Parades, Poems, & Politics
On Independence Day, 1913, a line of floats paraded down Main Street in Norwalk, Connecticut. The Hill sisters and others in the Norwalk Equal Suffrage League designed and decorated one of the floats to show an idealized family scene. The tableau centered on “a mother sitting with her children grouped around her, a cradle by her side, she sewing and the children playing games and reading.” The float was crowned with “a twelve foot sign painted in purple and green letters on a white back ground.” The sign read:
Mother mends our stockings,
Mother mends our coat,
May be mother could mend some laws
If mother had a vote.
To win the vote, suffragists first needed to convince the public that women deserved the right. Appearing in an Independence Day parade, the float implied that suffragists and their movement were patriotic. Women loved their country and could be trusted to serve it equally well as devoted mothers and informed voters. In fact, suffragists had long argued that women voters would actually improve the nation. Their maternal instincts, pure hearts, and higher morals would humanize politics and root out corruption. Suffrage was in society’s best interests, not just women’s.
Another challenge suffragists faced was convincing critics that the vote would not spoil women’s best features or cause them to neglect their domestic duties. To this end, the Norwalk float showed a deserving prospective voter at home and happily engaged in familiar women’s work: sewing, educating children, and raising her family. Rather than suffering under a distracted and overburdened voting mother, suffragists’ argued that children’s health and education would improve with the vote. Essential chores like sewing would continue uninterrupted, too. The float’s final comforting message was that voting women would remain dutiful wives to their husbands: the baby in the cradle proved this.
We know the messages of this float appealed to women in Wilton, because Hannah Ambler wrote out its “Mother mends” rhyme in her diary sometime that year, possibly after reading the slogan in a Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association newsletter. Perhaps she recognized herself in the rhyme. After all Hannah was the mother of two sons, she had done her fair share of sewing, and she prided herself on her good sense and commitment to self-improvement and social work. On top of that she managed a farm and a whole host of rental properties. And she would prove her good citizenship by donating to the Wilton Library Association building fund in 1918 and by purchasing Liberty Bonds and working with the Red Cross during World War I. If anyone deserved the vote, Hannah Ambler did.
With slightly different wording and sung to a now forgotten tune, the “Mother mends” rhyme was a hit across the nation in the summers of 1912 and 1913. It appeared in Independence Day parades, suffrage marches, and newspaper reports from Maryland, Illinois, and Ohio, through Kansas, Kentucky, and Montana. Here in Wilton and in neighboring Norwalk, the slogan and accompanying float inspired local women and state level organizers alike. Its impact on the undecided and on anti-suffragists is less clear.
Not all calls for women’s suffrage in the early 1910s were as diplomatic. The winter before “Mother mends” first became popular, Elsie Hill gave a speech on “Chiffon Politics” in Washington, D.C., to the First Congressional Club of mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters of United States congressmen. Speaking as Congressman Ebenezer Hill’s daughter, Elsie criticized the club’s focus on “flimsy politics” and part-time social work, urging its members to adopt “some fine, substantial material” instead. If suffrage was too radical, they should at least use their privileged position in politics to demand changes leading to women’s “intellectual and social development.” Women owed it to themselves, and not just to society or their husbands, to win the vote, influence politics, and improve the world.