Monday, June 20, 2016

My embarrassing ancestor

I sort of wish she'd been a pirate or a thief.  But my great-great-grandmother was worse than that.

great-great-grandpa and
great-great grandma
I've been organizing and collecting our family photos this year, trying to scan and label all the photos I've been given over the years, add stories and identification, and then digitize everything so that many people can have copies of it all.  Along the way, I stumbled into the story of my great-great-grandmother, who was apparently famous enough to make it into the New York Times and into several history books.

I'm going to withhold her name here, not to protect her, but because I don't want to give away my own name.  All the references to her in books and newspapers were by the very proper usage Mrs. [John Smith], never by her first name.  In fact, I don't know if historians knew her given name, and there seem to be no photos of her outside of the ones I have.  So I might be contacting scholars with offers of photographs.

Why was my great^2 grandma so much worse than a pirate?  She was an anti-suffragette.  And not just "an" anti-suffragette: she played a major role in delaying the women's right to vote.

Here is what one book notes about her.
Edited by Mrs. [John Smith], chairman of the executive committee of the New York State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, The Anti-Suffragist's mission was to present arguments against woman suffrage and to provide a forum for the views of women who did not seek suffrage---a group of women that, according to the magazine, were in the majority. For nearly four years The Anti-Suffragist provided its readers with gratified reports upon woman-suffrage defeats in various states. It also supplied carefully selected examples of instances in which enfranchised women in western states had, from the magazine's perspective, failed to use their votes to better society. 
 A book by Kathleen Endres states that she had high political visibility:
  . . .  [S]he had organized the Albany Association Against Woman Suffrage in 1892.  She had gained national recognition by addressing both the Republican and Democratic national conventions in 1896, neither of which added a plank endorsing woman suffrage to its platform.
A New York Times article in 1907 quoted her extensively, show-casing that her views were mired in racism.
Mrs. [John Smith] of Albany, herself a taxpayer, but nevertheless a pillar in the anti-suffrage society, was one of the speakers at a hearing before the Cities Committee of the Senate. In a calm  and dispassionate manner peculiarly her own Mrs. [Smith] had piled fact upon fact to back up  her contention that to give the ballot to women would add immensely to the already perplexing problem of getting political questions intelligently solved at the polls.
"What!'' exclaimed Senator Raines, who had introduced the bill. ``You don't mean to tell us that women who have shown themselves capable of sifting this question as thoroughly as, for instance, your address here shows that you have, could not be trusted to exercise their suffrage intelligently?'' 
"No,'' Mrs. [Smith] replied. "On the contrary, I believe that probably all the women in this room, whether they be in favor of woman suffrage or opposed to it, would vote intelligently. But what about the 8,000,000  negro women of the South who would be given the ballot if this proposition should be carried to its logical conclusion? And what about the 60,000 unfortunate women in New York City alone? Could they be equally trusted to exercise that power conscientiously and with intelligence?"

It's hard to know how this woman would react to her great-great-granddaughter, who not only votes, but who also adopted "negro children" to be her descendants.  Indeed, her grandson (my grandfather), born the year after her New York Times article appeared, would become a lifetime member of the NAACP.

My great^2-grandmother died in 1923, three years after the nineteenth amendment was ratified.

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

I have no idea whether she voted in any elections during her final years.


  1. Wow! I suppose we all have skeletons in our closet. Good that we live in a society that doesn't hold us accountable for the actions of our ancestors.

    What are you using to gather notes about the photos? I too have a lot of family photos to scan and write about. I'm not sure how to do this in such a way that the stories stay with the photos.

    1. I'm labeling all the photos by date and then name, to make it easier to find them ("1908-elizabeth-smith", or if I don't know the date, I guess "1920-?-john-smith"). This has been a big help in organizing.

      The actual software I'm using to write this up is something called LaTeX, a technical writing software. It allows me to keep track of the figure numbers so that I can say, "Mrs. John Smith in Figure X was our great-great grandmother", and it will know which figure "X" means.

      I use LaTeX for all my mathematical writing. If you don't use it already, it's probably a pain to learn just for this purpose.