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Look Back 250 • Missouri suffragists make final push for right to vote

Look Back 250 • Missouri suffragists make final push for right to vote

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Eighty women gathered in a home on April 8, 1910, and resolved to revive Missouri’s moribund movement for women’s suffrage.

Mindful of social unease over the tactics of their sisters in London, the women agreed to keep things civil. Two years before, British suffragists tried to march into the House of Commons. Comparisons were unwanted.

“There is to be nothing militant about the organization,” Florence Wyman Richardson, the meeting host, assured reporters. “While we shall be aggressive, vigorous and energetic in a way, it will always be within good form and good taste.”

The gathering in her home, at 5737 Cates Avenue, elected Richardson first president of the Equal Suffrage League of St. Louis. It got to work lobbying the Missouri Legislature, a skeptical forum.

The local movement had its origins in the Civil War. Members of the Ladies Union Aid Society, which provided medical care to soldiers, formed the Woman Suffrage Association of Missouri in 1867. But the national movement split over strategy. Local chapters lost their energy.

The revived local group sponsored public meetings, issued reports and arranged for British suffrage leader Emmeline Pankhurst to speak here. On Nov. 3, 1911, she told 2,000 people gathered in the Odeon Theater, 1040 North Grand Boulevard, “Why do women want the vote? For the same reason men wanted it.”

In February 1913, they rallied at the State Capitol. (Post-Dispatch headline: “Jeff City, look out for train of suffragists!”) Unable to persuade the legislators, they collected petitions and forced the issue onto the statewide ballot.

In Illinois, the Legislature voted that year to let women vote for president and local matters, but not legislative, congressional or statewide offices.

In May 2, 1914 — national Women’s Suffrage Day — a parade of 60 automobiles headed downtown for a rally at the St. Louis (Old) Courthouse to promote the upcoming referendum. It was well-attended, but there were signs of trouble ahead.

A well-dressed woman with three young children shouted, “Who’s going to care for my children when I’m voting?” Boys heckled the motorcade, telling women to do the dishes.

On Nov. 3, 1914, the referendum failed 2 to 1, winning in a scattering of rural counties (including St. Francois). St. Louis’ male voters defeated it 3 to 1, giving it a majority only in the 28th Ward north of Forest Park, where Richardson and many suffrage leaders lived. South Side “brewery wards” trounced it, largely out of fear that women voters would adopt Prohibition.

St. Louis suffragists regrouped for their shining moment — the Golden Lane, a silent demonstration on opening day of the Democratic National Convention in 1916.

The convention met in the old St. Louis Coliseum at Jefferson and Washington avenues. The Hotel Jefferson on 12th Street (now Tucker Bouelvard) was party headquarters. They were 12 blocks apart.

On June 14, more than 2,000 women lined Locust Street in white dresses and “votes for women” sashes, and carrying yellow parasols. Their leaders insisted they say nothing to the delegates, who tipped their hats as they passed. The convention adopted a general plank urging states to do something about suffrage.

Sensing victory at last, the American Women Suffrage Association held its national meeting at the Statler Hotel downtown in March 1919 and first proposed a new group, the League of Women Voters. That same week, the Missouri Legislature agreed to let women vote in presidential elections.

Three months later, Congress endorsed a 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing the vote to women nationwide. It was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920.


Edna Gellhorn, lifetime suffragist

Edna Gellhorn was born to privilege in St. Louis in 1878. She attended Mary Institute here and Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia, and returned home to work on social causes, including standards for safe milk and water.

She joined the Equal Rights League of St. Louis when it formed in 1910. Her home at 4366 McPherson Avenue was the starting point for a suffrage-campaign motorcade and rally on May 2, 1914. She was a leader of the Golden Lane demonstration during the 1916 Democratic National Convention in St. Louis and president of the state suffrage organization.

Shortly before women won the vote in 1920, suffragists created the League of Women Voters. Gellhorn was first president of the Missouri chapter and vice-president of the national organization.

She remained active and, at age 75, said, "I'm glad I was born in a time of stress. I'm glad to have lived through it. And I have infinite faith in the future.

She died in 1970 at age 91 and was buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery.

Tim O'Neil is a reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Contact him at 314-340-8132 or toneil@post-dispatch.com

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