffrage.  Their motive for their hard work is not greed or selfishness as some might think from reading the item, for when asked why they labor so hard their answer invariable is, “I want my children to have a better start in life than I had so that they don’t have to work so hard.”  Many of the early settlers having gone thru their first struggle for existence have acquired comfortable homes, and because these late comers are trying to eke out a living and perhaps a bit more for the inevitable rainy day they are thus “gallantly” assailed.

To my mind there is more honest pride in a pair of overalls – whether donned by a man or a woman and digging potatoes by the wayside than in all the fashionable “hobbles” and “Turkish trousers” seen on the streets of our great cities.

I am for Woman Suffrage for those who want it but am glad that the majority of women have faith in the lords and masters to represent them able and sufficiently at the polls.  How many of the women who faithfully perform their duties at home find time or have the inclination to acquaint themselves with the political issues of the day to enable them to vote intelligently?  How many find it really interesting?  How many of them avail themselves of the right to vote at school elections?  Very few and they are not all Dutch and Bohemians here either.  And yet the wise or the unwise selection of a teacher bears a great influence upon our children for good or bad.

A Bohemian

For the Record

Given this glimpse of the debate over woman suffrage in Adams County in 1912, it is interesting to review the results of the election by township as reported in the November 7, 1912 Friendship Reporter. Adams County voted in favor of woman suffrage 708 to 635.  In most townships the voting was very close.  In fact in the town of New Haven the results were 58 Yes and 58 No.  The Village of Friendship and the Village of Adams voted against the referendum.  The townships that tipped the balance towards approval were Strongs Prairie where the vote was 96 Yes and 34 No and Colburn 43 Yes and 9 No.  Is it possible that the Norwegians of Strongs Prairie and Colburn viewed the role of women differently that the Bohemians and Dutch of Barnum?   Or were these residents of Strongs Prairie and Colburn the more established early settlers who were now comfortable themselves with political issues?

The Wisconsin Blue Book of 1913 reveals that the State of Wisconsin defeated Woman Suffrage by a vote of 227,024 to 135,545.  Surprisingly the counties of Milwaukee and Dane voted against the referendum.  The defeat in Milwaukee, 40,029 no votes to 20,445 yes votes, has been attributed to the efforts of the brewery industry which saw a woman’s vote as a vote for prohibition.  But we might have expected Dane County, a stronghold of progressive politics to affirm a woman’s right to vote.  Equally surprising was that the counties that did vote yes on woman suffrage in 1912 were, for the most part, far northern counties such as Iron, Douglas, Bayfield and Forrest.  Adams County’s neighbors; Juneau, Waushara, Wood, Columbia and Portage all voted no.

The Tide Turns

Following 1912, voters in Wisconsin had no further opportunity to vote on Woman Suffrage. In 1914 war broke out in Europe and in 1917 the United States joined the European Allies.  During the war, women entered the work place in record numbers, were active in the sale of war bonds and in conserving natural resources and foodstuff in support of the war.  A review of the local papers in 1920 suggests that women in Adams County, as everywhere, were actively involved in veteran’s affairs, the Red Cross, support of labor unions, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the conditions of local schools and the high cost of food in post war America.  By 1919 it was, in today’s jargon, “politically incorrect” to be against the Nineteenth Amendment. All three major presidential candidates spoke in favor of woman suffrage.

Final Victory

The fact that Mrs. Houghton and Mrs. Breary served as polling clerks only several months after Tennessee became the thirty-sixth state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment making it the law of the land; and the fact that both the Wisconsin Republican and Democratic Parties elected women to the Electoral College in 1920, suggests that women were active in political parties long before they were enfranchised.  It is easy to imagine that Mrs. Houghton, Mrs. Breary and Mrs. Hibbard were gratified when Wisconsin became the first state in the Union to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment on June 11, 1919 and that they were proud to vote on November 4, 1920.  But, it is impossible to imagine what these women would think of the world today with the array of women elected officials in Adams County and Wisconsin; not to mention women U.S. Supreme Court Justices, Senators, Congresswomen and women in every type of national appointed political positions imaginable.  What they would think we cannot know, but that they would vote we can be certain.


This article previously appeared in the Fall 2004 issue of the Adams County Historical Society’s newsletter The Quatrefoil.




[1] The Fifteenth Amendment granted voting rights to African American men, but real enfranchisement came much later.