A Celebration of Women Writers

"Municipal Suffrage for Women in Michigan." by Miss Octavia Williams Bates.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 664-667.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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When the women of Michigan were surprised, last May, with the news that municipal suffrage had been extended by the legislature of that state so as to include them, the great majority of those who heard the tidings little knew of the bitter struggle that the pioneers of the movement had sustained in years past. They little thought of those who had endured the heat and the burden of the fierce fight, but who had passed away without enjoying the fruits of their labor.

A few were mindful of all this and the memory of it chastened the joy of the occasion and made them still more dearly prize the new jewel in their possession.

On that glad day a few women in Michigan of clearer vision and keener insight than the rest of their sisters realized that a great opportunity for good had come to them, and grateful indeed were they for this boon.

A few more saw that the "stamp of inequality," which is the "brand of degradation," had been, to a certain degree, effaced from the women of the state.

But how has this revolution, as it were, been brought about, is the question that an outsider might naturally ask; and who should have the credit and honor of putting Michigan in the van-guard of the states by giving this larger life to her women?

Many causes have co-operated to produce this result. The passage of the married woman's property act, in 1858; the opening of the University of Michigan to women, in 1870, along with a steady, persistent demand for the representation of women in the government of the state on the part of the advocates of that idea, have all contributed their share to the formation of a public sentiment favorable to the passage of a municipal suffrage bill for women.

It is not a new idea in Michigan–this idea of equal political representation–nor is the beginning and growth of public opinion on the subject of woman suffrage a recent topic of interest.

The agitation on this question began in Michigan in 1846, with the advent of Ernestine L. Rose, who spoke twice in the legislative hall in Detroit. Her work in Detroit, Ann Arbor and other places, was three or four years prior to the first report by the Special Committee of the Senate in the general revision of the constitution, nine years before the House Committee's report on elections in response to women's petitions, and twelve years before the favorable "report of the Senate upon the memorial of ladies, praying for the privilege of the elective franchise." After this time there were various spasmodic and entirely unrelated efforts in different parts of the state, until the formation of the Michigan State Suffrage Society which was organ- [Page 665]  ized at the close of the first convention, held in Battle Creek in 1870, which has done the usual work of aiding in the formation of local societies, circulating tracts and petitions, securing hearings before the legislature, and holding its annual meetings from year to year in the different cities of the state.

Legislative action on the question of woman suffrage began in Michigan in 1849; continued in the legislatures of 1855, 1857 and 1859, until in 1874 "A bill for separate submission to a vote of the people on an amendment to the constitution relating to woman suffrage," was passed by the legislature. Everything that could be done was done by the friends of the amendment throughout the state, but it did not succeed. The liberal action of the legislature in passing the bill, of Governor Bagley in signing the bill, the appeals of the women, nor the votes of forty thousand of the best men of the state–all of these were of no avail. A blight fell on the spirits of the advocates of the movement. The State Equal Suffrage Association still continued its work amid many discouragements. And a few heroic women in Michigan never ceased in their efforts. Prominent among them are Mrs. Mary Knaggs, Mrs. Martha E. Root, both of Bay City; Mrs. Mary L. Doe, Mrs. Emily B. Ketchum, of Grand Rapids, with Mrs. Helen P. Jenkins, Mrs. A. A. Boutelle, and Mrs. C. E. Fox, of Detroit, who have all taken an active part in legislative work and to whom great honor is due for the course they have pursued in obtaining the recent municipal suffrage bill for the women of their state.

The work in Detroit ceased publicly until in 1887 the Detroit Equal Suffrage Association was formed, with Hon. Thomas W Palmer as chief mover and director, who has ever been ready to help the movement for woman suffrage, not only in Michigan, but throughout the United States, with his speech, his pen, his money, and the immense personal influence at his command. This association has never been strong in point of numbers, but if the strength of an association is to be measured by unanimity, moral courage and enthusiasm among its members, and work accomplished by its members, then is this association strong, indeed. Brought together more for the purpose of mutual support and sympathy, than for any definite plan of action, their work has come to them more rapidly and with more imperative demands than they have been able to perform. Very soon after the inception of the society, a practical plan of work for extending the suffrage was determined upon, which reached its consummation when the amendment to the charter of the city of Detroit was passed in the legislature of 1889, which gave school suffrage to the women of the city of Detroit. That a very large number of women have so keenly appreciated this privilege and have so generally availed themselves of its advantages has been the most telling argument in favor of still further extending the suffrage by means of the "Municipal Suffrage Bill for Women." This bill has been brought before the legislature for the last ten years, with varying fortunes.

The discussion in the legislature of 1893, over this "Bill for Municipal Suffrage for Women," lasted many hours, and was marked by many and unusually trying incidents. Bitterly opposed by some of the members of the legislature, it was ably championed by others. After an exciting contest the bill was finally adopted by that body Governor Rich has since signed the bill and it is now a law in Michigan. At first the argument was that women did not want to vote, and would not vote if they had the chance; but, in the meantime, the school election took place in Detroit. The interest and vigor shown by the women, in this election, convinced an objecting member that the women of Michigan do want to vote. When the bill came up the second time, with the educational clause in it, this member voted for it, and his vote carried the bill through the legislature. The law provides:

"That in all school, village and city elections, women who can read the state constitution printed in English, shall be allowed to vote for all school, village or city officers, and on all questions pertaining to school, village and city regulations, on the same terms and conditions as prescribed by law for male citizens, if able to read at least one section of the state constitution. [Page 666] 

"That all laws prescribing the qualifications of voters at school, village and city elections, shall apply to women who can read the state constitution, as provided, and they shall enjoy all the rights, privileges and immunities, and their names shall be registered in the same manner, as provided by law for other voters."

It is thus a limited suffrage, for it expressly excepts town, county and state officers. The offices that women may vote for and the offices to which they are now eligible under this law are: Mayor, city clerk, city attorney, city treasurer, five members of the board of estimates for the city-at-large, a member of the board of estimates for each ward, an alderman in each ward, a constable in each ward, and inspectors of election in the several precincts.

This law has been held valid by the Supreme court of the state, as not conflicting with the provision in the state constitution, declaring that only male citizens shall be electors; and it is put on this ground: That the constitution makes it the duty of the legislature to provide for a primary school system, and under that provision, the legislature passed the provision defining the qualifications of voters under the act. The system being a creature of the legislature, the latter was authorized to pass such regulations in reference to it, as it saw fit. Under this act the women of Michigan have voted for a number of years; have entered into many election contests, and are now sitting as members of our school boards.

The question the lawyers in Michigan are now debating is: Will this provision stand the test of the courts? *

If this act be constitutional, all fair-minded and thinking people will regard the educational qualification as a good and a prudent measure. It will, no doubt, prove to be the entering wedge for full state suffrage, and, as such, it is of great interest to the whole country. A wise provision it must also be regarded because it gives municipal suffrage to a limited number of women, and to the best class of them, as a sort of preliminary trial. It thus meets the objection that woman suffrage, if granted, will only increase the number of ignorant voters. The bill recognizes woman as a political factor, and from the small majorities now existing between the two great political parties, it practically gives her an opportunity to hold the balance of power in the villages and cities of Michigan. It is one hopeful sign of the new order of things toward which we are evidently tending, that political organizations of women, called Municipal Franchise Leagues, have been formed in different parts of Michigan and are earnestly studying such subjects as: (1) Qualifications of voters; (2) Officers Elective, their requirements, duties and responsibilities; (3) Officers Appointive, their requirements, duties and responsibilities; (4) Common Council; (5) Boards, how constituted and respective duties; (6) City or Village taxes, school taxes and highway taxes; (7) Elections, how conducted; Board of Registration, its duties; (8) Ordinances.

In Detroit a member of the legislature–Representative Shellberg–is addressing meetings of women every Thursday afternoon on such subjects as: (1) The Primary Caucus; (2) Naturalization; (3) The Constitution; (4) Conventions; (5) Registration; (6) How to Vote; (7) The Strength of Independence.

As a result of these different modes of agitation women are forming themselves into political organizations in different parts of Michigan. Everything indicates that they will not be cajoled by political tricksters into furthering the interests of any party or clique if the women of capacity and of sterling integrity, who are the leaders of the movement in Detroit, can help it.

Another hopeful sign of the times is that numbers of noble, thinking men are not only helping women, who are cautiously and timidly groping toward a comprehension and an appreciation of their political rights and civic duties, but they are also giving them freely of their own knowledge and experience, and are aiding them to use this privilege wisely and well. [Page 667] 

It begins to look very much as though what has seemed but a dream of the future is to become a living reality in the near present, and that good men and good women shall hold the balance of political power in this country, and that good men shall join with good women in an earnest endeavor to bring about a better condition of affairs than now exists. Not only are men helping women in political gatherings, but a generous and chivalrous spirit is also manifested in other directions. At a recent meeting of the common council in Detroit Alderman Wright offered the following resolution, which was adopted without debate:


WHEREAS, By a recent act of the legislature the women of this city, under certain restrictions, will be permitted to participate in the coming municipal elections; and

WHEREAS, Inasmuch as it is reasonable to suppose that several thousand of them will participate in the election, be it

Resolved, That it is the sentiment of this body that the said women should be represented upon each municipal election board in order that all the privileges and benefits derived by such representation may be duly accorded to them.


It is amusing to observe how both Republicans and Democrats are now doing their utmost to secure the vote of the women at the approaching fall elections. In a recent interview a prominent politician in Detroit gives it as his opinion that women really do purify politics, and that when it comes to party enthusiasm and systematic work women not only equal men, but even surpass them.

The "Municipal Suffrage Bill for Women in Michigan" has made some enemies, as the following will show:

"The Michigan Liquor Dealers' Association met in delegate convention two hundred and fifty strong, at Arbeiter Hall, Grand Rapids, August 23, and resolved to oppose the law giving women municipal suffrage. In a preliminary circular sent out to the trade some weeks ago, the association says:

"'The last session of the legislature in this state, by giving to the women a franchise with an educational restriction, struck a blow directly at our interests and rights. It is only a question of time as to what the inevitable result will be to us, unless we promptly get under one banner and fight shoulder to shoulder for our interests.'"

There is one important feature of the situation in Michigan which must not be overlooked, and that is the educational value of this bill toward the attainment of full suffrage for women. The force gained from the success of school suffrage has carried the movement on to the attainment of municipal suffrage. Public opinion must be educated by means of municipal suffrage, so that the attainment of state suffrage first, and afterward federal suffrage, will be only questions of time.

"Now we have a definite purpose to work for: to enlighten women concerning the situation and arouse them to a sense of duty and responsibility to intelligently and judiciously exercise this new privilege and thus make way for their full political enfranchisement," says Mrs. Emily B. Ketchum, President of the Michigan Equal Suffrage Association.

The effect of this municipal suffrage law on the villages and cities in Michigan will be watched with interest by thinkers all over this country and, possibly, all over the world. The hope of its advocates is, that in proportion as the results predicted by its adherents are realized, will men from other states adopt it in their own.

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Miss Octavia Williams Bates is a native of Detroit, Mich. Her parents were Samuel and Rebecca Bates, of that city. She was educated in the public schools of Detroit and is a graduate of the University of Michigan in the classical course. She has traveled in various parts of the United States and Canada. She is a woman of great intelligence and very fine appearance. Miss Bates is specially interested in the Woman Suffrage Movement. In religious faith she is a Unitarian. Her postoffice address is No. 53 Bagg Street, Detroit, Mich.

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* The courts have since decided the bill unconstitutional.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Mary Mark Ockerbloom.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom