Following the 1915 Suffrage Envoys: Historical Journeys Past & Present, Physical & Digital
By Jessica Konigsberg
What did it mean for three women to spend the fall of 1915 arduously driving from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. to deliver to Congress and the White House a suffrage petition and a resolution to work for a federal suffrage amendment? Three months ago, blogger Anne Gass attempted to find out by retracing the historic trip spearheaded by Alice Paul and the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage and undertaken by Sara Bard Field (envoy), Maria Kindberg (driver), and Ingeborg Kindstedt (mechanic) with organizing support from Mabel Vernon and partial participation from Frances Joliffe and others.
Anne’s ambitious plans (and the fact that fall 2015 marks the centennial of this historic trip) inspired us to launch our own journey: a social media expedition through the incredible photographs from the suffrage envoys’ 1915 trip, posted to Twitter and Facebook to coincide with Anne’s travels.
We started with Anne in San Francisco where a century ago, the envoys were sent off from the Women Voters Convention closing ceremony at the Court of Abundance, Panama-Pacific International Exposition in September. They started off on their journey with a petition and a plan for more signatures. We followed the envoys and Anne as they stopped in Utah, where they were greeted by Alva Belmont and elected officials. Moving from Colorado, where the Governor greeted the envoys, we then followed them to Topeka, where we hope Anne didn’t experience the same engine trouble that they had in 1915. The Suffragist (November 6, 1915) reported that Mabel Vernon held a crowd waiting for 2 hours because the envoys were delayed. As Anne continued, we retraced the envoys’ steps through Lincoln, Nebraska and Chicago, Illinois as mayors, governors, their wives, and the gathering crowds signed the petition calling for a federal suffrage amendment. There were stops along the east coast in Hartford, Connecticut, Newark, New Jersey, and more before the envoys finally reached DC and enjoyed a hero’s welcome as they proceeded to the Capitol and the White House to present their demands.
Throughout Anne’s travels, we pulled and shared photographs that chronicled the journey of Sara Bard Field and the others, and matched Anne’s itinerary against the photographs in our collection to find the overlaps. We often looked more closely at the images. What was happening in each photo? Where were the classic signs of Congressional Union/National Woman’s Party pageantry? What did the women’s expressions reveal? Who did they meet and what connections were made? What did The Suffragist (the Congressional Union’s weekly publication) report about these encounters? There’s so much more information for us to dig into and learn about from The Suffragist and local sources.
At the conclusion of Anne’s trip, all involved seemed to feel a shared desire to continue researching and learning about this unique campaign. Exploring and illuminating each moment of this history is an ongoing endeavor—and every piece is a contribution. The organizers of the suffrage envoy trip also chose their focus and goals carefully. They did not expect to win suffrage by the end of their trip (as Anne reminded us at her welcome reception), but they did plan to put suffrage literally on the map and to display the collective strength of the women voters from the enfranchised states. Similarly, recreation trips such as Anne’s and social media campaigns such as ours hopefully help to begin conversations and to spread women’s stories across greater distances. At times, we found it challenging to keep the pace and follow along, tracking down sources and filling out the story. Likewise, Anne shared that her own research felt incomplete, and she hoped to do additional follow up. In short, there is more work to be done.
As part of this ongoing conversation, we were fortunate to meet four step-great-granddaughters of Sara Bard Field—Cynthia Mathews, Sara Wood Smith, Laura Smith, and Eliza Wood Livingston—as part of the concluding celebrations of Anne’s trip. We were delighted and honored to forge these new friendships and to exchange stories, united by a shared history. The women generously shared memories and impressions of step-great-grandmother Sara, recalling her artistic fashion sense, her impressively long hair, and playful childhood visits to her villa “the Cats” in Los Gatos. We also took the opportunity to share one of Alva Belmont’s 1915 scrapbooks from the collection, which features many news clippings about the suffrage envoys trip, adding for our visitors a new perspective on their step-great-grandmother’s experience. As with all fascinating women’s stories, one research visit was not enough and the women returned on subsequent days to enjoy more time with the scrapbook. The experience seemed to provoke new questions about the trip, for example, the finer details about Kindberg and Kindstedt’s involvement and the procurement of the car.
In addition to building new relationships and knowledge, the suffrage envoy centennial has helped to further highlight how painstakingly women’s political participation was won. American women’s sacrifice and bravery was not confined to the pickets and the resulting imprisonments in Washington, D.C., but also included three women’s grueling journey driving cross-country through severe weather, wrong turns, and car troubles—all in the name of bringing attention to woman suffrage on a national scale. Remarks made by Congressman Sam Farr, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, and Congresswoman Anna G. Eshoo at Anne Gass’s welcome reception paid homage to the suffragists’ long and hard-fought struggle to win women the vote, reminding us why this history should never be forgotten, and recognizing suffragists’ efforts to lay critical groundwork for women to hold elected office today.
In the same way that Sara Bard Field’s 1915 trip excited people across the country and infused energy into the suffrage movement (this is evident in the photos), we hope the sharing of this history will inspire similar energy for preserving and honoring women’s history, and for forging new connections between people and places.
While Anne Gass contemplates returning to regular life, we look ahead to new projects and digital adventures. It’s a little sad, but satisfying. This kind of trip (both Anne’s and Sara Bard Field’s) is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure and contribution. It should inspire us all to keep imagining, revisiting, and unearthing women’s stories wherever we can.
Did you follow our photographic journey to deliver Anne, Sara, Maria, and Ingeborg to DC? Please share your thoughts and experiences with us in the comments.