Joan Marie Johnson: November 6, 1917 — Women Win the Right to Vote in New York State

Joan Marie Johnson, Funding FeminismToday we welcome a guest post from Joan Marie Johnson, author of Funding Feminism: Monied Women, Philanthropy, and the Women’s Movement, 1870–1967, on how women won the right to vote in New York State.

In Funding Feminism, Joan Marie Johnson examines an understudied dimension of women’s history in the United States: how a group of affluent white women from the late nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries advanced the status of all women through acts of philanthropy. This cadre of activists included Phoebe Hearst, the mother of William Randolph Hearst; Grace Dodge, granddaughter of Wall Street “Merchant Prince” William Earle Dodge; and Ava Belmont, who married into the Vanderbilt family fortune. Motivated by their own experiences with sexism, and focusing on women’s need for economic independence, these benefactors sought to expand women’s access to higher education, promote suffrage, and champion reproductive rights, as well as to provide assistance to working-class women.

Funding Feminism is available now in both print and ebook editions.


November 6, 1917 — Women Win the Right to Vote in New York State

One hundred years ago, on November 6, 1917, men across New York state went to the polls to decide whether women should have the right to vote. The New York state referendum passed by a vote of 703,129 to 600,776, a key state victory for women’s suffrage before the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1920, finally granting women the right to vote across the entire nation.

The New York state referendum was also notable for the enormous amount of money required for its passage. While this year we saw the most expensive legislative race in Georgia, where more than 27 million dollars were spent in the contest between Karen Handler and Jon Ossoff, in 1917 women in the New York state Suffrage Party also raised what was then an incredible sum: more than $400,000 (the equivalent of much more than 7.5 million dollars today) for the referendum. Even more remarkable, this was at a time when the entire budget for the National American Woman Suffrage Association, just a few years earlier had been only $38,000. How did suffragists do it?

New York’s most notable fund raisers were Vira Whitehouse and Helen Reid. Vira, married to banker Norman de R. Whitehouse, was born in Virginia and educated at Newcomb College in New Orleans. When an earlier referendum in the state failed in 1915, Whitehouse argued that women did not work hard enough. She exhorted her co-workers not to be distracted by pleasures or by other duties in order to be victorious in 1917. Vira Whitehouse herself donated over $8,000 to the New York state Suffrage Party.

The treasurer of the New York state campaign, Helen Reid, was originally from Wisconsin. She took a job working as a personal secretary to Elisabeth Mills Reid, wife of the New York Tribune publisher Whitelaw Reid, after graduation from Barnard College. Helen married their son, Ogden Mills Reid. She eventually became president and chairman of the board of the newspaper after his death. But in 1917 she was occupied with the suffrage movement; the vote, she thought, was necessary for women’s “spiritual and intellectual development.” Having worked her way through college, she understood the need for economic independence and political equality for women. She gave over $13,000 to the New York state campaign.

Together Whitehouse, Reid, and other suffragists solicited donations from approximately 550 people, including donations ranging from one dollar to $17,000, with large contributions from New York’s wealthiest families. How did they raise so much money?

First, they got big donations from some very wealthy families. They raised nearly 75 percent of the money from only 38 people. These included Dorothy Payne Whitney Straight, who had inherited nearly seven million dollars (worth well over 150 million dollars today) as a young woman. Straight supported many progressive causes that benefitted women, including access to birth control, the Junior League, and women’s suffrage. She gave $17,000 to the 1917 New York state campaign. Narcissa and Frank Vanderlip, National City Bank president, together also gave $17,000. Intelligent and highly organized, Narcissa traveled to Washington, D.C. to see President Woodrow Wilson in support of suffrage.

Second, they convinced women to fund their own equality. Women outnumbered men in donations of $1000-$2499 to the New York State Woman Suffrage Party for the 1917 referendum campaign. The top 38 donors consisted of 17 women, 18 men, and 3 couples. This was key. While some male allies gave generously, it took women’ s contributions to achieve success.

At the national level, the National Woman’s Party (originally known as the Congressional Union) also depended on the generosity of women to support their work. Two women, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont and Mary Burnham, together gave twenty percent of the money raised from the organization’s inception in 1913 to ratification in 1920: they donated approximately $115,000 out of the just more than $560,000 the National Woman’s Party collected. Women dominated the list of major donors even more than in New York: 38 women, 10 couples, and 7 men gave gifts over $1000 to the organization.

Today, women are widely underrepresented in politics: 84 of 435 members of the House of Representatives, 21 senators, and 6 governors are women, and of course, there still has not been a woman president. With the ease of social media and on-line donations, the outsized donations by wealthy women may be less necessary alongside grassroots small donations. The Women’s March on Washington, for example, raised more than $2 million online from over 38,000 individuals– although we don’t know what percentage of these donors were women. In order to finally break that highest glass ceiling, women will need to continue to raise money from other women, convincing women to give donations, whether larger or small, to women’s political campaigns and organizations supporting gender equality.


Joan Marie Johnson is a historian and faculty coordinator for the Office of the Provost at Northwestern University.