We Remember “Women’s Suffrage in Gratiot County and the Right to Vote, 1916-1920”

October 24, 1918 advertisement in the Alma Record.
Alma Record advertisement dated October 31, 1918.
An early movement for women’s suffrage: August 31, 1916, Alma Record.

In the late summer of 1916, the city of Alma had a problem. The city needed to construct a new sewer and water system, and citizens voted to pass a bond to approve the project. In 1916, women were not allowed to vote in elections; however, in this case, they could vote on the bond issue.

Anti-suffragists in Alma (most likely men) had problems allowing women to vote. They feared women would move toward a larger goal, such as gaining full equal rights to vote in other elections. To keep Alma women from voting, they tried one tactic. Anti-suffragists cried that if women voted that morning, they were taking time away from home duties such as raising the children and keeping the house.

In response, women in Alma showed that they had had enough. On that election day, many women in the city organized and descended upon the voting precincts precisely at 3:00 pm. Anti-suffragists were so astonished at the women’s turn out that someone, or some people, tampered with ballots by incorrectly folding them. This move resulted in the disqualification of many of the votes. However, enough good ballots overcame the anti-suffragist scheme, and the Alma bond issue passed decisively, thanks to the large turnout of women.

While these Alma women made a statement about their right to vote in 1916, there was still a way to go for women in Gratiot County to gain the same right to vote that men had. However, women took a decisive step forward the following spring.

In April 1917,  Frances Burns, a national women’s suffrage movement leader, was the key speaker at a meeting held at the Alma IOOF Hall. A total of 60 women came and signed up as National League for Women’s Service members. Together they raised $74.25 toward their $200 goal to establish a county chapter. 

The women’s suffrage movement picked up more steam as state elections approached in the fall of 1918. By that September, it appeared more and more that Michigan was ready to grant women the right to vote. Another mass meeting at Alma High School featured Frances Burns and E.C. Warriner from Central Michigan Teachers College as speakers. At the same time, the state Republican Party began publishing advertisements in county newspapers stating that the party now endorsed a women’s suffrage amendment.

Suffragists set out across Gratiot County to find out just how many of Gratiot’s women wanted the right to vote. These canvassers reported that 90 percent of the women in the county wanted the right to vote and signed petitions. In many places in Gratiot County, the third Sunday in October 1918 became known as “Suffrage Sunday,” as local ministers were asked to use that Sunday to support women’s suffrage. Also, on that Sunday, Mrs. F.M. Harrington held a county rally at 2:30 pm in Ithaca. Probably the tiny turnout on that day occurred because of the existence of quarantine measures due to the Influenza Epidemic in Gratiot County. Even though only 40 women showed up,  local merchants began sponsoring advertisements in the county newspapers saying that they too supported women’s right to vote. 

Suffragists applied other pressure to how Gratiot County’s population should think about women’s suffrage. During each week in October, a large advertisement appeared in the Alma Record showing how many men voted in the last election and how many women petitioned for the right to vote. In Alma’s first ward, 254 women signed petitions demanding voting rights. Notices of women’s intentions in Alma’s other wards soon followed.

As the right to vote headed toward its goal in the fall of 1918, only one thing stood in its way – the Influenza Epidemic hit the county in October and now was spreading. Large meetings were discouraged, and women needed to postpone their plans. But would they?

On November 7, 1918, Gratiot County voted on the issue of women’s suffrage and the right to vote. A total of 2,349 residents said yes, while 1,496 said no. While a few of the county’s precincts had close votes, only Newark Township failed to support the issue of a woman’s right to vote.

It seemed that by the time of the state elections in 1918, Gratiot County and other counties got the message – it was time that women be allowed the right to vote the same as men. While it would be another two years before the United States passed the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, the issue of women’s suffrage by that time was a done deal in Gratiot County and Michigan.

Soon other things in the county came about due to the 1918 vote. The county’s Republican Party established the Women’s Republican Club and courted women to join the organization. In 1919, Gratiot County had its first trial in Ithaca, where the jury consisted only of women. A year later, Sara Brodebeck became the first woman to run for public office when she ran for the county clerk’s position as a Democrat in 1920. Brodebeck was soundly defeated. However, the number of votes she garnered appeared to many in the county to be a moral victory.

As the decade of the 1920s began, Gratiot County women now possessed something that many women labored nationwide for decades – the right to vote.

Copyright 2022 James M Goodspeed

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