Citizens At Last

Citizens at Last

Congress passed the 19th
amendment to the Constitution in the summer of 1919. A three-fourths majority of states was required for ratification, and Tennessee was the 36th and final state necessary to approve the amendment. Yet, worried the Tennessee decision might be invalidated, Connecticut suffragists demanded their governor call a special session of the state legislature to vote on the issue. They succeeded on September 14, 1920, when the Connecticut legislature ratified the amendment. After procedural questions arose, the legislature met again on the 21st and voted “yes” once more.

The first national election Connecticut women and many other women across the nation voted in was the 1920 presidential election, held on November 2, 1920.

152 Wilton women registered to cast their first national ballots in this election. All of them were white. Their average age was just over 46. Most were housewives. Their husbands were farmers, nursery men, carpenters, shoemakers, butchers, real estate agents, a beekeeper, an oysterman, a corset cutter, a mailman, a minister, a surgeon, and a sculptor. Several husbands worked at the Gilbert & Bennett wire mill in Georgetown.

The census listed a few women who worked outside the home. All were either single or widowed. Caroline Nichols was an unmarried hatter. The Post sisters were teachers and single. Hannah Raymond Ambler, Hannah Chichester, and Mary MacNamara were farmers and widows. The two Hannahs were elderly, well-to-do, and came from established Connecticut families. Mary was a middle-aged Irish immigrant carrying a mortgage.

Notable Wilton women who voted that day, besides Grace Knight Schenck and Hannah Raymond Ambler, included Angeline Post, a beloved Wilton teacher from 1903 through 1948 and the namesake of the Post School. She lived on Grumman Hill and was a trustee of the Hurlbutt Street Community House Association, which preserved the one-room Hurlbutt Street Schoolhouse where she taught for many years. Ethel Hart was head librarian of the Wilton Library from 1917 through 1952. She lived on Cottage Row and was the organist for the Wilton Congregational Church. Her father had been the church reverend and had helped found the Wilton Library. Alice Merwin Eakland volunteered for the Red Cross and, with her husband, donated the land that is now the Town Green to Wilton. The Eaklands lived in Wilton Center. Her father-in-law Charles O. Eakland, Sr., cast Wilton’s vote in the Connecticut State legislature to ratify the 19th Amendment. Alice Haynes Bennett served on the School Board, was elected registrar of voters, and was president and a trustee of the Hurlbutt Street Community House Association. She lived on Chestnut Hill. Alice Olmstead and her sister Elizabeth Olmstead Gilbert, known to all as Aunt Alice and Aunt Lillie, were graduates of their father’s school, the Wilton Academy, and members of the Women’s League of the Congregational Church and the Wilton Improvement Society. Alice lived on Lovers Lane and Lillie on Nod Hill.

A week after the election, the Ridgefield Press ran an article called “A Woman President?” It predicted female vice-presidential candidates within four years, speculated on women filling cabinet positions, senate seats, and the house of representatives, and concluded that there were numerous women in the nation – many of them well-known suffrage leaders – capable of filling the highest office in the land. Made overconfident by the suffragists’ recent victory, the author of this piece underestimated the remaining entrenched opposition to equality. Women are still severely underrepresented in government and no woman has been president to this day.

The photos below show Wilton’s first women voters. All photos from the Wilton Historical Society permanent collection.