State Recognizes Student Archives Research On Women’s Suffrage
When you think of women's suffrage in New York, you probably think of Seneca Falls, home to the country's first-ever women's rights convention.
But a fascinating history of the suffrage movement unfolded even closer to home — in nearby Troy and Valley Falls — and is featured in a short documentary produced by a group of Tamarac High School students who were honored Tuesday for their careful use of state archives to unearth historical records on the topic.
"With the centennial of women getting the right to vote coming up, we decided it would be fitting to go back and learn about suffrage," said Sara Kuiken, a junior who worked on the documentary with a dozen other peers for an honors class last year.
What they learned — that the fight for women's suffrage had almost ironic extremes in Troy and its surrounding towns — impressed the New York State Archives enough to win them first place in the 2017 Annual Archives Awards contest.
One of those extremes was evident in the divide between industry and farm life in the 19th and 20th centuries.
George Cluett, owner of Cluett Peabody & Company, a collar factory headquartered in Troy, was an avowed anti-suffragist and, like many factory owners at the time, fearful that women gaining the right to vote would eventually cost him money, since so many women and children were employed in poor and unsafe working conditions in his factories.
In the nearby country, however, men were generally more supportive of women gaining the right to vote, the documentary notes, due to the more-equal divide of labor on the farm.
"Because women were so much a part of the farm life, your wife couldn't just be in the house," Rensselaer County Historian Kathy Sheehan says in the documentary. "She had to run her part of the kitchen garden, she had to get her eggs to market, she was helping to milk ... so those men I think really supported their wives because they had always thought of them in more equal terms."
Women in the agricultural villages of Valley Falls and Schaghticoke took this to heart with the formation of the Valley Falls Political Equality Club in 1903, which drew inspiration from and corresponded with Susan B. Anthony and worked to draw people to the cause of suffrage.
Students also uncovered diverse viewpoints among local women.
Women's rights activist Emma Willard was so frustrated by the lack of equal educational opportunity for women and girls — science and math, for example, were subjects thought suitable only for boys — that she opened the Troy Female Seminary in 1821, today known as the Emma Willard School.
It was attended by famous suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Margaret Olivia Slocum, who eventually married the railroad baron Russell Sage and, upon his death, used her inheritance to open a women's college in Troy.
And yet Willard herself was no suffragette.
"Willard's philosophy was that if a women became educated she could find a man to marry that had political views which aligned with her own and would therefore be represented by her husband's vote," the documentary notes.
In addition to using old documents, photographs, political cartoons and campaign flyers, the Tamarac High students interviewed local historians to highlight the relationship of suffragists and anti-suffragists in Troy, whose headquarters were opposite each other on State Street — the suffragists occupied the fifth floor of the modern-day Ace Hardware building on Third Street and the anti-suffragists occupied the basement of the current Caldwell apartment building on Second Street.
"They were both having rallies and so they probably were out at the same time," said Sheehan. "Did they have a clash? Not that we have found yet. But we're always uncovering more history so you never know."
Indeed, the opposing groups actually found common ground. Despite their views on suffrage, they worked together to build the local YWCA, Samaritan Hospital and Troy Orphan Asylum.
This is the second year in a row that Tamarac High students have won an annual Archives Award. Students won last year for a project about Kate Mullany, a laundress in Troy who in 1864 organized 300 other women to form the country's first all-female labor union.
Students receiving the award include Sara Kuken, Ryan Hayden, Nate LaPlante, Elizabeth Machnick, Kaylan Comache, Katherine Champagne, Lillah Jacobson-Schultz, Sophia Baldwin, Anthony Styles, Lexis Carista, Shannon Walsh, Hunter Yearsley and Renna Poulin. Their project was overseen by teachers Michelle Furlong, Steve Pomposello and Mark Spitzer.